Jasmine Houses - A short story from Amman

by Dema Al Rajabi

When you walk through Amman's hills in the summer you will smell and see what makes this city: the jasmine flower in it's many colours. Just like these flowers, the "Jasmine Houses" are part of Amman since ever. And just like the jasmine they carry a special spirit that tells of the old times in a city that has grown significantly in the last decades. 

Eighty-year-old Abu Ibrahim witnessed the evolution of these buildings; I asked him what he knows about these houses that today became cafes and restaurants.

He tells me a little story: 

"The ancient Amman ranges from what is downtown today to the fourth circle [annot.: Amman is split in circles and mountains, called Jabal], with the last building being today's Ministry of Information.
Before Amman became crowded with cement, apartments and asphalt, it consisted of individual houses. The streets that you see today at the fourth circle were wheat farms and grain fields. In places like the neighbourhood of Jabal Al Weibdeh or Jabal Al Hussein or Ras Al Ain, you can still see the old houses that got the spirit of Amman's jasmine and are full of old tales. These houses witnessed everything that happens around them, the coffees that neighbours share in the garden around the fountain, the children playing komestir - hide and seek. 
But as these children grew up they forgot the history of these places. They forgot the mulberry trees and the nuts that they used to eat. Juts like them Amman has grown up too and has become all globalized, with its glass buildings. There is no peaceful word we share with our neighbours and we no longer dare to borrow a piece of bread or a cup of oil from them, as we might not even know their name. 
But you only have to go downtown, to find the original spirit of Amman. Here the houses themselves create an invisible connection between Jordan Palestine and Syria, as their stones come from Damascus or Nablus. 
These houses carry and are famous for the names of the families that live in them, like Bilbeisi and Mango and Meree, Qsoos. Here the social grit was so closely knit that the kids in the neighbourhood used to believe that everyone who lives around them is a relative. 
They were turned into cafés and restaurants and they attract tourists, as well as locals, who enjoy sitting in the shade of the fruit trees the families used to plant for the joy of their guests. 

Amman, as we might remember it, or how it has eventually become is still the same city we know from out childhood, from our teenage years. And even if we neglect to preserve it, it will preserve us. We write our names in the walls, knowing that our ancestors passed here smoking their first cigarette of the day. This city that leaves us with such conflicted feelings, that became so glamorous growing high into the sky, will always remain like the mother, who does not change for her children. 

 

Dema Al Rajabi is a journalist and writer. Her essays and opinion pieces have been published in Arab newspapers such as Araby Al-Jaded, Al-Rai as well as Jordanian news agencies. 

Pascale Müller