Literary City Guide | AMMAN, JORDAN
Tour Guide: HEATHER M. SURLS
Heather's been in love with the Middle East since studying abroad in 2006. She moved here in 2015 with her husband and son, and studied Arabic full-time for three semesters. Now her husband teaches in a local college, her boy is starting kindergarten, and she's trying to sort out life at a slower pace. (Photos by Heather M. Surls.)
Relationship to Amman: Complicated. We moved here in January 2015, but returned to the States for a year when I was very ill. But my heart still was here, so I’ll say we've lived here two and a half years.
Writer you’d like to invite to dinner: Marilynne Robinson. Her characters feel so deep, like she knows way more about them than she tells. I’d ask her how she does that.
Chef you’d like to prepare the meal: Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi. I love their cookbook (Jerusalem), with its daring ingredient lists (20 cloves of garlic in one soup?!) and fresh herbs galore.
Writing soundtrack: Quiet (which involves street noise, the mosque, and the vegetable truck megaphone around here), or coffeeshop noise.
Pen or Pencil: Both. I like how it looks in my journal when I rotate between different colors and textures.
Coffee or Tea? Tea if I’m at home. Coffee if I go out. Coffee and tea with neighbors.
Paperback or Hardback? Paperback in my hands, hardback on the shelf.
I’ll be up-front: though the Middle East has a rich literary history, Amman is not a city of readers. As a reader and writer, I felt parched a few months into my stay here. Although literacy rates are high in Jordan, Arabs still favor oral storytelling to curling up with a book. The vast differences between literary Arabic and the spoken dialects may drive this trend; while people speak dialects that vary as much as Spanish, French, and Italian, books, newspapers, and magazines are written in Fusha—essentially a frozen version Arabic from the days of the prophet Mohammad.
But, as an Arab proverb says, “The greatest crime is finding water in the desert and not sharing it.” Bookstores and libraries have been hidden wells for me here. Just like oases, though, they must be found.
Books@Cafe. From its unassuming front off of Rainbow Street, Books@cafe opens into a roomy bookshop and expansive café. Though found in an older part of town, B@C is anything but traditional. Here you can find Cosmopolitan magazine, Twilight and Harry Potter, graphic novels, adult coloring books, and architecture and new age books interspersed with Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Barbara Kingsolver. B@C also carries t-shirts with clever Arabic puns, made by JoBedu.
The Good Book Shop. Up the hill from B@C, this small but well-stocked store is filled with Jordanian history and travel books, popular novels and literature, and religious interest titles. A used book rack hangs by the front door; if you leave a book, you can take one for free. Plenty of places to sit for writing or studying.
Reader's. Although it has the feel of a big box bookshop, Reader’s is Jordanian through and through. I think Reader’s has the best overall selection of fiction in Amman—most representative of what one would find in a U.S. store, and of what average Jordanians would want to read. It also carries many works by Arab authors (in Arabic and in translation)—about half of the main branch is in Arabic.
Downtown, you can also find book kiosks on the sidewalks or “pop-up” book sellers tucked in doorways. One of the largest kiosks is located in the heart of the balad, near the Istiqlal Library (which isn’t a library, but an office supply store—same word in Arabic).
To western eyes, the public library situation in Amman and its suburbs—with a population of about four million—is bleak. I’ve had to resort to stock-piling books in America and bringing them back, as well as pillaging the shelves of book-a-vore friends. Such is the life of an expat. But there are a few gems out there, and with the work of groups like We Love Reading, I have hope that the number of book-lovers (and libraries) in Jordan will continue to grow.
Amman Public Library. I literally stumbled upon the Amman Public Library while preparing this city guide. I didn’t know it existed, and no expats I know have heard about it. Located right beside the Roman amphitheater ruins in the balad, the three-story building looks just like a library should, and has a half-level of English books and a nice-sized children’s area.
Abdul Hameed Shoman Library. This library near Second Circle is excellent, and much more accessible than the public library. The grown-up half includes the expected rules of quiet, musty smells, and rows of desks and computers for study, and the children’s half (the Knowledge Path Library) is brilliant.
Books and More. Built by expats, this English library is exceptional for the city. Most books were donated by expats, and the library was formerly housed in an apartment building, with different rooms converted into sections. You must pay a membership fee to check out books.
The Pontifical Mission Library. In Jabal Hussein, this is our neighborhood treasure chest. Run by the Catholic Church, this basement trove contains mostly older books, split pretty evenly between English and Arabic. You can find a lot of classics here, and their religious section, which fills the entire lower floor, is a bright spot for scholars like my husband.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Jabal Amman Cultural Week. This event happens every summer, and often hosts a poetry reading. I went to one early in our time here, and although I couldn’t understand anything, I just sat and soaked up the literary feel of the event.
Coffee/tea culture runs deep in the Middle East. While chains like Starbucks have proliferated in West Amman, along with big cups and more American-style drinks, tiny, sparkling glasses of tea—flavored with mint or sage and heavily sugared—are still most popular at home. “Turkish” coffee (which Arabs claim as their own) is also omnipresent. Businessmen carry it from their apartments to their cars in paper cups, and boys shake flashing trays on the side of the road, drawing customers to roadside coffee stands.
Before women were in the workforce, neighborhood coffee groups were common—three or four neighborhood women breaking from their morning work to drink coffee together. In the evening, men still gather in shops to smoke hookah, drink coffee, and play backgammon.
Fan wa Shai. I go to Jabal al-Weibdeh, the artistic and cultural heart of Amman is where I go to have “writing time,” as I tell my four-year-old. Fan wa Shai is my favorite coffee shop there. Not only does it have decaf espresso (a rare find in a city where over-caffeination is not a concern), the walls are covered with paintings and photography by local artists. While the coffee could be tastier, I go back here again and again for its homey feel.
Rumi. For a more European style cafe, try Rumi down the street from Fan wa Shai. Inside, surrounded by tourists and exchange students, you might forget you’re in the Middle East. You can read the newspaper while you wait, or sit outside on their low stools for the street view. Try loose-leaf Iraqi or Iranian tea, served in a red or blue metal teapot, with a small glass and the sugar bowl. Just be careful—the tea gets stronger with each cup.
Darat al Funun. Farther east, on the lip of Weibdeh, is Darat al Funun. Take a seat under the palm tree near the café’s outdoor fountain and enjoy the view of East Amman while you sip your tea or coffee (or mint lemonade, a must-try in the summer). Don’t miss the art gallery—politically informative, as many Arab artists focus on the Palestinian situation—the art library, and Byzantine church remains at the bottom of the stairs.
A PROPER MEAL