?What is Behind the Abdali Market Move

November 26, 2014
abdali market

By Richard Cozzens

In early October 2014, the tension over the fate of the Friday Market in the Abdali district of Amman came to a climax. Some market vendors refused to dismantle their stands on Friday the 10th, the final night of the Market in its long-standing location. Gendarmerie forces arrived to clear the protesters and their stands with tear gas and bulldozers. The following night protests and clashes continued in the Hay al-Tafayila neighborhood, resulting in the arrest of 28 people, most of whom are still detained and who have been charged with multiple terrorism-related offences in the state security court.

Abdali marketA sign announcing the move to Ras al-Ain (right), and another one put up by vendors declaring “loyalty” to the king.

These events brought renewed attention to the controversy over the Abdali Market, which has been in the news since August when the Municipality announced its final plan to move the Market to an alternative site. Municipality press releases praised the merits of the new location and described alternate plans for the Abdali site. Stand owners and market workers “rejected the decision in form and in substance,” staging vigils and raising banners to make their case that the move would “cut off the livelihoods of thousands of workers.”

Media coverage has focused on the discussion of the relative merits of the two market sites, in addition to controversies over the nature and fate of the protesters. This focus has overlooked the move as part of a wider project on the part of the Municipality.  According to Municipality official Basem Tarawneh, the removal of the popular market from Abdali is just one part of an effort to eliminate or systematize all of the “informal selling” across the city. This effort, in turn, is just one piece of the Municipality’s “comprehensive plan” to “reorganize, rehabilitate, reorder, and clean up” the capital.

The Abdali Market controversy highlights different visions for the future of Amman and raises deep questions about how development happens and who controls the decision-making process.

The current decision and its aftermath

The current effort to move the Market from Abdali began in mid-August 2014, with an announcement by Ahmad Al-‘Abeini, the Director of the Department of Clearing and Informal Selling at the Municipality. He announced a meeting at which all concerned parties could discuss “extent of the suitability for holding the market,” and mentioned the campaign to remove stands from “various areas in Amman.” This report includes the Municipality’s description of informal stands as “an assault on the sidewalks and streets.”

In August, multiplemeetings were held between Market vendors and various officials. The Municipality, in meetings and in public appearances through September, insisted on its decision to move the Market, announced the new site in Ras al-Ain, and described their plans for the future of the Abdali site. Vendors expressed their strong opposition to the move, complained of the severe inadequacy of the new location, and predicted a negative impact on the families supported by the Market.

Abdali market 2“Our families and the livelihood of our children is more rightful than any project on earth”.

The debate over the new market site

On 24 August, a week after the decision was announced, the Municipality announced the new location for the Market, a lot on the Muhajirin intersection in Ras al-Ain, emphasizing that it had “all the factors for success.”  The touted benefits of the new location included its accessibility to major roads, the presence of parking, and amenities currently lacking in Abdali such as a health center and a security presence.

Abdali 3A map sign showing the location of the new market in Ras al-Ain.

In interviews conducted during September, Abdali Market vendors expressed their opposition to the proposed site. They perceived the location as less central and lacking the foot-traffic present at Abdali. Most importantly, the new site was too small: according to vendor claims, only about 400 stands would fit in the Ras al-Ain location, while about 1300 stands fit in the Abdali location.

مقارنة لحجمي سوق العبدلي وسوق راس العين عبر Google EarthA map showing the difference in size between the two market locations. Photo taken from Google Earth.

Vendors estimate that between 3,000 and 4,000 families are supported by the Market stands alone, a figure that does not include those who work peripherally to the Market such as drivers and snack vendors.  Vendors perceive the Municipality’s decision to move them to a smaller market as a unilateral “cutting off of livelihoods.”

Clothes vendors in the Abdali Market bought their goods on credit from bulk traders who had purchased shipments from the international used clothes market. Because winter had been the most lucrative season in Abdali, vendors predict that if they are unable to find an adequate space in the new location (or if the new location is not successful) they will be imprisoned for debts to the traders. When asked to respond to the possibility that the move of the Market would cut off people’s livelihoods, member of Parliament Amer al-Bashir responded by questioning whether market vendors have, in fact, been getting wealthy from the Abdali market. “Do they own one stand or 100 stands?”, he said, emphasizing that only some people “are the original rights’ holders. … Not everyone who came to the market has the right to be there.”  Municipality official Basem Tarawneh similarly dismissed concerns about vendors’ livelihoods, noting in response that many workers are Syrians and Egyptians “who do not have a right to a place in the new market,” and that any vendor who owns multiple stands would not be allowed to work in Ras al-Ain.

Developing the Abdali site?

In August and September, the Municipality began to talk  about what they planned to do with the site that the Market has occupied. According to nearby business proprietors, there has been discussion of developing this site – without progress – since at least 2007, when the Abdali Bus Terminal was moved.

abdali 4“The problem of the fast train is not more important than the livelihood of our children”.

Possibilities for the space cited in Municipality press releases included improving the existing parking lot, creating a public transit terminus, and building a new municipality administration building. By October, however, a Municipality press release acknowledged that there were in fact no plans for new construction at the Abdali site, and that the site would become a parking lot where citizens headed to Downtown could park their cars.

When asked to provide details about the plans for the Abdali Market site, Basem Tarawneh, Deputy Director for Districts and Environmental Affairs at the Municipality, said that the Municipality is still “discussing the options” for the site, confirming that there is no specific plan besides rehabilitating the parking lot. Mr. Tarawneh acknowledged that Abdali does not fit into the master plan for the long-delayed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. When asked whether the newly inaugurated downtown shuttle bus service would be extended to the Abdali site in order for people to park their cars and ride downtown, he merely responded, “God willing.”

Since the forced removal of the protesting vendors from the Abdali site on 10 October, the Municipality has undertaken work there, repaving certain areas, demolishing structures, and re-tiling the sidewalks. A sign was installed, visible to drivers headed Downtown, confirming that citizens should have limited expectations for the near-term future of this site: “Project to Rehabilitate the Abdali Parking Lot.” Shifting plans, alongside the acknowledgement that the site will remain a parking lot, suggest that announcements about plans for a new building in Abdali (announced weeks after the decision to move the Market) were part of an effort to publicly justify the decision, rather than a reason for the move.

Arguments over legitimacy of Market and its vendors

Another aspect of this debate has centered on the legitimacy of the Market itself, which has expanded in size since its beginnings in the 1980s and especially since the move of the bus terminal from the site in 2007. The Municipality has publicly described the majority of stand owners as “newcomers” who do not have a right to a spot at the Market, emphasizing that only those with the proper papers are eligible for spots in the new market.

The Municipality used to collect fees from vendors for the right to sell in the Market, but this practice was cancelled in 2011. In a September public meeting at the House of Representatives, Market vendors and members of parliament argued over whether this fact gave the current market legitimacy. Amer Al Bashir, Member of Parliament and Head of the Public Services and Transportation Committee, told vendors that the burden of proving their legitimacy in the market was upon them, and that the Municipality only had a list of 165 names of legitimate market sellers. Vendors claimed that this list was long obsolete, and that the Municipality had charged fees from a much higher number of them as late as 2011.

Why didn’t the municipality take measures to remove the Market much earlier or at least since its 2007 expansion?  By cancelling vendor fees in 2011, did the Municipality not grant tacit approval of the Market?  According to Mr. Tarawneh of the Municipality, Market fees were cancelled in 2011 due to “higher national interests.”  When asked for clarification, Mr. Tarawneh made vague references to “the days of the Arab Spring” but declined to go into further details.

Mr. Tarawneh questioned the fundamental legitimacy of most of those who sell in the Abdali Market, stating that he would guarantee that every stand owner in Abdali could have a stand in the new market with two conditions. First, only Jordanian citizens (not Egyptians or Syrians) would be allowed to register for stands in Ras al-Ain; second, each stand owner would only be given a single stand in Ras al-Ayn to eliminate the phenomenon of individuals managing more than one stand.

abdali 5

To the Municipality, when vendors rent out their stands, it is a denial of their claim to the Market. This relies on a definition of a sha’bi market (a folk market or people’s market) as essentially a refuge for the very poor. By this logic, if a vendor has enough resources to supply more than one stand and receives rent from its operator, this takes away his right to sell in in a “poor man’s” market. Through discussions with Market vendors before the close of the Market, it was clear that there existed a variety of economic levels among Market workers, including youth who staffed a stand for just a shift or two and bosses who owned – or at least held influence over – multiple stands. To the Municipality and other critics of the market, the practice of owning multiple stands is a form of exploitation and mafia-like control. To the vendors, they are traders trying to make a livelihood and it is natural that some have resources to supply multiple stands while others do not.

Eliminating “informal selling” across Amman

The Municipality’s most consistent explanation for moving the Abdali Market is identifying this move as part of their wider campaign, underway since 2013, to eliminate sidewalk stands and informal selling across the city.

In December 2013, Amman mayor Akel Biltaji announced a decision to close down the Abdali Market on one of its open days. After protests by vendors, Biltaji gave the vendors a “respite” of three months as long as they adhered to certain conditions of cleanliness and promptness.”  The mayor “confirmed that the Municipality is exploring alternatives to the problem of the stands and informal selling in various areas of the capital,” threatening to “hold the violators accountable.”  This language suggests that the fundamental problem for the Municipality has been the stands themselves, not particulars of the Abdali site.

Mr. Tarawneh, speaking in October, criticized the media focus on the Abdali Market, asking the public to view this move as just one part of a “comprehensive plan” for improving Amman. “Eliminating informal selling” will support the municipality’s goals of easing traffic, beautifying and developing the city. In similar language, an August press statement from the Municipality called on stand owners to cooperate with the move to “develop and organize the city in a way that will please all.”

To the Municipality, informal selling is an “assault on the sidewalks and the streets” and a major impediment to vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Mr. Tarawneh attributed the “choking traffic jams” that happen nearby Abdali to the presence of the Market, and compared the move to other efforts (such as the renovation of 7th Circle) that aim to lessen traffic.

As part of the effort to “re-organize and clean up the city,” the decision to move Abdali implicates the Market’s appearance, in the form of its organization and cleanliness. Municipality statements explicitly mention the appearance of the Market as a problem, as when Biltaji called on stand owners to “do their part for the city by showing its appropriate and civilized appearance.”

A number of the stand owners responded to this reasoning forcefully. One stand owner, interviewed at the Market in one of its final evenings, explained how the call for a more “civilized” appearance puts them in an impossible bind: “It is called a sha’bi (folk or people’s) market,” he explained while gesturing at Market stands, “it has to look like this.”  Other stand owners described the Market as “historical” and as “one of the prominent landmarks of Amman,” adopting language of official legitimacy in their arguments for their continued presence.

abdali 6

One stand owner who identified himself as Ibrahim accused the Mayor of focusing on their appearance as a reason to get rid of them: “He [Biltaji] came in saying he wants to make Amman’s appearance “civilized” and “historical;” by that he means the way we look. … They want to put us in a place with a wall around it so that no one can see us in there. He wants people — people from outside who don’t like our appearance — to come to Amman. I don’t think they [the Municipality] will put anything here to replace us … his [Biltaji’s] main concern is to get rid of the people here.”

Referring to previously announced plans to build a multi-story market building near the Mahatta Bus station, Mr. Tarawneh explained that the long-term goal of the Municipality is to move all of the sha’bi markets, sidewalk stands and informal kiosks from across the entire city to this single building. Regardless of the dubious feasibility of this plan, it indicates a desire to contain – and perhaps even to hide – these markets, without an examination or understanding of why they exist in the places that they do.

What is the future of the market?

For a month after the forcible removal of the Abdali stands by the Gendarmerie, no vendors appeared and there was no market in Abdali or Ras Al-Ain.

On 24 October, a municipality employee watched over the Ras Al-Ain market site as a trickle of curious visitors wandering through the empty lots. He expressed his personal skepticism that the market would ever succeed in the new location. “I don’t think the Abdali stand owners will come here, and even if other people sign up for stands, it will not work out for them.”  Pointing to the numbered stands of Ras al-Ain, less than a quarter of the size of the stands in Abdali, he explained his view that this was not enough space to sell and make a living. “It was a wrong decision.”

ras al ain market

On 13 November, the Ras al-Ain market opened for a test run, but was closed again the following week.  By the end of November, the Municipality had announced that the process to distribute stall spaces was ongoing and confirmed that there would be strict conditions for admittance into the new market site: only Jordanians who were previously registered at the Abdali site and who pass a security screening can work there.  The announcement that spaces would be distributed by lot confirms that some former vendors would not find a space in the new market.

Visions for the future of Amman

Behind the controversy over the Abdali Market lies a wider question of visions for the future of Amman. Municipality officials see the removal of informal selling from Abdali and elsewhere as a necessary step forward in the development and beautification of capital. Mr. Tarawneh, specifically noting the “chaotic and informal stands, kiosks, and stores,” cited the lack of “orderliness” in Amman as the primary factor that got the capital onto a recent list of the world’s ten ugliest major cities. An Abdali vendor, speaking in frustration after a fruitless meeting with Parliamentary representatives, responded forcefully to this kind of reasoning about the Market: “They say they want to make Amman beautiful, but the beauty of the city is in its sellers — the beauty of the city is in its people!”

abdali 7“We, the people of Amman, represent its history and culture”, (left). “Abdali market is an outlet for the people of Amman, especially the ones with limited income”, (right).

As the Municipality sets out to polish Amman’s image in the model of the glimmering but still empty New Abdali Development (just one kilometer down the road Market’s site), what will happen to those who are excluded from this Gulf-style variety of beautification?  Official dismissal of the concerns of the vendors in the process to move the Abdali Market (and other sha’bi markets around the city) has resulted in increased bitterness and frustration on the part of market workers, if not the destruction of their livelihoods. The Municipality, describing itself as defending sidewalks against the “aggression” of the stands and kiosks, has in fact itself launched an aggression against those who make their livings at the margins of the informal economy.

More important than the questions about the future of the Market is the question of what will happen to the people of the Market: what will become of the indebted vendors?  What will happen to the Syrians and Egyptians, excluded from the new site and unable to work legally? And where will the Ammanis, who had previously flocked to the Abdali Market each week, go to clothe their families affordably?

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