Every time I find myself strolling around the greasy dark pavements and alleys in downtown Amman, my eyes cannot avoid observing the changes that have been crawling all over the place, during the very few yesteryears.
Changes that did not only transform the shape and look of the landscape, but have also, indirectly, touched on its character, which it assumed since the early days of 1921, when Amman was declared the capital of the nascent Emirate of Transjordan.
Let’s not forget that this part of downtown Amman has since then, played a major role in the life of Ammanites in particular, and Jordanians in general. Strategically located, it is surrounded by its old famous neighborhoods such as the Citadel, Al-Ashraffiya, Al-Muhajereen, Jabal Amman, Jabal Luwiebdeh and Jabal Al-Joffe.
Al-Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman, possibly in the 1950s. pic.twitter.com/nsI9tVjCjJ— Archive of Jordan (@ArchiveOfJordan) July 30, 2020
In no time, this part of Amman, slowly started developing into the main center for commerce, coffee shops, entertainment and politics, as well as a major crisscross point that was frequented by local residents, and visitors from the nearby towns such as Salt, Jerash and Madaba and from other far places in Palestine, Syria, Arabia and Iraq.
During the 1920s, 1930s up to the 1940s the King Faisal Plaza, became the main venue in Amman, where important State occasions were celebrated. Some of those were patronized by King Abdullah I, in person. On certain Fridays, the king would arrive in the Husseini Mosque, riding his horse, to attend the Friday midday prayers.
As dignitaries from other Arab countries started coming to the country, hospitality business-oriented enterprises started emerging in the vicinity, such as the King Ghazi hotel, which remained open until just few years ago, when it was completely overhauled. Its function was changed to that of a museum. A chain of other hotels, small and modest in modern terms, but fashionable then, started also appearing around the plaza.
Those hotels were named after Arab capitals and cities such as Baghdad, Riyadh, Haifa, Cairo and so forth, echoing the mounting pan Arab nationalistic euphoria that had gripped the whole region of the east-Mediterranean, just recently liberated from the Ottomans, after four long centuries of rule.
Other businesses such as eateries, clothing and retail stores, cinemas, bars, transport cars, carpentry shops, groceries, and most importantly coffee houses, followed suit.
Under the roof of coffee houses, political debates and public gatherings were held, regularly. A phenomenon that eventually breathed life into the political spectrum which in turn, led to the establishment of, notoriously, vocal political parties.
The Hamdan coffee house, for example, which still occupies its original location on the second floor of the current Gold market, known today as Kawkab-Asharq, and the Arab League coffee house, with its huge veranda, used to overlook the big square in front of Al-Husseini Mosque, were the most active hubs for politicians, intellectuals, dignitaries and apprentices of all sorts of professions, including shoe shiners and errand boys.
Those coffee houses served both as the birthplace and nursery of the newly-founded pan-Arab political parties, that played a decisive role in the future of the country, specially, in the following 1950s and 1960s.
At a much later stage, I also regularly frequented this part of Amman. For since I was a teenager, I have never lost my appetite for a take-away warm crunchy Falafel sandwich from Fuad’s Falafel shop, or a plate of hot Kunafa from the Sherazade shop; this is a quasi-weekly shared habit with friends, that preceded or followed, another custom of attending the opening of classical movies such “Love story” or James Bond films at the Raghadan Cinema, or “Rayan’s Daughter” at Al-Khayyam cinema, or other classical Egyptian films at Al-Hussein or Zahran cinemas.
Incredibly beautiful mural downtown Amman Jordan 😍 pic.twitter.com/dzurAuLVTE— Abla Abdelhadi (@AblaAbdelhadi76) December 16, 2021
I and my company of cinema goers could not miss the opening of the first Jordanian feature film entitled “Struggle in Jerash” played at Basman cinema! Although, the film could not have made it even then, to the long-list nominees for the Oscar Awards, our initial reaction upon watching it, did not lack enthusiasm and jubilation!
Today however, things look different! Very different!
Some important landmarks lost their original raisons d’ etre, possibly forever, such as the old famous movie-theaters that, largely, mirrored the socio-cultural setting of young Amman. Second-floors of many old buildings have been turning into coffee shops, whose main attraction now is the Argila and cards. Luxury hotels of the époque have turned into cheap one-night stay premises for sac-a-dos tourists, or into coffee shops aiming for the same target of puffing the Argilas. Other shops are being transformed into take-away snacks, sweets and sleek perfumeries.
As for the adjacent sidewalks they are divided, by practice not law, into three zones. The first one is usually occupied by stall vendors of all sorts of non-essential goods. The second is controlled by the shop owners themselves. The third, separating the first two is, haphazardly, left to the pedestrians. A daily hide and seek game goes on between those mobile stall vendors and the Municipality personnel. One also cannot downplay the number of beggars and homeless individuals wandering around. Occasionally, bands of 5-7 teenagers, would be seen racing, dangerously, on their skating shoes in the middle of thick traffic.
Enjoy these nostalgic 20th century photographs of downtown Amman 🇯🇴 (1/2)— Archive of Jordan (@ArchiveOfJordan) September 4, 2020
Source: Delcampe pic.twitter.com/wN7rDDFvgP
Of course many businesses today are flourishing. And that’s good news on its own. It is also good business for the Municipality of Amman which issues the proper licenses, in exchange for handsome fees!
In other words, this part of Amman today is facing a triple-pronged assault on three out of the five human senses, namely, sight, smell and hearing!
All of which leaves us with two opposing views:
On one hand you have those who are looking for a short break, over a quick bite in the company of friends and kin, while documenting artificial smiles and robotic gestures by their mobiles!
About the sunset today— Abdallah Maqboul (@Abdallah_MQ_) February 1, 2019
Amman - Downtown 💙
By Samsung A7 pic.twitter.com/HmL3YJAvfO
On the other hand, there are those who have some questions: Where are the adequate public parking lots? Where are the descent sanitarian facilities such as public WCs? What about the nonstop traffic fiascos? And how to minimize the effects of the above-mentioned triple-thronged assault on human senses?
This group find itself lamenting the good old days, when the air was fresher, the setting tidier, and the acoustics friendlier. Nostalgically, they would be alluding to those by-gone years as the lost golden époque, intricately woven on the wall of time, by a machine they call, the faculty of “human memory”!
As for me, I find myself squeezed between the two, as if I were another pedestrian struggling to find his way out of the thick mercuric crowd!
Saleem Ayoub Quna contributed this article to Albawaba.com
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