Amman is a large and sprawling city of about 4 million, that doesn’t include the great number of guests, which include so many of the region’s refugees. Amman is largely monochromatic, its architecturally similar building style (an ordinance, I am told, put in place by the King) spreads out over the bumps of the city like a quilt over a resting body. There are few parks in Amman to which people flock on the weekends for picnics and any highway roadside in Jordan, with a bit of shade, is coveted picnic real estate. However, within the city I’ve discovered quite a few peaceful community spaces that I feel make up for what some may complain the city lacks in greenspace. I’ve thought a lot about what makes these community spaces so different and stand out to me more than a similar spaces within my own country or in other countries that I’ve been to and I think the difference comes down to the deeply ingrained, almost genetic Jordanian hospitality. There isn’t a door you pass through that someone isn’t welcoming you, “Ahlan wasalan” and many times in English so that the feeling is not lost in translation. I’ve heard that Jordan remains one of the last places where you could just knock upon someones door and ask to come in to have a look around and you would be welcomed and even offered tea. I’ve witnessed this myself on photo walks about town. A complete stranger with a bag of cameras being beckoned in by families from their porch. Where does this still happen? How can we get back to this?
A measure of a great city in my eyes, lies in its ability to grow with time and with diversity, but in doing so reserve beautiful spaces and parks for the purpose of building and maintaining a great sense of community. It’s the thing I love most about a city and maybe the thing I miss most when I go back home. Maybe its because I live on the outskirts of community. Not because I want to, but because two years here and there is a difficult amount of time to cultivate a sense of belonging to any one community. So instead I’ve decided to study it, research it and rest in community spaces even if they aren’t my own, and maybe just keep returning to that place until I feel a part of something. It has become one of my greatest interests this year as I try from afar to see what can be done to heal my own country.
Home on the other hand is such a wonderful and warm feeling because often (and I recognize that this is not true for everyone) home is where we go to Just Be. Nothing is expected of us in this space, except respect, to relax and to recharge from and for our return to the outside world. Is community then, greater even than home? Arguably yes. Especially in the case where home does not act as a safe place for its inhabitants. Home tends to be more sacred in most all cultures and a third place is required for a healthy triangle of days. Home, work and a community space.
I recently listened to a TED talk on “What it Takes to Live for 100 Years.” In a study, researchers discovered that above any other factor, including exercise, vaccination, clean air and weight loss, social integration was the most important factor in living to the age of 100. Which got me thinking: What is it that makes a great community space? There are plenty of studies on this to be found, but the following is what I value the most.
Elements of a Great Community Space:
- Maintains the history of the people, through architecture, artifacts or art
- Is open and free to all people, the only payment required is respect and reflection
- Incorporates natural elements, natural light or is simply outdoors
- Spaces for contemplation and for collaboration
- A sense of calm and quiet
As an artist and a photographer, my work dictates that I spend a lot of time alone, summoning ideas, hunting shadows, watching light change and being in careful and quiet contact with my thoughts. I am by no means an expert on being found, but I certainly have a virtual PhD in being lost. Dare I say I’ve even begun to enjoy the moon walk that is being lost in a new country, only because I have come to learn that it is often short and that I now have a stocked toolbox, filled with tools required to make it back to belonging to a place or as close as the human emotional dietary quota requires for survival as possible. However, finding my “Third Place” or a community place that I feel as comfortable and relaxed within as I do at home, is absolutely essential for maintaining a positive attitude and good mental health with the ever changing vista of expat life. Of any life, I’ve come to believe. I’d like to start an evolving series here on great community spaces within Amman and around the world. I’ll start with Darat Al Funun.
The Khalid Shoman Foundation Darat Al Funun is set into a hillside facing downtown Amman and encompasses a series of historic homes dating from the 1920’s and 1930’s. The space still feels as though it could be someone’s home, wherein lies much of its charm, with an exhibit created with one of Amman’s favorite vintage Mercedes sedans that can be found all about the city. The grounds encapsulate archeological ruins of a Byzantine church and cave which are partially excavated, but act as a yard for visitors to enjoy views of the city and to reflect within. Darat Al Funun describes itself as “A home for the arts and artist from the Arab World.” They not only have gallery space, a library, a small cafe, but also several spaces for seating amongst fountains and fruit trees overlooking the city. They host artist residencies and a PhD fellowship program to boot. There is nothing not to love about this place on paper, but in person there is a calm about it that soothes the soul and leaves you feeling ready to tackle the chaos of downtown Amman or the chaos in your own home. Mine at least.