Tale of Two Seasons in Jordanian Capital

Amman mixes secular and conservative identities.

Tale of Two Seasons in Jordanian Capital

Amman mixes secular and conservative identities.

A market in downtown Amman. (Photo: Hubert Stoffels/Flickr)
A market in downtown Amman. (Photo: Hubert Stoffels/Flickr)
Tuesday, 21 February, 2012

Amman is a small city whose identity seems to change with the seasons. In summer, it embraces the different cultures of its many visitors and presents a secular face. But that face is concealed with the onset of winter.

The Jordanian capital is a summertime tourist destination, its mountainous geography giving it a moderate climate compared with many cities in neighbouring countries.

The tourist influx is reflected in the varied fashions reflecting the origins of the visitors who flock to Amman’s streets and shopping malls. Muslim and non-Muslim, Arab and non-Arab travellers all share the city during the holiday period.

There are men in long white Arab robes, accompanied by women covered in black from head to toe with only their eyes showing, alongside women with short skirts and bare arms.

But the city’s appearance changes once the tourists leave and the snow and rain arrives. If summer is the season of diversity, then winter can be described as that of conservatism – and is thus probably a more accurate reflection of its inhabitants’ true character.

Amman’s natives are very traditional, keen to keep to their tribal customs and Islamic values in ways that sometimes make them seem distant from the secular image that the city enjoys.

In winter, most of the women you will see on the streets are veiled and modestly dressed, and the men often have long Islamist-style beards.

Conversations with residents throw up surprisingly aggressive attitudes towards the West, America and concepts like democracy and freedom.

One day, I was browsing in a bookshop when a young Jordanian man next to me spotted a book I was holding called “The Arab Spring”, and began railing against the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

“They [the Americans] want our women to cheat on us by bringing democracy into our homes,” he said. “Democracy and all that kind of rubbish are just ideas intended to deceive us.”

Amman, with a population of over two million, is Jordan’s cultural and commercial centre and a hub for business and investment. Large malls housing world-famous brands and fast-food outlets, usually American, can be found all across the city.

Last weekend, after I had taken my four-year son to one of those US-style restaurants, the elderly taxi driver who took us home offered some unsolicited advice.

“Don’t eat in American restaurants, their food is haram [forbidden],” he said, addressing me as “my daughter”.

It was not the first time a taxi journey had resulted in such moral advice. Just few days before Christmas, I was travelling around the city looking for a tree to decorate, even though I am Muslim. My search took me around many of the city’s shopping and garden centres, and en route I encountered several taxi drivers, all of whom gave me similar advice.

“Don’t imitate the infidels,” one of them told me.

Another driver, middle-aged and thickly bearded, said, “You should not celebrate such events; you should celebrate our Prophet’s birthday instead. We don’t need those infidels’ occasions. If you behave like them, then God will punish you, just as He will punish them on Judgement Day.”

In the long dark days of winter, the liberal attitudes of summer seem a very long time away.

I passed a group of three teenagers, a boy and two girls, waiting at a bus stop in the rain and chatting about their plans for the summer. I asked them what Amman would be like in a few months.

“It will be very nice weather,” one of the girls said. “You’ll see an entirely different city”.

Abeer Mohammed is IWPR editor for Iraq.

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