A Gem in Jordan: Jabal L’weibdeh

Jabal L’weibdeh is a cultural and artistic district in the heart of Amman that attracts aspiring artists from around Jordan, co-existing with the harsh realities of the region.

Jordanian street art | Downtown Amman

One of my go-to travel guides, The Culture Trip, boasts of Jabal L’weibdeh as one of the “trendiest districts in Amman” that attracts an “artistic, foodie crowd”. While this might seem like an exciting prospect for young travellers in our region, the true charm of L’weibdeh is understated by travel and cultural authors alike.

With the rise of gentrified districts and neighbourhoods around the world, millennials are attracted to the likes of Shoreditch in London, Williamsburg in New York, and various neighbourhoods in the nearby regional hub of Dubai. Gentrified districts have attracted some of the most educated and richest youth from around the world to the extent that there are now entire blogs dedicated to finding said neighbourhoods. Amman, the capital of a middle-income country trying to juggle its way out of a refugee crisis that has left the majority of its population in an economic roller-coaster, does not have the luxury of creating cultural districts designed to increase the “brand equity” of cities that are already economically saturated with huge urban centres.

While the galleries of districts like Al Qouz in Dubai attract some of the most celebrated artists from around the world, something always made me shift in my carefully decorated seat — the feeling that this is for the privileged, for the formally educated, and for the well travelled. Amman is a relatively modest capital city, making its artistic and cultural centre, the subject of this article, an organic phenomenon of sorts. One that should be acknowledged and appreciated for the efforts of individuals and aspiring artists hoping to create as a way for survival. The Middle East is known for its rich history of various aspiring artists, poets, writers, and musicians that used their craft as a way to write and re-write history. Decades of war, occupation, and struggle have given birth to generations of artists hoping to find a way to make sense of our complex region. The rise of modest cultural districts such as Jabal L’weibdeh is witness to that hunger.

In an effort to understand L’weibdeh’s allure to cultural enthusiasts, some research on newly gentrified neighbourhoods helped me appreciate L’weibdeh’s lack of artificiality. Gentrification is known as the process by which an area increases in value due to the influxes of rich, educated “progressives” and youth through art and culture. And as a consequence, the removal of its poorest residents. L’weibdeh does nothing of the sort and does not carry any of the underlying judgement towards poverty or identity that other cultural centres do. Al Jazeera columnist Sarah Kendzior writes that gentrification is a form of hipster economics where “gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.”

Understanding the geography of the district is the first step in unpacking its true charm. Jabal L’weibdeh is situated between two iconic parts of the capital: Jabal Amman — also a go-to part of the city bustling with historic buildings, restaurants and galleries — and downtown Amman “Al Balad”, the oldest part of the city currently serving as a checkpoint between West and East Amman. Any Ammanite would tell you the difference between the two: West Amman being Jordan’s urbanised and affluent centre and East Amman being the less fortunate, impoverished part of the capital. The charm of L’weibdeh comes from the knowledge of the vast differences between East and West Amman — its something of a mixture between the two, acknowledging the poverty and slums, almost a testament to their existence, while still maintaining an urbanised structure. That’s what sets L’weibdeh apart from other gentrified cultural centres of the world. Not only is it modest, waiting to be pushed to its potential, but also has the ability to observe the harsh realities of the region without judgement.

Map of downtown Amman made by Tania George Haddad | www.visitjordan.com
Urbanised and residential areas of L’weibdeh | L’weibdeh, Amman

There is a special diversity in L’weibdeh’s crowd — youth gathers there to work on social enterprises in Cafe Rumi right off Square De Paris while women in niqab leave the Shaaria School after a long day of classes on the very same street. Walking in the streets of L’weibdeh you might hear an Italian accent as well as a young man cat-calling the women that pass by the dry cleaners. It’s an eclectic neighbourhood that’s also the epitome of life in Jordan — despite their clear and obvious contrasts, everyone seems to live with the differences. A perfect analogy for this is seen right as you enter the neighbourhood, where a blue mosque sits across from a catholic church, and yet every time I pass them, no one bats an eyelid. It is what it is.

During my three week stay in Amman I carried out interviews with some of the artists who have made L’weibdeh their creative home turf. Before going into that, it is interesting to acknowledge some of the writing I found about L’weibdeh that uncovered a rich artistic and cultural history. Local author and L’weibdeh resident Saleem Ayoub Quna writes,

“… my frequent early morning strolls in the streets and alleys of Luweibdeh unveil a brighter face of life in this neighbourhood. The signs, billboards, planks and flyers carry an array of culture, arts, communication and dialogue… This neighbourhood is a haven and artistic resort for recreation and relaxation, quaintly engulfed by its residential edifices to be emulated in other areas of Amman.” (My Neighborhood: Cultural Guide to Jabal Luwiebdeh, 2006).

According to Quna, Jabal L’weibdeh was known for its vibrant environment that is home to civil societies and cultural institutions since the mid-1900s.

Art: Tania George Haddad

Right above an eccentric restaurant named Beit Sitti (My Grandmother’s Home), where tourists and residents can sign up for Levantine cooking classes, is the apartment-turned-studio of Tania George Designs. Tania George Haddad is a local designer that makes beautifully embroidered unisex clothing inspired by the hustle and bustle of Amman. She felt that life in Jordan had a quirkiness to it and that it could be turned into beautiful works of art by working hand-in-hand with local women and refugees residing in urban communities.

Stairs in front of Tania George Haddad studio | L’weibdeh, Amman

I asked Tania about her clothing line hoping to find answers to why life in L’weibdeh seems remote to the hipster economics of our time.

“At first, I was hesitant to begin my own collection but at the time the war in Syria was taking place and I felt I needed to do something. Maybe even give sewing classes to refugee women in camps. After facing many barriers working alongside UN organisations, I decided to start my line and recruit refugees with experience in tailoring and embroidery around the city. I later found that most refugees were residing in urbanised areas, and not refugee camps. It made sense to recruit them.” In fact, Jordan has almost half a million refugees residing in urbanised areas amounting to almost 84% of the total refugee population in Jordan. L’weibdeh has a relatively high density of Syrian and Iraqi refugees [in comparison to West Amman] and Tania’s project, much like many others around the area, does a brilliant job at bringing the community together. Tania’s line is as playful as her character, and she is nothing short of extraordinary. Tania added that “I wanted to keep the touches of every person who embroidered for me, even if they weren’t perfect. That way it’s a genuinely collective effort.”

Ladies making buttons in Tania’s studio | L’weibdeh, Amman
Tania’s sewing machine | L’weibdeh, Amman
Imperfections of Tania’s cartoonish embroideries became beautiful pieces of art | Tania George Studio, L’weibdeh

Art: Yara Hindawi

Just down the street from Tania’s studio is an eccentric graffiti mural by local artist Yara Hindawi. Yara’s work is reminiscent of my first infatuation with french graffiti artist, Fafi, but upon closer inspection, her colourful murals have a more sombre edge. I met Yara after finding her mural and asked her about her experience as an artist in Amman. “As an artist, I really blossomed here. I was given the space to grow where my freedom of expression [as an artist] is respected.” I asked her what she thought of L’weibdeh in light of global gentrification trends and she simply thought that unlike other places “artists aren’t transplanted here — to be honest, they don’t have the financial means — artists simply grow here. They grow from all the support and the close-knit community of artists that come together.” Finally, when asked how it felt to see her paintings up on walls and around the city she said, “it’s so surreal!” Just like her murals.

Me standing by Yara Hindawi’s mural | L’weibdeh, Amman

Culture: 7 Hills Skate Park

My interview with Tania brought about even more exciting revelations about Jabal L’weibdeh. It was inside Tania’s studio that I was first introduced to Mohammed Zakaria, a skateboarder turned skateboarding entrepreneur. Zakaria is the founder of Philadelphia Skateboards, a skateboarding company with a mission to bring the skateboarding community in Amman and the region together. ‘Philadelphia’ also happens to be Amman’s historic Roman name that means ‘brotherly love’. Although Philadelphia Skateboards is a for-profit company I got the sense that its money-making motives were just a front because once you discover 7Hills Skatepark, a project co-founded by Zakaria, you realise that it’s just another grassroots project with a license to cultivate harmony within the community.

I sat down with Zakaria over Moroccan tea and rollies in Cafe Rumi. “The skateboarding scene in Amman began around 2003 where a bunch of guys would meet up in Shmesani [West Amman] to skate. At the time it was the only public area with sufficient space for us to use. Amman has a problem with public spaces, and there really aren’t many around that could cater to our skateboard community.” Zakaria’s comment on public spaces in Amman made sense — you rarely find parks or recreational spaces in the city. “Fast-forward to 2014, five years after Philadelphia Skateboards was established, I was contacted by Make Life Skate Life, an NGO dedicated to making skateboarding parks in impoverished neighbourhoods around the world.” So it wasn’t really a community effort, I thought. But Zakaria continued by adding that, “however most of the parks that were made in the same way were always funded through corporate sponsorship and we didn’t want that. So we launched a crowdfunding project online and the funding came in from all over Amman and the world. We raised so much more than we anticipated that we were able to build a space even bigger than originally planned.”

Zakaria, co-founder of 7Hills, skating | L’weibdeh, Amman
Kids become pros after a few sessions | 7Hills Skatepark, L’weibdeh

So why did they choose L’weibdeh as their skatepark destination? “The location of 7Hills Skatepark is central to its mission. We wanted a public space that was easily accessible for East and West Amman, something that catered to all the communities, and would bring everyone together. We didn’t want it to be in West Amman because we wanted the skating culture to spread and be accessible.” I asked Zakaria how the residents of the area felt about the building of the project and he gave me something that echoed my hypothesis, “although there was some resistance, skaters and kids from the area volunteered to help build the park once the funding was secured which I am glad happened because it gives them ownership of it. Some of the families around the area were so happy it was being built that they started sending food over. The idea is that the park is created by and for the community.” Currently, the main users of the park are children of the neighbourhood, kids from different backgrounds and ages, including child refugees in urban areas.

Renowned graffiti artists Zoonchez painted at the park | 7Hill Skatepark, L’weibdeh
Mother and her daughter picking up skateboards | 7Hills Skatepark, L’weibdeh

Must visit: Art Galleries

L’weibdeh is home to some of the most notable galleries in Amman including Dar Al-Anda and Darat Al Funun. Unfortunately for me, Darat Al Funun is closed for the month of August. But that did not stop me from being curious enough to visit the site of the gallery. What I found there intrigued me indeed. A colourful staircase leading to the doors of the gallery was fully inhabited by L’weibdeh residents meeting for coffee and hushed conversations. It seemed like the perfect spot for sharing secrets; unpretentious, safe and welcoming. Dar Al-Anda is a quaint gallery nestled between the homes of modest Ammanite families and showcases local talent within a traditional style Jordanian home. The name of the gallery translates to “home of the giving” in line with its mission to give the community a place for dialogue and thought.

Dar Al Anda Gallery | Jabal L’weibdeh
My sister at Darat Al Funun — local residents having coffee in the background | Jabal L’weibdeh

Cafe Rumi

Last, but certainly not least, is my fixation with Cafe Rumi. Cafe Rumi was recommended to me by a close friend, and is in fact where my encounter with Jabal L’weibdeh began. The cafe is tucked into a street corner right off of Square De Paris where you will find artwork inspired by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. Cafe Rumi’s crowd is unlike any other cafe in Amman and if you know anything about Amman you surely know that its cafe-going culture is so popular that it might as well be the most profitable venture in the country. Sitting on the bar stools of the cafe are young artists and travellers discussing politics, social movements, working on projects, learning languages, and my favourite part, meeting people. Inside the cafe, the cliques of Amman’s social scene melt away and everyone’s open to meeting someone new. You’ll find local youth with hope for the future of our region eagerly sipping on tea before moving on to bigger and better things.

Finding flowers and drinking tea | Cafe Rumi, Jabal L’weibdeh

Jabal L’weibdeh can only be described as a community with a plethora of stories to tell and humble street corners to discover. I feel that there’s still so much to say about this place that I can fill several more pages of things I saw and people I met. But I will conclude by saying that it is the community feeling in this “gentrified” part of Amman that makes it so special. Unlike so many gentrified districts L’weibdeh is about co-existence and nurturing one another. If you ever visit you might find a few of the neighbourhood kids helping Tania unload fabrics from her car, or carrying skateboards ready to hit the slopes of 7Hills. To end this article, I feel it fitting to share a quote from Saleem Quna that truly resonated while exploring L’weibdeh:

“Conventional wisdom had that every city in our world has two contradictory faces. First, there is the publicised face which every citizen and the world know about… Second, there is the underground, secret or tabooed face of a city that is not so glamorous, because it involves slums, drugs, homelessness, racism, crime and what have you… but when woven together, like threads of a tapestry, they create a certain impression of the city, its soul, heritage, character, inhabitants, development, and ultimately its tomorrow… Each location is unique and each anecdote worth narrating”. (Downtown Amman: A Social Tapestry; 2008).
Finding cherry blossoms in the street | L’weibdeh, Amman

This article is written as a piece to appreciate, admire and promote the growth of art and culture in region, particularly Jordan, as well as to promote the heart of Amman as a go-to district.

This article was written before the commencement of the first cycle of Amman Design Week, an initiative in partnership with Greater Amman Municipality taking place from 1–9 September 2016. For more info click here.

All images are mine unless otherwise stated. You can find more photos of my travels in Jordan here.

Special thanks to my sister Rama Ghanem for her contribution to the making of this article.

For those who would like to make any corrections, suggestions or commentary directly you can contact me on darahghanem@hotmail.com