Cultural Bridging in Amman: Grassroots Projects with Scarce Resources
AMMAN, Jordan – While political conflicts have dominated almost all discourses around the region of West Asia, narratives have remained ensnared by political and religious frameworks. Thus the people in West Asia remain entrapped within politically driven explanations to answer questions about peace and conflict, Islamism, authoritarianism, security, stability etc. Unfortunately, even cultural, historical, philosophical, psychological and archaeological aspects of human civilization in this region were to a great extent framed to serve only political explanations. This has led to minimizing the complexity of the fabric of these societies.
Defying these rigid structures of categorization, local people in Jordan with very scarce resources are attempting to create, elevate and implement innovative ideas on very local levels. The aim is to raise awareness and develop new ways of thinking that might be the path forward not only for improving the lives of the people in the region but also for enhancing the cultural dialogue between the orient and the occident. The impact of such projects might be barely noticeable on a macro-scale; yet their impact is significant on the micro-level in Jordanian society.
Cultural space cafés, such as Naqsh [lit. Ornamentation] in downtown Amman, are examples of such grassroots projects. Naqsh is a cultural space café founded in 2014 by Yahya Abu Safi, a Palestinian 43 year old refugee. The café rises on the remnants of an old house – built in 1919 and was abandoned for over 15 years.
Although resources were as scarce as hen’s teeth, Abu Safi initiated the restoration of the house in 2013. While several Jordanians volunteered to help restore the old house, some other Europeans and Asians joined the efforts later on. The project of Naqsh is a product of voluntary work of Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians, Japanese, French and Germans.
The social and cultural value of Naqsh lies in promoting cultural exchange among the locals and with foreigners.
“At the beginning when we were trying to restore the house, some locals used to show up and wonder about this strange idea – ‘a cultural café?’ they used to say,” Abu Safi told MPC Journal. “The idea of a cultural space café in ‘downtown Amman’ was very strange for the people then,” he added.
After the embarkation of the project, the café hosted several cultural events such as musical concerts, art exhibitions, theatre, poetry evenings and language exchange events.
“Many people started visiting our events, especially that this house is located in the middle between east Amman and west Amman,” he elucidated.
The capital of Amman is broadly divided into two dimensions of reality: West Amman is the lavishly rich, luxurious and expensive part of the city, whereas east Amman is the poor, repulsively squalid and miserable part of the city. While west Amman is populated by the high class of the Jordanian society, managers, diplomats, high-ranking governmental officials and businessmen, infrastructure and public services, well-equipped schools and medical centers, although unduly expensive, are found at every corner. On the contrary, east Amman clearly suffers from a lack of facilities, crumbling infrastructure and public services and insufficient and poorly-equipped schools and medical centers.
“While Naqsh café is located in the middle of two widely different social classes, it offers a platform for an integrative involvement from both sides” Abu Safi explained, referring to the importance of cultural bridging not only between Jordanians and foreigners residing in Jordan but also among Jordanians themselves.
“We try to offer a space to all people from all walks of life,” Abu Safi said. “Many Jordanians and people from Africa, Asia and Europe visit our events regularly,” he added.
“This is a place for everyone, who believes in peace, hope and harmony.”
Naqsh is also working on setting up a library for the neighborhood, and organizing literary readings and musical sessions for the youth. In spite of the fact that most innovative projects are concentrated in west Amman, cultural projects in the Jordanian capital have been witnessing development in recent years. The development reflects the people’s increasing awareness of cultural and social platforms on the one hand, and the increase, although fluctuating, of tourism in the country on the other.
The impact of Naqsh on the youth seems to be positive. Several youngsters regularly visit the Naqsh café and use it as a space for, among other things, training and exchanging ideas. The group of Bushar [lit. popcorn] is a good example of young talents in Amman, who despite a shortage of almost everything, manage to improvise and rehearse at Naqsh café.
“Bushar is a group of 25 youngsters aimed at supporting young Arab talents. We focus on acting, singing, painting, stand-up comedy and playing music,” said Usama Nashwan, the manager of the talent group, Bushar.
Bushar, consisting mainly of high school and university male students between 14 and 25, “has a place to improve their talents and share their aspirations,” said Abduljabbar Al-Barqawi, a member of the Bushar group.
“Through our talents, we hope that we can contribute to the society by raising awareness and improving the quality of life of the Jordanian people,” Nashwan added, referring to the group’s active engagement in voluntary work. “Our goal is to build cultural bridges beyond the Jordanian borders and to show the world that we, too, have talented people,” Nashwan concluded.
Cultural exchange among people is a human aspect, which is difficult to exclusively frame as political or religious. By looking into the context of these emergent cultural projects across Jordan, we realize that the focus is neither on politics nor religion. In other words, there is much more into culture than just religion and politics.