An interesting observation of the questions asked of me when I returned from Jordan. Apart from “Is Jordan safe?”, the ones I found amusing were “Did you go to Petra, is it like in Indiana Jones?” , “You went to Jordan? Oh my god, Petra!!”, “How was Petra?”, “I hope you went to Petra!”. Of course I went to Petra, it would be a travesty if I didn’t!
Well, the reality is majority of visitors fly into the capital city and immediately they are whisked off to the main attractions of Jordan. Over a period of a few days, tourists visit the ancient architecture of the Citadel in Amman or make day trips to Jerash or to Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea. Tourists also opt to make a 4-hour journey from Amman to Petra, take the obligatory photo at The Treasury, have a short walkabout in Petra, and return to Amman on the same day. Subsequently, they move on to other destinations in the Middle East – to Israel, Egypt or the Gulf countries.
There is no shortage of medieval structures in Amman for history buffs but how about getting to know its modern and contemporary side which is often overlooked?
An introduction to the modern side of Amman is best found in the bohemian neighbourhood of Jabal Al L’Weibdeh. In L’Weibdeh, you will find a quiet and pleasant, leafy neighbourhood consisting of boxy cream-coloured townhouses and apartments, villas, cafes and parks – a striking contrast to Downtown Amman which resembles the stereotypical Middle Eastern city loud with traffic and market activities.
I started my exploration at Darat Al Funun, the centre of contemporary arts in Amman. Darat Al Funun or “Little House of the Arts” comprises three 1920s villas, situated on a steep slope in L’Weibdeh. The centre exhibits some of Amman’s edgy contemporary visual arts and from time to time, they conduct lectures and performances as well.
Here’s an interesting piece of work by Adel Abidin titled I’m Sorry.
The caption label says: Adel Abidin explores concepts of cultural alienation, marginalization and war; he uses these concepts to subvert cultural ideologies in a precarious and paradoxical world. His humorous approach plays with stereotypical occidental ideas of the East. On I’m Sorry he says: “During a recent trip to U.S. I met many people from different educational and social backgrounds. Yet, surprisingly, they all reacted in the same way when I mentioned that I was Iraqi”.
I was about to enter a gallery of black & white photographs but stopped short when I saw a man praying at the corner of the gallery. Initially I wasn’t sure what to do – was I allowed to enter or should I wait till he has finished his prayers.
And then, it struck me what a beautiful scene this was. Set against plain white walls and black & white photographs was a man oblivious to his surroundings but focused on God. I took a picture of him discreetly; it was probably not the right thing to do because I might be intruding in his space but I couldn’t help myself.
The Darat Al Funun villas also have remains of an early Byzantine church, and a lovely courtyard sheltered by trees (and particularly, a jacaranda tree in bloom!) serving as a café with sweeping views of the hills and Downtown Amman.
Turning left out of the top gate of Darat Al Funun and a short walk ahead on the same street are L’Weibdeh’s other artistic centres. On that day, the Makan Art Space was closed while the entrance to Dar Al Anda was open but there wasn’t anyone around. These centres are venues to stage informal concerts, film screenings, workshops and other art events. Their opening hours vary, so if you are interested to check out their events, please refer to their websites for more information.
If mainstream art is more of your liking, then the National Gallery of Fine Arts is the venue to see works by traditional artists from the Middle East and North Africa. A 15-minute uphill walk from Darat Al Funun, the National Gallery consists of two buildings – one located opposite the other with a garden and children’s playground in between the two buildings.
Here are some of the masterpieces exhibited in the National Gallery:
Interestingly, I came across an artwork by a Malaysian artist, Nirmala Shanmughalingam whose acryclic piece is titled “Beirut”. Am very proud to see a masterpiece here by one of our very own!
After 3 hours of art and very much needed exercise (walked up and down the slopes of L’Weibdeh while searching for the National Gallery), I took a short taxi ride to Rainbow Street in Jabal Amman. Ammanis come to Rainbow Street to hang out at the cafes, espresso bars, restaurants and galleries to see and to be seen.
I alighted from the taxi at the start of Rainbow Street and walked along the length of the street. To be honest, the main thoroughfare isn’t that exciting but I would highly recommend to explore the side avenues and alleys as that’s where I found a charming bookshop-cum-cafe Books@Café, a print gallery Jacaranda Images and more quirky art.
Incidentally, I also stumbled upon a Books and Crafts fair, part of the Jabal Amman Cultural Week launched that weekend. The atmosphere was quite festive – some youngsters were dancing to Arabic pop music while others browsed the stalls of books, crafts, traditional dresses, jewellery and food. I even had a taste of Syrian dessert!
I had such an enjoyable day – my first day in Jordan – in search of the arts in Amman. It wasn’t an intense day of sightseeing but at a leisurely pace which was what I needed as I had only arrived in Amman earlier in the morning.
I’m glad that Amman is promoted for its contemporary arts and living. Not only it gives respite for travellers from all that sightseeing of ancient cities and desert trails but also provides a glimpse into the modern, vibrant and progressive society of Jordan.
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