I’ve often heard it said that Amman is one of the most boring cities in the Arab world. That judgement is not altogether untrue, it somewhat lacks the key ingredient that makes the Middle East the richest place in the world: history. Modern-day Amman has barely been around since the 18th century, practically an embryo when compared to Damascus, which is the oldest inhabited city in the world, not to mention Baghdad, Jerusalem, Cairo et al. They also say Amman seems to lacks culture: the markets aren’t as bustling, the mosques aren’t as beautiful and the food (a big part of Arabic society) isn’t as flavoursome and there are malls, MacDonald’s and brands galore.
Having said that, Amman’s young history is precisely why its people are carving out their own. Jordan – especially Amman – is a nation of refugees. Over 60% of the population are Palestinian refugees, be it from the Nakba (1948), 1967 or any of the other contentious points in the demise of Palestine. Since then there has been an influx of Iraqis post-2003 and (of late) Syrians, not to mention the six million economic migrants from Egypt.Jordanians, such as they are (remember these borders and ethnicities are not our own and have existed for less than a century) are very much in the minority and that has been reflected in the demographics. Jordan’s relative stability makes it the first port of call when calamity strikes the region. The results of this – though tragic – are rather beautiful: Arabs from all over the region who have endured civil war, ethnic cleansing and persecution have found a tentative solace in Jordan and their creativity is rapidly burgeoning. There are bars and restaurants, courses in Arabic and fashion, there are web designers, actors, musicians all meeting in the creative waiting room that is Jordan.
Amman itself is a beautifully mountainous city, with downtown Amman literally down in the valley, and the city is comprised of eight or so ‘circles’ (roundabouts) which connect the sprawling city. The trendy Paris Circle in Jabel Webdeh is rapidly becoming the haunt of edgy tourists and locals alike who work in the cool cafés with MacBook Pros and harem pants and drink watermelon juice or Iranian coffee (yes I’ve deftly just described what I’m doing now – is this the Arab equivalent to Champagne socialism?) These people frequent cool parties on rooftops overlooking the city and talk politics. Indeed Jordan has an inherently politicised population. Arabs are perpetually gripped in discussions about the future of the Middle East – particularly the role of Israel. You cannot enter a café without hearing (watermelon juice in hand) the young fiercely debate the future in accented English and Levantine Arabic.
The politics is both a relic of the outgoing refugee population and an indicator of what’s to come. The discussions are simultaneously harrowing (their stories are truly heartbreaking) and inspiring: here is a population that is unafraid to vocalise its hesitations about dictators, revolutions, gender, sexuality – and pivotally – its Zionist neighbour. They are increasingly engaged and educated. Provided the peace remains, (a legitimate concern considering the early signs of ISIS in the country) we will see a generation of intelligent and ambitious minds. It is precisely these discussions that make Amman worth visiting. The politics of the region will undoubtedly get dirtier but the young are rapidly seeking out solutions, not just settling for the defunct status quo. Amman – perhaps unfairly – used to be a stepping stone to the rest of the region but now, with war raging on three borders and these young minds mixing together, there’s a lot to be said for visiting the Middle Eastern melting pot.
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