A View from the Citadel
For several generations of Europeans, having experienced such a prolonged period of peace and integration, the Middle-East is currently witness to a degree of war and chaos that is difficult to comprehend. Syria is currently embroiled in its fifth year of civil war, a conflict of such complexity that a resolution is nowhere to be seen. The refugee crisis that has led so many people to seek sanctuary within the European Union (EU) has led to very little practical solution and a clear risk of division. Israel and Palestine continue to be embroiled in an age-long dispute over land and faith. In Iraq, a war caused in large part by unsought US and UK involvement, has torn apart a once proud nation and left it at the whim of extremists who have helped to delude the rest of the world into believing that every Muslim wants to kill them. Saudi Arabia continues to benefit from the UK's unethical arms trade and Turkey, with ambitions to join the EU itself, was recently the victim of a failed coup attempt. This resulted in the death of many innocent people and the Turkish government's response has led to alleged Human Rights abuses.
At the centre of all of this, Jordan, a country of just 89,341 km2, finds itself by comparison, a relative beacon of peace and hope in the region. Amman, the capital of Jordan, has seen it's population rise by more than four million since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The impact is continuing to strain resources and services in the city and they continue to seek help from the wider international community. The result is a bustling city that is currently projected to become one of the great financial centres of the Middle-East, along with Dubai and Doha. The Citadel rises above Amman, on top of one of its longest inhabited hills (or jabal). Known in Arabic as Jabal al-Qal'a it is one of the original seven jabals that Amman was built on. Tourists ostensibly come here to view the relics of several ancient civilisations, including from the Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad periods. However, the lasting impression is that of Amman's expansion into a vast swarming cityscape. To stand here as an outsider is to feel suddenly dwarfed by the people who have lived here, mesmerised by the accomplishment of building something so grande in such an apparently inhospitable environment. In each direction, north, south, east and west, the city has swept across the desert, and nothing is now clearly visible except countless square buildings, rising and falling amongst the 19 jabals that Amman now occupies. The building materials used seem intrinsically part of the environment so it somehow feels like the desert has simply grown into these strange shapes and it is only the occasional skyscraper that betrays any sense of the modern city that Amman is.
Standing at the very centre of the jabal, the Temple of Hercules (AD 162 - 166) is an imposing presence. Walking along the temple's south facade its original scale is apparent, despite much of it having now collapsed. The south expanse of the jabal also offers viewing platforms that allow you to observe the city below. Immediately visible amongst the shops and homes known as 'Downtown' is a very well preserved Roman Amphitheater. It would be a mistake to visit one without the other as they are both representative of this Roman period. Upon ascending the ampitheater's steps you will turn around to a superb view of the jabal, yet more of these square and densely packed homes and shops covering its facade. High to the north-west you will be able to glimpse the temple itself beckoning you towards it. On the north of the temple is the Jordanian Archaeological Museum. It is worth visiting the museum as it offers a useful timeline to help contextualise the remains found at the jabal, ranging from the paleolithic (1,000,000 - 10,000 years ago) to the Ayyubid period. Beyond the museum, on the northern reach of the jabal, you will find the remains of a Byzantine church and an Umayyad palace. The jabal now stands as an epitaph to the merging and changing cultures of the Middle-East over many centuries past.
Modern Amman follows its ancestor's pattern of social diversity, integration and change. In many ways it can bare comparison to modern London, serving as it does as a cultural hub for migration from its neighbours in the MIddle-East. In 2004 the United Nations formally recorded Amman's population as 1.055 million. By 2014 it had risen to 4.007 million. This provides a clear indication of how the region has suffered in the last decade. Amman, and Jordan as a whole, has been a great support to the refugees flooding into it. This has obviously caused much strain on services and this can be seen perhaps most vividly in its often chaotic roads, which authorities do struggle to manage. Public transport is also a problem with there not being near enough taxi or bus services. Jordan has a long history of supporting refugees. Prior to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 Jordan, or Transjordan as it was known at the time, had largely been populated by Bedouin communities. But with the influx of refugees, first in 1948 and later in 1967, Jordan's population has grown exponentially. Culturally much of Jordan is still influenced by this previous refugee crisis. Locals will estimate that more than 70% of the population of Amman is of Palestinian descent and many will take their first opportunity to advise you that they are Palestinian even though they might be second or third generation naturalised Jordanians. They simply perceive themselves as Palestinian-in-exile. Correspondingly you will also meet people with a long ancestral history to the original Bedouins. You might have them in conversation describe themselves as "Jordanian Jordanian" with a wry smile. This Palestine/Israel question continues to be a great political issue at this time, with King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein of Jordan himself recently commenting at the United Nations that Israel needs to accept Palestine or face a "sea of hatred".
As an outsider in Amman the vibrancy and chaos is sometimes overwhelming. It is often the simple cultural differences that are the most difficult though. For example, the exercise of catching the taxi, having to barter with the driver or otherwise simply send him away as the price he wants is too extortionate, is at first entertaining in a slightly presumptious 'look at their strange customs' way. This fun rapidly wares thin though as the sun blares down on you, especially if it is 5pm and there aren't enough taxis on the road. I have personally been turned away by at least two drivers in the same afternoon simply because I was not going in the direction that they were headed. I'm sure you can imagine that after two or three weeks of this the thought of having to catch another taxi is often a daunting one. It is not always such a bad experience though. One Friday afternoon, tired of spending the holy day cooped up in my apartment I decided to go out for a bit of lunch. Eventually the taxi pulled over and after agreeing to turn the meter on (NEVER get in a taxi in Jordan without agreeing this) we set off.
"Rainbow Street please", I asked
"Yes Sir, no problem"
Now, banal taxi conversation is as necessary in Jordan as it is in Wales I'm happy to say. My conversation starter is always the same, and always garners a favourable response, as (1) I am complimenting their city, and (2) I am providing evidence of my efforts to learn their admittedly difficult language. "Amman...jamila".
"Ah thank you. Very kind of you"
"Your English is very good where did you learn?"
"Well yes I spent two year learning English in your country, Britain"
"Ah excellent, what city did you live in? London?" This was a completely reasonable assumption.
"No, no, I learnt in Swansea"
"Are you serious? I'm from Swansea!"
"Ah yes I learn in Tycoch and live in Townhill. I like Swansea very much"
"Unbelievable! I grew up about 10 minutes away from there"
"My cousin, he live there still with his family in Portmead"
Coupled with my return journey with another taxi driver, who insisted on regaling me with more 1980's power ballads than I remember hearing since my Thursday night visits to Jumpin' Jaks in the late 90's, this was a pretty good day. There is nothing quite listening to 'Eye of the Tiger' as you are driven through the chaotic roads of Amman to remind you of how small the world really is.
Rainbow street is an area that every westerner will gratefully discover after spending any kind of prolonged period in Amman. The cultural differences are of course many and it is exhausting having to adapt your behaviours 24/7, so finding somewhere you can feel even slightly at home is very important. Approximately a 10 minute walk from 'Downtown', Rainbow Street is a stretch of road littered with coffee shops, bars, restaurants and books shops. Al Quds must be your first stop, where you can try one of their famous falafal sandwiches. There is a random picture of David Miliband on the wall, so I assume that he visited when he was Shadow Foreign Secretary. Caffe Strada is also one of my regular haunts. Here you can get a decent internet connection and chill out in the air conditioning whilst filling up on some decent coffee. Hearing familiar accents is also beneficial when you're away from home and here you are most likely to hear American accents. Don't always be fooled though. Although, they still teach the British curriculum in Jordan they often teach American English to their students. As such, it is just possible that the person you are listening to is a local, speaking with a strong American accent.
My favourite eatery is Fatari, where you will not find a better fatayer anywhere in Amman. Sitting here, watching the world go by, it would be easy to think you were anywhere else, and that there is nothing to worry about. Jordan hasn't managed to escape entirely unscathed from the violence though. In 2005, a series of three coordinated attacks in hotel lobbies throughout Amman left 60 people dead and over 100 people seriously injured. This has come to be known as Black Wednesday. More recently, Jordan was the victim of two separate attacks, one at a Syrian refugee centre near the border and in another incident a man shot dead six people in a classic lone-gunman scenario. Later, in September 2016, a prominent Jordanian writer, Nahed Hattar, was shot dead outside a court in Amman, where he had been charged with inciting sectarian strife and insulting Islam. The suspect currently awaits trial. The violence has resulted in some unfortunate reminders of the fear that terrorism results in. In the many malls littered throughout Amman you will first have to go through scanners and a body search. These are small intrusions though into what remains a largely peaceful country, despite the challenges that the modern world has thrown at it.
Standing at the very north of Jabal al-Qal'a you can look out at the city, listen to the distant sound of cars and people, take in the smell that only such dry heat can produce, and stare at the Jordanian flag rising above the city, fluttering in the breeze. Behind you, the distant past stands in defiance of time; but in the here and now, there can be no denying that Jordan stands a great chance of rising above these many challenges. In Europe, this challenge has been met with blame, recrimination and empty promises. In Jordan, the same pleas for help have been met with action. Many of the people I have met here are at great pains to show that they are not violent, that they mean you no harm and that they are peaceful people. They live in fear of how they are perceived in the West. They should remember that it was not them who created this chaos and it is not them who are to blame. Whilst the EU tears itself apart, Jordan is managing to find some degree of unity.