02 December 2004
Amman is a city of grand hotels. The entire social fabric seems to be built around them. They are the scenes of political and sexual intrigue; complex, cosmopolitan hives of diplomats, warriors, carpetbaggers, do-gooders, and royalty. They are where business gets done and where marital unions are celebrated. Their lobbies and lounges are full of lean-your-head back laughter and come-closer whispers. Outside there may be a muezzin on a minaret singing out the call to prayer. Inside is a pretty Romanian girl on piano purring out Misty.
The InterContinental Hotel was the first grand hotel in Amman. It was built over 40 years ago, in the old part of the city, Jebel Amman. (The newer parts of Amman were then occupied by goats.) As it was the only five star hotel for so long, it was THE place to stay in Jordan for visiting political and financial dignitaries, as well as the affluent tourist crowd. (Many years back, a young American named Lisa Halaby resided at the InterCon while working in Jordan. During her stay she met King Hussein, got married, and changed her name to Queen Noor.)
Though the InterCon remains the place to be seen in Amman—its lobby is a den of cleavage, cologne, and chatter every night--over the past ten years, other magnificent hotels have sprung up. Near the InterCon is the Grand Hyatt. Across from that is Le Royal, part of the Leading Hotels of the World group. Le Royal is the most distinctive building on the Amman skyline. A wealthy Iraqi designed and built it to look like one of the ancient ziggurats from his native land. Down the road is a huge Sheraton made of white limestone. Across from that is the equally white Four Seasons, which rivals Le Royal as being the fanciest hotel in town. There is a Le Meriden and a Marriott, too. Perhaps surprisingly, the Howard Johnson’s is also a really neat place. Not only are the rooms great, the HoJo is home to three of Amman’s most popular bar/restaurants. One has to book in advance on Tuesday nights so as to get a table at Nai for all-you-can-east sushi.
The Howard Johnson’s is not alone. Each of the afore mentioned hotels have incredible bars and restaurants that draw crowds of wealthy bilingual Jordanians and international expatriates and travelers. These travelers are here on business, for some regional political conference, or to see the land of Petra, Lawrence of Arabia, and Jesus’ baptism. Large religious tour groups from African-American churches, clad in matching T-shirts, are periodically found at the breakfast buffets. It is not uncommon to see American generals and Arabian sheikhs also eating breakfast at nearby tables on any given morning in any one of the fine dining rooms of the grand hotels.
Just yesterday, I saw the Iraqi Prime Minister holding court in the lobby of the InterCon. The war in Iraq has really made Amman an international city. All of the major American contracting firms operating in Iraq have support offices in the Jordanian capital. There have been innumerable conferences in Amman on rebuilding Iraq, which have attracted subcontractors and suppliers from all over the world. International agencies like the Red Cross and the United Nations have offices here. (Angelina Jolie, currently some sort of U.N. ambassador, has been in Jordan twice during my time in the kingdom.) Non-governmental agencies (NGOs) that pulled out of Iraq have maintained a presence in Amman, so that when things get better to the east, they can go back in. Journalists from every major news organization stay in Amman on their way in and out of Baghdad. Last month I spotted a CNN anchorwoman working out in my gym. Weary Iraqis—at least those that can afford it—come often and marvel at how a country that has so little can have so much.
Amman is a refreshing break from Iraq. The weather is good, the people are friendly, the accommodations are fantastic, and, unlike Kuwait City or Riyadh, you can get a drink pretty much anywhere and mix with an incredibly glamorous local crowd. It also helps that Amman is the only city from which one can fly commercially into Iraq. That Jordan is surrounded by unstable countries—Israel (and Palestine), Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq—adds a tint of danger and a slight sense of frontier adventurism to the place. Going to Amman for a vacation ain’t like going to Orlando. This place is an oasis in the middle of the land of the Arabian nights and al-Qaeda. Despite this, or more likely because of this, the Hashemite capital is swollen with free-spirited expatriates. This makes the hotel owners very happy.
Adding to the cosmopolitan nature of the place, there are the foreign embassies. I’ve visited over forty of them. To my mind, the British, Australians, Canadians, Swedes, South Africans, and Spaniards are the most fun. One of these groups is sure to be hosting a social event on any given night of the week. These events often occur at the official residence of the ambassador, but they also frequently take place at one of the hotels. Parties often spill over into the trendy nightclubs that have set up shop outside of places like the InterCon and Four Seasons. Whispers and The Living Room are packed most nights, with patrons conversing merrily in English, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish and more.
Amman is vibrant, vital, and cosmopolitan. Come for a visit and see for yourself. There are plenty of great places to stay and I’d be happy to show you around. It is a city in its ascendancy, located in the heart of today’s headlines. Not bad for a place where a herd of goats can still stop traffic.