Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From Amman

I first visited Amman in 1981. I came with a Jordanian friend who had lived all his life in Beirut and who had been forced back to Jordan to do his military service. Amman was a very simple town back then. Dwellings were concentrated on the 7 hills (jabal) surrounding the city. Jabal Amman was the poshest "jabal", and it was very simply organized along 5 roundabouts or "circles". Suburbia started at the fourth circle and the fifth circle was wilderness. There were talks of a sixth and perhaps a seventh circle, but half the people found the idea silly. They thought back then that this would be like having traffic lights on a farm. Anything beyond the fourth circle was wheat and barley field with the occasional cabbage patch. The area continued to be heavily farmed till the late 90’s and today malls grow side by side with cereal fields. But the bucolic atmosphere of Amman’s suburb is gone. The once quiet neighborhood of Swefieh and Abdoun have become as busy as downtown.
Amman was born as a trading town to cater for the Bedouin tribes of the great Syro-Iraqi-Jordania-Saudi steppe. Amman was the souk city, where they could buy market goods ranging from camel saddles to second hand US surplus clothes. It still has these shops, alongside small dark cafes and seedy movie houses showing a continuous program of kungfu flicks and bollywood bom-bom.

Amman probably became a real city in 1948, after the first influx of refugees from Palestine. Throughout modern history, Amman grew in spurts closely shadowing refugee influx from Palestine in 1948 and 1967, and from Lebanon in 1975 and 1982. But its biggest growth spurt came with the Gulf war of 1991, in which hundred of thousands of middle class Palestinian families were shown the door in Kuwait. The US invasion of Iraq brought a large number of rich Iraqis, along with their carpets and their art pieces, which they traded on the private market on Amman. Many poor Iraqis arrived too, and created their own community.

Amman is today thriving. At least the rich parts of Amman are. It has certainly undergone dramatic change in the past 25 years, and is adorned with towers, bridges and tunnels all constructed in what us Lebanese find to be "record time". There are mega-development projects everywhere in the rich city, many tailored after Beirut's Central District. But this growth has come at the price of deepening inequalities. The rich, who are always the first to believe in the economic trickle down theory, have accumulated more wealth, while the livelihoods of the poor has been degrading. The spacial structure of the city helps in hiding poverty: many of those living in Jabal Amman have never been to any of the poor "jabals" or to East Amman.

But Amman's expansion is slowly bridging the geographic gap, between classes. In Abdoun, one of the richest neighborhoods, villas and large stone houses are slowly crawling into the valley separating it from the Eastern zones. And, on the other side, tenements are also fast approaching the houses of the rich. The next few years will be interesting to watch for urban planners, as the demand for land increases both for rich and poor. As to the Bedouins who still keep their flocks in the hidden valleys around the city, they have lost the battle a long time ago. Amman was built on their traditional grazing territories, but customary laws have no place in modern Arab cities, especially when they clash with the ambitions of the rich.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post, rami. you should also go to east amman and compare it in photos and such. those roads and bridges--most of them constructed in the past year--are all about west amman, the upper class areas.

there is a beautiful memoir, for those who are interested, about how amman used to be in the 1930s which offers a striking contrast. it is abdel rahman munif's "the story of a city."