Why I Think of Ray Charles in Jordan

When I say “neighborhood,” what do you think? Is it a real memory that pops into your mind? Is it a picture you’ve painted over the years, brushstrokes stolen from decades of primetime family shows? Who has defined it for you?

When I think of neighborhood, I hear Ray Charles, soulful and sort of rusty, and remember fondly an image not my own, but from the movie The Sandlot. Checkerboard table cloths,

“The Sandlot”

mounds of burgers and hot dogs lit up by the booming fireworks of the Fourth of July—all set, at least in my head and on screen, to Mr. Charles’ unforgettable “America the Beautiful.”

Today we have relics and a few lone sentinels of the checkerboard tablecloth-era, people who carry fading community narratives, and people who themselves were unforgettable characters in the neighborhood. We hear stories in those foggy-eyed moments that Dads have, when they giggle to themselves about adventures that only they remember, about the time when “that building over there” was just a field where he used to play with his friends. For my Dad, the decrepit auto repair shop on the corner by his office is a wellspring of childhood memories. The second generation of wrinkle-faced owners mean nothing to me; to him, they are neighborhood. They are characters, souls with stories and with power of the past.

At the risk of sounding like an old man waxing philosophical, or a Luddite—the idea of neighborhood has degenerated. Even TV neighborhoods, which have the privilege of fantasy and idealism, are sort of weird and dysfunctional today, full of murder or Botox or over-sexed vampires. Or all of those things. We still strive for the trophy Sandlot neighborhood though. Alas, we fall short, with once-frozen appetizers piled high and plentiful small talk in which all parties involved try fruitlessly to remember their neighbors’ kids’ names. “How is…your oldest doing? Where is he now?”

Is the full depth of my cynicism towards the suburban neighborhood warranted? Debatable. But you can’t argue the fact that that my generation will not have the stories that our fathers and mothers have. They had the luxury of growing up in the days before stranger-danger, before children were put on leashes, before everything caused cancer, and before we were suspicious of anything requiring human interaction.

I, like most, have romanticized the seemingly unknowable concept of neighborhood. I didn’t think I would find it in Jordan, especially as a foreigner, functionally mute in local dialect. Moreover, having been told by sources both local and foreign to not trust anybody unless they do something so aberrant and shocking as to prove their incorruptible trustworthiness, I was skeptical that I would find true tight-knit communities in urban Amman. Rural Jordan, like pretty much rural anywhere in the developing world, is an entirely legitimate and different sense of community, but urbanity very often brings with it a perversion of sincerity and community.

View from Jabal al-Weibdeh

In Amman, which over the years has become a hot pot of all kinds of Arabs, urbanization has come with conflict. Every morning when I leave my house, I brush by the neighbors’ wall, pock-marked with bullet holes from the 1970s when arguments between Jordanian and Palestinian inhabitants escalated into all-out gun battles.

When I first researched my neighborhood, Jabal Al-Weibdeh, I was presented with neat paragraphs about the quintessential Palestinian grandmas that shuffle to and fro buying melons and making minty lemonade for their dozens of grandkids. I read about the friendliness of neighbors and the sense of permanence that many families feel when in the hilltop neighborhood. I can name four people who have indeed said “Oh! My grandma lives there” when I mention my neighborhood.

When I arrived, I expected all those quiet grandmas, and then my apartment in a location convenient to downtown and fancier West Amman. The location was the primary selling point for me. I envisioned tender, if toothless, smiles from those ancient aunties who swept their front steps even when all that remained was dust. Yes, I had fallen into the romantic trap of my home-to-be.

As it turns out, Weibdeh is so far from what I had read. But, to my and likely your surprise, it is still as close as I have ever come to the genuineness and familiarity I thought only existed in the echo of that Ray Charles song. Just remove the white ladies in aprons and change the melanin and facial hair levels of everyone in the picture.

There is a palpable history to Weibdeh. There are the bullet holes, of course, and the families who have lived here for so long that they have immunity from the encroaching commercialization. Their houses were once built on quiet alleys, their gardens idyllically removed from the honking of the few busy streets towards the downtown. Forty years later, the tendrils of their decades-old jasmine plants now jut out into much busier streets. Pedestrians have to brush the plants out of the way as they walk by with shopping bags. The neighborhood has grown up. Downtown is now shockingly close. But Weibdeh has not given in quite yet.

Darat al-Funun

Cafes and galleries flank all sides of some old houses, yet the old couples inside carry on as if the world has not changed. Their tenure on this mountain is fully respected by the new settlers and new businesses, none of whom would dare do anything to fall afoul of these foundational families. They still rule, and they are the bearers of memory.

As I’ve written this over the course of a week, the characters of my neighborhood keep revealing new idiosyncrasies. The blossoms of trust are faintly appearing, and where there was once suspicion or benign curiosity—”who is this [possible] Arab who speaks like a feral six year old?”—there is now emerging relationship. More than any other place I have lived, Amman is full of people who hold their cards close. What they hold in their hands is often so grand though, so colorful, so steeped in stories and history that you could spend years listening to each one of them, and still not know who they fully are. Then again, individual identities here are so intertwined with family and historical identities, that the idea of “self” is quite different from what I know.

Trust is scarce in the Arab world. Family and personal reputation are held is highest regard, and therefore, personal or emotional information is hard to come by. Genuine hospitality is given like candy on Halloween, but legitimate trust is rare. It takes years, if it is ever achievable, I’ve been told. Whether the characters of my neighborhood are trustworthy is irrelevant, though, because irrespective of that they exude a sense of comfort and confidence, even if unintentionally so. Even if by the end of my time here I only read a meager few pages of their stories, I will leave amused, enthralled, and enriched nonetheless.

Take the owner of the pizza shop next to my house. Born and raised in Jordan, he left his home for Brooklyn for two years to train as a pizza apprentice. His accent today is part Arab, part Brooklyn-Jewish-grandpa, part vulgar cab driver. He likes hot peppers and vodka, and he makes really good pizza.

Or take, for another example, the owners of Volks Burger—one a die-hard Arab nationalist longing for the days of Nasser as he hums the Amelie soundtrack behind his cashier, and the other a fair-skinned filmmaker slash entrepreneur who insists on buying all local products. Like Volkswagen, Volks Burger is “for the people,” cheaper than West Amman’s attempts at 1950s soda fountains. One of the owners told me once “give me a beer, a cigarette, and Al-Weibdeh. I am happy.” One of scores of young artists that are shacking up close with the Palestinian grandmas of this mountain, this guy is an emblem of Weibdeh’s desire for quiet reform and cultural vibrancy.

Street art in al-Weibdeh

There are only two ways up to this mountaintop, and three ways down. Weibdeh’s inaccessibility, especially in light of its proximity to the bustling downtown, enables its sense of community and keeps many of the mountain’s treasures hidden. Nowhere else have cab drivers asked me “do you know how to get back from here?” While other mountains fill up with odors of cafés and cars, Weibdeh, in the evening, often smells of jasmine flower and overripe melon, sometimes mixed with the sweet smell of sheesha smoke coming from the landmark Rakwet Araby on Paris Circle.

Between the circle and Volks Burger is Graffiti Cafe, the only place in the world, as far as I know, where you can paint the walls of the shop while your coffee is prepared. Bottles of spray paint intermingle with donated Kurt Vonnegut books and random bad novels, and the interior walls change almost daily as people reach for the paint—not really the books—and leave their mark. Some witty, some poetic, some simple—the tags on the walls all contribute to the story of this space. Over the past months, the only thing better than Graffiti’s coffee has been the endless friendliness of the staff, all of whom are also deeply embedded in Amman’s independent art movement. People often pass from Graffiti to the famed Jo Bedu store across the street; its shelves are full of shirts with cheeky slang humor, about half of which is lost on any non-Jordanian student of Arabic. A personal favorite is their shirt which asks “Did you get hired?!” which, in Arabic, sounds like this: “Waddhafuk?!”

Back towards my house, you may hear Celine Dion or Justin Bieber, both icons in their own right in Amman, and both played strangely-often in brand name stores in the city. Why do I bring up Celine Dion? Because the juice-head gorilla barber who wears shirts four sizes too small, and refuses to breathe unless his breath is filled with cigarette smoke, has the Titanic theme song as his ringtone. And his phone rings way too often. And I’ve seen JBiebs’ “Boyfriend” video on their TV probably four times.

My ode to this little hilltop could go on for pages. The scents and smiles of the streets here are among the most pleasurable daily experiences. It may not be home permanently, and there may never be a true block party, but I would not be shocked if one of these warm Ramadan nights, the sky lights up with fireworks, shopkeepers come out to see, and someone cranks up the volume of their Fairuz greatest hits CD—a contextually adequate sub for Mr. Charles.

2 comments

  1. Marta Niconchuk

    the most outstanding among all the incredible blogs you have posted.

  2. Bob Niconchuk

    fantastic writings…enjoyed this thoroughly
    ..

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