A significant component of experiential learning is to explore and learn with our own senses, and then, reflect on our own emotions and thoughts. Thus, our local faculty organized a critical bus tour of Amman for us, as an experiential learning class of comparing and contrasting different neighborhoods and lifestyles.
We hopped on the bus, going from 6th circle to downtown. In Amman, there are 8 circles on the main road, running from downtown to West Amman. We followed the circles and observed on the way. Amman is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; there are remains of sites from three or four thousand years ago. The downtown area is where one can find the Roman Theater, the Citadel, and King Abdullah Mosque. Thus, it has been the place of wealth for centuries. Yet, in modern eras, because of the government project of Western Amman development and the influx of immigrants and refugees, most rich people decided to migrate west. The migration and gentrification, thus, separated the rich and the poor geographically, forming a special zone of Abdoun to Shmesani and Abdali in West Amman, while pushing the East further east. This phenomenon reminds me of a Chinese proverb: “Thirty years the east of the river, thirty years the west of the river.” Amman is a perfect example showing how wealth moves from time to time.
Passing by the 5th circle, I could feel the luxurious ambiance. Indeed, the 5th circle has a nickname – “5-star hotel circle”; one can find Four Seasons and Sheraton standing across from each other, and other luxury hotel projects in process. The 4th circle is the government circle. However, the actual circle does not exist anymore; rather, it is replaced with high security to prevent protests. A little farther down south from the 4th circle is the Abdali project. The neoliberalism ideologies and Westernized development are pronounced in the district. It is a zone of international finance, supranational authority, and local state. We stopped at the Boulevard Mall, where we got to walk on our own and examine the space with our critical eye. It is an outdoor shopping center, with a running fountain resembling the Short Pump Mall in Richmond. Instead of critiquing the space, I rather felt comfortable walking in this space, seeing the familiar coffee shops and makeup brands, reading signs written in English instead of Arabic.
I could not, somehow, critique the space; thus, I turned the critical eye to analyze myself. I found myself feeling guilty to be so familiar with these spaces of exemption and privilege. I was guilty for living in these bubbles and enjoying them without further contemplation: by whom are these places built? Who gets to enjoy these places? Whose spaces are they occupying? What influences will they bring to other locals? Furthermore, this resembles the Western way of luxury; is this what all people consider as dream homes?
What’s more, when we went to East Amman, I saw the drastic disparities within a twenty-minute drive. Since 1948, millions of refugees rushed to Jordan for numerous reasons. In East Amman, they established settlements; yet, these houses made with clay were not as robust as they looked. In recent years, many collapsed, leaving dozens of lives crushed under the buildings and many more in danger. The former glory of downtown Amman has disappeared for years; what remains now, is the debris of refugee housing. Standing on top of a mall, I saw numerous houses empty and grounds abandoned. Where did the people go? I kept asking. Why did they leave this place? To me, these people are not pushed further east; they are pushed out of the equation of neoliberalism and capitalism.
This critical tour experience taught me not only the situation of Amman but the way of looking at any space. “Who is here? Who is missing? What does this imply?” Well, from now on, I need to practice scrutinizing places with these questions.