West Amman/East Amman – Oriental Amman?

While Amman is often seen as less interesting than ‘oriental’ heavyweights such as Cairo, Damascus or Aleppo, its heritage paired with a multiplicity of regional influences throughout its history, is not only interesting to visit, but makes it an extremely attractive place to investigate a diverse, heterogeneous urban setting. In the more recent history, people from all over the collapsing Ottoman Empire came to Amman in flocks, brought their traditions and habits with them, making the city a real ‘melting pot’, ‘salad bowl’, or ‘assemblage’, to use a more contemporary term. Architect Rami Daher therefore emphasises the Modern history of Amman, and advocates for recognition and respect towards this part of Amman´s heritage. Returning to the notion of ‘oriental’ cities, it was of course Edward Said (2003), who spectacularly appealed to our – the westerner´s – consciousness. With his account on how a huge part of this world (the so called Orient) is imprudently reduced to a static, one-dimensional construct, he permanently broke with a superficial classification of spatial structures and unfastened postcolonial thinking. By portraying the Orient not as one homogeneous space but as a multiplicity of intertwining and overlapping ethnic-, religious-, economic-, political-, or cultural spaces, indeed questioning the term as such, Said also set the foundation for concepts like borderland. Against this background, speaking of Amman as an oriental city not only appears legitimate but actually at the heart of the story; or the notion of borderland.

What made me chose Amman – next to Tel Aviv-Jaffa – as the focus of the empirical part of my research were features related to the thoughts outlined above. Whereas there are significant historical roots of Amman reaching back millennia, the city was buried in oblivion for centuries until about 100 years ago. Back then it was a small village with a couple of thousand inhabitants, in the valley of one of the rare water bodies in the area, surrounded by steep hills. With World War I and the following reshuffling of the region, Amman´s enormous growth began. While it was people from the collapsing Ottoman Empire who contributed to the city´s growth in the early 20th century (Circassians and other Caucasians), it was the massive waves of immigrants from Palestine (1948, 1967), Iraq/Kuwait (1991, 2003), and most recently Syrians, who further expanded the population of both Jordan and Amman, which now is home to well over 2 million people; hence the urban appearance of Amman as a relatively young, extremely diverse and still growing city. While classical “oriental” notions like a continuous urban history, a large historical mosque compound and a likewise suq as central points in an intricate urban fabric are indeed defining Amman to a lesser degree, due to its history and diversity it offers an incredible stock for the study of urban issues.

Following the notion of borderland, I at the beginning approach my fieldwork by tracking down borders. What was the (rough) division between South Tel Aviv and the rest of the city in my last year’s fieldwork is the (likewise rough) distinction between West Amman and East Amman here in Jordan (Ababsa 2010). I use “rough” because the division is of course not that straight forward and only an entry point into the matter. This touches upon fundamental problems, accompanying the work since the beginning. Looking for borders fixates spatial units and therefore socio-spaces, while the goal of the research is the opposite: working on the potentials of open and relational space. Moreover, there is the problem of scale, or defining spatial units in the first place. What defines a state, a province, a city, a quarter other than artificially established borders? Difference never stops and there is no way of advancing to a spatial unit that is entirely homogenous; even we as individuals have multiple identities.

As finding conventional borders is not the aim of the research, it is eventually about the potential and opportunities the coming together of spaces creates. Coming back to the – rough – division of Amman, the cornerstones of this division would be poorer areas in the east, wealthier in the west; a hillier and lower lying east, a flat and higher lying west; dense and crowded eastern areas, less dense and more open western areas; small plots of land in the east, bigger plots in the west; a higher fertility rate in the east, a lower one in the west; a demographically younger east, and an older west; less services in the east, a better serviced west; and so forth (Ababsa 2010, 2013, p 384ff). On policies to alleviate inequality and especially upgrade informal settlements in East Amman, Myriam Ababsa (2010, p 12) states that:

„After thirty years of urban upgrading programmes in the poorest neighbourhoods in Amman, pockets of informal settlements have been reduced and the provision of basic services has improved. But social disparities are no less striking between the eastern and western parts of the city.“

To sum up, what can be said is that there are huge differences, particularly in socio-economic terms between West Amman and East Amman. But as I have tried to debate in previous posts and as is the basic line of the concept of borderland, we need to be careful with categorisations. Spaces are diverse, overlapping and folding into each other, and I see it as crucial to analyse and acknowledge that and in a next step to see how this fact can be utilised for positive transformation.

To also visually present what I have been talking about, please see the pictures below. The photos are deliberately chosen to show the existing contrasts. In an upcoming post I will talk about the “middle ground”, that is neither west nor east.

view from jabal nadhif towards the west

View from Jabal Nadhif to the west. Jabal Al-Akhdar, Le Royal Hotel (3rd circle – far right) and Jordan Gate (6th circle – centre right) in the background.

jordan galleria - sweifiyeh mall

Jordan Galleria – Sweifiyeh Mall

jabal ashrafiyyah

Hussein Camp

city mall

City Mall – Umm As Summaq

market - foot of jabal ashrafiyyah

Market at the foot of Jabal Ashrafiyya

villa in abdoun

Villa in Abdoun

houses on jabal ashrafiyyah

Houses on Jabal Ashrafiyya

street in umm udhayna al-ghabri

Street in Umm Udhayna Al-Gharbi near 6th circle

street on jabal nadhif

Street on Jabal Nadhif

street in abdoun

Street in Abdoun

street on jabal ashrafiyyah

Street on Jabal Ashrafiyya

street in khalda

Street in Khalda

street on jabal nadhif

Street on Jabal Nadhif

villa in dabuq

Villa in Dabuq

houses on jabal ashrafiyyah

Houses on Jabal Ashrafiyya

street in abdoun

Street in Abdoun

street on jabal ashrafiyyah

Street on Jabal Ashrafiyya

street in abdoun

Street in Umm Udhayna Al-Gharbi near 6th circle

stairway on jabal ashrafiyya

Stairway on Jabal Ashrafiyya

wakalat street

Wakalat Street near 7th circle

hussein camp

Hussein Camp

street scene abdoun

Street scene Abdoun

street scene jabal ashrafiyya

Street scene Jabal Ashrafiyya

villa in khalda

Villa in Khalda

jabal ashrafiyya

Jabal Ashrafiyya

 

Bibliography

Ababsa, M 2010, The Evolution of Upgrading Policies in Amman, Conference on Sustainable Architecture and Urban Development, CSAAR, MPWH, University of Dundee; Amman, University of Dundee

Ababsa, M, ed 2013, Atlas of Jordan, History, Territories and Society, Beirut: Institute Francais du Poche-Orient

Said, E 2003, Orientalism, London: Penguin Books

© Sigi Atteneder, 2014

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