Written by Edward Stallard
There are certain places we go in life where we get the feeling that somehow we have been there before. The Downtown area of the Jordanian capital Amman is one of those places for me. And it was not until I tried to capture the feeling of the place in words that I realized just quite how much of an effect it has had on my appreciation of the world around me.
Amman, like Rome, sits on several hills. The downtown area, or the Balad to the locals, is a harbored valley between three of these hills in East Amman. I first discovered the Balad in the first week of moving to Amman. Walking one day from my hilltop apartment I found myself leaving my comfortable environment and becoming immersed in an entirely different one, as a scuba diver might paddle from the beach out to the reef.
The crest of the hill I live on is populated by large houses and apartment buildings carefully designed in local stone with small courtyard gardens reminiscent of southern Mediterranean town houses, the type of city garden that is that perfect combination of cool shade in summer and light, personal space in colder months. High walls protect these houses from their neighbors and the inquisitive passer-by can see perhaps just the branch of a palm tree or smell the scent of a flower trellis in summer, nothing more is given away as to how the owners of the houses live or spend their spare time.
The streets are steep in the hills of Amman and in this area they are broad and bright, lined with trees or spotless pavements, the descent is quick by foot and the nature of the buildings changes quickly. These roads are aisled with a warren of shadowed alleyways. Rays of sunlight punch through into their depths beckoning the eye to follow. And the traveler becomes aware of a change in the architecture of the buildings, the lifestyle of the people and the general tone of the area morphs almost completely.
We are reaching the downtown area now, the side paths that snake off from the main streets become the norm here, the Balad itself is a rabbit warren of alleyways and shortcuts peppered with shopkeepers and traffic, and salted by the smells of street food stands. Also spicing the concoction are the many faces of the people from across the vast Arab world and beyond â€“ Sudanese, Sri-Lankan, Pilipino and Bedouin â€“ each of whom has come to live in the Balad, or trade with her merchants.
In the backstreets however, there are faces of a different kind. The cats of the Balad are a joy to watch as they skulk under parked cars, congregate scheming on dumpsters, or just loll and relax in the sunshine. Where as in other cities stray dogs are the norm, here it is gangs of cats who rule. In fact, it is rare to see dogs at all in the city.
So it is that cats have come to dominate the downtown area and the feline whiskered faces peer out at you from corners and cracks wherever you go.
The streets of the Balad are busy and devoted to shops and markets. King Talal Street, named after the Jordanian king who abdicated in 1952 after ruling for just eleven months, is awash with the cries of merchants orally advertising their wares. The pavement separates the rushing traffic from a myriad of shop fronts with signs in calligraphic Arabic, their vendors perched on their wares or drinking mint tea inside.
On your left, youâ€™ll find a spice sellerâ€™s shop is surrounded by open sacks of cardamom beans for seasoning the powerful black Arabic coffee or dried hibiscus flowers for adding to hot water to make a sweet drink that is excellent for upset stomachs. Inside the shop, colored pyramids of powdered spices sit up next to each other on the counter tops, each half a meter in size. To wander past these shops is to be tempted in, to go inside is to inhale the scent that must have greeted locals as the caravans of the ancient spice route arrived in Arabia over two thousand years ago. Simply put, itâ€™s the smell of history.
To the right of the spice sellers is a fabric workshop. Piled up on their ends are hundreds of rolls of differing fabrics, so many that they sometimes form a tunnel down which the customer must walk to conduct business with the family inside.
When I first moved to Jordan I spent many hours in one such shop having a Bedouin style tent made. Mohammed, owner of the shop since the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and patriarch to the young men sitting at the whirring sowing machines around the small shop, told me that if I could draw the design of my tent then he could make it.
Extracting my Arabic notebook I drew a pencil sketch in perspective of my idea, a tent that would fit onto the side of my jeep, Mohammed said he would need to look at the jeep before he could begin. We negotiated prices and I asked him when I should return, casually he replied that tomorrow was good for him. Upon my return the next day I carried away eighteen square meters of tent that had been a sketch on paper the day before.
Crossing over Talal street is the fruit market. Its doorways are small inconspicuous openings up and down the street and to miss them is all too easy. Stooping inside into the darkness and working your way through the people, it takes time to adjust your eyes to the scene. The fruit sellers spread out in a maze of stands all stacked up with fresh vegetables, tomatoes from the South and bananas, oranges or corn from Jordanâ€™s fertile Dead Sea valley, above each vendor hangs a single bare light bulb that illuminates his produce and from all around you come the chants of the merchants:
â€œFour to the dinar, come on people letâ€™s go, four star fruit to the dinar.â€
The stands of the various traders are packed in close quarters and the chants ring out in competition, stirring the crowd up to buy here and not there. The mood is exciting, and if a certain businessman can chant well, he will have an obvious crowd of busy customers all wanting to buy from him and not from others. There is certain warmth here as well, that the street does not have in winter, and it is a simple and healthy pleasure to walk around surrounded by all that freshness and succulence.
Out in the street again, the racket of the cars and buses passing and the brightness of the sunlight makes you wince. The streets stretch far beyond you packed with stalls and vendors busily doing business in the pale winter sunshine; cobblers, pipe sellers, tailors, gold shops and gun shops.
Too much all at once is the theme of the Balad. Now, after smelling spices, visiting the fruit and vegetable market, its time for a small glass of spiced coffee and a rest in a cafÃ© hidden down an alleyway – time to sit down and let the whole show play out before you. The weary traveler can leave this part of Amman but the mind will always play images of the playful liveliness of the people and the cultural richness of life in the Balad.
Edward Stallard teaches English in Amman and is originally from London, England.