Amman is divided into two areas – East and West. East Amman is described the same way Raytown is described (my apologies if you aren’t a KC-area reader — hopefully you can substitute your own local example!): lower income, family values, working class, small businesses.
West Amman, in contrast, is described the way you would describe the Plaza if it was also located in Johnson County: very cosmopolitan, wealthy, individualistic attitudes, corporate everything. There are two malls in West Amman, a Lamborghini dealership, and single-family homes that look like apartment buildings.
I’ve had the chance to experience both already. My host family is on the east side on Amman – a large family in a three-story house (I’ve counted 9 people so far – 2 men, 6 women, and a baby boy). The street signs are all in Arabic only. If you need to buy something, you stop by a street stand or a small shop owned by one person.
My volunteer site, on the other hand, is located in West Amman and is staffed by women who live within walking distance. The streets are wide, the signs are in English (often with Arabic subtitles) and there are no small shops in sight. If you need to buy something, you can go to CitiMall (which includes a two-story store my coworkers affectionately refer to as “Arab Wal-Mart”) or Mecca Mall.
These sides appear to live in relative peace. The East Ammanis drive to the West Side to eat a ritzy dinner with friends, seek office jobs with the corporations there, and shop in the mall on occasion. The West Ammanis never go to the East Side, because they have everything they need already.
But it’s the same sort of peace you might find between a working class person in Raytown and a wealthy person in Leawood. If you take the time to talk to either side, they have some strong opinions.
“Over there on the West Side,” said one of my host sisters, “they try to pretend to be something they aren’t. They try to act American. They only care about themselves and their stuff. They think they’re better than us, just because they have money. They’ve forgotten what it means to be Muslim and Jordanian.”
That’s why West Side signs are in English, she said.
“They want to pretend they are in America,” she said. “All their signs are in English so they can pretend they aren’t here. They don’t like it here. They’ve turned it into mini-America.”
She said she believes that’s why more American students have decided to visit than ever before.
“It’s easy for you,” she said. “You haven’t really left America.”
She said she likes the East Side better.
“We have community here,” she said. “And families all live together. You know, over there [on the West Side], their children move out and get apartments before they’re married. They don’t stay where they belong.”
At my volunteer site, I asked my new friend where she lived. Coincidentally, she lives on the West Side.
“People on the East Side think we’re wealthy,” she said. “We’re not. My parents bought our house a long time before the West Side was nice. It’s not our fault they put all the foreign delegates here in big houses and built the malls close to where they live. Our house is still the same.”
I asked her if she thought there was any difference in values between the sides.
“Not really,” she said. “I mean, we’re all Muslim. I believe the same things. But we do like the development more on the West Side. The East Side is so traditional. They’re stuck in the past.”
She said she believes East Side Ammanis resist development because they can’t afford to live an American lifestyle.
“That’s not what it’s about,” she said. “It’s about being taken seriously and having the same opportunities as an American or a Frenchman. We don’t have any natural resources here – no oil or anything – so we just have our people. And our people can have good jobs and nice things.”
She said she would love to live in the States. One of my other coworkers agreed, and said she studied in Ohio for a while. This other coworker cried for months when she came back, she said, because she missed America.
It’s interesting to me that both East Side and West Side Ammanis characterize development as an American influence.While the West see it as progress and seem to admire the American way, the East appears to wish to stay with traditional, simple living.
With the improved education and health systems – which both sides mentioned – comes capitalism and fast-paced living; if they are not actually linked, it appears so to the Jordanians.
As an American citizen myself, it’s hard to objectively think about the issues. Like the West Side Ammanis, I think of development as a good thing. I like the city experience, I like living apart from my family, and I like being individual. However, I also enjoy family time, community experiences, and small businesses. I don’t know that West Side life is necessarily intertwined with advancements in medicine and education. But I’ve only been here for a day. I’m sure these thoughts will mature as I spend each of the next 18 days on both sides of the city line.