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The City and the Writer: In Amman with Amjad Nasser (1955–2019)

By Nathalie Handal


If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Amman as you feel/see it?

It was a large and shocking city. Since I arrived from the outskirts and not the center—I came from Bedouin culture and the edge of the desert, and not from the city’s customs and lifestyles—I found it somewhat of a strange world. This despite the fact that I belonged to the same country and language as its people did. The entire city, strangely, seemed to me to be of a higher class than I was. This is, of course, completely contrary to the notion of social class. Cities are not made up of one class. Rather, they are composed of many, some bourgeois and some working-class, some rich and some poor, but this I would come to understand later on. I was from a Bedouin family, and we didn’t have electricity until I was fifteen years old, and so Amman was this large, well-lit city, with its sparkling glass storefronts and with women walking in the streets as they pleased, dressed in modern attire, and not necessarily escorted by any members of their families. This was a big difference, a woman in an urban landscape is different from a woman in the countryside or in Bedouin communities, which is what life was in most Jordanian towns of that time.

Later on, Amman became an ordinary city. It began to shrink. Some of its neighborhoods began to resemble the place I was originally from. And there were two different worlds: West Amman, where the city’s social and economic elite and state officials lived, and East Amman, where the struggling classes lived. The laborers and bureaucrats, the citizens arriving from the countryside and Bedouin communities with all of their customs and social relationships intact and largely unchanged by the city, because they lived on its margins and not in its heart, and by this I mean the economic and cultural heart of the city.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

There was no other experience like this. There was a love that never fully manifested and so it left little trace when it ended. But it could be said that leaving Amman was a big turning point in my life. I developed another life. Another beginning. A new name in a new city: Beirut. My experience in Beirut has been the most important of my life, and it is the city I could write about without end, and so I did.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I didn’t notice all these details until I left the city and stayed away from it for thirteen years. I noticed how Amman’s buildings, constructed of white limestone, were distinct from buildings in any other city in the Arab world. It looks like Rome. Amman is originally a Roman city, and in its Roman era, it was built on seven hills like Rome. Amman maintained its tradition of building with white stone. Amman’s citizens don’t know these details because they live inside of it and whoever lives in a place day in and day out does not discern its details. I also noticed that the architects of the modern era adopted the original Roman urban plan: seven hills facing each other and overlooking a plaza with an amphitheater in the middle, the central locus of activity, which has become modern-day downtown. As if the hills are the city’s limbs and the downtown city center is its heart. This is where commercial, social, and arts events take place, where all the bookstores and theaters and cinemas are located.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Novelists are the ones who have explored the details of the city the most. Poetry is too dense and compressed to accomplish this, despite the fact that my first collection, In Praise of Another Café, evokes city life, its streets and coffee shops, the movement of people through the streets and the markets. I believe there are four Ammani novelists, Elias Farkouh, Mu’nis Al Razzaz, Ziyad Al Qassem, and Qassem Tawfiq, in whose stories you glimpse different images of the city and its life, its daily political and social struggles in different stages of its modern era.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

Yes, Jebel Elweibdeh, a neighborhood I always visit whenever I return to Amman. It’s the home of the Jordanian Writers’ Union, the place whose streets I walked with my friends, and the scene of my first love affair with a girl from the city, though it didn’t really develop into anything much, and when it ended it left no wounds. This is an excellent kind of love. Elweibdeh has a different identity than the other hilltop neighborhoods of Amman. It’s located in West Amman, but it belongs to the middle class. It is full of coffee shops and galleries and civic organizations where a large portion of the city’s arts and culture scene unfolds.

Like many older neighborhoods in Amman, Elweibdeh reflects the architectural style of modern Jordan, the nation founded as the Eastern Emirate of Jordan in 1921. Most of the architects who built the first homes and institutions in the nascent state had lived in the Ottoman era and were influenced by its architectural style. This is evident in the homes of Jebel Amman and Jebel Elweibdeh, the two neighborhoods of choice for the country’s old political upper class. Overall, the wave of modernization that has transformed the city hasn’t impacted Elweibdeh’s identity. By chance or by conscious resistance, it has stood firm against the tide of haphazard development that has swept most of the city.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

There isn’t one iconic cultural locale in Amman, in my opinion. It’s possible to consider Elweibdeh that place. It’s also possible to consider the bookshops downtown, which remain as I knew them forty years ago, to be iconic centers of culture. Very little has changed in these bookstores. They’re still in the same location, on one or two streets in the center of the city. Whenever I’m in Amman, I shop at these stores for books that I could never find in modern bookstores. In one of these shops, I found the same bookseller I used to see whenever I stopped in to buy a book or just browse through new texts and stationery that had come in. The now aged man stared at me as if he was trying to decide where he had seen me before.

These bookshops are marked by the scent of books and old paper and cigarettes. It’s strange, this smell of printed paper, as if each book has its own signature scent. In these shops, you can find books that were never reprinted, editions that are forty, fifty years old. They look like they haven’t moved off the shelves. I wonder what this means. I wonder if it suggests a great tradition or a lack of readership and weak book sales. And if so, how did these bookshops survive all these years with books that were published forty years ago still on their shelves? It seems to me that these booksellers have withered away, sitting at their heavy wooden desks, sipping tea or coffee and smoking calmly, showing no weariness in their consistency, their stillness. These bookshops never fail to inspire subjects for writing, and they are quite capable of arousing my longing for the time when I was a young man eager to devour books for the wonders and treasures that only reading can reveal, a young man who dreamed that perhaps, one day, he would have a book among those on the shelves.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Yes, it is wast el balad, the old city center, which most residents of West Amman no longer visit, as their part of town has so many shopping malls, restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, and bars that seem to be the exclusive purview of their bourgeois neighborhoods. The city center now belongs to the residents of East Amman and those arriving from other countries. Wast el balad is the heart where the old city lives, its early beginnings. There, hotel guests share rooms and facilities. There are greengrocers and spice shops. And there are gold markets where newly engaged couples shop for jewelry specially crafted for wedding dowries. And there are coffee shops that play old tarab classics and are frequented by retirees. And there are traditional restaurants the likes of which you cannot find in bourgeois West Amman, neither in terms of menus nor prices. There is actually no comparison between the cost of food and beverages in West Amman and in wast el balad. There is another life that unfolds in this low-lying area at the foot of the seven hills, which the residents of the old city used to descend steep stone staircases to reach.

 

Where does passion live here?

………

 

What is the title of one of your works about Amman and what inspired it exactly?

There are many poems about Amman, but not one specific poetry collection with a title that links it to Amman. My first book, In Praise of Another Café (1979), is a Jordanian work; in fact, it is an Ammani work. Most of the poems in the collection have to do with my relationship to the city. My second collection has to do with Gilead, a mountain near Amman, and contains a kind of creative record of Jordanian locales and tribes. At the time, and in my exile, I felt that I might lose my origin point if I didn’t write it in poetry, if I didn’t secure it in the poem. So in that collection you will find the names of places, streets, personalities, tribes, and wild plants of Jordan’s landscape. These places remain: the places, the plants and grasses, this wild wide horizon that a person glimpses as soon as they leave a Jordanian city and head east. All of these are present in my poetry and prose.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Amman does an outside exist?”

………

 

Translated from Arabic by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

 



IN MEMORY OF AMJAD NASSER (1955­–2019)
 

I met Amjad Nasser in 1994 in London. He was working for Al Quds Al Arabi and I was editing The Poetry of Arab Women. Our very first encounter was a passionate discussion about poetry, language, cities, and exile. Soon afterward, I joined him in continuous literary gatherings that usually included the Syrian poets Lina Tibi and Nouri al-Jarrah, the critic Subhi Hadidi, the Assyrian poet Sargon Boulus, and others. The room was filled with smoke, ashtrays, and cigarette buds, glasses of arak and mezze, faint Arabic music in the background, and mountains of books on shelves, tables, floors, closets. These thought-provoking evenings speaking about Arabic literature and culture were epic—full of fire and hope. And Amjad was always the most animated.

We also spoke a lot about translation of Arabic literature into other languages, and in particular into English, which was sparse at the time. One pioneer in the field was Salma Khadra Jayyusi, the founder and director of PROTA, created in 1980 for the translation of the best Arabic literature into English, and of East-West Nexus, founded in 1991 for the dissemination of knowledge of Arabic culture and civilization outside the Arab world.

In 1998, Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon launched the magazine Banipal, now one of the most important spaces for Arabic literature in translation. I am honored and moved to have appeared in the first issue of Banipal in February 1998, which also included Sargon Boulus (1944–2007) and Amjad, both extraordinary poets and friends, now gone.

Amjad Nasser was born Yahya Numeiri al-Naimat in Amman. He later lived in Beirut and Cyprus before settling in London. He was a pioneer of modern Arabic poetry and prose poems, the author of over ten poetry collections, four travel books, and two novels. His books translated into English include the poetry collections Shepard of Solitude (Banipal, 2009) and A Map of Signs and Scents: New and Selected Poems, 1979–2014 (Northwestern University Press, 2016); and the novel Land of No Rain, which was commended for the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. He won numerous awards, namely the Muhammed al-Magrut Prize for Poetry, the Ibn Battuta Prize for Travel Writing, and the Mahmoud Darwish Award for Literary Creativity. In 2014, Amjad was invited to inaugurate New York University’s Gallatin Global Writers series, but the Department of Homeland Security denied him entry into the United States.

While rereading Amjad’s answers, I paused at this line: “Amman . . . looks like Rome. Amman is originally a Roman city, and in its Roman era, it was built on seven hills like Rome.” This past August, after my usual walk from Gianicolo Hill—where the view of Rome from Fontana dell’Acqua Paola suspends the heart—to my Monteverde Vecchio apartment, I had a long phone conversation with Amjad’s son Anas. As we spoke, our old gatherings returned. I could see the young Anas running around the house or sitting attentively, as if time had not blinked. This was my farewell to Amjad from Rome as he lay dying in Jordan.

On October 30, 2019, after I gave a reading at Slought in Philadelphia, organized by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, I was told that Amjad had died after a long battle with cancer.

He sent me this piece with a note saying, Dear Leo [as we were born in summer], I did not reply to all questions. The unanswered questions: Where does passion live here? Outside Amman does an outside exist?

Forever intriguing and impassioned, he leaves us wondering.

But I would say that all of Amman’s passion lives inside of Amjad Nasser, and outside of Amman, this leading poet and writer exists, and will continue to take us back and beyond.


Nathalie Handal


Published Feb 24, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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