In Amman, the capital of Jordan, I enjoy an afternoon in the city’s market, filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the region.
Here, Bedouins from Jordan’s countryside trade and mingle with urbanized Palestinian-Jordanians and the old-guard Jordanian Bedouin elite, from which the Jordanian royal family hails. Around it spreads upscale neighborhoods that boast supermalls, western fast food chains and nightclubs that would not look out of place in Beirut and Tel Aviv.
Omar and I head to a bar in the upscale Abdoun neighborhood. On our way we pass modern cafés and clothing chains, seeing young women with faces caked in make-up, many wearing headscarves but others sporting long, flowing hair and skin-tight jeans. Families crowd ice cream parlors and young men loiter in flashy sports cars, smoking cigarettes and checking out the girls.
The bar itself is very smart. While nightclubs and bars are not new in Amman, their scope and reach are limited. “These bars usually cater to an isolated, generally well off echelon of society who exist outside of the traditional boundaries of the broader Jordanian society,” says Omar. Inside they do not even sell Petra, the local Jordanian beer, so we drink Heinekens as we watch the other patrons. Most are in large groups of friends or even families and tend to stick to themselves. The vibe is more restricted than what can be found a little to the west in neighboring Lebanon and Israel.
Omar takes me to a diwan, a place for both family and guests to mingle, drink coffee and talk. It is a deliberate relic of the old Amman, before the days of Starbucks and a faster pace of life, belonging to Duke Mahmoud Mukheibeh, and is now a space for young Jordanians to learn about their culture and history.
Serenely hidden away near the center of Amman, the two-story house has airy rooms and balconies that overlook the busy Faisal Street below. Its richness, both inside and out, is a strong contrast to the colorless style of the buildings around. Much of the city has been built in the last 100 years and lacks the wealth of historic relics boasted by neighboring cities such as Damascus – now sadly facing ruin – or Jerusalem.
The duke is a close confidant of King Hussein and was given his title in recognition of his philanthropic work. Lamenting the loss of so much of the old city, the duke saved this 1920s home from demolition and lovingly restored it, filling it with antique treasures, old furniture and faded photographs. “I did not want to lose the soul of the place,” he says as he shows me around.
“Jordan is a country facing water and resource shortages. As modern Jordanians we have lost touch with our traditional lifestyle, which relied heavily on the land and nature. Now, I am trying to encourage sustainable living among the youth and renew our collective respect for the environment. My lifestyle is self-sustaining, I grow my own vegetables, recycle as much as I can, and minimize my waste,” he says.
“But I do not preach. I simply live this way and allow people to observe my lifestyle as an example. If I force my ways on people they will resist and lose respect for me. People here know me and know what I am about. That is enough.”
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