Living on top of a hill provides a false sense of confidence. When you can see everything, it all makes sense. It seems manageable, understandable. In Amman, neighborhoods are defined by the hill on which they sit. Jabal Amman, Jabal Hussein, Jabal Weibdeh—each has its own character, its own style, its own landmarks and identity. Each has a community memory and pride distinct from its neighbor hills. Like islands, the hills of Amman are not connected, not even by bridges, and in the space between, in the city’s innumerable ravines and valleys, time and direction and identity swirl in a fast, greasy current; one can easily be swept away.
Wast-al-balad, Amman’s “Downtown,” is a place where your compass would just spin and spin and spin, never finding north. The magnetic field is likely altered by the heaps of car parts, of faucets, of electrical converters, pipes, satellite dishes, and wires. You might as well burn the map you carry, as the names of the streets don’t even faintly ring a bell with vendors, police, or shoppers. Wallahi ma b’arif—“By God I have no idea,” is the default response if you ask where just about anything is. Follow your nose, follow your ears, follow whatever you want, but you will likely walk in a circle, ending up at the same mosque or the same box full of fluorescent baby chickens or the same juice vendor hawking and gawking at anyone who looks in need of a cold drink.
Walking from neighborhood to neighborhood, which from atop the hills seems an easy endeavor, is near impossible if you have to pass through the sensory gauntlet of al-balad. Once you reach the valley, once the wave of body, trash, diesel, and falafel odor crests on top of you, new hills appear on all sides, and the landmarks that 200 meters up proved such convenient beacons are completely gone. Getting lost in the balad is a rite of passage I’m told, the best way to relearn what north and south mean, where east and west converge, and how to orient yourself in a city where streets were precariously hacked out of mountain sides to accommodate homes of the floods of people who have made Amman home since the founding of this Hashemite Kingdom.
While modern Amman has a relatively short history, the balad buzzes in the shadows of what is one of the oldest-inhabited hilltops in the world. Jabal al-Qala’a, or the Citadel, has changed hands countless times since about 30,000BC. Ammonites, Persians, Greeks, Nabataeans, Romans, Umayyads, Ottomans, etc. have all built on the same hill, the highest hill in Amman, leaving today a layer cake of civilizations and cultures whose debris are visible not only on the qala’a, but throughout many parts of the Kingdom—at Petra, Madaba, Jarash, Azraq, etc.
The world continues to conspire to add layers to Amman’s complex cultural ancestry and composition, as the past century’s conflicts have added the gastronomic and linguistic influences of Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians, and Westerners. By force or by geopolitics, Jordan is likely one of the most culturally and socially diverse countries on the planet, a conglomeration of the unfathomably ancient, the cutting-edge modern, and legitimately everything in between.