Amman: A city with two downtowns

Friday 16/10/2015
The front side of Amman’s grand mosque, al-Husseini, also known as the king Hussein Mosque.

Amman - For foreigners to know a city, they must visit its downtown. In Jordan’s capital, however, that can be a bit confusing because Amman has two downtowns: the original built in 1920 and the new one inaugurated in 2014.

Take your pick.

The old downtown, called Wa­sat Al-Balad, Arabic for “city cen­tre”, is the place to go for those on a limited budget. There shops sell out-of-date designer clothes, hand­bags and shoes from brands such as Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, for as little as one-tenth the price in the country’s malls or abroad.

The new downtown is west of the old quarters in the central Al-Abdali district, where the army and intel­ligence headquarters were replaced by high-rise buildings on Amman’s central skyline.

The area, however, is unafford­able to an average citizen but rea­sonable for bankers or executives. A light lunch may cost, just like in London or New York, $70 per per­son. In the old downtown, $5 would buy one meal of three skewers of shish kebab, a salad, French fries, pickles and olives, bread, hummus dip and a soft drink of your choice.

Because of its affordable prices, the variety of products available and its ancient character, the old downtown remains a favourite des­tination for many, not only for busi­ness or shopping but also for out­ings.

“Downtown Amman has a unique mix of old and new, which you can’t find elsewhere in town and cer­tainly not the so-called New Down­town,” Amman chiropractor Rami Muhtasseb, 29, said while sipping spiced black coffee after a burger-and-fries lunch with friends.

Many Jordanians point to the tra­ditionalism of the old downtown, possibly from the dark-yellowish limestone buildings along the area’s bustling and narrow streets. There, modern amenities, such as comput­er games, internet cafés and fast-food joints, mix with traditional smoke-filled coffee shops, antiques shops and vegetable, meat and fish markets.

When the Al-Abdali project partly opened to the public in 2014, many Jordanians were alarmed that it may replace the old downtown. Actually, its developer, Bahaa Hariri, the son of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in an explosion in Beirut on February 14, 2005, calls it the “New Downtown of Amman”.

“Jordanians will never accept see­ing their downtown turned into a replica of New York’s Manhattan,” Amman dentist Jumana Faroun, 33, said referring to skyscrapers jam­ming the skyline of the US city.

“We’re used to the old buildings, the boutiques, the sweet shops, vegetable, meat and fish markets and we’re not going to give that up at any cost,” Faroun insisted.

The Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) in charge of the area said it sought only to “beautify” the city’s oldest quarter and will rehabilitate the streets and sidewalks at a cost of $200 million. But GAM insisted it would not tamper with the area’s architecture or ancient character.

“We want to make it more mod­ern, but maintain its authentic look,” GAM spokesman Mazin al- Farajeen said.

The old downtown was built in 1920 in the city’s lowest wadi sur­rounded by seven mountains, which originally made up the capi­tal. Amman grew into a sprawling cosmopolitan city, Jordan’s most populous with half of the country’s population of 7.5 million.

A downtown landmark is the grand mosque, called the Husseini, also known as the King Hussein Mosque. It was built in 1924, af­ter the county was founded as the Emirate of Trans-Jordan, a small British protectorate.

Another popular attraction is al jorah, Arabic for “the ditch”, in a downtown slum widely called the “Thieves Market”. Everything is on sale there from stolen household items such as electrical appliances to pets. Police often raid the market.

Nearby is the arms market, where a handful of shops sell the latest US-made shotguns and am­munition.

The old downtown still houses some of the country’s vital institu­tions, such as the offices and resi­dence of some members of the rul­ing Hashemite family, the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Jordan.

For outings, there are several British-style pubs, traditional cof­fee shops, restaurants and scruffy cinemas showing X-rated movies. A public park outside the famed Roman Amphitheatre in the heart of the old downtown is often crammed with young Jordanians meeting for coffee or ice cream.

Internet cafes are often crowded but more so on Thursday night, the start of a weekend in Jordan.

Intellectual property rights are non-existent in the old downtown. There are several pirated DVD stores, a network of shops selling the latest blockbusters for as little as $1.40. In 2014, police confiscat­ed 25,000 pirated copies from the shops but a few days later, it was business as usual there.

“There are great bargains here and this is where I shop for DVDs and everything else,” engineering student Alaa Saeed said.

The $5 billion Al-Abdali project resembles the renovation carried out under Hariri’s cabinet of Bei­rut’s war-ravaged downtown area after the 1975-90 civil war.

Al-Abdali saw branches of almost all local and foreign banks move in. The area boasts modern office space, luxurious apartments and penthouses, public parks and rec­reation centres such as spas, movie theatres and street cafes and roof­top facilities with a panoramic view of the city.

Of the money spent on the Al- Abdali project, some $500 million went for the development of a pe­destrian walkway, called the Abdali Boulevard. The area boasts of a path between businesses and high-end shops, restaurants and street cafés, a hotel and a recreation centre.