Climb into Amman's artsy heart
Sitting awkwardly next to grandfather Damascus, beautiful sister Beirut and busy brother Cairo, Amman sometimes looks and feels like the Cinderella of the neighbourhood, little more than a stop-off point for the country's real highlights. But while other Arab cities trade off their history, this newcomer is fast becoming one of the Middle East's creative capitals.
Amman is a city of seven hills, and almost every restaurant and cafe comes with an incredible view. It also means a lot of climbing: the staircases that twist and turn up the hillsides are a great way to explore. Just north of downtown, the city rises to become Jebel Al-Lweibdeh, and this is the place to head in search of Amman's arts scene.
"I love these streets," Roba Al-Assi tells me as her car struggles up the steep slopes and around blind corners. The passionate Amman advocate has become the city's cultural diarist through her blog, www.andfaraway.net. "This is where the original Ammanis live, the old families." We get to the summit and it feels like we've left the city and stepped into a village. The streets are dimly lit, families sit outside their houses sipping coffee and an old man in pyjamas is chatting to his neighbour leaning over the balcony across the road.
It may feel like a sleepy backwater but inside some of the boxy, whitewashed colonial-era buildings are some of the most exciting and creative shops and galleries in the region. It is unique little stores like Jo Bedu that make a trip to Amman worthwhile. Hidden away in a side street is a garish yellow T-shirt shop that screams out at you. Inside, a life-size car bonnet seems to be bursting out of the wall above the till and brightly coloured T-shirts hang from floor to ceiling on both sides.
Tamer Al Masri and Michael Makdah started designing T-shirts in 2007 and selling them at the weekly handicrafts market, Souq Jara. Their humorous take on life in Jordan was a big hit and they soon needed a more permanent space. As well as T-shirts (in English, Arabic and 3arabeezy - Arabic net-speak written in Roman characters), they now produce laptop cases, stickers and bags and run design competitions.
More than a decade ago, Books@Café opened on a back street on a neighbouring hill, just round the corner from what was then a quiet hilltop road called Rainbow Street. With a huge outdoor terrace climbing up the hillside, the cafe quickly became one of Amman's favourite night-time spots and transformed the feel of the area. Now, this stalwart - some would say founder - of the Rainbow Street scene is dipping its toes into Lweibdeh and could end up having a similar effect on this area. They've partnered with Jo Bedu to create the Camel's B@C. The tiny cafe, squeezed between an apartment block and the T-shirt store, is the antithesis of Books it is quieter and smaller, with no outdoor seating.
Opposite the Camel's B@C is another beautiful little cafe, Crimson, which is pulling in the creative types, even though there's barely room to squeeze in - there seem to be no more than eight seats inside.
All these places sum up what's great about Lweibdeh: it's intimate, arty and a great respite from the crowds in other parts of Amman.
With the shopping bags full of T-shirts, it's time to head downhill for a rest. Darat Al-Funun, or Little House of the Arts, is perched on the edge of Jebel Al-Lweibdeh and comprises three 1920s villas set in some of Amman's most beautiful gardens. Head straight for the cafe, situated on a patio overlooking Amman, and sheltered by a huge tree with a beautiful tiled fountain in the centre. The service is slow but in a place as peaceful as this, it seems quite fitting. Time really does feel like it is slowing down here. You could quite easily while away an entire afternoon with a book in the solitude of this secret garden.
But drag yourself away and take a walk down to the bottom of the estate to find the remains of a sixth-century Byzantine church, which was recently uncovered and restored for use as an open-air cinema. Darat Al-Funun regularly has painters and sculptors in residence, is home to some of the region's best contemporary art and has even attracted the attention of the UK's Tate Modern, which held a joint exhibition in London.
More traditional artists find their home at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts that dominates Jebel Al-Lweibdeh. The huge high-ceilinged exhibition rooms are home to 2,000 pieces of Jordanian and Arab art. Recently, a huge traffic island was landscaped outside the main entrance to create a beautiful park with an interesting collection of public art. Right next door is Canvas, the gallery's bar and a meeting point for the country's artistic elite. As the sun goes down, the music goes up and Canvas begins to feel a bit like a Beirut rooftop club.
But Amman's real party street is over on the neighbouring hill, Jebel Amman, where the cars aren't moving and horns are blaring. Drivers are leaning out of their windows. Up ahead, a Land Rover with tinted windows and foreign number plates has stopped while the driver leans out of the window in an attempt to get the attention of a group of girls. This is Rainbow Street, one of Amman's busiest spots on a Thursday night. A few years ago, it was a very different place. The cobbled hilltop street was one of the city's most tranquil spots, far removed from the chaos of downtown at the bottom of the hill.
Every Friday, the Jebel Amman Residents' Association (Jara) holds its Friday market, Souq Jara, selling local crafts and home-cooked food. Round the corner, the Jordan River Foundation, housed in a beautiful little villa, sells handmade bags and homeware produced by some of the poorest women in the country. In 2006, the government spent an estimated five million dinars (Dh25 million) on a local regeneration project. The street was re-cobbled, pavements were widened and new retro-style signposts installed. But just as the project sought to cement the neighbourhood's village-like feel, it actually forced out many of the original residents and changed its character for good.
Although the neon signs, loud music and shisha cafes now tend to get all the attention, there is good reason to head over to Rainbow Street. Hidden just off the main thoroughfare is Jordan's Royal Film Commission, which holds regular movie screenings in the most spectacular setting I have ever seen: an amphitheatre has been set into the hillside, making it hard to concentrate on the film when the view of Amman's twinkling lights is vying for your attention. I'm here during Arab Film Week and there's hushed silence, more for the panorama below than the cheesy Algerian comedy being shown on the big screen.
Even when there's no film festival, the Royal Film Commission is a movie lover's heaven. The stunning mansion is now home to a DVD library. It has one of the best collections of Arab films in the world and, for a small donation, they'll let you watch any of the movies in one of their booths.
Music fans are catered for as well on Rainbow Street. The Turtle Green Tea Bar started out as a cafe but quickly turned into a pocket-sized concert venue for unsigned artists.
"The idea was to open an alternative cafe," founder Muhammad Abdullah tells me. "Anybody can play here," he says, gesturing over to a corner of the cafe. By his reckoning, 60 people squeezed into the mezzanine area during the last gig. At the front of the cafe, a huge chalk board covers one wall. Customers can doodle, write a message to a lover or advertise an upcoming event. Local art hangs on the walls and artists meet to discuss their latest projects, staring at laptop screens and flicking through magazines.
The tiny space is full of smoke and chatter. There is a handful of Americans and a Briton, but none of them carry guidebooks - the foreigners in these places are almost always expat workers. Amman is still very much in the shadows of Arab tourism. But Damascus, Beirut and Cairo better watch out - Cinderella will go to the ball.
If You Go
The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) has twice-daily return flights from Abu Dhabi to Amman from Dh910, including taxes
The hotel Heritage House (www.heritageamman.com; 00 962 6 4643 111), one of Amman’s first boutique hotels, has just opened on Rainbow Street. One-bedroom suites cost from 99 dinars (Dh510) per night, including taxes