The Only Way is Amman
The tunnel remains hidden.
The first two weeks of september coincided with the 15th Amman International Book Fair. Located in ‘Sports City’, a seemingly innocuous area that contains not only a gym, a football stadium and various swimming pools but also the suspiciously named Anti-Corruption Commission, the Ministry of the Interior and a building which is, in all appearances, a nuclear research facility.
The Fair consisted of a vast marquee covering stands from all over the arab world and their varying piles of books. Ranging from beautifully published arabic novels and religious texts to bilingual (arabic/english) versions of some Penguin Classics. Not forgetting an entire stall dedicated to the works of Agatha Christie translated into arabic.
A strong presence by the Saudi Arabian cultural delegation meant the experience was a win-win for fans of monarchs called Abdullah. As well as a surprise appearance from the University of Damascus, a reminder of the strong cultural significance of that ancient city. After much deliberation over an arabic edition of Sherlock Holmes, I gave in and bought an arabic children’s book about the solar system, naturally. It has just the right ratio of pictures to words to be manageable.
However, the majority of stands served up an array of text books and dictionaries.This makes sense in a culture where engineering or medicine are considered the holy grail of education. A degree in either is considered by some to be the sixth pillar of Islam.
It has been said by someone somewhere that Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads. The uncensored version of this was far less snappier and concluded ‘and Amman has many roundabouts’. But it should now be extended to recognise Amman’s effort in promoting literature through its many free cultural events.
For example, at the same time as the Book Fair was the seventh Hakaya storytelling festival. An Amman based project to promote writing and the sharing of tales. The aim of Hakaya (meaning story in Jordanian arabic) is to bring together artists from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan (and more) to inspire literacy and inter-cultural understanding.
A footnote to that potently pretentious phrase above should include ‘and the Emirates award’. Since 2007, Abu Dhabi has been handing out the yearly Arab Booker prize for fiction. The 2014 winner was Ahmed Saadawi with his supernatural novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, set amongst the suicide bombings and turmoil of 2005. As much a statement about his country’s situation, the story follows a man who has created a living being from collected human remains.
An exciting prospect for fans of fantasy and sci-fi although with no english translation currently available. Bloomsbury Qatar have just finished translating the 2010 winner She Throws Sparks by Abdo Khal. Better get on with that degree then.
Those who think Arabia and Sci-Fi have no connection, look no farther then King Abdullah II of Jordan and his cheeky cameo on a Star Trek episode – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kmut6FJ1d4M. Not to mention his plans to build a Star Trek theme park in Aqaba (due to open this year…apparently). And a strong tradition of arabic story telling once again producing works of speculative fiction that hark back to the classic One Thousand and One Nights (dude, magic carpets).
And يتخيلون (the League of Arab Scifiers), whose aim is to stimulate the writing and reading of science fiction in the arabic language. Whether or not this will inspire the next wave of arab scientists and reignite the Golden Age of Arab Science – advancements made in the 8th to 13th centuries (from trigonometry and medicine to astrology and algebra). Or create a generation of dreamers with ideas for the future either to implement in real life or weave into more tales for the next batch. Check out http://yatakhayaloon.com/EN/HWJN_English.html
Visit the Royal Film Commission to witness the amount of money being poured into promoting Jordanian cinema. A room full of comfortable booths, each with their own Apple Mac computer and a library stocked full of Middle-Eastern, North-African and other films (most have subtitles).
Introducing: Mohammad, Ammans resident expert on Stanley Kubrick films. Make sure to mention your appreciation of Dr. Strangelove and the expertise of Peter Sellers (‘he played three parts you know!). Pick a film, or let Mohammad recommend one and submerge. You might even learn some new dialectal vocab too. What fun.
Jordanian films Transit Cities and When Monaliza Smiled are beautiful and give a glimpse at current issues facing Jordanians. Giving character to a city written off by many as a cross between materialist America and conservative Saudi Arabia.
Coming soon: The Jordanian/British film Theeb (wolf) which is currently sweeping up awards on the film festival circuit. Described as a ‘bedouin western’, it is set in the Wadi Rum desert during WW1. Complete with a native bedouin cast, well, apart from Jack Fox who is the epitomé of englishness (cousin of Emilia to Silent Witness fans).
Behind the Film Commission is a strong candidate for a place on the top 5 best spots to sit and stare in contemplation. What’s the point of it all? Are there really more cats here than humans? And oh there goes another military cargo plane. Weekly film nights are held at the open air cinema, screening everything from Arab and Venezuelan to Laurel and Hardy. During the day its free to come and perch, but you need to pay a few dollar for the screenings (unless you are a member).
These cultural drives in fields like film and literature have been declared by the government as tools to protect young people from falling into extremism. Like learning fact through fiction.
This idea is definitely being pushed around Amman, although mainly centred around the hip, western districts like Rainbow Street. Whereas the lads I spoke to in neighbouring Zarqa complained of the lack of affordable literature and ignorance of any home-grown film production. I sincerely hope this years budget goes more towards the Jordan-wide advertising of films and literature, rather than on updated Apple products. No matter how chic these might be, Jordanian creativity has a lot to offer the world.
The best source of information on life here has been http://beamman.com. A website I found whilst looking up tips on how to be more masculine. But instead it consistently provides info on events, restaurants, cafes and concerts, with articles and photos that wet an appetite ready to explore more of what this city’s 19 hills have to offer.