No Place to Call Home

A stranger in its own desert, Amman never quite reconciled its urban fabric with the identities of its peoples. Since the 1970s, the Jordanian capital has born a fraught relationship between its communities – Palestinian, Iraqi, Circassian, Syrian, and Bedouin – and the spaces they inhabit.

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Amman’s connection to politics – politics as an event, not as a social, urban, or economic factor – is stronger than the link that relates politics to any other Arab city. Indeed, Amman was created as a result of a political event, the proclamation of the Emirate of Transjordan, and also expanded in the wake of other incidents, such as the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 as well as the wars in Iraq. 

Amman never stopped ingesting refugees, who were exhausted from roaming its hills and valleys. Even though it has been more than a century since the first newcomers arrived in the city, Amman is still unable to make them its own people. Is it not bizarre that none of Amman’s two million inhabitants claims to be an Ammani, except for the few Circassians who first arrived in the city during the first decade of the last century? But these people’s surnames clearly weaken their ties to Amman. They are the Circassians who came from the distant Caucasus. How can they be Ammanis while people who arrived from Salt, just thirty kilometers away from Amman, hesitate to claim the same attribute?

To this day, Amman remains a city of strangers, which makes it more of a city than any of its Arab equivalents even though it often eschews this role. It is a city of strangers who do not love it but at the same time cannot stand living in any other place. Nothing in the city reflects who they are, which is strangely appealing. For the Bedouin coming from the East, Amman resembles an exotic woman that he desires yet cannot reach, and for the Palestinian from the West, it is his refuge in which he was born and the only place he has known, yet he cannot stop cursing it.

Amman is boring, and any attempt to discuss this statement is an act of complicity with and acceptance of boredom. Indeed, Ammanis are convinced that their city is monotonous and boring even though they do not feel bored. “Our city is boring. Yes, it might be boring, but I don’t feel bored [when I’m] in it. After I came back from New York, I found out that I can’t live anywhere else,” said Lina Ojeilat, editor of the news website Ammon News. Her comment was not in answer to one of my questions; instead, she volunteered the remark as if she were answering a question that had been asked thousands of times by her Arab and non-Arab friends who visit Amman in order to feel bored.

As a matter of fact, thousands of new Ammanis, men and women, have ceased to accept the labels given to their city by decades of “struggle and resistance” – and being monotonous is certainly not the worst of these epithets. Today, they roam many of Amman’s streets, examining its numerous faces while they reconsider the traces that time has left on neighborhoods, houses, and the demeanors and moods of its people.

In the early evening, you can come across a long a queue of young men and women walking, wearing vests with fluorescent patches in order to show drivers the necessity of respecting pedestrians. By solemnly walking through the neighborhoods of Amman, these young people remind their fellow Ammanis that the ritual of walking is urban par excellence, a fact that Ammanis risk forgetting for many reasons.

Amman seemed to resemble a geriatric who prefers reason to the adventure and ephemeral pleasure to which Beirut fell victim

Someone visiting Amman can walk off his or her boredom in the renovated streets that try to lure young people to spend a night out, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. This potential for failure or success does not depend on the young people’s mood; it depends instead on their ability to afford the expensive cafes and restaurants on these streets.

For those who feel that an agglomeration cannot become a city unless it witnesses an artistic crisis or debauched youth who color it with their misdemeanors, there are the new young Ammanis who deal with their crises through street performances that include acting and eccentric music, as well as experimental theatre. But none of that negates the need to go back to the root of misunderstanding between Amman on the one hand and its inhabitants and visitors on the other: the city’s notorious reputation weighs heavily on it and deprives it of its right to be something other than monotonous or boring.

Since the birth of the city was political, its reputation cannot be separated from its political depth: the Amman of before 1970 no longer existed after this date. This was the year when Jordan forced out the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the capital and all other Jordanian cities and into Beirut. The social openness of the Lebanese capital fused with its acceptance of the Palestinian crisis, making the city renowned for its ability to embrace the cause. The city’s new reputation lit up the rogue spirit of consecutive Arab generations until it reached the point of explosion.

As for Amman, which accepted its notorious reputation, the city seemed closer to a geriatric who prefers reason to the adventure and ephemeral pleasure to which Beirut fell victim. How boring and monotonous was it of Amman to expel the Palestinian fedayeen, or freedom fighters, from its neighborhoods, preferring to live without a cause, a rhythm, or an illusion.

When high-ranking PLO member Bassam Abu Sharif describes Amman before 1970 in his book of memoirs, The Best of Enemies, you get the impression that his narrative revolves around Beirut. As he describes Amman’s neighborhoods, political parties’ headquarters, and the Israeli intelligence, which was trying to bomb military bases, the past mixes with the recent present, even if you had witnessed certain episodes of these parties’ experience in the neighborhoods of Beirut. As you read the book, your memory of “revolutionary” music takes you back to Amman when it still wore Beirut’s guise; the song “Blood Has Brought Us Together Oh Karama,” which has long fired up enthusiasm, was written in Amman, precisely in Al Karama refugee camp. You also discover that the tales about the fedayeen in South Lebanon in the 1970s are only a weak echo of their predecessors in the Jordan Valley. Amman lost all of this when it expelled the PLO, but on top of that, it lost the organization’s vast ability to carry out propaganda. In his book A Place Under the Sun, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describes this ability as the only weapon the PLO was able to use with superiority. Since that time, September 1970, Amman has turned into a cursed city in the mind of anyone related to the PLO.

The center of Amman is no longer its nucleus; the city has continued to accumulate strangers to this day, thus dispersing the center.

This is what became of Amman. This reputation was enhanced by a formidable propaganda apparatus, including Cairo-based Sawt Al Arab radio and leftist Western writers and journalists, who used their influence against Amman. The Jordanian capital was portrayed as a reactionary city – an epithet earned not by Ammanis’ taste or lifestyle but by the city’s stance towards the PLO. In fact, the lifestyle of Amman’s inhabitants at that time was changing fast; the Sports City was the venue where the middle classes cast away older generations’ traditions as they embraced the Beirut model by incorporating new practices into their lifestyle. To a large extent, this is what Amman lacks today, but there is no doubt that a vestige of that period still marks many of its people’s consciousness.

The city has not resolved the misunderstanding with either its Palestinian inhabitants or its Jordanian inhabitants of Palestinian origin. The following anecdote serves to depict the crisis that pitches Amman against its people: you will rarely come across anyone who says that he or she is from the city, and everyone has other origins that come before their relation to Amman when they introduce themselves.

Raghida, a Jordanian engineer of Palestinian origins, who was born and studied in Amman, sums up the Palestinians’ position on this dilemma: “I’ve never known any place other than Amman,” says Raghida. “But whenever I go to the passport department at the Ministry of Interior, [the officers] make me feel that it is the last time they will ever renew my passport. How can I love a city that doesn’t love or welcome me?”

Raghida was not expressing a passing moment of discomfort; this is a reality that weighs heavily on the city and its social, urban, and economic structure. The relationship between Amman and its inhabitants of Palestinian origin is a burden for both of them; the misunderstanding seems fundamental and inescapable, and a stranger to the city cannot avoid hearing this repeated every time he or she visits Amman. The fact that Jordanians of Palestinian origin make up 90 percent of the city’s inhabitants legitimizes saying, to a certain extent, that Amman is a Palestinian city.

Raghida’s discomfort seems justified in the context of Amman’s real quandary: the full Jordanization of Amman’s Palestinian inhabitants is something the city does not favor, but it is also an unfavorable option for these inhabitants themselves. Neither has the city offered to adopt them, nor have they been willing to be its children; this is the real social, economic, political, and electoral meaning of being Ammani. The fundamental nature of this relationship, which joins Palestinian and native Jordanians, is confirmed by every single event, be it public or private. Strangely, its effects on the peoples’ mood, taste, or life options remain confined to the public sphere and do not affect personal choices involving marriage, accommodation, or work.

Walking in Amman’s inhabited space leaves you with impressions inseparable from the times that saw the inception of the dilemmas that oppose the city to its inhabitants. The tranquility of the environment results from the Jordanian state’s ability to control potential unrest through an obvious division of the city’s population according to social background. The different historical eras that Amman has witnessed, which are not distant from each other, all seem to be enmeshed in the city’s urban fabric. At the start of the last century, the Circassians built their houses at the center of Amman before the well-off families who came from Palestine before the Nakba built theirs in Jabal Amman. When the Palestinian refugees arrived, the rich among them spread between the areas around the second and the third roundabouts of the city, whereas refugee camps were prepared for the poor. The second group of refugees came after the 1967 defeat and flooded the city, leading to the creation of most of East Amman’s neighborhoods.

The traces of life of the first rich families can still be felt around their houses, even after the first generation of refugees passed them on to the new generation that has become fully Ammani. Furthermore, Amman started as a village that drew in families from Damascus and Nablus along with the Circassians. They became the first citizens of Transjordan not to originate from the Bedouin tribes of the East, and formed the nucleus of the social fabric that someone walking around Amman can take in.

“Nearly a century ago, hundreds of Circassians … colonized a piece of land adjacent to a fresh water source,” wrote Said Bey Malhas in his book Towards Urbanism in Amman. “They plowed the land, drank water, and built over a hundred adjacent houses of clay, reed, and wood, heralding life into this region of the Ottoman Empire .… This small village attracted the curiosity of traders who saw a chance to make a profit. They come first from the West and then from the North and started their trade .… Amman, which had five shops, became Circassian, Damascene, and Nabulsi.” 

These events are not distant; they only date from a century ago, the entire lifetime of the city, which is why walls, balconies, gardens, and faces still carry traces from that period. The old man wearing a keffiyeh and head cord along with a modern suit and a tie resembles the elements that contributed to Amman’s inception. The various place names, from Jabal Al Luwebda and Jabal Amman to Rainbow Street, all mix together in a city that was founded on a slight social and demographic shift.

The movement of families from Nablus and Damascus into Amman when it was a village was not momentous, and the arrival of the Circassians happened in an equally quiet way; the settlement is remembered by Ammanis as an act done by individuals and families, not groups that have a shared consciousness. The old district of Amman is made up of distinct residential units instead of having common architectural features. The area, which comprises independent houses that reflect the identities and tastes of their owners, lacks a consistent pattern. Certain houses seem to belong to an age different than that of the city. The headquarters of the Jordanian Communist Party on Rainbow Street, a thoroughfare disconnected from the rhythm of Ammanis’ life, is one of those buildings. Someone has dropped the house on top of that hill, raising it above the adjacent street that slopes down towards the old quarter. This was an act of reservation and caution; this building causes great tension with the neighboring non-native families who originate from Bilad Al Sham, or geographical Syria.

In Amman, it is houses that have a history and not streets or neighborhoods. The strangers who have resided in these houses diffused their private lives while adjusting themselves according to silence, sluggishness, and seclusion, which were the requirements of their new lives. The most famous private houses of Amman include: Al Aref (1923), Al Murtada (1925), Al Taji (1927), Ghanma (1927), Farraj (1928), Al Shareef Shaker (1928), Al Qassus (1929), Freij (1935), and Al Sabbagh (1935-1942).

The families who have given their names to these houses show that the city emerged out of the society of strangers who came into Transjordan from its Syrian surroundings.   The center of Amman is no longer its nucleus; the city has continued to accumulate strangers until this day, thus dispersing the center. These strangers do not only consist of Palestinian refugees; the Iraqis have their own quarters and restaurants, and the Syrians their own markets and stores. All of these have ceased to be Palestinian, Iraqi, or Syrian, but they have not completed the process of becoming Jordanian or Ammani. The Palestinians became Jordanians of Palestinian origin, and the Syrians are simply known as the Muslim Brothers, who fled Syria in the wake of the regime’s crackdown on the rebellion of 1982. The Iraqis are rich and do not represent the population of Iraq that we see on television.

This is the real Amman, but it is also the imagined Amman that has fulfilled political functions throughout its short history. The social essence of this function was shaped by events that happened outside of the city and even outside of Jordan; the people we face are strangers, and the circumstances of their settlement remain mysterious. Their houses reflect the cities from which they originated, and so do their faces, their surnames, and their children’s faces.

But the imagined Amman lives within its real counterpart – harsh and at certain instances Bedouin. Politics runs between the two parallel cities like a river between two banks, highlighting both a lethal resemblance as well as a clear dissonance. Amman, like other Arab cities, is currently overwhelmed by revolutions and uprisings. As it reflected upon itself, the city realized its identity crisis anew. The current political mobilization in Jordan revolves around two issues: administrative corruption and an electoral law that can readjust the representation of Jordanians of Palestinian origin in the Parliament and cabinet.

Corruption touches upon the core of the crisis. In the last ten years, the state privatized assets of the public sector according to a comprehensive privatization plan. This created a feeling among native Jordanians that the government is selling their state, as their well as their property, to others. This is what spurred the protests in the cities to the east of the Jordan River. As for the electoral law, it will readjust the representation of Palestinians at the expense of the influence of native Jordanians, which highlights the identity crisis in the Jordanian revolution.

This does not constitute moving away from the urban, social, and economic fabric of the city. Amman will never stop being a city of strangers, sheltered by the Hashemite system that keeps them strangers, just like Amman itself is a stranger in this desert. It experiences the same forlorn outlook that Globe Pasha felt in the Emirate of Transjordan.

Globe Pasha, the English officer who came as a colonizer, was kept by Prince Abdallah I after the British army left in order to start the desert guard, which later became the Arab Army. This man left some traces in the Jordanian soldier’s soul, which was transmitted to the Jordanian character, even though the latter is an imaginary figure made up of elements that have never been tested as a combination in one person. It is the slender man with the straight figure wearing a black head cloth and a head cord, a suit and a necktie, and starts his speech with “Ya sidi–Sir.” It is exactly what Globe Pasha has left in the Bedouin man.

Globe Pasha, or the Final Pasha as he came to be known, has a salient effect on the model Ammani man. When we consider him, we are faced with what Hashemism has suggested to the Bedouins as an attempt to reconcile the desert with its old colonizers. Globe Pasha, the leader of the Arab Legion in the battle of Jerusalem, figures in the Israeli narrative of this battle as the one who brought the sole and narrow Arab victory in the great Nakba. It was Globe who made the English language so eloquent when spoken by a former Bedouin from the second generation of Amman, King Hussein. Is Globe Pasha not the first stranger in this city of strangers?


Hazem Al Ameen is a Lebanese writer, journalist, and the author of Al Salafi Al Yateem (The Orphan Salafi) (Dar Al Saqi).

The Orphan Salafi
Critical Writing

All Stories
All Critical Writing
The Square
Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
The Imagined
A staircase in a residential quarter in Jabal Amman. Photograph by Tamara Abdul Hadi.
Jabal Amman. Photograph by Tamara Abdul Hadi.
Amman New Camp, known locally as Wihdat, is the second largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Photograph by Tamara Abdul Hadi.
Street view in Wihdat Palestinian refugee camp in Amman. Photograph by Tamara Abdul Hadi.
5th Circle, officially Prince Faisal Bin Al Hussein Square, in Amman. Photograph by Tamara Abdul Hadi.
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