The city of Amman is a textbook example of urban sprawl but it fails to follow the mainstream perceptions of life in an Arab country. Amman has its door open for places to go and people to meet. The population is at about three million and has expanded horizontally instead of the typical vertical city line. Apartments, shops, and restaurants cover the rolling hills of the city while the ancient ruins of the Citadel is lit atop a high hill in a main hub close to the frequented Rainbow Street.
This visit to Amman was not my first venture into the chaotic streets with its hot, sticky temperatures. The day-trip unfortunately, or fortunately, did not stay exactly to the plan. This meant there was some improvisation and exploration that happened throughout the day. Traveling outside the downtown area walking up-and-down hills while lost in the heat at high-noon is a time to beg for a map – but it is well worth the surprises and familiarities that make up Amman.
The cheapest way to travel to Amman is by using the bus system. The one- hour bus ride from the Madaba bus station (where scenes from The Hurt Locker was filmed) to Amman costs 65 piasters for the first leg on the university bus and 50 piasters from a second station that took us to the University of Jordan, as well as a block of chain restaurants that include Burger King and McDonalds – a dream to whoever craves American foods!
The morning of the day was to be spent at the library at ACOR – the American Centre for Oriental Research – a centre that houses a fierce collection of books and journals for ancient civilizations in the Levant area of Jordan and its surrounding region of the Near East. It has been advertised by past visitors that there is a beautiful terrace that overlooks the hilly landscape of urban Amman and that they serve coffee! However, it was not advertised that ACOR is ridiculously hard to find and that the many hills also makes it slow to find. About an hour of traversing a wealthy residential area showed us that Amman’s new housing complexes are incredibly nice and after a few accidental trespassing incidents, that some people in Amman live in beautiful villas with Mercedes collections that rival some of Bond’s villians. When hopes were low and chance of dehydration high, I did some recon and found a white man standing outside a lonely convenience store with one hand in an ice cream freezer. As I approached him, I ran through conversation openers and then opted for, “Are you studying here?” Thankfully, not only was he the first person that spoke English, but he also was doing research at the British Institute that was up the road. With a point to one the buildings down one of the hills, we finally made our way to ACOR and then off to our next stop. We didn’t feel too bad for our miss-directions though, we were told that everyone gets lost for two or three hours on their first trip to ACOR. Luckily, we made it in just over one hour and had time to enjoy the terrace view.
Walking streets of Amman reveals its integration of the old and new. The old market (souk in Arabic) is comprised of bustling alleys in which people have squeezed in fruit and vegetable tables and call out their deals in Arabic. The old mosque is resides nearby at a square with many men who wait to help tourists with directions (probably for a price), men who watch people go by, and beggars looking for tourist’s charity. The Roman Amphitheatre is one of the tourist destinations and is in the old part of the city like the souk and mosque. For 1 JD you can enter into the theatre and snap some shots before heading into the small museum that houses mosaics from all around Jordan, mannequins in traditional dress and drab, as well as Bedouin jewellery, natural rocks, and some archaeological reconstructions. It is a simple museum that does not boast much excitement, but at 1JD, a general overview is what you pay for.
Into the late afternoon, everyone went to visit a blacksmith shop near the Roman Amphitheatre for Daniel’s interest in a custom-made dagger. The bronze was shaped and decorated into a copy that belongs to Jordan’s King Abdullah, while Daniel put on some of the finishing touches onto the metal. Exhaustion took many over and left only Marishauna, Allan and I to stay in Amman for the remaining sunlight. Earlier, I had gotten in touch with a friend from High School who I have known since Elementary. My friend, Ali, was now living in Amman with his family and working at an engineering company. I used the opportunity of the small group to make plans to see some local spots of Amman with a personal tour guide. Ali was not off of work until 6pm, giving the three of us some time to wander ourselves. We made our way to Rainbow Street and were instantly reminded of the modernity of Amman. Coffee shops, a yoga studio, and bookstores were a large giveaway of Western influence was blended into the traditional. A restaurant called Shwarmaize It combined the staple food with a modern twist, as did the coffee shop called The Green Turtle, where we relaxed for a bit.
The Green Turtle café on Rainbow Street would have fit right into Kensington Market in Toronto for its hip and laid-back vibe. People signed chalk walls with the names of loved ones, movie quotes, signatures, and other doodles. A corner was devoted to promoting indie music with CDs for sale and posters. The second level was a lounging area for a young crowd to take advantage of free wi-fi and smoking area. University students used the space to study, groups of women came to hang-out, and Allen, Marishauna and I enjoyed a round of iced café lattes and flipped through Western magazines. Our little taste of home (and air-conditioning) revived us from the tiredness that had briefly breezed by just in time for the phone call that told us Ali was on his way.
Ali fed us in the neighbourhood around Second Circle with freshly made beef shwarma and tamria. Both food joints were simple establishments that would not attract the regular tourist but are local secrets that I am glad were shared. After the sun set, we walked through a shopping district on Wakalat Street – not anything like the traditional souks we were used to. This street was originally used for cars but had been pedestrianized so that the lights from familiar fashion labels, including a Starbucks patio were lighting the faces of families walking down the wide sidewalk. There were a number of pub patios we walked by that were filled with people and cheering over the Eurocup soccer games.
It has been about two years since I have seen my friend, Ali, back in Toronto over a causal gathering with friends. Now he works in engineering and puts his energy in an independent magazine that covers social issues in the Near East, providing a voice for groups who want to see change. Tradition and family is important in Jordan, but there is a new generation in Amman that is eager for a new energy. Ali told me that the government has invested into social media for the youth, which means that the voice of Jordan is becoming more prominent in the Western world. Working and living in Jordan for two summers has put me in a place between a tourist and local, allowing me to see a dominantly Arab country in a time of change. Jordan will never lose its traditional customs or welcoming attitude, nor will it become a Western metropolis. Instead, Jordan is creating bridges to let others know that Jordan is amongst the rich with history, culture, fashion, and entertainment. Posh malls, chain restaurants, and movie theatres create an exciting atmosphere when exploring Amman’s old ruins, museums, souks, and mosques – a perfect balance for young archaeologists.