AMMAN: The City of Waters

AMMAN: The City of Waters

Will Culture Restore the Flow of Its Springs which Have Dried up?

Photographs by Fahd Al-Kouh

There was more than one reason which made us think twice about going to Amman: the pollution which covered and blocked the streets, the rain which still washes its buildings and trees, the vagueness of the connection between the invitation and Amman Municipality, and above all this, what is the point of the idea of declaring a city a cultural capital if it has not added anything new to culture? In spite of all that I have mentioned - and other reasons related to work - the inevitable was inevitable. We packed our bags, my companion the photographer and I, and departed for Jordan.

We were met at the airport by a young man called Muhammad Hadid, who works in the Public Relations Section of Amman Secretariat. In spite of his pleasant nature and the good relationship which formed between us throughout our stay, I did not try to ask him about his academic qualifications, in order to avoid embarrassing him. It is customary in many countries for people appointed to such jobs to be unqualified and unskilled. Consequently it was a surprise for me to learn that he was a graduate of the Jordanian University's Political Science Faculty, and this is significant.

In the hotel I bought a number of Jordanian newspapers and looked for the cultural pages in them in an attempt to find what interested cultural circles in Amman. A news item about the appointment of the great poet Haidar Mahmoud as Minister of Culture, miscellaneous news about the activities and achievements of Amman Secretariat related to the celebrations for the announcement of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture, a controversy about the intention to abolish the Ministry of Culture, the arrest of the Chief Editor of a newspaper for criticizing the previous government (the government says that he published news that was not true and was improperly insulting about official figures), and appeal by a columnist not to exclude anyone from participating in Cultural Capital activities and the need for everyone to support each other in order to make this cultural manifestation succeed so that Amman would not make a "spectacle" of itself in front of fellow-Arabs, and finally a writer who regarded the choice of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture a "predicament", which he prayed God it would emerge from safely.

Does this divergence of views reflect a crisis between people of culture there? Or is it a sign of health, a praiseworthy difference of viewpoint that does not corrupt a matter for friendship?

Ras Al-Ain

In the morning we went to Amman Secretariat to meet the Head of the Secretariat and thank him for inviting Al-Arabi. We were wondering about the connection of Amman Secretariat with culture. We arrived at the building, which is located west of the center of Amman, specifically in the Ras Al-Ain area. It is an area which is regarded as the center of old Amman, or the origin of modern Amman. The name of the area (which means Head of the Spring) is derived from a stream that used to flow through it and provide Amman and its inhabitants with water. Its water used to come from the surrounding hillsides in a valley called Wadi Abdoun, which then became known as Ras Al-Ain. Amman was built on the two sides of the stream.

It is a paradox that when this stream flooded it used to threaten the inhabitants of Amman living beside it, and to destroy their homes until the recent past. Early in the last century people used to fish from it, indeed it was difficult to cross it on foot or even riding on an animal during wither. The valley was rather like a forest with thick trees. Boulos Sulaiman even wrote in 1913 in Al-Mashriq magazine, "one can hardly dig a small hole without water gushing out of it. Thus you find that the bedouins go there with their livestock, so that if a traveler asks them about the name of Amman, they reply with a metaphor, 'It is the city of waters'."

This stream has disappeared now. All that remains of it is the name of the area to indicate that it existed. It has been replaced by asphalt roads and concrete buildings. The water shortage has become one of the most dangerous problems from which Amman suffers, particularly in years of drought.

We go up to the building and head for the office of the Head of the Secretariat of Amman, the Engineer Nidal Al-Hadid, who was there to meet us. He greeted us warmly, and said, "Al-Arabi is the first of the information media - written or visual - to be invited to witness Amman's preparations to be announced as the Cultural Capital this April."

His gracious speech and elegant clothing, and even more his youthful age, caught my attention.

I congratulated him on the building having won the Arab Towns Organization Prize for Architecture. We had heard about this immediately before heading for the Secretariat. "We chose this site to build the headquarters of the Greater Amman Secretariat," he commented, "in order to revive old Amman."

Half the Activities for the Secretaria

I went straight to the question which had been preoccupying me even before I left Kuwait, "Isn't it strange for the Amman Secretariat - its Municipality - to be concerned with culture? Isn't this far from the sphere of your work?"

'Th e idea isn't new," Al-Hadid replied, "and the same thing happened in some Arab countries, particularly countries which have been ruled by French colonialism. It is a transfer of the experience of municipalities in France, and even some other European countries.

"One thing must be clear," he continued, "we are not trying to play the role of a substitute for Jordanian people of culture. Indeed, our work is concentrated on providing the infrastructure for cultural work, prepare the atmosphere and the place for creative people, and give them the opportunity to spread this creativity. Thus 20% of the Secretariat's capital budget is being spent on cultural projects. So it is not strange to know that out of 58 main activities decided by the Higher Committee for the celebration of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture, there are 28 activities which will be carried out by the Secretariat, apart from hundreds of minor activities of which the Secretariat will undertake a large number.

"If we add to all this that the Secretariat - specifically its Cultural Department - publishes three monthly magazines concerned with literature (Amman), women (Tyche) and children (Bara'im Amman), as well as several books in various fields of knowledge, we become aware of the volume of work it is doing in the cultural field.

Al-Hadid told us about one of the infrastructure projects that the Secretariat intends to complete this year, the opening of "the Street of Culture", which has been selected in the Shmaisani district. The street will be closed to vehicles and reserved for pedestrians only, with small quarters left to serve the shops on each side of it. Several small shops will be set up in the street to sell newspapers, magazines and books, a small amphitheater for poetry recitals and to revive the tradition of story tellers, as well as a free studio for plastic artists.

We concluded our talk with the Engineer Nidal Al-Hadid by conveying the fears of some people over the choice of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture. "We are still in the first month of the year," he replied with a smile, "but nevertheless I have read several criticisms! The problem is that the lack of a direct role for a specific agency or a specific writer makes him hurry to criticize immediately and highlight the negative aspects. But never mind, casting light on the negative aspects and shortcomings in our work makes us hasten to correct them. And everyone has a right to criticize."

We left the Secretariat building and went on foot to Al-Hussein Cultural Center, o ne of the most important buildings attached to the Amman Secretariat. It lies a few steps away from the Secretariat, and the two buildings are a prominent landmark in the Ras Al-Ain district.

We were supposed to meet the Director of the Center there, the great poet Haidar Mahmoud , but only the day before he had been appointed Minister of Culture. Thus we were met by the Deputy Director, who referred us to a member of the Information Committee which is an offshoot of the Higher National Committee to Announce Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture, Samira Awad, who is a professional colleague since she is the Editorial Director of Amman 2002 newspaper, the official bulletin of the Higher National Committee which is published twice a month. "The bulletin is not a newsletter," Samira said, "We are trying, after the year is completed, for it to become a literary document for the various types of creativity."

Samira took us on a tour around Al-Hussein Center, which had been opened less than a year earlier. It is a center that includes several multi-purpose halls, as well as the Central Library of the Capital Amman, on which work was still underway. This will include everything published about Amman, whether printed writings, photographs or cinema films. It has five storeys, and it has 28 centers distributed throughout the various districts of Amman.

Next to this cultural edifice, in an architectural structure interconnected with it, is the Municipal Theater. Work on it was going ahead, for its official opening on the 30th of last January, the birthday of Jordan's King Abdullah Ibn Al-Hussein. It is the theater where the official ceremony will be held to dedicate Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture

Opening to Other

My colleague and I left Al-Hussein Cultural Center in the hope of returning in the evening to the Amman Secretariat building, where works of Jordanian artists were being exhibited in two of its three galleries. These galleries are open free of charge to all artists to exhibit their works. The Secretariat acquires a number of these works in order to support Jordanian artists.

The fact that the Amman Secretariat's role is not confined to establishing the infrastructure for cultural activities, and it is embarking on the role of cultural and creative work, requires it of course to create an agency responsible for this work. So the Cultural Department was formed in 1997 to be one of the specialist cultural agencies, and so that this cultural activity would have an institutional framework that would work for its development and continuity. This department is headed by Abdullah Radwan, an Arab cultural figure who has published several books. We visited Abdullah Radwan the following day, and he told us, "The Department began with a small office, and then expanded with the expansion of its activities. Indeed its expansion went beyond the building we are in. We, the Cultural Department representing the Amman Secretariat, acquired a number of old houses in Amman with the aim of preserving the architectural heritage of these houses and to use them for the cultural work that the Department is doing. Among the most important of these houses are the House of Poetry and the House of Art."

Radwan told us about the Department's role in 2002, "We are represented in the higher National Committee for Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture. This Committee has decided on a number of central programs for the Kingdom as a who le, and has left it up to each cultural agency to draw up its own program. In addition to that we, the Amman Secretariat, take part in central programs and we have our own program as well. We are acting in three ways. The first is to preserve the celebratory dimension of the occasion by intensifying and deepening the festivals, seminars and exhibitions that we usually conduct. The second is paying attention to the infrastructure of culture by adding several cultural centers and providing them with their requirements.

Finally, we are giving attention to the publication of Jordanian books. We normally publish about 33 books, and give partial support to the publication of 25 books. To this, in the year of the Cultural Capital, will be added 57 books, including the Encyclopedia of Amman, which will reproduce the overall dimension of knowledge related to Amman in history and its people. It is a twelve-part encyclopedia which will be published one book at a time each month of the year.

One thing that surprised me is that some of the books published by the Amman Secretariat were by the great Jordanian heritage expert Ghalib Halasa, who lived a long way from his homeland for many years and died a few years ago in Damascus, and another edition of the rebel poet Mustafa Wahbi Al-Tell, who was known by the name of Arar.

This trend and this openness towards others - who can in no way be regarded as loyal to the government - encouraged me come close to the area of detention of the editor of one of the newspapers, albeit cautiously.

"What about legislation related to freedom of opinion, publication and creativity?" I asked Abdullah Radwan.

He replied with the smile of someone who understood what I meant behind my question, "You may be surprised to know that the Higher National Comm ittee - not any other agency - was behind the project aimed at modernizing and developing legislation related to the laws on the press and publication, authors' rights, intellectual property and the mechanisms for spending on cultural projects. A committee was in fact formed of senior law professors in the Jordanian University to study this legislation and draw up recommendations in this regard. But, as everyone knows, amending legislation involves measures that may take some time."

I was not mistaken in m y observation about the openness of official agencies towards others. The following day we visited the Royal Cultural Center, a huge center of beautiful geometrical design which includes a number of halls, two theaters, and a ballet room. It was officially opened in 1983, and is now headed by a veteran information media man, Abdulsalam Al-Tarawneh. It is the center in whose Grand Hall the Eleventh Arab Summit Conference was held in 1980.

In the course of his affirmation that the center is trying to attract all Jordanian intellectuals of all viewpoints and political and intellectual shades, Al-Tarawneh told us that the Jordanian Communist Party had held one of its general conferences in the center, indeed elections for its committees were held there! Our feeling that there is a wide margin of freedom in Jordan increased when after that I visited Al-Destour newspaper, one of the five main daily newspapers in Jordan, one of which is published in English. Its Editorial Director Muhammad Al-Qaq, who for a long time worked as Editorial Director of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Ra'y Al-Aam, opened the subject of relations between Jordanians and Palestinians who have Jordanian nationality. This is a subject that I was aware is very sensitive, and I had avoided going into it. When I asked his permission to switch off the tape recorder so that he would not be embarrassed in the conversation, he smiled in a friendly way and said, "No, there's no need. There's no longer anything to be afraid of."

However, in spite of all th is openness, Fahd Al-Rimawi is still detained on a charge of publishing news that was not true about a government that has resigned.

Culture* Private Secto

Up to that moment we had met several responsible people in official bodies concerned with culture in one way or another. In order to get out of this circle, we went on a cold but sunny morning to the Zaha Center, a center for children which was established with donations from Mrs. Zaha, a lady who is very generous in charitable works. Amman Secretariat oversees the center, which is headed by Mrs. Fatina Umayra. The center is in the Khaldeh area in West Amman. In winter it is reserved for schoolchildren so they can benefit from the facilities in it like gardens, playgrounds, a children's library and a computer center supervised by a number of experts. There are also artistic committees which teach children the arts of drama and music.

From there we went to the Jordanian National Museum, which is run by a non-profit making non-governmental establishment, the Royal Jordanian Society for Fine Arts which is presided over by the plastic artist Princess Wijdan Bint Ali.

At the entrance to the Museum ,which is a museum of fine arts, we were met by its Director Rasmi Hamza, who spoke to us about the activities of the Museum. These go beyond merely holding exhibitions and acquiring works of art, which so far amount to1,700 works of art from 65 Third World countries.

"We organize several international conferences in co-operation with other countries and international organizations, with the aim of making Arab and Islamic culture known," Rasmi Hamza said. "So our conferences are not confined to Jordan, we also hold them in Arab and European countries."

"Our interest is not confined only to plastic arts, it goes beyond them to the aspect of thought and knowledge. Consequently we publish some ten printed works annually in English, to make the cultures of the Third World known."

The Museum includes a center for graphic art at which everything related to this art and its printing is offered to Jordanian artists. Experts are also brought in from advanced countries to conduct courses in this art.

"The Higher National Committee has entrusted the Museum with holding a comprehensive exhibition of 180 Arab artists in its galleries in 2002," Hamza added. "The Museum will publish a comprehensive book in Arabic and English about these artists, which will include summaries of their personal biographies and reproductions of their works which will take part in the exhibition.

"The other great activity we will undertake during this year is to hold an Arab sculpture workshop in which 15 sculptors will take part for a whole month. This will be in the Museum's Garden of Sculptures. Then they will participate with Amman Secretariat in choosing places to put their sculptures in various squares in Amman. This will remain in Amman's memory even after the celebrations of choosing it as the Capital of Arab Culture have ended. A festival of Arab documentary flms will also be held.

"One of the important projects for us this year is the holding of a number of lectures and human activities on the sidelines of an Islamic art exhibition of 90 artistic works from countries of the Islamic world. This will be held first on the island of Rhodes and will end in Washington, passing through six European capitals."

An Exhibition of Beauty

As we were leaving the National Museum, we met Ali Maher, the Director of the House of Arts, accompanied by the former Turkish Minister of Culture. Ali Maher invited us to visit the House, which is regarded as one of the most prominent cultural landmarks in Amman.

The House of Arts was established in 1993 by the Abdulhamid Shuman Foundation, which in turn was established in 1980 by a decision of the General Board of the Arab Bank. It is a private foundation which strives to take part in Arab scholarly research, to activate it and participate in the national development of the Arab people in the realms of science and the humanities. The establishment of the House of Arts was the culmination of the Foundation's interest in the arts and Arab artists.

We arrived at the House, located on Jabal Lwaibdeh, in the afternoon. Its front door does not indicate that we will see anything special. In fact there is nothing which makes this building different from the other buildings next to it, but as soon as we went it we discovered something to astonish the viewer.

The house is made up of three traditional style buildings built over Byzantine ruins. The houses had belonged to old, respected Jordanian families, and the Shuman Foundation had manage to acquire them, preserve their architectural character and turn them into an artistic center to serve Arab artists. The main building had in the past been a headquarters for the British commander of the Arab Legion until 1938. On its balcony, which overlooked a small Circassian village sleeping in the bosom of the valley, Lawrence of Arabia had written his memoirs.

The building had been renovated and its rooms had been converted into three interconnected exhibition galleries. Use had been made of their high roofs to enable natural light to reach the galleries by day. The library had been added to this building and provided with the most modern books on art in Arabic and English, and a film library.

The second building is also a traditional building, where Ismail Haqqi Abdou, the former Governor of the city of Acre, had lived. This was allocated for administrative offices, and is also used for holding exhibitions. A small garden has been added to the building, designed in Circassian style which accords with the architectural style of the building.

The third building used to be the residence of the poet Fuad Al-Khatib, who worked in the Amir Abdullah's court during the gtime of the Emirate of Transjordan. In the 1950s it became the residence of Sulaiman Al-Nabulsi, one of the Prime Ministers of that time. It has been renovated and fitted up to receive artists who visit the House and provide places for their creativity to work.

There is a garden on the southern side which can be reached by steps. It is situated below the administrative building, and includes the ruins of a Byzantine church which dates back to the sixth century AD. The remains of a mosaic floor and archaeological fragments of art have been discovered at the site. These are now displayed in one of the rooms of the House of Arts.

A continuous exhibition is held throughout the year, which includes borrowed works of more than 50 Arab artists which are renewed regularly. The House also invites Arab artists to exhibit their creative experiments.

The House prepares a monthly program of its activities including lectures, music, poetry, the dramatic arts and film shows, which are held in its galleries or in the open air, in either the small garden or the southern garden (where there are the ruins of the Byzantine church.

The House has prepared free art studios for the practice of all kinds of artistic work. It also conducts specialist courses under the supervision of international artists, and issues a number of publications on the visual and plastic arts.

Up to that moment I had not been able to find a reason for some people's fear over the choice of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture. Why did some people consider this a predicament. What we had seen so far, and the plans that had been drawn up, promised a real year of culture. But were the enthusiasm I had sensed, the achievements I had seen and the plans I had heard no more than official talk, or as we say, "newspaper talk"?

A Unique Experiment

We had to look for another point of view, which perhaps we could be given by Habib Al-Zayoudi, the Director of Amman Secretariat's House of Poetry. He was another young man to add to the group of young men we had met who bear the burden of responsibility to promote Amman as a center of culture.

Habib is a serious poet, according to the assessment of someone whose assessment I do not doubt, but his position has done him an injustice according to one friend. I cannot judge how correct this opinion is, as I had never read anything by him before. I discovered that this problem is a fixed idea in Jordanian cultural circles. They believe that Jordan is full of creative people, but what they are lacking is a "star industry" which will enable these creative people to rise up in the wider Arab world. Thus a creative Jordanian remains Jordanian, except for those whom circumstances help to become known by Arabs elsewhere.

I was told that he was a young man did not know how to speak smoothly. All this encouraged me to go to him in the House of Poetry, in addition to his friendly conversation which goes beyond the barrier of formality and makes you feel you have known him for a long time.

The house occupies a unique position appropriate to poetry and poets. It is situated on the top of a hill overlooking the Roman amphitheater and the Hashemites Square. On the other side of the valley it faces the Citadel Hill with its antiquities.

The house originally belonged to Prince Nayif, and so is called Nayif Palace. (A paradox that caught my attention is that in Kuwait there is a place called Nayif Palace where people condemned to death used to be hanged.)

In spite of the cold weather we preferred to wait for Habib Al-Zayoudi - who arrived late for the appointment - in the garden of the House, enjoying the enchanting view around us on all sides.

Habib Al-Zayoudi began his conversation with us by summarizing the activities of the House of Poetry in 2002, foremost of which is the Arabic Poetry Festival of which this will be the third round. It is normally held in late April each year.

"As is our custom, we will invite a large number of Arab poets," Al-Zayoudi said. "The new thing in the festival is that we are breaking the monotonous traditional form which was a reason why the public shied away from poetry. I mean the platform on which a number of poets sit with the public in front of them. We will outsmart this form by trying to bring about a more intimate form between poet and public, and create a harmony between poetry and the other arts. There are poems that will be recited to a musical accompaniment, and others that will be recited by actors accompanied by dramatic scenes, and poets will be given enough time to explain their poetic experience.

"Another thing to which we began to give attention in previous rounds, and we will give greater impetus this year, is interest in the sung poem. We believe that the decline in Arab taste and Arab singing is due to the fact that they have distanced themselves from poetry, and this imaginary barrier between song and poem. So we have chosen a selection of Arabic poems which will be performed by a number of major Arab singers to tunes by major composers also.

National by Obligation

There was no way for it but to ask my question directly, "Does the choice of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture amount to a predicament?"

"Don't drag me into bias in favor of my home town Amman," he answered quickly. "But the fact is, if we talk about Jordanian culture, we shall observe that it is an Arab national culture. Even within the realm of the daily activities which are offered - apart from the choice of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture - if you take poetry as an example, you will not find a major Arab poet who has not passed through Amman. Indeed, I can say that Jordanian citizens are not interested in local cultural activities if they do not have an Arab dimension. You will find that Jordanian people of culture are well-informed about the Arab cultural map to a great extent, perhaps to a greater extent than you will find in any other Arab country.

"Consequently Amman, more than any other Arab capital, deserves to be the Capital o9f Arab Culture. Maybe Jordan's central political role helps it in this. Jordan has always been open to all Arab brothers in spite of differences between Arab countries.

"What must be understood is that the idea of cultural capitals must be an Arab national one that deals with Arab culture in all its different details and shades, transcending the culture of fragmentation. Arab people of culture are unionist by their very nature, committed to the causes of the Arab nation, and they reject fragmentation. Without that, I do not see a reason for such an idea."

As a proof of his words, he told us - challenging us to publish what he said - that at one of the festivals which the House of Poetry held, two poets who were friends of his met, one of them Kuwaiti and the other Iraqi. It was a moving meeting, in which the two friends embraced each other with tears in their eyes.

I tried to remove the ambiguity which he and many other intellectuals feel about this matter, explaining that between the Kuwaiti people and the Iraqi people are links which cannot be destroyed, and that the official and public Kuwait position rejects the ruling regime in Baghdad. That has nothing to do with the people, and the proof of that is what he himself had just told us.

As an affirmation of this, we asked him to arrange a meeting for us with a number of Iraqi intellectuals resident in Jordan. He promised to do this the following evening.

At six in the evening we visited the House of Poetry for the second time. As was his custom the day before, Habib Al-Zayoudi arrived more than an hour late for the appointment, but the surprise was that he came accompanied by an Italian poet.

I doubted myself that I had said I wanted to meet with Italian, instead of Iraqi, intellectuals, or maybe he had misheard me. But I consoled myself by saying, poets are followed by admirers.

The Search for an Answer

In spite of the days that we had spent in Amman enjoying this enchanting city that I admit I had fallen in love with, and in spite of everything we had heard about Amman's readiness for its cultural festival which undoubtedly would qualify it to bear the burden of Arab culture in 2002, our questions were still looking for an answer in the streets and cultural institutions of Amman and from its people of culture.

Maybe we should go to the Ministry of Culture, which was the prime quarter responsible for culture, we might find answers for them. And this is what happened.

The Ministry of Culture was situated in a small building in one of the areas of Amman. There we were met by its Secretary-General Dr. Salah Jarrar, Professor of Andalusian Literature at the Jordanian University.

I asked him whether there should be criteria on the basis of which a particular city should be chosen to be the Capital of Arab Culture.

"Let's go back to the origin of the story," he replied. The idea of cultural capitals began in Europe. The basis of it was to choose a European capital to be a capital of culture in Europe. In 1995 the representatives of the Arab countries in UNESCO presented a project to adopt Arab capitals, by turns, to be capitals of Arab culture. Finally the Ministers of Culture of the Islamic countries, at their meeting held in Doha, Qatar, decided to adopt three Islamic capitals each year to be capitals of Islamic culture, beginning with the year 2004. Makkah was chosen to be the starting-point. The choice of a cultural capital is an opportunity for countries to stimulate cultural activity in them. Of course there are capitals for Arab culture where cultural activity has a deep-rooted history. But this does not mean that we should deny other cities and not encourage them to promote culture, and for culture to be a factor for their renaissance."

"We're not denying them," I said, "but we ask them to compete with other cities to be a capital for culture, and culture is not less important than football or the Olympic Games, which require a file to be presented of the achievements and potentials of the country so that it can be host to any of these games."

"I won't hide from you that I was one of those who adopted this view," Salah Jarrar answered. "My conviction regarding the choice of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture changed when I found plenty of frightened people who were trying to minimize the importance of this announcement. Through my direct contact with the preparations, and through my research into the qualifications and basic factors that make Amman fit to play this role I discovered that we could use many actions in our lives and situation for this purpose, and we can activate many of our institutions during this year. I found enthusiasm among many cultural institutions, whose activities were limited, to double their activities. Thus the announcement of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture pumped new blood into the arteries of many sluggish institutions. I believe that this applies to any capital that is chosen as a cultural capital.

"We must be aware that the objections and criticisms against the choice of Amman as a cultural capital from some Jordanian intellectuals in fact reflect solicitude and care for Amman, and a fear that it might not succeed or be able to handle this responsibility. It also reflects an ambition for an ideal situation for cultural activity in comparison with the situation we are in.

"For example, some people objected to this choice from the standpoint that the state should provide employment for unemployed intellectuals (I believe that providing employment for intellectuals is not only the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture or cultural institutions, but also the responsibility of the state as a whole. But our prime task as Ministry of Culture is to make creative people into stars and provide them with the atmosphere to express their creativity through publication, distribution, the news media, and so forth."

One of Us

On the second day we had been given an alternative appointment with the new Minister of Culture, the great poet Haidar Mahmoud, whom we had previously been supposed to meet as the Director of Al-Hussein Cultural Center.

There was an obvious feeling of satisfaction and happiness among Jordanian people of culture at the choice of Haidar Mahmoud as Minister of Culture. Many regarded it as a tribute to all intellectuals. Perhaps one of them summed up the situation in the words, "He is one of us."

When we met him I discovered an additional reason for this satisfaction and happiness, his great humility in spite of his great status as a poet and a man of culture.

The paradox of Haidar Mahmoud's appointment as Minister of Culture is that it came at a time when everyone was talking about scrapping the Ministry of Culture and replacing it with a higher council for culture like what had happened with the Ministries of Information and Youth. Indeed, word had it that the decision to scrap it had actually in fact been taken, although it had been postponed until after 2002, after the cultural capital activities had ended. The greater paradox was that our poet was one of the greatest supporters for scrapping the ministry.

After congratulating him on his new position, I asked him, "Does the situation in a developing country allow for the government to stop supporting culture by abolishing its ministry?"

"There are two viewpoints on this matter," he replied. "One opinion is that a higher council for culture can give culture wider freedom, since it is not a government institution in the direct sense. It can sponsor culture much better, being away from government influence, than the Ministry of Culture which in the end is part of the government. This is what happened in the Higher Council for Information, the non-governmental alternative to the Ministry of Information, of which I was a member until yesterday. A group of people concerned with information who have no direct relationship with the government was chosen. They are not state employees, and this gives gives them broader freedom and wider scope than those working in the Ministry.

"They tried to apply the idea also to the Ministry of Youth, which was replaced by the Higher Council for Youth. This includes sports clubs and activities, the Olympic Committee and the private sector which carries out this role. The role of the government remains to provide material support and the official umbrella for this council.

"Similarly, it has been suggested that the cultural situation should be under the umbrella of higher council for culture.

"The idea is to choose a chairman for the council and ten members from the different cultural sectors. The members could possibly include businessmen with the aim of supporting culture financially, which is an important question. The state can only spend on culture within limits. Thus the way must be opened for the private sector to take part. This solves another problem, namely that the government cannot accept donations from any quarteer, whereas the coun cil can.

"Hence the idea basically is tosimplify things for people of culture and promote the cultural movement in a small country like Jordan.

"The other opinion, which calls for keeping the Ministry, prevailed for a while, especially when Amman was chosen as the Capital of Arab Culture. But this does not mean that the first idea has been scrapped. We will think about it again after the end of this yeear, particularly since there are plenty of occasions this year which require the presence of the Ministry. This year a conference of Arab Minister of Culture will be held under the presidency of Jordan, which requires that there should be a Minister of Culture, for purely protocol reasons. And many other official activities require an official umbrella through the Ministry of Culture.

"There is a third point of view, to which I personally am inclined, which is to amalgamate the councils of culture, information and youth into one council. I am here speaking about youth as thought, education, culture and information.

"If we are aware that culture requires information media to publicize the industry of the stars of creativity, then we realize how interrelated these sectors are.

"At least the two sectors of culture and information must be combined in a single council. I fully believe that the channels of information are the same as the channels of culture, particularly in the Arab world. All the cultural work we are doing becomes information work the moment it is issued. This also applies to books and artistic works, and so forth. It is subject to the laws of information.

"And information cannot carry out its role without cultured people, and conversely a person of culture cannot succeed unless he is intelligent in information and knows how to publicize himself."

A League for "Normalization"؟

It was not possible for us to conclude our trip in Amman without seeing the popular aspect of culture in Jordan, and knowing how people of culture who do not ride the "official" train of culture view Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture. By generous invitation of our colleague Salah Hazin, we met one evening in his house with some of these. There was the writer Jamal Naji, the Chairman of the League of Jordanian Writers, one of the members of whose Board of Directors had by chance resigned from the Board, accusing it of trying to "normalize" relations with the Israeli enemy because it had accepted a new member who was accused of being one of the "normalizers".

It was natural that we should ask Jamal Naji about the root cause of the question. Was the League of Jordanian Writers really calling for "normalization" with Israel?

Jamal Naji began his statement from the history of the League: "The League has been known for its nationalist attitudes since it was established, indeed it played an influential role before 1997; when there were no laws permitting the existence of political parties, it was the opposition party and the mouthpiece of intellectuals and politicians in Jordan. This even led to its headquarters being closed down and sealed with sealing wax.

"After 1997 the situation became completely different. The state allowed parties to be formed and parliamentary elections to be held. This undoubtedly limited the role of the League. The political role which it used to play was transferred to the parties, which is a natural thing. Our work now is primarily trade union work. Acceptance of a member is subject to the by-laws of the League, which do not include a person's political affiliation. Our colleague who has resigned claims that the person we accepted is a supporter of the Wadi Araba Agreement, the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel, without presenting any evidence of this. Besides there is no provision requiring us not to accept supporters of the agreement in the League. I say this in spite of the fact that we are all not supporters of the Wadi Araba Agreement."

In order not to stray away from cultural concerns, I asked him about the attitude of the League to the choice of Amman as a cultural capital, and whether they had been excluded from activity in these celebrations.

"We are represented in the Higher National Committee to Announce Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture, but we have been very late in attending its meetings. Why? Because the pervious Board of Directors felt that we should not attend these meetings. At present we attend the meetings of the Committee regularly, and we are participating in taking decisions, even though there are many projects which were decided in our absence. Our objections to the Committee arise from the lack of agreement on the importance of ome activities and aspects of expenditure on them."

I asked him if the League has presented projects which were rejected. He replied that out of eleven projects which the League had proposed for the celebration of Amman as a cultural capital, only four had been rejected.

This was our trip to Amman in 2002, the Capital of Arab Culture. In its official and popular institutions, in the minds of its people of culture with their concerns, fears and ambitions. It remains to be mentioned that before we left Amman, our colleague Fahd Al-Rimawi had been released.


Tariq Husni

A general view of the Ras Al-Ain district, which appears in the center between Al-Hussein Cultural Center and the Municipal Theater

The artists Insaf Al-Rabadi and Zawan Al-Adwan explaining their exhibits in the galleries of the Secretariat of the Capital

The artists Insaf Al-Rabadi and Zawan Al-Adwan explaining their exhibits in the galleries of the Secretariat of the Capital

The Amman Secretariat building

The Engineer Nidal Al-Hadid , Secretary-General of the Amman Secretariat

The second-hand market on the roof over the stream at Ras Al-Ain

Abdullah Radwan, Director of the Cultural Department in the Amman Secretariat

Amman's Capital Library in Al-Hussein Cultural Center

Computer courses are among the main activities of the Zaha Center

Fatina Umayra, the Director of the Zaha Center, with a number of children

The Children's Library in the Zaha Center

A general view of one of the suburbs of Amman, with the King Abdullah Mosque in the center

Rasmi Hamza, the Director of the National Museum

The Southern Garden in the House of Arts, in which can be seen the remains of a Byzantine church

The main building of the House of Arts

Some of the exhibits of the artist Fakhr Al-Nisa. The House of Arts held an exhibition of her paintings.

In the garden of the House of Poetry

The House of Poetry building (Prince Nayif's Palace)

The poet Habib Al-Zayoudi

The Roman Amphitheater, with the House of Poetry at the top left of the photograph

The poet Haidar Mahmoud, Jordan's Minister of Culture (left) and Dr. Salah Jarrar, the Secretary-General of the Ministry

The poet Haidar Mahmoud, Jordan's Minister of Culture (left) and Dr. Salah Jarrar, the Secretary-General of the Ministry

In the National Museum of Antiquities

The Nymphs' Fountain, one of the remaining antiquities in the area of the roof over the stream

One of the main streets in East Amman, with Al-Hussein Mosque visible on the left

One of the public squares which show the architectural development in modern Amman

Jamal Naji, the Chairman of the League of Jordanian Writers

Byzantine ruins on Citadel Hill

A general view of the city of Amman

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