In the courtyard of Darat al-Funun, Amman's leading contemporary art center, the feathery branches of jacaranda trees brush second-century marble columns as some 50 people sit in rows of folding chairs. They have come to listen to the first of a series of lectures by Mohanna Durra, who introduced abstraction, expressionism and cubism to Jordan and, in 1972, established the country's first formal contemporary-art training program.
Durra arrives dressed in coat and tie, but he speaks with the informality of a friend who has dropped in for a visit. As his voice filters through the loudspeakers, a cool breeze intermittently wafts over the gathering, bringing with it the muffled sounds of downtown traffic and the happy yelps of children playing in the streets.
For any society to thrive, he tells his audience, "art is not a luxury—it is a necessity." Mingling personal reminiscences with historical observations about everything from the symphonies of Beethoven to the writings of Kabir, from Kandinsky's paintings to research in chromotherapy, Durra is here preaching to the choir: Tonight's listeners are mostly fellow artists, architects, students, writers and other art lovers. But the fact that Durra's message is neither unique nor new in Amman, which this year bears the United Nations title "Cultural Capital of the Arab World," is precisely what makes his talk exciting.
The title is one the city wears with pride, perhaps because Amman has never enjoyed the cultural cachet of Beirut, Cairo or Baghdad. A much younger city, Amman was just a village when it became Jordan's capital in 1921. Since then, it has grown at a frenetic rate. Since 1943 in particular, the city's population has skyrocketed from 30,000 to 1.8 million as refugees from Palestine, Lebanon and, more recently, Iraq have remade their lives in Jordan. Perforce, providing housing, education and other basic services has been the priority.
For the past 30 years, however, in spite of hard economic times and regional instability, the city has also worked to expand its cultural offerings and broaden audiences for the arts. As a result, this city of hills and buff-colored houses today bubbles with festivals, concerts, theater performances, art shows and poetry readings. To be sure, this year's UN-designated banner prompted the municipality to add new venues to the city's cultural infrastructure, and it inspired a greater fullness in its arts calendar, but the spirit that fueled these additions both predates the title and promises to long outlive it.
From Nuha Batshoun, who opened Amman's first commercial art gallery in the early 1970's, to 24-year-old college student Maral Yessayan, who teaches ballet and modern dance to children, Amman's arts community acts out of a deep commitment to creativity and to the creation of a cultural identity that looks into the future and beyond political borders. In choreographing a work for children for the Children's Song Festival in October, Yessayan is drawing both on the movements in debkeh folk dance and on jazz steps. She is convinced that "we need to keep building on existing traditions, and maybe new artists and techniques will emerge. This is how we can add to our culture, inflect it without taking away its identity. After all, life is dynamic, just like dance."
In this land, which has for millennia been a crossroad for trade and cultural exchange, the process of making art is laced with unbridled and deep-rooted curiosity about all cultures. "Had Islam not opened up from the first day and accepted—not just tolerated, but accepted—other cultures and built on their ideas, it would never have become one of the most enduring civilizations," observes Princess Wijdan Ali, founder of the National Gallery and dean of the newly established Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Jordan.
To immerse oneself in Amman's art scene is to bear witness to this building process. In his studio on the outskirts of Amman, the internationally known sculptor Samer Tabbaa runs his hand over massive slabs of wood and marble while discussing his lifelong exploration of elemental textures and materials. In a modest apartment overlooking downtown Amman, emerging artist Hani Alqam uses thick, bold paint strokes to depict the blocky architecture of his beloved city, and he speaks of the "truth" he finds when he makes portraits of working-class patrons at the University Café. Across town, in a ground-floor apartment-cum-showroom, ceramist Hazem al-Zubi incises pots with designs that long predate current politics, be they from the Phoenician alphabet, the source of Arabic and Hebrew scripts, or from ancient symbols found in places as different as Iraq and Mexico.
In music, composer Tariq al-Nasser sometimes draws on Bedouin melodies for compositions with electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, piano and a variety of percussion instruments, from drums and castanets to rhythmic thigh-slapping. "It is not enough to merge two kinds of music, because you still see the elements of each," says the intense young al-Nasser, whose hand instinctively reaches for the electronic keyboard that is attached to his computer.
Behind him, CDs fill the shelves, each containing recordings he has collected as ethnomusicological field research in various parts of Jordan, the Middle East and Central Asia—along with a host of his own compositions and recordings of his own New Age-style band, called Rum. "When you add a third kind of music," he explains, "the elements will mix in a way that will change them and create something new"—a world music for a new age.
While al-Nasser travels with Rum to international festivals, he is in this respect a relative rarity, as most other artists and art lovers in Amman depend on foreign cultural offerings to come closer to them, whether in the form of a film week, a theater or poetry festival with international participants, concerts or recitals by visiting musicians, or art exhibitions from abroad. These are sometimes independently organized, as in the case of the salon-like Blue Fig, where each month the self-styled "cultural café" celebrates a different country through live music and slide projections. More often they result from frequent collaborations between local groups and internationally funded institutions, such as the Instituto Cervantes, the Centre Culturel Français, the British Council and others.
Even in the world of literature, where one might expect language to prevent writers from looking beyond the Arab world, the same openness prevails. On Sunday evenings at the Ammoun Café, conversation ranges widely among writers who have taken to congregating here. Award-winning novelist Samiha Khrais, poet Hikmat Nawaysh, short-story writer Sa'ud Qubaila and novelists Hashem Gharaibeh and Muhammad Sanajleh always sit at the same table. They half-jokingly call themselves The Bleeding Rose Band—each one a blossom of literature, they say, and each one in pain.
One evening, enveloped by sweet smells from a jasmine bush and a nearby waterpipe, they sip sugared tea and discuss the strength of Ernest Hemingway's style, the dream of pan-Arab unity and the potential for new forms of fiction based on the Internet's use of hyperlinks. Talk also turns to an earlier generation of Jordanian writers and to the "revolution in the Arab literary world" wrought by Tayseer Sbool's 1968 novel You Since Today.
But for all their admiration, they resist becoming too beholden to their predecessors. "In Jordan, we have no single [literary] father. We all have many fathers and, with translations, we read all the more," says Khrais. Four heads nod as curls of cigarette smoke fill the air around them.
They and other writers hold readings periodically at such venues as the Jordan Association of Writers, Darat al-Funun or any of Amman's dozen commercial art galleries. Nawaysh also sometimes reads his free-verse poems at the Wednesday evening gatherings of Bayt al-Shair, the House of Poetry, a restored 1920's-era home in the city center that overlooks Amman's Roman amphitheater. No more than two or three dozen people usually attend such readings, in contrast to readings of traditional, nationalist poetry, or to performances of political satires by Nabil Sawalha or Nisham Yanis, all of which draw bigger crowds than theatrical performances by troupes that strive for a more sober note.
Similarly, plays replete with song and dance and the occasional television star routinely fill the Royal Cultural Center's main theater for runs of 20 days and more, while the sometimes experimental plays of the al-Fawanees troupe, or serious works performed by actors from the Performing Arts Center of the Noor Al Hussein Foundation, fill the theater for at most three to four nights, usually during a much-publicized festival.
The desire to strengthen audiences for "serious" theater is one of the reasons behind the proliferation of plays and performing-arts outreach programs for children. The Performing Arts Center puts on children's plays and uses drama in schools as a way of helping children work through such common problems as bullying, family disagreement and death. Yet the center is well aware that their actors are at the same time introducing theater itself, "indirectly creating future audiences," as director Lina Attel Batayneh confides.
Theater is not the only art form thus building for the future. All around the city, children and young adults can choose among many private and government-sponsored classes in subjects ranging from sculpture, painting and ceramics at the Orfali and Dar al-Anda galleries, to dance and theater at the Haya Cultural Center, graphic arts at the National Gallery of Art, music at the National Conservatory, and ballet and acting at the Performing Arts Center. Similarly, the National Gallery of Art regularly welcomes schoolchildren by the busload. Its collection, which highlights more than 1800 sculptures and paintings from around the "developing world," is exposing a younger generation to contemporary art.
There is a similar emphasis on efforts to broaden adult audiences, often by creating mixed-media events. For example, as poetry lovers listen to a reading at Bayt al-Shair, their eyes can take in not only photographs of such beloved poets as Jordanian Mustafa Wahbi al-Tal, known as "Arar," and Palestinian Mahmud Darwish, but also an eclectic assortment of contemporary paintings. Similarly, when people come to listen to Iraqi poet Ata Abdul Wahab at the Orfali Gallery, attend a piano recital or a children's play at the 4 Walls Gallery, or wend their way through the Darat al-Funun complex to a lecture, they find themselves amid sculptures or paintings that they might never have sought out for their own sake.
"All the arts belong together," says Nermeen Obiedat, owner of the Zara Gallery. "Maybe this way you can also attract more people."
These sentiments echo throughout the city's arts community, and they were at work when, in October 2000, the municipality opened the Al Hussein complex of theater, exhibition halls and library on the edge of the city's poorer district. This way, as people go about their daily business, they glimpse paintings and sculptures through the floor-to-ceiling windows and will perhaps one day wander in to learn more. In the same spirit, every other summer the National Gallery offers the public a chance to watch six to eight sculptors from around the Arab world chisel stone, carve wood or forge metal in Amman's only public park. The gallery then installs the resulting large-scale sculptures in public areas around the city.
The most recent mixed venue is the Street of Culture, completed in August. In a commercial district with popular restaurants and cafés, the city carved out a 500-meter (1/3-mi pedestrian island where, on a recent autumn evening, one end fills with the amplified voices of puppeteers while, at the other, the rhythmic sounds of folk dancing attract a circle of onlookers. In between, kiosks displaying books and handicrafts bookend a sunken walkway lined on one side by a black stone wall with water flowing down its surface and, on the other, by a gleaming white exhibition space reserved for contemporary art.
On that night, the busy, colorful canvases of Hilda Hiary hang on the walls like so many mosaics teeming with abstract figures. The young painter is thrilled at the chance to bring her art to the street. "This is an entirely different group of people, ordinary people who are stopping to look at the paintings and ask questions," she says, one eye on an older couple outside that is gravitating closer and closer to the paintings.
If in his evening talk at Darat al-Funun Mohanna Durra lamented that the Amman of his childhood was drab and monotonous, with nothing to inspire a young artist's soul, the
Amman of today is a city that is transforming itself, slowly and steadily, into one that not only nourishes its artists, but will also serve as a regional cultural focal point long after its one-year reign as Cultural Capital of the Arab World has passed.
Free-lance writer Lee Adair Lawrence lives in Washington, D.C. and specializes in the arts of the Middle East and Asia.
Bill Lyons (www.billlyons.com) lives in Amman, where he has photographed regularly for Aramco World, Saudi Aramco World and other editorial and corporate clients for nearly two decades.