My personal pursuit of genuine stories and manifestations that reflect a distinguished 'Ammani' identity took me eastwards to Ashrafiyyeh, a modest neighborhood that lies at the heart of Amman and has kept a distance from its emerging towers and megaprojects.
I chose Ashrafiyyeh as I was told that the old neighborhood witnessed a crucial stage of Amman's history, when diverse ethnicities began settling in the country and giving it the infamous description of a 'melting pot'. Born and raised in Amman, I thought that the least a city hosting 52 ethnicities living together peacefully deserved, was the precious 'home' label.
Prior to my latest visit to Ashrafiyyeh, I had been well aware of the fact that the majority of residents in Amman do not introduce themselves as 'Ammanis' and refer to their original hometowns instead. Amman was at best 'the melting pot' and at worst 'an airport lounge' where everyone was waiting for a flight back home and the latter seemed to fit the actual status quo better, at least through my perspective.
Amman is home to 52 ethnicities and is seen by many as a ‘melting pot’. A book, authored by Mariam Ababseh, describes it as the ‘city of stone and peace’. Photo courtesy: May S
When I arrived in Al Ashraffiyeh I met Abu Tareq, a 64-year-old man who has lived in the neighborhood since 1955. The father of three moved from Kerak, a Jordanian governorate in the South, when he was 6 years old at a time when the city itself was nascent and taking the first steps of its modern history.
Abu Tareq has vivid memories of the 50’s, recalling that the neighborhood gathered Armenians, East Bank Jordanians and Palestinians and it was home to adherents of different religions including Muslims, Christians and the Druze minority. "We were also very poor back then, we had nothing at our homes, people would sleep and leave the door and windows open", said Abu Tareq. This security, in his opinion, was partly attributed to the fact that people knew each other and had good relationships and due to the overall economic situation, whereby people had literally nothing to offer a thief.
"It actually happened, one of our neighbors was sleeping and a thief came in, when the latter did not find anything worthy of the effort, our neighbor told him ‘please close the door behind you’!" commented Abu Tareq, adding that the question of origins that plagues local politics and venues today was almost inexistent in the past.
Ironically, Abu Tareq introduced customers who entered his shop during our encounter, by their original hometowns, but he did not seem to think it was 'a problem' or created 'divisions'. To prove his point right, he said that he served in the Jordanian army and Fidayeen , also known as guerilla fighters who came together with the stated aim of liberating Palestine, but their operations caused heated controversies in the Arab world.
His remarks seek to affirm that despite black September, a local crisis that saw the Jordanian army and the Fidayeen fight against each other, did not affect 'national unity' even if it was sometimes portrayed as a 'civil war' and at best 'an incident that broke national cohesion forever'.
"It was not a civil war, I was affiliated with and served both parties at different moments of my life, people never actually took it that seriously, of course the families of the victims were bitter but apart from those, life went back to normal between neighbors and nothing changed" explained Abu Tareq, who witnessed members of the army and Fidayeen when they shook hands at a nearby hospital, known today as Al Bashir Hospital, in an attempt to achieve reconciliation.
I was still infuriated that a person could live 50 years in this city, witness its growth and still claims it is not 'his home' and insists on knowing my original hometown even if we talk for only a few minutes. However, when I gathered bits and pieces, I began to see the issue in a different light and started to comprehend the real story of Amman.
In the last few years, Amman has seen numerous ‘renovation’ projects that many people feel have altered its identity and turned it into a ‘cold’ city. Photo Courtesy: www.7iber.com
The other 'alternative' narrative that counters almost the aforementioned argument comes from Mohammad Omar, a Jordanian journalist who has seen a good chunk of the city's history and who thinks someone should 're-document the history as it remains hidden for a purpose''.
Omar simply states that contrary to our expectations and our daily arguments, "Amman does have an identity, albeit the definition of the word 'identity' itself is problematic". Omar informs us that up till 1957, Amman had advanced 'civic values and relations' and hosted political discussions and encounters that attested the people’s sophistication.
"The problem is we play with words and take things out of context. Back in the 50’s, people never used the term 'identity' simply because it meant nothing to them. The public was overwhelmed with ideologies, be them Marxist or others, it was an ideology that defined people's preferences and mindsets and not 'ethnic identities' as we know them today", said Omar, adding that the whole conflict of identities emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of an 'era of ideologies', that then led to an 'era of the clash of ethnicities'.
Omar goes further to say that these cities are not to blame if 'identity' in this sense was not an issue in the early decades of the last century. The whole Levant region was emerging in new forms and borders after the Sikes-Picot agreement and people who used to be so alike, were divided, but "what does identity mean for a Damascene who dresses the same way as the people from Nablus and for people who have the same set of traditions anyway?"
Decades later, Amman is not an 'exception' as, in Omar's opinion, almost all of the Arab cities have lost their 'unique' identities to embrace 'neo-liberalism' and its endless manifestations in the Arab world. He reminds me that collective memory and history help create 'identity' but he believes that Jordanian officials have done little to preserve this heritage.
For example, the young generation I belong to has not been able to see the old Philadelphia hotel, that hosted one of the Jordanian National Conferences in the 1930’s and other distinguished Arab and international guests, as one of Amman's former mayors ordered its destruction with apparently little sense of regret. Omar cites numerous examples of abandoning ‘historical sites’ such as the former council of ministers’ headquarters, where Hazza’ Majali, a prominent figure in Jordanian modern history, was assassinated in 1960. “Where are these places today? How do we speak of an identity and turn a blind eye to neglecting our own history?” commented Omar.
Echoing this concern about a 'threatened and lost identity', Serene, a Jordanian cultural activist, says that she 'feels nostalgic' as she drives around the city. Very often, she feels the urge to park the car and take as many photos of the surroundings as possible, as she is almost certain 'nothing will stay there and nothing will remain untouched in Amman'. Untouched, in this sense of remaining as authentic and genuine as it is without becoming distorted by 'renovation'.
When Serene was a teenager, Amman was 'the perfect city for the middle class'. It was a modest place and the current gap between the rich and the poor did not exist in the 1980’s.
Today, there is this general feeling that Ammanis live in 'bubbles' and 'gated communities' with little to no interaction with people who dwell in other bubbles. Several initiatives have seen the light with the stated aim of breaking and bursting these bubbles, but a lot has to change in the policies and the political discourse at large to re-instill civic values and encourage people to become citizens rather than members of one sub-community.
Personally, I still find warmth in every spot of the city, but I am well aware that it is changing. The city is being renovated, but is losing its authentic character and tale. As Ahmad Hassan Zu'bi, a famous Jordanian columnist, once wrote, Amman needs to get rid of its towers, which were built a few years ago and have not seen completion yet, and take the fake make-up off its beautiful face to go back to 'its fascinating old character'!
I find his pleads justified and I may have felt like repeating them at so many points, but Amman still remains a 'unique' city with a unique tale, albeit a very sad one.