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HomeMiddle EastAmman Journal: Finding Refuge in Jordan, and Adding to Its Cultural Mix

Amman Journal: Finding Refuge in Jordan, and Adding to Its Cultural Mix

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s national census takers made something of a stark discovery earlier this year when they found that nearly a third of the country’s 9.5 million residents are not, technically speaking, Jordanians.

For decades, the country has absorbed successive waves of people fleeing war and chaos.

Lately it has been the Syrians, but before them came Iraqis, Sudanese and Palestinians, not to mention those from Egypt, and as far away as Pakistan and the Philippines, who have come to Amman to work.

They have made the once sleepy Jordanian capital an unlikely, unsung city of refuge for people ejected from their homes.

It has not always been smooth: Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who came after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 are now Jordanian citizens, but some of the more recent arrivals are not.

Some Jordanians blame the newly arrived Syrians for driving down wages. Others say the newcomers have made Amman a better city to live in.

“Where in the Arab world do you have this kind of mixture?” said Annemarie Jacir, a Palestinian filmmaker who moved to Amman six years ago after stints in Riyadh, Ramallah and Jerusalem. “That’s what makes Amman special.”

The debate echoes the tense conversations taking place in capitals all over the world on whether and how to integrate migrants.

On a recent visit to Amman, we met some of the people who are changing the cultural fabric of Amman.

In the window of the Abou Arabi Haider Damascene Gourmet Sweets shop sat an intricately terraced mountain of baklava, glistening in syrupy sweat. It had a caramel-colored layer, then another layer bulging with pistachios, and on the base, a handful of bright, raw cashews.

It is the handiwork of Omar Awad, a marble artist from Damascus who decamped to Amman four years ago to escape the civil war in Syria. Instead of designing the marble accents for mansions back home, he now arranges sweets in the shop window.

“Wherever you put us as Syrians, we will learn and we will do,” Mr. Awad said bullishly.

Syrian sweets are among the new luxuries in the capital, and the lines at Abou Arabi Haider shop stretch out the door on Fridays. Jordanians make the same kinds of sweets, filled with the same pistachios and almonds, but even the most xenophobic Jordanian would admit that Syrians have a special touch.

Mr. Awad, 27, said he could not imagine leaving Amman anytime soon. He helped establish the sweet shop, and a cafe next door. On the wall hung a photograph of the original shop in Damascus.

“It took a lot of effort to open and run this branch of Abou Arabi in Jordan and we will not abandon it,” Mr. Awad said. “No matter what happens in Syria in the future.”

On a shaded garden patio, in an upscale neighborhood of Amman, Munira Ghanem, of Sudan, took out her henna cone and began to paint the slender, bare forearm of a loyal customer. She drew a vine curling upward, then decorative leaves, topped by a flower.

The Sudanese introduced henna painting to Amman’s ladies of fashion, and Ms. Ghanem is among the most coveted artists.

She came to Amman 20 years ago with her husband. She began to work in the city’s beauty salons, threading, waxing, and eventually, painting henna. Sometimes she paints an arm, other times a shoulder, occasionally the small of a woman’s back.

Even after her husband returned home, Ms. Ghanem stayed, raising their four children on her own.

Many more Sudanese arrived from Darfur, then from the Nuba Mountains, as the conflicts there intensified.

We asked her where she felt most at home. “Wherever I can find work I feel it’s home,” she replied. “Where I can improve my life and my children can get an education — that’s what’s important.”

A crow cawed from the top of a date palm. A breeze broke the heat of midday. One of her fellow beauticians brought her newborn daughter to the salon. Other beauticians emerged from the salon rooms to coo at the baby: an Ethiopian, a Filipina, a second Sudanese woman from the Nuba Mountains.

Only one thing, Ms. Ghanem confessed, made her feel adrift — living as a tenant under someone else’s roof. “Here we don’t own a house. In Sudan we don’t own a house,” she said. “It’s like you’re living in the air.”

Shahad Dawood, 27, is trying to get a toehold in Amman’s art scene, much of it built from scratch by Iraqi exiles like her who transplanted the high culture for which Baghdad was once widely known.

Ms. Dawood was barely 2 years old when her family fled the Iraqi capital on the eve of the first gulf war in 1991. They returned briefly in 2003, just before the city was plunged into chaos by the American-led invasion.

Her family’s business, a cosmetics factory, expanded to Jordan. And like many of their compatriots, they brought their fortunes to Amman and built homes in one of the city’s most affluent enclaves, with streets named Basra and Baghdad.

Returning is not an option. “I would never go back to Iraq,” Ms. Dawood said. “Even if things ever get better. I don’t know it.”

She knows even less about her family’s ancestral home, in Mosul, which remains a stronghold of the Islamic State.

Ms. Dawood considers Amman home. She speaks with a Jordanian accent. She delights in the fact that she can pass for a local.

“Jordan gave me many things,” she said. “I am safe here.”

Alaa Abu Quta, 36, crawled out from under a Toyota S.U.V. at the garage where he and his brothers work, bared his grease-stained palms and flashed a broad smile.

“I like to figure out what’s wrong with cars, to find what their faults are, and figure out how to fix them,” he said.

Mr. Abu Quta and his Palestinian compatriots are known for keeping Amman’s cars driving smoothly. There were about a dozen Palestinian car repair shops on just one street in the northern outpost of Amman. When we visited his shop on a recent Thursday evening, it was filled with the chatter and smell of working men.

Mr. Abu Quta’s brothers have joined him in the family’s business: Imad, 34, after a brief time fixing computers, and Ali, 30, who earned a diploma in automotive repair. Their father, Mohammad, was a child when he arrived in Amman in 1967. His sons were born in Jordan and are Jordanian citizens.

We asked if they see themselves as Jordanians or Palestinians.

Alaa put his sooty palm on his chest and smiled. “Jordan is in my heart,” he said. “Palestine is in my heart. Don’t ask us to choose.”

Imad said Palestinians were not like Syrians in Jordan. The Syrians miss their country; he said he has no country to miss.

He also blamed Syrian refugees for driving up unemployment in Jordan. Still, he admitted to having a weakness for Syrian sweets. Three times a week, he goes to his favorite Syrian sweet shop.

Alaa laughed. He said he goes every day.

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(via NY Times)