Rescue downtown Amman from the “Bab Al-7ara” attack!

King Faisal Square in 1958. From Getty Images: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/3378711/Hulton-Archive
Does the Amman Municipality and do Ammanis want that Amman’s downtown is turned into a a cheap-looking touristic area? Because that’s EXACTLY what is happening at an alarming speed.

I had breakfast at Hashem, the famous Hummous and Fuul restaurant yesterday and then went for a quick walk down Faisal Square. I can tell you: the way things are going in downtown Amman is scary.

First of all, there was a smell of sewage in several places. I know it’s summer and the heat causes sewage smells to leak out. But there is definitely something wrong with the sewage system. Also, the downtown sidewalks are totally grimy and the level of street cleaning is not great.

King Faisal Square in particular is currently at a very critical stage.

The current moment can be described as follows: the decline of downtown Amman has now reached its lowest point. Almost all good retailers are gone. Cheap stores have taken their place. A lot of things on the streets are in a state of disrepair and dirtiness.

At the same time, however, new commercial functions are moving in as downtown is gaining a new level of entertainment and tourism attractiveness. And there is an ambitious project by the Amman Municipality to rehabilitate Faisal Square.

It’s like we’re seeing the deepest decline and the beginnings of a revival at the same time.

Faisal Square was the first boulevard of Amman in the early 20th Century. It is where the young Hashemite State displayed its presence through military parades. It was where the Arab Bank choose to build its impressive Amman building in the 1950s. It is where the best shops and offices where. In short it is a street that deserves to to be revived and celebrated.

While I am hopeful that GAM’s revival project of the street will be well done, I am extremely worried about the new cafes/restaurant phenomenon that is spreading like wildfire in and near Faisal Square.

These are all imitations of the now-famous Jaffra cafe that opened some years ago opposite the old Post building.

While Jaffra itself was an interesting development, as it attracted people back to downtown (the pirated DVD shops where another factor, of course), it already had its own design and image problems. It clearly suffers from what some are calling the “Bab el 7ara” phenomenon. People opening cafes and restaurants in the old neighborhoods of Amman are totally misunderstanding the word “heritage”. Instead of celebrating the real URBAN heritage of Amman’s downtown, they make their restaurants look like something out of a village or like a fake version of old Damascus.

Just have a look at the design of this new restaurant on Faisal Square.

Faisal Street, Amman downtown

Horrible additions to old Amman building

Brown wooden pergolas! Strange additions to the windows! Copper lanterns! Yellow stone facades stuck on the original buildings! There is even an image of Petra made in yellow stone!

I am sorry but this has NOTHIG to do with old Amman. The image created here is “touristy”, fake and cheaply done. Because of lack of guidance and followup, well-meaning entrepreneurs will simply replicate this model until Faisal Square all looks this. This is what is happening to Jordan’s historic boulevard!

It has to be said that this is hardly the fault of the restaurant owners who probably believe they are doing something beautiful and great. It is either the fault of the unclear regulations, or the lack of enforcement of regulations when these businesses apply for licensing. Dealing with these facts on the ground is tricky, as people have already spent money on these additions.

Mayor Maani is already aware of the same problem in Rainbow Street and something is being done about it. But now downtown Amman is in danger too.

A final word on the work that has started on rehabilitating Faisal Square. Sidewalks are being ripped open. Manholes are covered with wooden planks. Construction material and equipment is placed here and there. I’ve seen how mothers, children and the elderly are walking over the rubble of the sidewalk. It’s dangerous and dirty.

The contractor of this project should be required to work in a manner that is safe to pedestrians. This is also an active commercial street. The well being of shopkeepers and their shops needs to be taken into consideration too.

Faisal Square sidewalk, downtown Amman


7 Responses to “Rescue downtown Amman from the “Bab Al-7ara” attack!”

  1. Rami Daher Says:

    Dear Ahmad, I am also so worried like you about downtown Amman. Kitsch is creeping in. I am usually a people’s person, but this time around, I believe and for the sake of the City, a line has to be drawn between avant gard vision for the downtown area which you and I aspire and current faulse imitations of heritage in the form of kitsch. We are starting with Faisal Street, and I can only hope for collaboration between all parties as it is not easy.
    Let us wait and see.
    Take care
    Rami Daher

  2. Humeid Says:

    Rami I am glad you commented here. The pointnabout being a “people’s person” is well take. I actually modified my blog post after a discussion imhad with my wife about this matter, about whom to fault for the creeping of the ‘fake heritage’ style into downtown.

    People who already paid money and created facts on the ground need to be treated fairly. Some of the stuff being done is in clear violation of directives by the municipality regarding building sigange in Amman. But imhave no clue about what kind of protection exists for old buildings on faisal square.

    My blog post can easily be described as elitist, I know. But I think that only a mix of enlightened elitism, with clearer regulations and some public education can save amman’s urban heritage right now.

  3. Adnan Says:

    Dear Ahmad,

    There’s nothing of the things you mentioned about Amman that is totally new. I’ve been going to downtown Amman since thirty years and I can tell you that the downtown has reached it’s lowest of decline 10 years ago and specifically since the genius public transportation reform projects kicked in (i.e. the moving of Raghadan and Abdali transportation hubs that made downtown unimportant to anybody, except the regulars of hashem, shahrazad, and the real poorest of Amman people who can’t get to a mall for shopping).

    I remember the prime time of Amman downtown when everyone did his food and grocery shopping from “sooq el sokkar”, brides-to-be cruised the gold market, and most of the government employees and country’s students filled the downtown at rush hours going from and to their homes on Amman hills. Merchants and street vendors were able to make decent living and the small Alleys were filled with true activity not cheap DVD and other cheap merchendize immitations.

    Things has changed and we accept change and growth (if the implemented change can ever be considered success) but the change plan should include and cover the downtown transformation to something viable for people and business owners. In all cities of the world from London to Bejieng, downtowns are the ultimate centers of the fusion of business leadership and art and culture, even if you dont have to go through it to go to work, you still would go there once a week to attend a play, watch a parade, or go to a restaurant!

    of course this cheap “Bab al hara” immitation is out of place and do not suite Amman’s soul but unfortunately this soul has been in decline since the closure of “Central” cafe if anybody remembers. I am not sure how much we can do now , opening a “Jafra” or anything of this sort will never make downtown a hot destination again…

    I guess what I am saying is that the picture is more gloomy than just what you are mentioning…

  4. New Jordanian in town Says:

    You say the mayor is “aware” of what is going on in downtown Amman. However, what I want to know is what is being or going to be done about it. I’m currently a new resident of Amman, therefore, I cannot speak to how it was and how it is becoming. I can speak to a phenomena I have noticed here (I’m generalizing here and yes, I know generalizing can be dangerous) people realize there is a problem, and they will speak of it and about it. This is great, but what I want to know is what is being done about it.

    What is Mr. Mayor doing about the changes taking place on Rainbow street? Are these actions effective? Who is directly in charge? Why is it that these businesses not following regulations pertaining to renovation and are there any consequences? Who is caring out these consequences? Are they effective? It appears that these violations are seeping to Fasial Square. This could be an indication that nothing is being done about this problem…or something has been done but is not effective.

    Your article is informative, Ahmad. Can you report further and in more detail about this issue beyond the realization of problem?

    Keep up the good work!

  5. مجهولٌ Says:

    not sure what you are saying but i think this is a matter of taste; and although the design of this cafe is ““touristy”, fake and cheaply done” in your opinion, i’m sure it looks great in the owner’s opinion, as well as a fair percentage of people/customers.
    so are you trying to influence or improve people’s taste and appreciation of what is true jordanian heritage through govt. regulations? is that what this post is about?

  6. The Gambler Says:

    Thank you Ahmad for this article, hit the nail on the head.

    Driving around Amman today is like driving around a city with no clear direction with its architectural heritage, style, tradition, whatever you want to call it…

    Amman is expanding like a city on steroids… you walk around some neighborhoods in Jabal Amman and you can clearly see a “trend” of architecture… on the other hand, drive down Madina Munawara street and look at all those eye-sore buildings, one right next to the other, none of them are the same space from the street (this is of course one of the regulations of building in Amman), not to mention the highlight of Amman: not enough parking space, (which is also one of the requirements for new buildings), but of course, the way things work is that you pay the “fine” for not having a car park to the Amman municipality and there you go, you have your permit to build… very frustrating indeed…

    here is an example: the JBC cafe that recently opened on Madina Munawara St. do you seriously think this is a suitable location for a cafe?! the building stands out like a sore thumb… among all the buildings around it… again, no “trend”

    all these housing projects sprouting around Amman, (the new apartment buildings) ouch, whatever happened to gardens? you enter any of those new neighborhoods and it is immediately clear that there is no greenery around, even the “ground floor” apartments have no garden… no wonder people clutter the airport highway with “picnicks”...

    its just really very frustrating…

    Thanks again Ahmad.

  7. Rana Says:

    Ahamd, greetings from London, thanks for a great blog.

    1.Quick comment about this cafe;
    apart from the horrendous petra wall, if you look carefully most of the decorative items added on this building are easily replaced without damaging the original fabric. That’s when you really need to worry, permanent damage to original fabric – and in extreme cases demolition. I am not really bothered with the kitsch design – it’s typical Ammani, isn’t it?
    Although, ‘Disneyfication’ would be the right term to describe this process if all the places decide to use this approach for their new design!

    This café, although hideous looking, is actually playing a major role in revitalizing the area and bringing people back to it. Historically the street bustled with cafes on the first floor. This recapturing of the original activity is vital for the street.

    2.On a more general note, it does take a deep decline to bring revitalization and I think it’s good that the municipality is taking on this project.

    3.You mentioned that you felt that almost all retailers were gone, but I assure you that that is not the case. You would be surprised how many retailers have been there for over sixty years – business taken over by their fathers, fabric shops, sweet shops, bakeries … etc. Some of them have gorgeous interiors and signage that are original from that period. These people, these shops with their interiors and signage should be protected. Their knowledge of the history of the area is a great treasure.

    4.The area, although in major decline has huge character, I believe. It’s this character that should really be preserved. Character is not only the physical but also the little details, the activities, and general ‘feel’ of the place.

    5.But I must agree, decent regulations at this point is quite crucial for the success of this revitalization effort.

    My best
    Rana

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