I really love my fellow Ammani bloggers and tweeps. I really think that they are one of the best things that happened to us in the last ten years. I love that many of them have give a voice to Amman’s urban issues and urban activism. But sometimes they have me shaking my head with puzzlement.
Like when the New York Times recently published a story on Amman’s newly improved sidewalks (as in Wakalat Street and Rainbow Street and elsewhere) and the sprouting of an “identity” in the city.
The article mentions improvements in the eastern and western parts of Amman. It recognizes that the new Amman master plan consciously wants to avoid Amman’s “Dubai-ification”. It talks to people like Gerry Post from the Amman Institute and Rami Daher, one of Amman’s best urban historians and the architect behind Rainbow’s rehabilitation, as well as a number of ordinary citizens. It talks about how new sidewalks and benches are re-introducing Ammanis to the concept of an inclusive public space. It also focuses on the issues around Wakalat Street’s pedestrianization (and some of the negative reactions of high-end apparel merchants there).
All in all, in my opinion, a pretty good article about some of the positive improvements in Amman, while also noting that the city still suffers from an identity challenge.
Alone, the fact that an article tackling Amman’s urban identity is being published on the NYTimes’ web site should be a reason to celebrate. I mean, finally the world is taking note of Amman as an urban destination and issue, not just simply a boring place (as it has largely been treated by the foreign media which is only impressed by “exotic” and “oriental” cities like Damascus and Cairo).
But a handful of my blogging and tweeting friends (both Jordanians and Westerners) seem to be unhappy or even somehow offended by the article.
“Condescending”, “Reeks of Municipality and Amman Institute PR”, “Stereotypes” are some of the words they’ve been using on Twitter. For one blogger, the article’s biggest sin was that it made it seem as if Amman is only now developing an identity. “Did you really think the article is good,” asked another good blogging friend of mine, when she saw me retweeting the link to the article.
Let’s just remind ourselves of a few facts..
Our sidewalks not only suck, they suck big time. Saying so is not condescension but merely stating a fact. I’ve written on this blog some years ago that Amman should win an award for worst sidewalks in the world and no one said I was being condescending. A Lebanese writer recently noted how he found himself as “Amman’s only pedestrian” which meant Ammanis forgot how to walk. I think we need to hear this a million times more: Amman’s sidewalks are a disaster. Thank you NYTimes for noting some of the improvements that were made in various place.
OK, what about identity?
Maybe the NYTimes’ writers went too far by saying that Amman is “bereft of an identity”. Amman has an identity. But, if anything, Amman it is a “weak” identity. And, yes, this is me saying this (Mr. Amman Brand). Does anyone want to argue that Amman’s identity is as strong as Cairo’s or Las Vegas’? Yes, we always had a very interesting identity: one that was build on the city’s openness which resulted in an interesting, always emerging human collage. We have our hills and views and white stones and stairs. But let’s be realistic. In literature and music, in food and drink, in self-awareness and historical awareness, Amman is just now coming to terms with its identity. The NYTImes article correctly points out that hardly anyone calls him or herself “Ammani”. We have a long way to go when it comes to fleshing out our urban identity.
Friends: this is a city whose public transport and public spaces have been neglected for decades. Only now do we have a city management that thinks this stuff is really important. Amman is a place where many prominent families had no problem demolishing their old family houses to replace them with ugly commercial buildings. Amman is a city that was under the real threat of being punctured by a dozen glass skyscrapers from the 8th to the 3rd circle. It’s a city where large private villas and large cars continue to set the agenda and where sidewalks are mostly mere decoration and not places for walking.
One of the best people who has written about Amman deeply and academically is the Jordanian anthropologist Seteney Shami. Her work served as one of the foundations our team at SYNTAX depended on when we worked on the Amman Brand. One of the key texts she has written about Amman is entitled “Amman is not a city”. This title does not mean that Shami thinks that Amman is not a city. Rather, it is about her digging behind the sociopolitical reasons that cause Amman’s residents to underestimate (and undermine) their city’s “citiness”.
So, while I am a Amman optimist, I still favor facing the harsh reality of our city’s weak sense of identity.
In any case: a short article for a Western audience in a mainstream media outlet like the NYTImes cannot be expected to delve into the minute details of Amman’s urban identity. It might not cover all the issue. Our newfound enthusiasm for Amman should not mask the fact that there is still a long, hard journey before Amman to evolve and celebrate its urban identity.
Lastly, I think our city needs people to work together to push things forward. We should work together for one simple reason: Taken together, the people with “good ideas” or “sensitivity” for Amman are outnumbered. Whatever urban progress we have made so far, can easily be rolled back by the forces of unthinking commerce and uncultured bureaucracy.
People will not agree on everything and might have conflicting agendas and interests in a city like Amman. Spirited bloggers and activists will always be more aggressive in pushing for more reforms and more inclusiveness. City officials’ priorities might differ on some of the issues. My personal view is that there are enough areas of potential overlap, cooperation and fruitful dialogue. Previous city administrations where forcing massive changes that where detrimental to the city’s urban identity and heritage without much opposition from anyone. Now that GAM pays more attention to public space, public transport and city identity, I believe that constructive dialogue and joint action are in order.