Occasional visits to my dentist in Shmeisani sometimes end with a walk retracing the footsteps of my teenage days in Amman, spent studying for exams or getting introduced to newspapers like The Guardian at Abdulhameed Shoman public library, meeting computer geek friends upstairs in the computer lab in same building, eating Shawerma at a corner restaurant, looking for foreign magazines in a bookshop that used to be housed in the entrance lobby of Matalqa Center, or buying music tapes at EMC (Electro Music Center).
Some years later, it meant ice cream at Frosti’s or student outings at Milano, MammaMia or New York New York.
For around a decade that bridged the 1980s and 1990s, the blocks of Shmeisani’s commercial center, sandwiched between the banks’ headquarters on one side and the stretches of modernist villas on the other side, were the go-to place for middle class teenagers, long before Abdoun, before the malls and before the internet.
Despite its reputation for being Amman’s “rich neighborhood” of the 1970’s, Shmeisani can, in retrospect, be considered modest, especially when compared to the display of wealth in the new rich neighborhoods that came after it: Adbdoun, Deir Ghbar and so on.. Its commercial center was a tentative window to a globalized future that would later unfold with a big bang in other places in Amman during the second half of the 1990s and the 2000s. It represented a certain kind of modernity and “globalization” that was still in harmony with the urban fabric of Amman. Yes, the first Kentucky Fried Chicken of Jordan opened there in the 1980’s, but it sat modestly between small groceries, local restaurants, a public library, wide sidewalks and just “normal” modern human-scale urbanity.
And while Shmeisani was certainly a place that welcomed cars, enabling the emerging habit of car cruising, it was also a place for pedestrians with its generous sidewalks. That’s a far cry from today’s new urban areas of Amman. The activities of Shmeisani can today be found in malls or in strips of shops along high-speed highways. The malls offer us privatized pedestrian life, where male teenagers can be shut out at will (contrary to the Shmeisani of my teenage years). And the strip malls along long highways don’t even bother to have any pedestrian pretensions.
Yet, even as Amman is today rediscovering its old downtown, and its old neighborhoods like Jabal Amman’s First Circle and Rainbow Street and Jabal Al Luweibdeh, the blocks of Shmeisani are undergoing a intriguing process of death and, I want say “rebirth” but that would be too optimistic. It’s really a drawn out state of decline. It’s the stubborn hanging on of fragments of its past mixed with hopelessness, and a new future looming literally on the horizon. Look towards the east and there, on the horizon are the towers of the Abdali District, that controversial moment of Amman’s attempted Dubai-ification in 2000’s
Every time I walk through Shmeisani I am baffled by its state of limbo.
Can someone explain to me how “Ata Ali”, the icon of the 1970’s Shmeisani, is managing to survive as a business? And why hasn’t capitalism’s creative destruction managed to sweep it off the landscape?
Can anyone understand how “New York New York”, an 80’s experiment by a couple of Jordanian entrepreneurs who gave Amman one of its first creatively designed restaurants (complete with huge Jackson Pollock posters), today is a bizarre joint called “New Yourk Nightclub” (yes Yourk not York!).
Who exactly drinks coffee at “Al Farouki”, the once proud coffee house of Shmeisani?
As I walked up and down the streets on an early Saturday afternoon, the whole neighborhood didn’t make any sense. Even the mobile phone trade that once flourished in Shmeisani in the mid to late 1990’s seems on the brink of death. There where no customers in the mobile shops that still somehow managed to remain open. The owners seemed to console themselves by listening to the Holy Quran radio station. Maybe business is better on weekdays. But the number of shuttered or “for sale” shops told another story.
Loud Iraqi music (I think a live performance!) was blaring from a restaurant on a second floor of a building and I could hear enthusiastic shouts of ladies who apparently were having a very lively noon-time party there.
Milano was still there. Beside it a Babiche patisserie that seemed closed, yet on closer inspection was open. A hummus and falafel restaurant on the same street was full of Egyptian construction workers. And a “supermarket” was doing good business, and still advertising that 80’s favorite: slush!
Shmeisani is dying a fascinating death.
Maybe Shmeisani’s rebirth is being held back by the ongoing financial crisis, and our state of national depression, affording us a slow motion display of disappearance, to revisit our younger years in Shmeisani before the new chapter of its history is written.
Maybe it was simply chocked-off by traffic problems created during the construction of the Shmeisani super-interchange. No one wanted to even go to Shmeisani and its traffic jams during the past few years.
Even the conversion of the commercial district’s main street into a semi pedestrianized “culture street” now seems bizarre. The only good that came from this project was that it became the unofficial headquarters of Amman’s skateboarders (and rollerbladers). I wonder if they still congregate there..
Big developments like the Kempinski Hotel and, more recently, the Millenium Hotel, dominate the neighborhood. And later this year, when Abdali and its Boulevard open, Shmeisani will become the next door neighbor of a totally new and totally shocking form of urbanity.
One would think that these developments would have sparked a revival. Or even just some form of monstrous commercial takeover. But no. Walking down the broken sidewalks of Shmeisani to capture glimpses of my memories, I found traces of the 80’s stubbornly refusing to leave, swathes of desolation and the typically Ammani habit of a city discarding its old cool places.
The urban structure of the Shmeisani commercial district, which once brought together commerce, culture, entertainment and a window to “the new” still holds so much potential.
A thoughtful city planner would seek to revive it as a genuinely “cool” and “locally-modern” counter-pole to the super-imposed, super-designed Abdali development. A symbiotic relationship could even be created between these two poles.
But I doubt that the Amman of today has time for such ideas.
JVTC (that’s Jordan Video Tape Center): The king of the videotape age. Now peddling DVDs. And pay TV.
Technics: I remember this as the brand-name store for high-fidelity audio equipment. Then it became a tape shop. Then a CD shop, a mobile shop. Now closed.
The Jabri restaurant opened here in the late 1980s in a gleaming white marble-clad building. Now covered by alucobond. Seems largely disused now.
Babiche and Milano.
Milano still operates and it is still run by the family who started it. A rare survivor in the neighborhood.
Sandwiches, slush and yoghurt drink and Granada supermarket. The restaurant with the same name next door serves affordable meals to construction workers.
Even the name “Shoman” which used to dominate Jordan’s banking sector (as the founding family of the Arab Bank) and the Shmeisani banking district, remains just a street name today.
Al Kayyali bookstore and Caesar’s souvenir shop. Time seems to stand still in these shop fronts.
The once proud coffee house.
Frosti: such a refreshing Jordanian brand in its heyday.
An elite shopping experience
The Jewel of Amman
When Jordanians only knew a handful of restaurant brands, this was the king of the market.
Granite is forever
Pioneering poets and progressive prime ministers
Surviving the 80’s. 90’s and 00’s
The magazine store used to be here