Written by Raghda Butros
Amman is a city that appears divided, by fault lines located not anywhere on a map, but somewhere in our brains. Dividing the left and right hemispheres of our brain is a thick band of nerve fibers, the “corpus callosum” which sends messages back and forth between the two. Research confirms that both sides of the brain are involved in nearly every human activity, but we know that each side is better at some things than the other. The left side of the brain processes in a more logical and sequential order, while the right side is more visual and processes intuitively, holistically, and randomly.
Image by Iona Fournier
I spend my time moving between the different parts of Amman, across that invisible divide that keeps shifting with time. I remember when Jabal Luweibdeh and Jabal Amman were still considered East Amman, before they regained their status and allure to the West Amman populations. Khirfan St., which separates Jabal Amman from the Balad, is still one of those enigmatic places that are a staircase down from popular Rainbow St., but resides on the other side of our brain. It is part of the vital “corpus callosum”, alive with nerve endings that connect our city together.
If the urban development of the city thus far is anything to go by, Khirfan St. will soon be almost completely gentrified, and we will lose yet another of Amman’s oldest and most fascinating urban communities, before we have even had the chance to become acquainted with it. I am torn between encouraging and dissuading people to walk along the long, even street, with beautiful crumbling old houses on one side and a stunning view of downtown Amman on the other. As I muse to “visitors” about the promenade feel of the street, with downtown Amman as the ever-coveted sea, I can almost see the workings of the left side of people’s brains shifting as they think of ways to take over the neighborhood and make it their very own! In the recesses of the right side of my brain, I see all that will be lost in terms of the neighborhood’s intangible, but irreplaceable human, cultural and social value.
One of the children I met in Jabal Nathif, a once all but forgotten Amman neighborhood, commented to me that his friend had “immigrated” to up-market Abdoun, while a friend looking to participate in one of Hamzet Wasel's programs once asked me to meet her “somewhere in Amman on the way to Jabal Al-Qalaa”. The gated communities where we live are located in our minds. There are no gates or checkpoints on the way to Jofeh or Jubeiha, and yet we seem to worry that we will not be able to find our way through.
It is my experience that the journey across imagined boundaries is not only simple, but also fascinating and immensely rewarding. It is in Jabal Al-Qalaa, the site of both Amman’s oldest human settlements and its more recent urban beginnings, that I am able to most breathe, not only because of the quality of the air at the top of the city, but because of the quality of community I encounter. It is a place almost suspended in time, where children still make kites, and women still call out from their balconies to invite you up for tea or a meal, but a place also very much in keeping with the times, where the Mukhtar, the head of the neighborhood, is a man in his forties and where Amman’s rollerblading champion resides.
The threats to Jabal Al-Qalaa are numerous. Several residents, who have lived there for decades, have already received warnings to evict their homes by the end of the year. A funicular planned to connect the Roman Theater to the Citadel will take with it one or more of the few remaining 1940s row houses that line the street. The archaeological site has been walled in and the one area of land where families would picnic and children would fly kites, hangs in the balance.
The demise of such communities does not happen over night, it is a gradual process, which is allowed to take place because we do not take the time to notice or intervene, and because we do not feel the people affected represent us.
Amman may appear divided, but is actually one complementary whole, with a thick band of human fiber running across it. I urge everyone, Ammanis and visitors alike, to step out of their comfort zones and tap into it. It is a journey that will unify your brain and feed your soul.
A feeling of oneness, built on diversity, is what Amman is most in need of, to grow but remain rooted in its human and cultural heritage.