Victoria Aitken tackles street directions (‘Left past the cat!’) in one of the most fascinating, dangerous parts of the Middle East.
Amman is the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Unlike most Middle East countries which are full of oil, Ferraris and Starbucks it offers a fascinating history.
Modernised by its last two kings – Hussein and Abdullah – it’s also home to the famous Queen Noor Bridge. It’s not really a walking town – but the very few people I spotted through my car window, wore the Palestinian black scarf or the Jordanian red.
When I arrived at my hotel (The Kepinski in Shmeisani) I went through the tightest security I’ve ever experienced, partly due to the attacks on Amman in 2005. As my car pulled towards the hotel they checked for bombs under the car and we also had to brave security spikes and various metal detectors before entering the lobby.
At first glance Amman doesn’t seem so beautiful because from a hilltop it looks like a mass of the same style stone houses. It’s not lack of architectural imagination but the easy availability of that particular white stone – which keeps in the heat when it’s cool, and the temperature low when it’s hot.
Amman is laid out on seven circles. Givine someone directions to meet you can be a nightmare because there’s no real such thing as an address – and it’s not well signposted. Your directions may well sounds like this – “It’s left past the cat, then right to the old man on the corner, then take your third right.”
Neither the bus schedule nor any clearly marked bus stops are on hand, so you may find yourself waiting vaguely for transport until a bus goes past and you end up waving hopefully.
Each circle around Amman is very different. Balad, which is just above the valley, is the only place to buy the best fabrics and Bedouin dresses. Jabal is the residential area, and Amman East is where the many of the Palestinian refugee camps are.
I went with a friend to Withihad, the biggest refugee camp where 2 million Palestine people live – almost one third of the population. It was unbelievably poor.
On another note, the Citadel (Jabal al-Qal’a) has amazing views – it is near Garden Street in Shmeisani, where most shops are.
Music seems to play from everywhere there – and also downtown, you will find the museum (full of modern art) right near the King Abdullah mosque.
The other good shopping area is in Hussein Mountain and in Sweifieh you will find many non-European boutiques. Arabic music (beautiful!) can be heard everywhere.
If you’re invited to a restaurant, or to dinner, don’t reject Jordanian hospitality – accept everything, or else there will be trouble!
A great Shisha bar to explore is the Khuttar restaurant, owned by The Voice Of Iraq – Ilham Al Madfai’s son.
Khuttar is actually the name of one of Ilham’s own songs. Another restaurant to try is Vinaigrette, which has the most amazing view, on top of Metropole Hotel.
You may also want to consider restaurants like Ren Chai, Nai and Fakhr El-Din (Arabic food). As for night life, there are many bars in Balad, which are all fun. My friend Zeina Durra, a famous film maker (Seventh Dog is her award-winning film) showed me around these, together with another film maker friend, responsible for Salt of the Sea. Amman also has a new film school too – it’s well worth a trip if you are making your way around the Middle East.