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.



8 responses to “The NYTimess writes about Amman (and my fellow bloggers and tweeps complain)”

  1. Yazan Avatar

    Great post! Well the article in NY Times wasn’t at all bad in my opinion, as you said, the West are now taking note of Amman and this is a major advancement to our society. Regarding sidewalks, through the last couple of years I’ve seen a lot of improvement, to the extent that I witnessed a rebuild of one of my neighbors sidewalks because of government complain that it was excessively forested with trees and shrubs, thus eliminating the original pedestrian cause of the sidewalk.

  2. T Avatar

    I did not see anything offensive or condescending in the NYT article. On the contrary. We can’t take offence whenever anyone points out a reality that we do not wish to be portrayed. This is how we ensure that we never grow or develop.

  3. Dave Avatar

    A nice post, Ahmad. As a foreigner and fellow world traveler, I think it may be easier for me to interpret the idea that Amman is bereft of an “identity”. While this statement is not literally true, in the big picture, it is fundamentally true. For those living in and around Jordan, Amman has a very important identity – but that identity is a local one. In the big picture, Amman has a very small global identity. Most of the world still barely knows it exists.

    Amman is unique to those who live there and ordinary to those who don’t. It only takes a minute to recognize “identifiable” cities around the world – famous cities that have contributed their culture to the world through architecture, poetry, literature, music, politics, sports, and more – and it’s not hard to realize how lacking Amman is in the global scheme of things.

  4. Raghda Butros Avatar
    Raghda Butros

    Thank you for your post Ahmad. I was one of the people who referred to the article as condescending and indeed, I think it is. I wrote to Slackman, who wrote back saying that he didn’t mean for his article to sound condescending and I am sure he did not. However, you are right in pointing out that the statement “Amman is bereft of an identity” is an unnecessary exaggeration, and this is the exact statement that I had an issue with.

    In his answer to my email, Slackman said “Amman reemerged as an urban center only 150 years ago, as you know. It takes time to form the sense of identity especially given the diversity of the population.” Frankly, I find this statement quite intriguing from someone who is writing for a New York based paper.

    It seem that both you and Slackman seem to be equating “brand” with “identity”. Identity does not come in a prepackaged form, nor does the “identity” of a city, which may be used to market it as a destination, really reflect what that city means to its citizens. Cairo may have a certain “identity” to you, but to its residents I am sure it has 100 identities, each of which is just as valid, and as much a part of its overall identity, as the other.

    I agree that we should accept criticism of our city and ourselves, I also think we should be doing a better job of undertaking that criticism ourselves, rather than waiting for others to do it. I don’t, however, think we should put an automatic stamp of approval on anything that is said about or to us, just so we can seem open-minded and accepting of the views of others.

    If our city is indeed “bereft of an identity” then so, by extension, are we. A city is nothing without its people, and our opinion of if it is just as valid, if not more so, than the opinion of others. I fear we are bending over backwards to please our visitors and would-be visitors, and paying less and less attention to the people who make this city what it is.

    When people come to the defense of their city, it is a clear indication that they feel a strong sense of attachment and affinity to it, and this is what ultimately lends a city its true identity.

  5. Lina Avatar

    I was waiting for this post :)

    I actually agree with you Ahmad on almost everything you said here. Yes, Amman never had a strong sense of identity. Yes, sidewalks suck in most parts of the city and this leads to tons of other urban issues like the lack of street life and lack of opportunities to cross paths with strangers and share public space with them.

    When I first read the article I did not like it at all.. mostly because it really felt like it was written by someone who parachuted into the city for a few days. And it did feel strongly influenced by GAM’s PR discourse, you know, the one that puts too much emphasis on Rainbow street and Wakalat street and now Ashrafiyyeh. Why doesn’t anyone look at Paris circle in Luweibdeh? Or Jabal Hussein for example?

    However, another conversation with a friend made me realize something – this NYT article was not meant for readers like me. It was not written for a Jordanian audience, especially not the “over-analyzing quasi sophisticated pseudo middle class Ammanis”, to quote my friend Yacoub. It was written for a western audience who probably doesn’t know much about Amman, and should be taken as such.

    Yes, it’s nice to see Amman in the New York Times (with pieces other than “the cup cake craze comes to the Middle East”). What we really need though, is an intelligent and critical dialogue in the local media, by and for the residents of Amman. And that’s definitely not the responsibility of reporters like Michael Slackman. I think JO magazine has been doing a brilliant job covering urban issues from different angles and perspectives.

    A few urban regeneration projects that cost millions cannot by themselves give Amman an identity.
    I’m curious, are there new standards and codes for sidewalk width to be enforced all over the city?

    Check out Mohammad Omar’s latest post about trying to walk the city.

    PS. Sorry for the long incoherent comment. We should get together soon and chat in person :)

  6. Humeid Avatar

    Thank you everyone who has commented here. I now feel that this post is more “complete”. As web conversations are fragmenting into tweets and facebook comments, it is becoming harder for good old blogs to keep things together. So thanks again everyone for pitching in here as well.

    Lina and Raghda in particular: I am in general agreement with you, but have some little notes on what you said.

    Comparing NY to Amman: I actually like to always point out that US cities are also young, but many have a strong urban identity. Yet, Amman has not developed such a strong identity for various reason, the most obvious of which I am sure have to do with the economy of Amman (we were never a global financial center) and the nature of immigration. NY inherited an already advanced sense of European urbanity from the outset.

    As for GAM PR, I find it natural that the city administration has a strong voice. GAM is a major actor in the city and its voice will show in a short article like that. I feel that other actors should also work on their “PR” as this is how media works (online communication is changing this, but we’re not quite there yet :-)

    Finally, allow me to clarify one very VERY important point about the Amman Brand.

    The FIRST thing I told GAM when SYNTAX started work on the Amman Brand project two years ago is that we should not work on a tourism or destination brand. The Amman brand was conceived from day one as a citizen oriented brand. The tourism aspect of it is miniscule.

    We totally went against the prevailing trend of showing Amman as a bunch of roman ruins and a roman theatre and some flashy modern hotels and traffic roundabouts.

    That’s why you never saw any big “Visit Amman” or “Invest in Amman” campaigns. In fact, we advised GAM to not even launch the brand in ad campaign.

    The Amman logo and brand is not about Roman ruins or shopping. It is about our diverse populated hills. Diverse people+Unique topography.

    I am happy that the first major displays for the brand were 1. during the parade, which I think had great elements that talked about people and history and 2. On the http://www.ammancity100.gov.jo site, where we, despite some official constraints, were able to tell the contemporary story of Amman and be open for citizen participation (to share THEIR stories).

    So again. The Amman Brand was never about external marketing for tourists.

    Obviously, it all depends on how GAM now “manages the brand” (which means: how it delivers services, events, experience ideas and how it talks, interacts and listens to the residents).

    I just wanted to clarify this point because I feel very passionate about the fact that all our work and advice was directed to help GAM create a citizen and not tourism destination brand.

    Thank you all..

  7. مجهولٌ Avatar

    interesting discussion. i did not feel that the NY article was condescending in any way.

    Ibecame a fan of Raghda :) from here and aramram..

    you make a very good point in your comment, Raghda, but still its arguable. if i understood you correctly, you equate the identity of amman with the memories of its residents. i mean, you are offended when someone writes that amman has/had nothing because that means that your good memories of amman mean nothing. am i right? if so, then its the same as your argument: identity doesn’t equal brand > identity doesn’t equal personal experiences of locals. identity is more than that. also, what you’re saying (if i understand you correctly) that if enough people feel passionately about a place, it will have an identity. well this means that Dubai has a very strong one! (which maybe true. i love Dubai!) loving a place by a group of people doesn’t mean it has identity. this is my humble opinion.

    i have commented before on other blogs and will mention this again, the most important thing is bridging the social gap between rich and poor which the article mentions a few times. you Raghda of all people should know, you are helping your community, how many educated, economically non-challenged, west ammani’s do what you do? very little i assume..
    creating something like Top 50 jordan helps but its still a bit immature, dont you think!! it appears that Rami Daher thinks highly of the social aspect as well.

  8. Hysham Avatar

    Good stuff Ahmad… Keep up the good work!