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The Vibe of the City of Amman

April 23, 2012
please note the beautiful green you see is only present for a few months in spring, after which it turns yellow from the heat.

Another lovely photo of the Amman cityscape.

Amman, as a city in the Middle East, is often gently ridiculed.  Not as fun-loving as Beirut, not as historical or interesting as Cairo, not as religiously awe-inspiring as Jerusalem.  It is treated like the red-headed stepchild of the major Middle Eastern cities.  It lies sprawling, yet forgotten.  Despite it being the capital of Jordan, it is seen by tourists and locals alike as a mere jumping off point towards seeing the more stunning sights of Jordan such as Petra with its ruby walls, Aqaba with its dive sites in the Red Sea, and the rolling desert of Wadi Rum.

It's even funnier and more profound when you see lady's intimates hanging.  A weird mix of the private being shown in a public sphere.

Laundry hung to dry in the open air of sky and street.

Amman is huge; home to roughly 3 million people.  The buildings are built out of white stones, to better reflect the heat.  They are square or rectangular, with flat roofs and often have clotheslines strung across balconies, bright T-shirts and dark abayas adding color to the skyline.  West Amman is orientated around eight traffic circles, simply called ‘First circle’, ‘Second circle’ etc.  First circle is the closest to downtown Amman proper (called al-Balad) and Eighth circle is in the outskirts of town.  My office is slightly past Eighth circle.  Amman is also orientated around hills; there are 19 hills in Amman, and one constantly walks up and down steep streets or stone steps, surreptitiously carved in strategic locations downtown.

Amman doesn’t have very many “picture-worthy” sites to go to.  There is a Roman Amphitheatre downtown and a Roman Citadel on Jabal-al-Qal’a (‘Jabal’ means hill in Arabic; there are lots of Jabal-somethings around).  There are several museums of varying size and prestige, and many beautiful mosques, as common here as tiny neighborhood grocery stores and pharmacies.  But Amman doesn’t have a long history to fall back upon; there is no Conciergerie, no pyramids, no Hyde Park, no Duomo or lagoons complete with gondoliers.  After all, Amman didn’t become what we consider Amman until 1921, and it shows.   Instead of the Taj Mahal, Amman has the Taj Mall.  Not quite the same level of grandeur.

It is absolutely huge.  This picture doesn't quite convey its colossal size.

The King Abdullah Mosque in downtown Amman.

Still, Amman does have its own culture, and different neighborhoods do have different vibes: Swefieh is rich and hoity-toity, with Starbucks (not common here!) and artisanal chocolate stores and expensive MAC makeup shops.  Wadi-Sier is the land of car washes and car mechanics and car dealers, Abdoun is a wealthy residential area with many embassies with their requisite security guards, Duar Paris (Paris Square) is charmingly bohemian with coffee shops, art stores, the Institut Francais for language study and many nooks and small shops to explore.  Abdali is the land of souks, with wares being sold from kiosks, stores, trays, small children and booths.  You can find almost anything here: live rabbits, cookware, plugs, stuffed animals, clothes, makeup, electronics, gold….  There are amazing hole in the wall (sometimes literally) diners serving kebab, kofta, aruuz and labneh too, if you know how to find them.

And Amman is very ex-pat, especially Western ex-pat, friendly.  Rainbow Street, emanating from First circle, is a self-proclaimed tourist and ex-pat mecca, with lots of cafes with wireless to work in and friendly staff who know English and give you dishes such as Sheppard’s pie and chicken soup just like mother used to make it.  Rainbow Street is also the home of the tiny but present gay community in Amman, with Books@Cafe, a bookstore-cum-café, run and owned by a male gay couple.  I was there the other day, and heard more people speaking French than Arabic; it was a brief refuge from the constant onslaught of learning a foreign language in a foreign city.

Even 'in Arabic' its just called Rainbow Street.

So that’s Amman, in a brief, Western-biased nutshell.  The city is constantly growing from an influx of Palestinians and Jordanians moving to this burgeoning economic center, more and more schools teaching business English are cropping up, and King Abdullah is trying to increase the amount of green space and parks that are in the city.  Amman is definitely evolving, and in a couple of years, who knows?  Maybe the stepchild will outshine his brothers and sisters, and become a new center of tourism, growth and importance in the region.

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