The 2002 Amman Capital of Arab Culture and the Narrative of Urban Genesis: Exploring the Intersection of Urban Transformations and the 2002 Ammani Novels

© Ismael Abder-rahman Gil, Duwwar al-Thaqafa, Abu Nusseir, Amman.

Ismael Abder-rahman Gil

Ca’ Foscari University of Venice & Philipps University of Marburg

Perhaps the most famous literary text about Amman is sīrat madīnah by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf. The work has been widely distributed and translated into a number of European languages, such as English, French, Spanish, and Catalan.

However, during the course of my research on the representation of Amman in the novel, I was struck by the significant number of historical novels dealing with the city. Notable among these is Ziyād Qāsim’s book, abnāʾ al-qalʿah, which was published in the late 1980s and the 1990s.[1] A decade later, dafātir al-ṭawafān by Samīḥah H̱rīs and al-šahbandar by Hāšim Ġarāybah stand out as novels in which Amman is the protagonist. In this regard, it should be noted that both novels were published in 2003 in the framework of the nomination of Amman as the capital of Arab culture by UNESCO in 2002.

The fact is that the urban transformations that took place at the beginning of the millennium are closely linked to an increase in the literary trend of including Amman in Arabic literature from Jordan. However, this literary trend has received little attention in academic research. The role played by the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) and the 2002 events in Amman as the Arab Capital of Culture are crucial in understanding this phenomenon. Additionally, the cultural policies of Arab municipalities, including the Arab Capital of Culture program, have been under-explored in academic research. Therefore, this entry will briefly summarize a chapter from my thesis, which includes some of the research I conducted for the “NaJor@MO project”.

A pertinent question is: where does this Ammani literary trend come from? In this regard, Ziyād Qāsim’s novel gives us many clues as to how the literary trend of depicting Amman’s past from the 1990s, through the early 2000s, begins, and how it progresses and culminates.

This novel started out as what could be considered a failure, at least from a commercial point of view. The book had a sequel that was never published because the author himself burned the manuscript because he was disappointed with the novel’s poor reception (Abū Niḍāl 2008: 36). The novel is a historical novel, which tells of the bustling political and commercial life of pre-1967 Amman.

The paratext, i.e. elements that are parallel to the text, provided important information that helped me open up a path in my research on municipal cultural policy. On the one hand, the book cover of the 1996 edition comes with the logo of the Greater Amman Municipality. On the other hand, the acknowledgment written in the second edition of the book thanks the mayor of Amman back then, Mamdouh al-Abbadi stating:

لولا تشجيع معاليه ودعمه الخير المشكور لما كان لها أن تولد ثانية

 [Had it not been for the encouragement and support of His Excellency, and his good support, the novel would not have been born again] (Qāsim 1996: I).

It should be recalled that Mamdouh al-Abbadi was the mayor of Amman who established the cultural department in the city council that had as a main objective “to undertake the Municipality’s newly self-imposed role of shaping Amman’s missing identity” (Sakr, 2013: 331). In this identity-shaping endeavour, history was a key element in the Municipal narrative. Amman, a city that Jean Hannoyer wondered “Il apparaît que Amman serait l’héritière d’une histoire qui ne lui appartient pas” (Hannoyer 1996) [It appears that Amman is the heiress of a history that does not belong to it]. Hence, the municipality began to explore its history and particularities and provide an origin for the city, a city “without origin” as one of the characters in Mu’nis al-Razzāz’s novel reproved (Razzāz 1994: 46).

This tendency to capitalize on Amman’s history is particularly evident in the novels published in 2002 on the occasion of the proclamation of Amman as the Capital of Arab Culture by Unesco and the Arab League. The event was one of the most important branding campaigns carried out in the city (Khirfan & Momani 2013).

The urban transformations in the transition from the nineties to the 2000s were aimed at putting Amman on both the touristic and global maps. The ancient ruins were restored and fitted out for tourism (Shami 2007: 229), and at the same time Amman went through an ongoing process of creating a new image that combines antiquity and post-modernity (Hourani 2016: 37). In this regard, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the State, and the Municipality of Amman considered that the city “lacked a historical centre to market to the global travel industry” (Hourani 2016: 36). For Najib Hourani:

While the new heritage tourism zone was to reorganize the suq to be a representation of timeless cultural identity, another project just outside the suq would become a hypermodern, globally connected, “new downtown” where wealthy tourists could stay, shop, and play (Hourani 2016: 36).

In this sense, the novels published and sponsored by the GAM on the occasion of the 2002 Amman Capital of Arab Culture fit with the municipality’s vision and the urban transformations of the beginning of the century. The novels studied in my research were al-Šahbandar by Hāšim Ġarāybah (2003) and dafātir al-ṭawafān by Samīḥah Ḫrīs (2003). Both novels are based in the Amman of the past, giving special emphasis to the multi-cultural aspect of Amman, and the market as a city-maker. An example of this can be seen in the titles of the novels. The first novel, al-šahbandar [The Chief Merchant], and the second novel  dafātir al-ṭawafān [The Deluge Logbooks]. In the narrative, the market brings together people from different geographical, ethnic, and confessional backgrounds. These novels carry a key difference from other Ammani historical novels, such as those published in the late eighties, for example, sulṭānah (1988) by Ġālib Halasā and abnāʾ al-qalʿah (1990) by Ziyād Qāsi, which is that, unlike the earlier novels, the 2002 novels portray a positive view of the market, and emphasize its role in the creation of modern Amman. The following excerpt is one of dozens of similar examples that can be found in the 2002 novels:

The common interests of the people, and the market movement mixed the peasant with the urban dweller, and the Russian blonde hair with the brown skin of the Bedouins, the Englishmen with the fez dressers, and the white keffiyehs of the Arab Peninsula with the speckled with red or black squares (H̱rīs 2009: 192-193, my translation).

This contrasts with an anti-mercantile statement in Ziyād Qāsim’s novel:

People will only remember that al-Sayl is a street. Its sides are tall buildings, crowded markets, and crowded sidewalks and shops competing and fighting with each other. People will not know that the street, with its smoke and the jam of its wheels, is more terrifying than the flood of a torrent, and that its hum and the clamour of its markets are louder than the roar of the torrent. And that the smoke, oil, and fuel are more polluting than the filth of the torrent. People will not remember that the torrent was a basket full of vegetables, fruits, eggs, and milk. They will only remember al-Sayl Street with its sprawling markets and exotic imported goods (Qāsim 1996: 214, my translation).

The emphasis placed on the market in the novels is part of the urban and cultural agenda of Amman during the transformations in the early 2000s. Najib Hourani discusses this transformation of the downtown market, as well as the new neoliberal mega-project of the New Downtown:

While the new heritage tourism zone was to reorganize the suq to be a representation of timeless cultural identity, another project just outside the suq would become a hypermodern, globally connected, “new downtown” where wealthy tourists could stay, shop, and play (Hourani 2016: 36).

With this drive, the municipality has sought to legitimize the city by creating a supposed historical continuity with a hospitable and mercantile character that transcends different eras and civilizations. Amman is no longer just a commercial centre, it is also a city among cities. It is worth noting that when Amman has been compared to other regional urban centres, in Seteyen Shami’s words, it: “belabours under the weight of the region’s many historic cities. This is a region that hosts the oldest still-inhabited urban centres of the world, aged capitals of powerful past empires, major religious sites, and centres of learning as well as notable colonial creations” (Shami 2007: 212).

In this sense, what is so national about Amman, its novel, and its urban politics? Would it not be more interesting to apply a “trans” lens to all of the above? For example, UNESCO is a transnational entity, and both the aid agencies and the capital invested in changing the face of Amman are also foreign. The projection of the state outwards, and its positioning of itself as a global destination, are also a transnational. Similarly, it is important to navigate between scales, zooming in and zooming out, not only at the national or supranational level but also at the subnational level, such as at the municipality level, and it is important to understand the municipality not only as an urban actor, but also as a cultural and literary one. In the same way, the novels and their authors it can also be seen as an urban, cultural, and literary agents.


خريس، سميحة. 2003 .دفاتر الطوفان. عمان: منشورات أمانة عمان

غرايبة، هاشم. 2003 .الشهبندر. بيروت: دار الاداب

قاسم، زياد. 1996. أبناء القلعة. الطبعة الثانية. عمان: منشورات أمانة عمان.

Hannoyer, Jean. ‘Amman, texte modèle, histoire rebelle ?’ In Amman : Ville et société, edited by Seteney Shami, 21–36. Contemporain publications. Beyrouth: Presses de l’Ifpo, 2019.

Hourani, Najib. ‘Assembling Structure: Neoliberal Amman in Historical Perspective’. Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 45, no. 1/2 (2016): 1–62

Khirfan, Luna, and Bessma Momani. ‘(Re)Branding Amman: A “Lived” City’s Values, Image and Identity’. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy 9, no. 1 (1 February 2013): 49–65.

Sakr, Yasir. ‘Analyzing City Hall, Villa and Tunnel in Amman: The Failures of Cultural Amalgamation at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’. International Journal of Islamic Architecture 2, no. 2 (2013): 325–48.

Shami, Seteney. ‘“Amman Is Not a City” Middle Eastern Cities in Question’. In URBAN IMAGINARIES: Locating the Modern City, edited by Alev Çinar and Thomas Bender, 208–36. London: University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis, 2007.

[1] This novel was completed in 1988 according to its colophon. However, the first edition was published in 1990, but it was not a great success, until the second edition of Greater Amman Municipality was published in 1996.

Closing Conference of NaJor@MO project – Rethinking the nationhood in the Middle East: Jordan as a case study (5-6 October 2022)

Photo : slogan “Al Urdun Awalan” (La Jordanie en premier) sur une école de Marka (Amman) © Norig Neveu, août 2021

Organizers: Taher Labadi (IFPO), Simon Mangon (MESOPOLHIS), Norig Neveu (IREMAM)

Continue reading Closing Conference of NaJor@MO project – Rethinking the nationhood in the Middle East: Jordan as a case study (5-6 October 2022)

Tariq Adely

Department of Anthropology, George Washington University, Washington, DC

Tariq Adely is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at George Washington University in Washington, DC, USA. His current research asks how material infrastructures, social networks, and everyday urban practices shape how media and literary texts move through Amman—and more broadly—as well as how these processes of production and circulation shape notions of place in Jordan. Prior to his PhD study, Tariq earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. He is also an editorial assistant for the journal Anthropological Quarterly.

Louise Rautureau

Sciences Po Grenoble

Student in the last year of a Master’s degree in Political Science dedicated to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Has studied International Relations at the URJC in Madrid and Social and Urban Governance at the University of Bordeaux IV. Currently doing an internship and preparing a thesis on feminist movements in Jordan today in relation to economic inequalities.

Session 6 – Placing litterature in Jordan: a diaologue on narrative, representation and space

Photo : Amman, Jordan © Hisham Zayadnh, Unsplash

Tuesday 28th of June, 3.00-5.00 (CET), online. Zoom Link / Meeting ID: 970 0518 3952 / Secret Code: 157982

Webinar supported by Institut Sociétés en Mutation en Méditerranée (SoMuM), within the framework of the Najor@Mo project, “Repenser le national au Moyen-Orient : la Jordanie comme cas d’étude“. Organizers: Taher Labadi, Ifpo, Simon Mangon, Mesopolhis, Norig Neveu, Iremam.

This session aims to open a discussion regarding the interplay between literature, language, and place. At the crux of this session is a contention: that language and literature are not mere reflections of reality. Rather literature—as a medium—enacts social, material, and cultural effects, both shaping and being shaped by the locales and contexts in which it emerges and circulates. Literature, moreover, is not a static object but rather morphs as it moves between languages and landscapes. Thus, this session asks: What might we learn by tracing literature’s displacements and translations between varied geographies? How might this avenue of inquiry both illuminate and destabilize our taken-for-granted questions regarding cultural production and circulation in Jordan?


Fernanda Fischione is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie research fellow carrying out TRANSECT, a project on the transnational circulation of Maghrebi national imaginaries through literature. She holds a Ph.D. from Sapienza University in Rome. Her area of expertise is modern and contemporary Arabic literature, with a special focus on space in literary criticism, namely Ghalib Halasa’s (1932-1989) treatment of narrative space. Alongside her academic activities, she is a literary translator from Arabic into Italian as well as the founder and editor of the magazine Arabpop: Rivista di arti e letterature contemporanee.


  • Ismael Gil, University of Marburg
  • Tariq Adely, George Washington University
  • Pierre Delanghe, IEP Aix-en-Provence
  • Inès Delpuech, INALCO/ENS Ulm, Paris

Cihat Toker

Sciences Po, Mesopolhis

Cihat Toker received his bachelor’s degree in Political Sciences at Galatasaray University (Turkey) in August 2020. He studied at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University (France) in the framework of Erasmus Exchange Program in 2018-2019. He is currently master student and Eiffel scholar in Religion, Politics and Society at Sciences Po Aix (France). His research aims to explore Turkey’s cultural diplomacy policies through Turkish soap operas in Jordan.

Session 5 – Reading, writing, and drawing the Nation: cultural production and society in Jordan

Photo : Amman, Jordan © Hisham Zayadnh, Unsplash

Tuesday 17th of May, 3.00-5.00 p.m (CET), online. Zoom Link / ID de réunion : 879 3292 6070 / Code secret : 198370 

Webinar supported by Institut Sociétés en Mutation en Méditerranée (SoMuM), within the framework of the Najor@Mo project, “Repenser le national au Moyen-Orient : la Jordanie comme cas d’étude“. Organizers: Taher Labadi, Ifpo, Simon Mangon, Mesopolhis, Norig Neveu, Iremam

Description: This session aims to open a dialogue with two prominent cultural producers about their experiences navigating the media, arts, and literary landscapes of Jordan. While political and social theorists from Benedict Anderson to Partha Chatterjee have underscored cultural production’s centrality in crafting the nation-state, this session aims to examine and interrogate what this process looks like among writers, readers, and artists today in Jordan. Thus, this session asks: what role do books, newspapers, and the arts play in reinforcing—or, alternatively, foreclosin—collective social formations and modes of belonging? How are socioeconomic, professional, and cultural shifts shaping the trajectories and societal influence of cultural producers? In sum, what sort of work is cultural production, circulation, and consumption carrying out during the current moment in Jordan?


  • Emad Hajjaj is a cartoonist who has worked with the daily periodical Al-Raʿi alongside other publications in Jordan and the Arab world more broadly. Widely known for his character Abu Mahjoob, Hajjaj has received numerous awards for his ability to portray—both creatively and incisively—everyday socioeconomic, cultural, and political dynamics.
  • Omar Zakaria is an Amman-based novelist, creative non-fiction writer, and voice-over actor. He regularly writes for the Arabic-language periodicals Romman Magazine, Al Mutalammes Magazine, Boring Books Magazine, and Fusha Magazine. In 2021, he published the novel Al-Qurtubi: Awakened in Alexandria.


  • Ismael Gil, University of Marburg
  • Tariq Adely, George Washington University
  • Pierre Delanghe, IEP Aix-en-Provence
  • Inès Delpuech, INALCO/ENS Ulm, Paris

Camille Abescat

Sciences Po Paris, CERI

Camille Abescat is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Sciences Po Paris (CERI), she is also affiliated with the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO). Her research focuses on power practices of Jordanian MPs, from the Parliament to their constituencies. Professionally, Camille has served as lecturer on Sciences Po’s MENA campus. She holds a degree in Standard and Levantine Arabic from the University of Jordan, and one from the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO)

Inès Delpuech


Inès Delpuech is a second year Master student in Arabic studies at the National Institute for Oriental Languages (INALCO) and at the École normale supérieure of Paris (with a major in Geography and a minor in History). Her research focus on the Writers’ association, one of the biggest Jordanian cultural association. Her first fieldworks in Tunisia gave her the opportunity to explore in depth the effects of the revolution in 2011 in the margins and in the intellectual field. Both of these interests had led her to examine the case of Jordan and to question the national fact through its intellectuals

Session 4 – How and why to engage in politics in Jordan? A look into youth and women’s forms of political participation

Photo : Amman, Jordan © Hisham Zayadnh, Unsplash

Tuesday 19th of April, 3.00-5.00 p.m (CET), online. Zoom Link / ID: 861 3145 1538 / Secret code: 238976

Webinar supported by Institut Sociétés en Mutation en Méditerranée (SoMuM), within the framework of the Najor@Mo project, “Repenser le national au Moyen-Orient : la Jordanie comme cas d’étude“. Organizers: Taher Labadi, Ifpo, Simon Mangon, Mesopolhis, Norig Neveu, Iremam.

Description: In Jordan, as elsewhere, youth and women are generally described as the spearheads of democratic reform and are often at the heart of reformist discourse produced both by the regime itself and by international donors. But what space for political engagement do they have today? How have the forms of their political participation evolved in Jordan, according to the periods of political opening or closing?


  • Daniele Cantini, senior research fellow at Halle University (Germany) and author of Youth and Education in the Middle East. Shaping Identity and Politics in Jordan (2016), who will talk about the forms of student political activism at the University of Jordan.
  • Rana Husseini, human rights activist, senior journalist writing for The Jordan Times and author of the book Years of struggle – the women’s movement in Jordan (2021). We will be able to benefit from her valuable insight into the transformation of the conditions of political engagement of these women over the past decades.


  • Ekhlas al Moadat, master student at Yarmouk University and working in enhancing Jordanian youth political participation.
  • Louise Rautureau, master student at Sciences Po Grenoble in the “Integration and Transformation in the Middle East and Mediterranean” Master Program.
  • Camille Abescat, PhD student at the Centre for International Research (Sciences Po Paris) and affiliated with the French Institute for the Near East.