Culture and Public Life in Amman

The Newly Discovered City

Summer evenings in Amman have changed this year. People are going out and listening to concerts. The first municipal summer of culture has proved a great success. The cultural scene and public life are flourishing, as Martina Sabra reports

Youngsters ride a merry-go-round in a Luna park in Amman (photo: AP)
Young people in Amman now have experiences via cultural globalization. They want to have their fun like people elsewhere in the world do

​​The citizens of Amman traditionally go straight home after work to spend their free time in the familiar surroundings of their own homes, but this every night this summer thousands of Ammanis have descended on Hussein Park, a large green space on the southern edge of the city, to enjoy concerts, plays and children's entertainment.

Whole extended families have been coming in busloads to picnic and listen to music. Hundreds of tourists from the Arabic Gulf region have also taken the chance to saunter around. Young men with gelled haircuts, muscle t-shirts and mobile phones dance wildly to popular local beats.

Cheap tickets ensure a large public

Drawing a colourful, mixed audience, the summer festival, the "mahrajan" saif Amman, is being organized jointly by Amman municipal government, the Jordan Tourism Board and the ministry for culture, for the first time this year.

The cultural events, which take place across several different stages each night in the Hussein Park, have been carefully tailored to the audience's various needs: on the big stage popular Arabic singers and dance groups appear alongside children's theatre, and in the stylish amphitheatre hip hop, rock and other "alternative" music from Jordan can be heard.

Thanks to the highly subsidized tickets almost anyone can afford to go, which is ultimately good news for the artists. The well-known Jordanian singer-songwriter Ruba Saqr, who performed poetry and Sufi songs in the amphitheatre, says that the festival has given many of her young colleagues their first chance to perform to the metropolitan public.

She would prefer it the audience didn't constantly phone their friends to say how good the concerts are; all in all however she finds the event super.

"They want to party, to have fun"

With the view not least to attracting tourists, countless new cultural venues and parks have been created in Amman in recent years, but it has taken a while for the locals to begin taking up what is on offer.

Jordanian capital of Amman (photo: dpa)
Amman was culturally dead for years, but today the cultural scene and public life are flourishing

​​The musician and arts manager Sawsan Habib, who runs a concert agency in the artists' quarter Webdeh, says that people were not used to going out. Now, however, a new generation has grown up, with new needs.

The young people, and young families, now have experiences via cultural globalization, she says. They want to have their fun like people elsewhere in the world do; they want to party, and are looking for the place where the action is.

A particularly conspicuous marker for the change in public life are the flea markets which have been organized in various quarters of Amman through citizens' initiatives. The most famous is Suk Jara in the traditional district of Jabal Amman. People meet there on Friday mornings for breakfast, or late afternoon for a street theatre performance.

Personal, self-determined initiatives

Another flea market is run by residents in the Webdeh quarter, on the circular "Paris plaza" at the east end of the district. The "Suk Baouniyeh" offers old clothes and modern poetry alongside bric-a-brac. Thirty-year-old Emad, member of a local poets' club is selling his group's first collective book. He says it is going swimmingly.

At the neighbouring stand women from the area are selling home-made cakes, tea and sandwiches. Fifty-five-year-old Hiyam says it gets really busy after sundown.

Webdeh is one of the nicest districts in Amman, she says, but a short time ago there was not one street café. People are happy they now have variety and on balmy summer nights sometimes sit around till two in the morning.

Fusion of public and private

Personal initiatives and individual effort are playing an increasing role in the creation of venues and space for culture. Some projects follow an open principle, such as Mamduh Bisharat's "Divan".

Bisharat is over seventy, a wealthy landowner, farmer and Cambridge graduate given the title "Duke" by the former King Hussein. He is seen as an eccentric, as well as a devotee of Amman's architectural heritage.

Seeking to underline the significance of the urban inheritance, a few years ago Bisharat rented the only remaining old building on the high street in the city centre and opened it, leaving it almost entirely as it was, to the public. Anyone who wishes can come in and stay for a chat.

The painter Abdelaziz Abu Ghazaleh follows a similarly flexible and participative concept with the "Mohtaraf Al Rimal". He has redeveloped an old primary school into a studio and café, where he works and lives. Six days a week, between eleven in the morning and eleven at night, people can just turn up, drink a coffee, buy a painting or simply relax.

The place is private and public at the same time, Abu Ghazaleh says. The people who come there are not invited merely to consume; they also help make it what it is.

Public space should be open to all

The Mohtaraf Al-Rimal is not only a cultural enrichment; through events and the sale of artworks it also yields profits. The most economically successful cultural project however is the culture café JAFRA in the city centre.

The interior designer and young businessman Aziz Mashaikh explains that he worked for many years, mostly alone, to establish the place. Now JAFRA employs over fifty people full time.

But money alone does not interest Mashaikh. Downtown Amman was culturally dead for years, he says, and seeks to bring life back into the city centre, creating a place where challenging artists can present their work.

He adds that the venue is also not intended to be the sole preserve of men, being open in principle to all: parents and children, men and women, locals and tourists, wireless internet uses and those without laptops. So far Mashaikh's concept has proved a great success. In July he opened another café in the Webdeh district.

Martina Sabra

© 2008

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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