Story of a City: The Intrahistory of Amman

Story of a City: The Intrahistory of Amman

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

If you are one of those people who were born and raised in Amman, if you enjoy walking the streets of the old city or sipping coffee at dusk on the terraces overlooking Downtown, if you have ever prayed with the masses at Al-Hussaini Mosque one Friday noon, or enjoyed a peaceful stroll just before sunset down the narrow street passing the old church in Luwaibdeh, if you are one of the many people who knew the streets of Amman and felt recognized by those very streets like no any other place on earth, then you might be interested in more than what history books may offer.

Probably, all of us have heard stories from our grandparents about things that happened long before we were born. You might have heard names like “Abu Musa El-msahharaty” or “El hajjeh Aisheh”. Names that, more likely than not, wouldn’t make it to history books. Stories you probably wouldn’t read about in any school book. Stories of ordinary people and common places that hold of memories and stories more than any historian could choose to reveal. And when those stories find their way into written accounts, they earn the name of the ever bypassed “Intrahistory”. Thanks to people like Abd Al-Rahman Munif, some of Amman’s Intrahistory wasn’t gone undocumented.

Munif, who was born in Amman in 1933 for a Saudi father and an Iraqi mother. He’d lived in Amman until 1952 when he went to pursue his studies in Baghdad. 37 years later, he decided to go back to Amman and document the period of his life that was spent there. But his documentation wasn’t so much an autobiography as much as it was a biography of the city itself, telling the story of a city through the eyes of then an ordinary boy, who grew up in it, and with it.

Munif starts with a beautiful introduction about the relation between the people and the place. He says that the place doesn’t necessarily mean the geographical space, but rather the people and circumstances that existed in that place and made it what it was. He talks about the significance of memories and their relation to people and places. He makes it clear that memory is not an impartial thing, and that no matter how hard you try, memory could be very deceptive and subjective. But then, there are things we remember and we choose to share with people for different reasons that may not necessarily be of an interest to those people as much as it they are to us. He also makes it clear that the book is in no way a documentation of Amman’s history in facts and numbers, but rather an account that tells about the city from the perspective of a person who lived in that place at that time, and thought it would be useful to “tell” how things were as he saw them.

The story starts with the death of King Ghazi that cast a pall over the city, but at the same time pushed young Munif along with many others to venture out of the realm of their small neighborhoods, and explore the city like they’d never done before. He goes on to describe the people in his immediate surroundings, like Muath, the boy next door with whom who ventured outside the neighborhood for the first time, and his Iraqi grandmother who found it strange that people didn’t understand her Iraqi accents sometime and wondered why they didn’t speak the same accent, unlike his mother who struggled to fit in. He then proceeds to describe in rich detail a whole set of real characters like Hajjah Anisa, the midwife, Dr. Theodore Zureikat, the former consul who wore eccentric clothes, Dr. Qasim Malhas and the Armenian doctor who were both highly respected and close to people due to their modesty and dedication. He tells about Um Ali, who waited eagerly for Eid like little children, only she had different reasons, since Eid for her was the time to visit the graveyard and spend hours weeping and grieving. There’s also Um Issa, who was said to have never laid eyes on a man ever since her husband passed away, and who was known to treat women for sterility. And of course there’s Um Ahmad, the oldest woman in Amman back then, who lived in Khirfan street and greeted the passers-by affectionately and with best wishes. A strong friendship grew between her and Abd Al-Ra’uof Mango, who run a non-periodic newspaper and found in his conversations with the elderly the perfect way to wrap up his stories. He talks about the most common characters like Saeed, the janitor at the ISCS who many times hoisted the flag upside down due to his color-blindness. He talks at length about different teachers at different schools, such as Yaqoub Hashim, the math teacher who was known, or at least heard of, by everyone in Amman, and who was a very simple person even though he was the PM’s brother.

But it’s not only about the people; places also have their fair share of stories in the book. Like the much dreaded Quarantine Center that was only used whenever an epidemic hit the country. Otherwise it would be eclipsed by a dusty public park that few people would notice it. He vividly describes his elementary school, Al-Abdaliyyeh, and describes the first day of the school year there when everyone looked different: the teachers, the students and even the janitor, and the black boards that would still have the scribbles that were done by the students on the last day of the previous semester. And since it was the 1940s, it’s almost inevitable to try and make the readers visualize the Roman amphitheatre when it was packed with Ammanites on special occasions, and where all people would be welded together regardless of their race or the language they spoke.

Moreover, he speaks at length and in great detail about fashion and clothing in Amman back then and the social and ideological dimensions associated with them. One might be surprised how elaborately he talked about the “Tarboosh” and how the way people wore it said a lot about their attitudes and personalities. He describes the gowns that were worn by elderly woman in Fuhais and the traditional costumes Circassian used to wear and how they later became something from the past that is also used to preserve their heritage. He then smoothly moves to describing the great diversity in Amman, and how the different races and ethnicities lived and worked together in harmony, because the challenges and problems that needed solutions were too many to leave time for bigotry and secterianism.

Munif also talks about death and the impact it had on the city, how it intrigued children and brought people together. He describes the sentiments that prevailed whenever there was a funeral in town and draws a somehow morbid yet solemn picture of how those funerals were. He talks about the death of some well-known public figures, like Hamdi Mango, Majid Al-Odwan and the tragic death of the young football player Hani AlJuqqa. On the other hand, he talks about the death of one Ahmad Ismail, the pale, scrawny child who would walk in the freezing cold from Al-Muhajireen to Al-Abdaliyyeh, and whose death struck the ever wondering children like a bolt from the blue, and left them with more unanswered questions.

Munif, who had a memorable childhood in Amman, talks at length about children’s pastimes and the ways they came up with to always have something new and interesting to do. From flying kites, to making cars out of wood and metal, to playing with marbles and hunting lizards, bats and even hornets, which got them into trouble sometimes. Coming home from school was a chance to have some fun too. They would stop by the shops where knives and scissors are sharpened to marvel at the process, or stop by Al-Safadi Bookshop to take a look at the books that never changed, or the only gas pump in Amman back then in the middle of Prince Faisal Street. Sometimes they would join the crowd teasing Sheeta, the poor, mentally challenged woman who roamed the streets of Amman restlessly, covered up in layers of ragged clothes.

Being a book about Amman in the late 1930s and the 1940s, it was inevitable to speak about war and the toll it took on the people of Amman. Things became pretty tight during World War II that people started selling their belonging or swapping them to the point that some people took the wool out of their pillows and mattresses and sold it to cover their needs. This later led to the emergence of used clothes markets, commonly known as “Baleh” for the first time in Amman, in 1942. People were perplexed to see clothes of such quality sold for such cheap prices, since the custom was that clothes weren’t thrown away until they were completely worn out. But little by little, this market flourished and seemed to have grown on people.

The radio was the main source of news during the war. Radios back then were big and expensive so they weren’t available except for the few who could afford it. People would gather at the house where the radio was and they would listen to the banned Berlin Radio, taking the necessary precautions of watching out for any police patrol passing by the area, and using pseudonyms for those whose mention could get them in trouble, such as Hitler who was “Abu Ali” and Stalin who was “Abu Yaqoub”. Sometimes as he narrates those events, he would stop at some point and say: “What happened next was recorded in history,” emphasizing that this wasn’t the point of this book.

He talks about some prominent political figures during the war, such as the much-despised Glubb Pasha, or as he was known by Jordanians back then, Abu Hunaik, who was living in luxury while Jordanian people lived off selling their belongings. He talks about his yard that he filled with “love birds”, describing that as a desperate attempt to gain the sympathy of any living creature as he failed to gain that of human beings. Along with that goes stories on patriotism, nationalism, political activity and journalism.

He also talks about the floods of 1943, how people stayed at their homes and waited anxiously for the rain to stop, and how his grandmother told them the story of Noah’s Ark, a flawed version of the story that included some strange and exaggerated details. He describes the situation on the heels of the flood. Houses were destroyed, shops were drowned, the whole city looked so fragile like a loaf of bread soaked in water or a gown immersed in mud, as he describes it in his own words. Nonetheless, despite the looming morbidity and sadness in the air, the city took on a colorful look as women took out the rain-soaked blankets and furniture to dry up in the sun. There was a prevailing attitude of looking forward to what was next and letting go of what had already happened, as everyone put their act together to repair the damages and rebuild their city.

Munif then goes on with pages and pages of captivating description of the city on the different occasions and seasons of the year. One time it’s summer harvest, other times it’s Ramadan, Eid, the festivities on the Independence day and even the less pleasant events like the grasshoppers infestation of 1949. On the other hands, Munif draws a meticulous image of the agonies of the 1940s and their impact on the city. The 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, the 1948 Catastrophe and all the disappointments and scars that they caused. But it’s only towards the end of the book that Munif reveals his objectives, which are summed up in the importance of reflecting on past events and reading between the lines to pinpoint the mistakes that had been made and hopefully avoid making those same mistakes in the future. He also states that having a clear picture of how the society was back in those days could be a way to know what we’re missing in the present.

Munif might have given us an idea of how Amman was in the 1940s, but he reiterates at the end that it’s not the places, the events or even the people that make the city. It’s rather the interaction between all of these elements that gives the city its distinctive identity, and the unmistakable image in the minds and hearts of those who were once, and will always stay, a part of it.

One response

  1. Pingback: 4 Years of THIS « Cinnamon Zone

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