Jabal al-Hussein walk and talk. Episode 6.

How many ghosts of yourself have you left lingering in this city? Can you remember where you left them?

Khaled bin Alwaleed street started ascending up the hill. And with it my memories started rising. We arrived at a place of urban magic. Or, at least, I see it this way. No one else seems to care.

I found three of my ghosts lingering there.

As we ascended up the street, we arrived at the triangular block formed by the main street (Khaled bin Alwaleed), Qibia Street and Nahhalin Street. Nahhalin and Qibia are names of Palestinian villages. So many of Jabal al Hussein’s streets are named after Palestinian villages and cities. The district seems like a little Palestine. It’s an intriguing urban decision which I never understood or asked about.

There is a magical mix that makes this block and its surroundings a piece of Amman that I find unique and, somehow, beautiful, although it is neither grand nor recognized as important by anyone I know. The way the streets intersect, their widths, the sidewalks, the varying heights of the buildings and their functions, the way the sun falls. I can’t quite explain the magic.

At the eastern base of this triangular block stands a building which gives this place a unique character. It’s the Opera House Theater (formerly Al-Quds “Jerusalem” Cinema). It’s a simple  modernist structure with curving corners and a sloped roof. The theater dominates the intersection with its solid yet dynamic presence. The ground floor is comprised of shop, only one of which is open (selling electric lights). I imagine the scene from a time this movie theatre was open. What were these shops selling? Snacks? Magazines? Did people linger after a movie on the generous sidewalk? How many of them lived within walking distance of the theatre? Am I imagining  some mythical time of hope and progress, in a version of Amman forgotten before it can be remembered?

Inside the theater my first ghost lives.

He’s 19. He’s been dwelling in the theater since 1989.

In 1989 just as my friends and I were entering adulthood, unrest broke out all over Jordan. What started out as a protest over fuel prices, escalated into a widespread uprising with a variety of political demands. This was at a time when Jordan was ruled by emergency law, curtailing freedom of expression and gathering as well as political affiliation. The late King Hussein decided that the best way to diffuse this situation was to revoke emergency rule and provide a democratic opening for the country. Overnight we, teenagers, found ourselves living in a totally different country. 

As we grew up, the names of political parties could only be whispered. They were literally illegal. 

Then everything changed.

Suddenly I’d open the newspaper and see statements by communist, leftist, Arab nationalist and Islamist party leaders. Out of the blue we found ourselves as potential voters in what was promised to be a free parliamentary election.

As the election drew closer we started hearing about debates between candidates. One evening we found ourselves excitedly heading towards the Al-Quds Cinema Theater for a hot debate between Laith Shbeilat the charismatic outspoken opposition figure and a more docile Ali Abu Al-Ragheb. It was a full house. All of this was so incredibly novel and exhilarating. People speaking freely. The candidates dueling on stage. Clapping. Cheering. We no longer needed to fear the secret police. Or so we thought. Shbeilat emphatically won the debate that night hands.

I could not find anything on the internet about that debate.

I also could not find anything about the theater itself on the internet. The only information about it concerns the fire that burned the entire building in 2016. I couldn’t find anyone writing about a memory of watching a movie there in the 1970s or 1980s. No information about who built it (only a questionable line in a business directory claiming it was built in 1976).

Today the theater just stands there, burned out, sad, unused. Before it burned someone thought it would be a good idea to deface its modernity by adding stupid stone columns to its facade that faces the main street. The historian and architect Rami Daher has talked often about the loss of the “heritage of modernity” in Amman. Cinema theaters are an important part of the modernist era of Amman. They functioned as new places of social gathering beyond the mosque, church, school or market. Some of Amman’s old cinemas have received some academic and press attention. But not not the Opera House in Jabal al Hussein. As far as the internet is concerned, it never existed. 

Then it burned.

Opposite to the theater is a a rather nondescript multi-story commercial building. Another ghost of mine sleeps there. He’s been there since around 1992.

By 1992 I was a graphic designer working under the name Alpha Design. With money lent to me by my mother, I bought my first Macintosh. Officially, I was a student of architecture in the University of Jordan, but I was well on way to having a design career.

Around 1992 I found myself working on a freelance job subcontracted to me by an older designer. The job was to design a prestigious brochure for the Scientific and Medical Supplies Co (SMS) one of the companies owned by the influential Mousasher family. The designer shared an office on the upper floor of the commercial building opposite the theater, and the work on the brochure was to be done there. The office’s main tenant was friendly but somewhat peculiar American man, who ran a graphic design business in Amman under the name Jasmine Graphics, one of the few such businesses in Amman.

The job itself was extremely educational. Part of it involved being on a photo shoot with the late Amman-based American photographer Bill Lyons. That was the first time I’ve worked with a professional photographer. At the time, Bill Lyons, Osman Akuz and maybe another couple of people where the only professional commercial photographers in Jordan. Working with one of them seemed like working with a god. 

One of the shoots was inside an amazing old modernist building in Jabal al Hussein, the now demolished Mouasher Hospital. The hospital was renovated and was supposed to be reopened, complete with sophisticated medical devices supplied by SMS. Bill, with his serious professional demeanor punctuated with his dry sense of humor, sprinkled with some Arabic words, was busy illuminating shots of the hospital’s high tech equipment with professional lights covered by colored gels. I’ve never seen these used before. He was doing test shots with Polaroids! This was all before digital. It was photographic magic. And I got to watch, awe-struck. 

One night I was doing layout work on the SMS brochure, racing to make the deadline. Then, as now, I wasn’t a good time manager. The American man had given me keys to the office, so I could come and go whenever I wanted. The hour got so late I couldn’t have gotten any transport home. So I decided to sleep on the office floor. That night, all alone in the entire building, I was looking for paper or office supplies and my eyes fell on some papers with very strange christian prayers on them. I realized at that moment that the American owner of the office was involved in christian evangelizing activities. 

Converting Muslims to christianity was (and still is) illegal in Jordan and closely monitored by the security authorities of the country. I remember feeling somewhat scared to be in the office all alone in the middle of the night. What if this place was being watched?

Eventually, I finished the brochure. I never set foot in that office again. But every time I pass that building I remember my 22 year old ghost who’s sleeping there on the floor that strange night

The magic of that urban triangle would not be complete without the story of Rex Supermarket. 

Facing the other side of the theater on Qibia Street once stood Rex Supermarket. The store was owned by Zahi Arafat. One of Rex’s claims to fame was that the municipal authorities once threatened to close it when when one of its inspectors “discovered” that the store was selling “moldy cheese” (a.k.a. blue cheese!). How do you explain to an inspector that this is a European delicacy!

I got to know Uncle Zahi through his son, Mazen. He too is someone I met around 1992, through a design job. We were introduced by a common friend whom I knew from university, Yazan Samara, who was working at the time with Mazen in a company called The Project Development Group (PDG). They worked out of an office in the Bakri building that overlooks the 3rd Circle in Jabal Amman. I was asked to design their logo and brochure. Mazen quickly became my “interesting friend”. I mean how many people would do you meet in Amman who had a Japanese mother? But more than an interesting friend, Mazen soon became a lifelong friend.

His father Zahi was this amazing mixture of Palestinian Nabulsi-ness and open worldliness, always mixing English words into his speech, with a characteristic dose of good natured humor. Jabal Amman might have had its Khalaf Supermarket (the first store to introduce supermarket trolleys in Amman), but the king of Jabal al Hussein’s modern grocery (and, apparently blue cheese) was uncle Zahi Arafat and his Rex.

The internet has forgotten about Rex. It closed many years ago. But it lives on through Foron Rex, Amman’s current king of artisanal bakeries, run by Mazen’s younger brother Kareem.

Long forgotten and replaced by several stores selling various wares, Rex is still there in my mind overlooking the theatre. A third ghost of mine is lost wandering the building since the mid 1990’s when Mazen was trying to get me involved in a modernization of the building and the business, that never happened.

In the 2000s I got to know Laith Shbeilat personally, through business not politics. I did some branding work for businesses he was involved in. He passed away in 2022. The same year we also laid uncle Zahi to rest.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Zahi Arafat







2 responses to “Ghost in the theatre”

  1. Mazen Avatar

    Ahmad, I am very touched that you mention my father and Rex in this post. I will take the opportunity to share a few details.

    Rex Supermarket was established in 1975 when we left Dubai, a time when Jumeira Beach ended a dozen kilometres closer to the old downtown. Even then, my mother found Dubai an impossible place, perhaps too much of a nouveau riche, competitive scene for which she was not fit. (Only several years before, she was part of the student movement in Japan protesting the Vietnam War…) She put her foot down and took me to live in Japan for two years while my father figured out how to reunite the family. Beirut was embroiled in civil war, so he settled on Amman. After his 25 years in the Gulf, Amman was a relief: weather permitted you to be outside, walk, and take service taxis! Jabal Hussein was a great place to live. Our first home in Amman was behind the supermarket: it was a modest place but it had a lovely terrace with vine leaves covering a tiled space. Summer evenings were full of families strolling up to Firas Circle (we used to call it Maxim); we were all doing what the Spaniards call the paseo. Boys older than me would stroll in formation, hand in hand, flirting with oncoming girls who were also in formation, with precisely calibrated sweet talk. My cousin Yasser and I would watch all this hoping to one day master these techniques, which he did but not me.

    My father didn’t have any credentials to start one of the first modern supermarkets in the city. In the Gulf he was in the white goods, gas cylinders, wood, paint, jewellery, but nothing that was retail (although he used to say he loved his summer work at the صيدلية يافا الكبرى in the 1940s). Many in the extended family who were established Nablus merchants and other grocers in the neighbourhood predicted that he will fail. “He can succeed in boomtown Dubai, but Amman is a tough market,” they would say. With an outsider’s confidence, he set about introducing ‘modernity:’ inordinate attention was given to the trolleys, the displays were colourful (orange formica shelves), lots of variety (to this day more variety of soap than in a European supermarket), the dream of modern cornucopia. It used to have something of a deli, a good spices corner, coffee grinders, etc. The supermarket used to host Dutch, German, Danish, etc mini-food fairs sponsored by their respective embassies. This was a different Jabal Hussein.

    My father wanted me (and really everyone else) to learn from Rex, so I was expected to work Thursday nights and during the weekends. It was probably the single most formative experience for me but in ways he didn’t expect (or perhaps he did, I never got a chance to ask him). On Thursday nights, when my friends at school were partying, I was caring for customers, stacking shelves, etc but above all doing two things: I practiced Arabic (I was in a foreign school in Amman) and I interacted closely with employees who were mostly from the Hussein Refugee Camp or Al-Nuzha, both of which are next door, as well as a few Egyptian immigrant workers. I also had to navigate what it means to hang out with young people who were vastly poorer, be the son of the boss but try to be a friend, spend the week in a posh school speaking English whilst working and sharing meals with those living precariously. But we used to go together to Cinema Al-Quds, because we of course knew the guys who operated the projectors and watched too many Kong Fu movies for free. And every once in a while, we were invited to watch some not so salubrious movies. It was a great place to grow up.

    Then the painful 1980s happened: oil prices collapsed, recession, later Petra Bank failed, and also big modern supermarkets with real capital emerged (basically, Safeway), West Amman was taking away business. Rex was in crisis. I remember what used to be a busy shop of 300 sq m was completely moribund. We would stand outside, as if to ‘fish customers,’ waiting sometimes for hours. I recall one day leaning on one foot outside only to see one of those demonstrations Ahmad mentions passing up Khaled Bin Al-Waleed St.

    What was the solution to the lean years? My father decided to import Korean foodstuff for the Korean workers who were building the Shmeisani behemoth that was to become the Alia headquarters. A whole section of Rex was dedicated to Korean food, and that kept it alive. After the Koreans left, my father had to find another solution to pay the school fees. An English salesperson for Spinney’s (a wholesaler) suggested to him: ‘stack it high, sell it cheap,’ and he endorsed wholeheartedly — for years he would repeat the mantra with an exaggerated, tender emphasis on the ‘p’ of ‘cheap.’ The business model was right for the new demographic of Jabal Hussein. Variety shrank, no more deli, much less emphasis on high-end items, and the orange shelves where no longer very visible with the deliberate placing of items in their carton boxes (to denote wholesale prices). He managed to improve cashflow, satisfied his customers, kept the credit line at the bank, and paid the bills. What is probably under-appreciated is just how much thinking, attention, courage and decisiveness is needed to run a business for 3 decades: the number of pivots, the crises to manage, the constant effort, constant experimentation, the balance between trust and distrust that is required. I see the same spirit in my brother’s business, Foron Rex. Whereas I wanted to run away from all that, he inherited that sense of adventure.

    I should say, unlike Foron Rex, my father’s business was not a ‘modern business,’ and I don’t think he ultimately wanted to create one. He knew he enjoyed too much being in the middle of the show, and valued that much more than introducing hierarchy, systems, performance targets, etc… In later years, after he closed the shop and sold the building, he wistfully would talk about how he ultimately was not a real businessman. Still, I think he was happier that Rex used to be called a ‘madrasseh for life’ by those who worked there — you learned patience, commerce, how to deal with people, how to gently ask a woman to open her bag and take out the items she’d stolen and then pretend that she misplaced them, how to avoid letting people with influence buy on credit because often they don’t pay, how to laugh politely when your earnest second cousin practices his English on an Australian blonde looking for lightbulbs “do you want screw or …?” (My father swore that she replied ‘sometimes’)… My brother, one uncle, a dozen cousins, a few second cousins, uncles-in-law, plus dozens of others all passed through Rex. We all watched how much my father enjoyed all this.

    It was all a very special daily life to grow up in that milieu in Jabal Hussein. Thank you Ahmad for making me remember all this.

  2. Mona Deeb Lyons Avatar
    Mona Deeb Lyons

    Thanks for this, Ahmad. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article and your references to Bill. I hadn’t met him yet back then, but he often spoke about his Jabal al-Hussein years. ❤️

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