Another Tale of Two Cities

09 July 2004

Amman is a city built on top of 19 hills in the high country east of the Jordan River.  It rises 2535 feet above Sea Level and enjoys constant sunshine year round.  There is no humidity; the average annual rainfall is only 10.8 inches.  The weather is very temperate.  The coldest month is January, with a daily average of 46 degrees Fahrenheit.  The warmest month is July, with a daily average of 78 degrees Fahrenheit.  In sum, Amman is a city of many brown hills, warm, dry air, and brilliant blue skies.  (Kind of like Castle Rock, but with more Muslims and more movie theaters.)

Spread out across this natural environment is the man made portion of the Hashemite capital. 1.5 million people live in Amman.   The city is divided in half between West Amman and East Amman, with a well-preserved Roman amphitheater sitting at the nexus of the two.

West Amman is the home of all the embassies, the five star hotels, the French, English, and American schools, and the constantly sprouting brand new houses and apartment buildings, all of which are fashioned from white limestone.  Many of the buildings have orange tile roofs, giving them a beautiful Spanish mission style appearance.  The whiteness of the structures creates the feeling of a perpetual state of newness. 

East Amman is the poor side of town.  The buildings are beige and old.  There are no Spanish tiles, but rather spikes of rebar coming from nearly every structure.  The dwellings are stacked up on each other from the bottom to the top of every hill.  It appears that at any moment, potential energy will convert to kinetic energy, and the whole thing will come crashing down in a giant tidal wave of bricks, plaster, soccer balls and dusty glass. 

The men and women of West Amman shop in mega malls and wear the latest Western fashions.  Ferragamo shoes and Helmut Lang dresses.  The women in this part of the city are drop dead gorgeous, leaving male visitors shaking their heads in heated disbelief.  In East Amman, men wear dirty jeans and worn out sandals, which they can easily slip off five times a day to pray.  The women, when glimpsed on the street, tend to be dressed in head-to-toe abayas. 

In East Amman people buy their vegetables and meats from outdoor, sidewalk vendors.  The meat is still in carcass form and hangs from hooks in the ceiling.  In West Amman, people shop at Safeway and C-Town.  The meat is cut and shrink-wrapped onto Styrofoam trays. 

In East Amman, Persian carpets air out on every balcony and laundry dries on a thousand clothes lines crisscrossing the space between hillside tenement buildings.  In West Amman, laundry is done in machines by one of the 10,000 Indonesian or 5,000 Filipino housekeepers that have come to this country for a better life. 

Most everyone in West Amman speaks English.  The signs on all the buildings are bilingual, if not solely in English.  Car radios are programmed to the English stations and the likes of Elton John and Dido can be heard from adjacent cars at red lights.  In East Amman, itís all Arabic, all the time.

Speaking of cars, those in East Amman are old, scratched, and dented.  Lots of pickups carrying six or eight guys to labor-intensive jobs.  In West Amman, the local gentry commute to air-conditioned, Internet-ready offices in brand new Mercedes and BMWs.

West Amman is the newer part of the city.  As such, developers run up against Bedouin farmers, the original inhabitants of land that, ten years ago, was empty.  It is not uncommon to see a dirty old ramshackle tent in the middle of a field surrounded by brand new multi-million dollar office and apartment buildings.  The old farmers are getting more and more squeezed everyday.  Highways and access roads crisscross land theyíve been working for who knows how long.  There is a law on the books that gives these folks the right to let their goats and sheep graze on any open space in town.  Consequently, morning rush hour commutes in West Amman are often brought to a standstill by a flock crossing the thoroughfare looking for a tastier patch of grass.  The sight of a goat walking in front of a revving Audi Twin Turbo makes me laugh.

This division of rich and poor and this collision of urban and rural make Amman a stark and complicated city.  Despite the differences and contradictions, it is a peaceful, safe capital.  There isnít a lot of interaction between the various parties.  Social mobility is practically non-existent.  I get this very un-egalitarian sense that most everyone knows their place and stays within it.

Holding it all together is King Abdullah II.  His face is on billboards and posters all over the city.  Rich or poor, Bedouin or businessman, the Kingís smiling mug is always close by, offering comfort, reassurance, and a symbol of unity.  The King is keen to further develop his already progressing country, whilst leaving no Jordanian behind.  Itís in all Americans best interest to help him succeed, for itís the ones left behind who have nothing to lose.