When the self proclaimed “Sheikh of Amman” comes walking through the door at the SYNTAX offices, its not an ordinary day, especially when he comes unannounced.
It’s now over 21 years that I’ve met Ali Maher for the first time, on my first day of being an Architecture student at the University in Jordan, sometime around 1989 or 1990. There we were, fresh faces just as the 1990s were about to dawn, in front of an extraordinary group of teachers, led by the warm and soft spoken Dr Taleb Rifai, who, after moving out of teaching and architectural consulting went on an amazing career that recently saw him get elected as the Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization.
The petite, serious and intellectually precise Dr Rifai was contrasted the x-large and jovial Ali Maher. Yet both of them (alongside the other members of our design studio teachers like Zaher Bushnaq and Mohammad Khaled) shared a passion for teaching, which meant our class got a great kick-start into our 5-year architectural studies. Having four great teachers at the outset of university is a rare occurrence and our class was just super lucky to get this experience.
But Ali Maher was not just a great teacher who taught us design principles and free-hand drawing. To me he was an opener of doors and a connector. As a second year student he chose a small group from our class to work on a major architectural competition at the office of the late Atallah Doany, one of Jordan’s pioneering first generation architects. I was one of the students Ali chose. Imagine the boost to our confidence resulting from our exposure to such an experience while we were not even halfway through our studies.
Later, when I started my first company, he was always opening doors and connecting me to interesting opportunities, just for the love of connecting peopl. If you’ve ever read about Connector personalities (like in Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point) there is no better real life example of a Connecter than Ali. He belongs to so many different, sometimes totally unrelated worlds, its beyond the comprehension of most of us, who prefer to safely stick with our little narrow circles in society.
His white concrete house, perched on one of Sweileh’s hills was a place were I always felt welcome. It was the first “architect’s house” I ever entered, a symbol of the architect building his dream. Ali had a studio there and he had a set of rather outrageously colorful pieces of furniture (his own designs, of course) which totally contrasted the white walls of the house. He later sold that house and I recently drove by to be horrified by what the new owners did to it, turning against its white purity and transforming it into yet another Ammani eclectic faux classical monstrosity.
People who don’t know Ali are sometimes shocked at his uninhibited pronouncements. It’s always funny. I remember how a young former SYNTAX co-worker was totally offended some years ago when he (endearingly) called her “umm Shakha” (Arabic slang reserved for babies before toilet training . That’s why I could not stop smiling when I saw some of the totally angry and serious comments on the recent Aramram video featuring him as “Sheikh Amman”.
In Amman, a city where everyone wears a semi-conservative mask and where people often take themselves depressingly seriously, Ali Maher is the antidote. As a fourth generation Ammani from a Circassian family, you cannot be more Ammani than him. And like Amman at its best, he is someone who opens doors for you and gives you that extra push, just to see you succeed.