Amman is not a stunningly beautiful city. It is not the sort of city in which you arrive and, after five minutes of sauntering down picturesque streets, find yourself falling madly in love with its urban charm. It is neither a stereotypically ancient and “exotic” Middle Eastern city of narrow alleyways and mysterious markets, nor an imitation of an American metropolis or a European cultural capital.
Amman is a pulse in the middle of a desert; a constantly beating tangle of highways and malls; it is ramshackle houses clinging on to mountainsides; it is dry and dusty and sprawling; it is a haven for the hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples in the region; at night it is a playground for rich men in big cars.
This city is more complex than I will possibly be able to convey here, and undoubtedly more complex than I have yet grasped. It takes time to feel your way around, to discover its multitude of charms alongside its shortcomings. Living here is certainly not without its struggles. There are days when, after waiting for a taxi for over an hour, I will begin walking the eight kilometres between my home and my school, facing harassment as I walk down the highway, only to find when I reach home that the water has run out and it’s colder inside the apartment than out. But somehow in the face of all this, almost without me realising, Amman did it: the city captivated me – it’s a little like loving someone whom you don’t always particularly like.
So here’s the story of how Amman stole my heart:
It all began with the landscape. I can’t pretend there was an immediate attraction. The first thing to understand is that it is dry. Unlike a lot of major cities in the Middle East, Amman is not built on an oasis. This is the desert good and proper. The winds blow dust across the hard ground. There are no rivers or lakes and few plants can survive in this setting. I hadn’t realised how much of a shock this would be for someone who has generally grown up in very wet, green parts of the world. I began to crave trees and rain. The sunlight began to feel oppressive.
The difficulties of the desert, however, are small in comparison to the sense of awe that it inspires, and day by day I found myself loving it more and more. Amman is not a desert in the way that you might imagine. It is a city of mountains: behind the streets the land will cut away into a cliff side, to which more houses cling. The roads weave their way up and down and around the hills. Steep, long and crooked staircases are carved into the hillsides, cutting through courtyards and gardens.
Standing on a hilltop at night, it’s almost as if the city is a sea – the way the lights of the cars rise and fall with the lay of the land, stretching out to the horizon and then petering off as the desert takes over and the houses become few and far between. Turning a corner and being confronted with such a view causes the breath to become caught in my throat, my tummy to turn to butterflies. This is Amman stealing my heart.
The hills had me hooked, but it was the people who drew me in further. It is hard to know what to write here – whom, of all the people who have shown me such kindness, should I choose? The waiter who helps me with my homework? The man who bought me a sandwich to apologise for street harassment? The many people who have invited me into their homes and expected nothing in return? Perhaps the people who have most shaped my experience here have been the family that live in the apartment below me. They invite me for dinner and bring me local foods as presents. The little girls make me origami birds and play with my hair. When I’m ill the mother brings me medicine. When I have difficult days, she comforts me.
The amazing thing about this family is that they are a family of Syrian refugees. They live off coupons given to them by the Jordanian government and the help that the father’s family can afford to give. They have so little yet give so much. This family has had everything taken from them: their house, their jobs, their school. They have not seen their loved ones for years and may never see them again. They watch on the TV as their city, Damascus, becomes rubble. Sometimes when the mother talks to me, I can see how horrendous an ordeal she has undergone. I am so in awe of their humanity that they can be so kind when life has dealt them such a cruel hand.
This family is not alone in Amman in having experienced such pain. Syrian refugees make up one fifth of Amman’s population now, according to the Jordan Times. A still higher proportion of the city’s population is of Palestinian origin. The number of Iraqi refugees here continues to rise. In some ways living somewhere like this is difficult; it is sobering to be constantly reminded of those with so much less than you. Right now it is snowing outside. Sitting by my heater, I have been complaining about having cold toes. I can only imagine how the cold must be piercing the bodies of the more than 100,000 Syrian refugees still living in camps in Jordan.
But however sobering these thoughts may be, the presence of refugees makes you appreciate how special Amman is. For so many people, reaching Amman meant reaching safety – from war, from persecution. Jordan is approaching breaking point; the massive increase in its population has meant that it is now the world’s second most water-deprived country. In spite of this, Amman is not plagued by sectarianism as one might expect. Unlike the UK, it is not plagued by calls to shut the gates, to turn a blind eye to the refugee crisis. This is a city that continues to offer help when so much of the world has ceased to care.
Maybe what I love most, though, is that living in Amman I feel a constant sense of motion. I have the sense that I’m living right on the brink of huge change. This city is never still; everything is in flux. There are so many competing elements seeking to dominate the future: Western movies in the cinema, Lebanese music blasting through the streets, shiny American cars, religious conservatism, religious progressive thought, ISIS lurking nearby. Amman is changing so incredibly quickly. It is fusing these ideas into something of its own. I have no idea how it will move or where it will end up, but being here for the change makes every day exciting.