Molding Jordanian Identity Through Art
By Nicolas Hernández
Amman’s dusty streets seem to wind on into infinity, stretching through the seven hills upon which the city was built. Eight traffic circles mold the backbone of the city, simultaneously organizing and clogging its streets with traffic. From the backseat of a taxi, the city’s landscape from the first to the eighth circle shifts from luxurious skyscrapers to steep drops into a valley below. Although the scenery might change, one facet of the city’s personality remains unalterable: the color beige. From the rectangular hillside buildings to the summer haze that covers the city in the heat of the day, Amman is a monochrome medina.
Until 2013, the only street art one would find on Ammani streets consisted almost entirely of advertisements for apartment rentals and cars-for-sale. Red spray paint outlines the thin lines of the Arabic scrawled on the walls. Now, taxi patrons absorb an entirely new image – one rich with both color and calligraphy – thanks to Amman’s Baladak project. Translating to “Your City” from Levantine Arabic, Baladak began in 2013 as an experimental street art project by the Al-Balad Theatre in the heart of Amman. Coming down the hill into the city’s epicenter, giant calligraphy adorns the side of an apartment building, and larger-than-life portraits overlook the city center.
“Back when we started in 2013,” explains Mu’ath Isaeid, one of the project’s leaders, “we only expected around 6 or 7 artists total. We ended up with over 150 instead.” The new project soared, even in a city with essentially no prior exposure to street art. The initial success prompted another year of the week-long festival, which – now in its fourth year – continues to flourish.
Over the course of a week, Baladak invites street artists from around the Middle East to partake in back-to-back days of brainstorming, developing, and producing street art in an otherwise beige city. This year, in particular, saw a dramatic increase in the number of participants, with artists coming from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Tunisia, among others, to partake in the creative week.
This project falls in the middle of one of Jordan’s most formative summers. As the Syrian conflict drags into the unforeseeable future, refugees continue to flow across the country’s northern border, settling both in UN camps and overcrowded cities. Almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, Jordan somehow remains an island of tranquility in a sea of despair. But although on the surface the situation on the ground seems calm, strong undercurrents of tension have begun to ferment as Jordan’s population grows and job opportunities shrink. Talk of this unease will occasionally slip out in a conversation with a taxi driver, but is then immediately retracted or replaced with a different topic.
Likewise, Jordan’s relationship with its artistic history is hardly at the forefront of its national identity. Jordanian painters like Ali Jabri and Mohanna Durra, two forefathers of Near Eastern Modernism, did not emerge until the mid-twentieth century, but even then were largely unrecognized. Most records of early Jordanian art were lost when Jordan was split from Palestine by the British in 1922 and historical archives never made the trip from Jerusalem to Amman. Take, for instance, the Jordanian National Gallery of Fine Arts. It was only opened in 1979 at the hand of Queen Noor, the late King Hussein’s American-born wife. Even today the gallery is rarely visited by locals, and typically features western-centric exhibitions.
Raed Asfour, one of the directors of Baladak, imagines the project’s main purpose as molding a new artistic identity for the city with each year – one that is meant to be seen and shared by the public rather than hidden behind gallery walls. In his opinion, graffiti gives locals a unique opportunity to interact with art without paying a fee, or in some cases, even leaving their homes.
Molding this identity is crucial, he mentions as he presents a calendar with Baladak’s most popular pieces. Flipping through the pages, he names the nationality of each artist – Kuwaiti, Saudi, Lebanese – but only comes to a piece by a Jordanian toward the end of the booklet. Though the project is hosted in Jordan, few pieces focus on Jordan, or even feature Jordanian artists. As Raed explains, patriotism in Jordan has never been just about the locals – Jordan is a country for all Arabs.
Jordan has a complicated relationship with patriotism. Major thoroughfares are lined with imposing Jordanian flags, restaurants boast sleekly framed pictures of the royal family, and popular radio stations feature tracks that praise the efforts of King Abdullah II and the country’s armed forces against the Islamic State. In May of 2016 the country celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt, and has since left the movement’s flags flying beside their Jordanian counterparts. Even in Petra, the ancient Nabatean city in the south, portraits of Hashemite kings have been pounded into the deep orange rock faces.
Since the country’s founding in 1946, Jordanians have taken a long path toward developing a collective national identity, complicated by years of welcoming Palestinian, Iraqi, and now Syrian refugees. As the country’s demographics continue to shift, state-sponsored patriotism has been one way for the government to maintain peace. By promoting a non-ethnic patriotism tied to the Hashemite monarchy and the Great Arab Revolt, Jordan has created a modern identity around a collective “Arabness,” avoiding a purely Jordanian take on nationalism. Jordan thus holds strong to its long-held tradition of hospitality toward guests, especially at a time when it cannot turn away its Arab neighbors in need.
Patriotism in Jordan is flashy, inclusive, and nearly impossible to overlook. For some, however, it is also suffocating. As a country shaped by a long history of immigration and refugee-intake, Jordan’s population is one that represents dozens of different Arab cultures: from Egyptian to Syrian, Palestinian to Bedouin. Naturally, Amman’s neighborhoods reflect this fusion of identities, but Baladak’s project has begun to put their own spin on the collective Arab-Jordanian identity. By bringing artists from across the Arab world, Baladk expands the idea of ethnic inclusivity that Jordan promotes.
Pieces from international artists were among the project’s most popular this year, like the Beirut-based artist Yazan Halwani’s massive portrait of a woman in Lweibdeh, one of Amman’s most artistic neighborhoods. Likewise, Arabic calligraphy was among the festival’s most popular trends, as seen in Tunisian artist Shoof’s piece, which covered an entire wall in calligraphy. As Mu’ath put it, calligraphy has started trending among Arab street artists, “because it reflects their culture and their own language and it is beautiful. They can write a sentence using calligraphy and it stays beautiful. Sometimes it’s just visual – you can’t read it.” The art itself is a cultural phenomenon, straying from the images of mass patriotism that otherwise cover the city’s public space. The question now is whether the government will follow suit.
After a week of developing, preparing, and creating art across the city, Baladak culminates in a block party outside the theatre to which the entire city is invited. Extra trays of paint and bottles of spray paint are left for the community to create their own artwork across the street’s bare walls. Young children rub their painted hands across the limestone, while their parents streak spray paint above them. No rules, just self-expression.
As long as there is conflict in the region, it seems, Jordan stands strong as a haven for all Arabs.
Grinning before finishing our conversation, Raed looks up: “The people feel like, yeah, this is our art.”
Alec Hernández is a junior in Timothy Dwight College and a Political Science major. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.