Being (in) Public: Spatial Agency in Amman (Pt. 1)


by Rosana Elkhatib This is an essay in two parts about spatial and bodily agency in Amman, Jordan. The first, below, explores the policing of bodies in public spaces and what it means to exist in public in an evolving Arab city, where arts and cultural development is attempting to transform an increasingly censored urban environment. The second part, to follow, highlights my own experience navigating the city's bureaucracy—itself a form of critical, public occupation, one that enabled the public performance “Republic of Body” which occurred in the al-Weibdeh district in November 2016.

Hashemite Plaza - Amman, Jordan

It was around 8:20pm, and the main gate to the Hashemite Plaza in downtown Amman had already been locked. People were still scattered around the public plaza’s ledges and benches, and we—an impromptu group of eight locals and foreigners—gathered around some steps to play music. A while later, we were joined by a group of guys singing and dancing. Twenty minutes into this session, police officers who had been watching us from the beginning detained us at their kiosk and threatened to throw us in prison. Apparently, our improvised gathering was illegal. The foreigners were questioned, one Palestinian ID-holder was threatened with deportation, and the guys were scolded and accused of sexual harassment. The women (two of us) were not addressed. Instead, the men accompanying us were warned of the “perils” of these local guys and the need for them to shield us from this kind of inappropriate and public danger.

Unfortunately, this scene is in no way an isolated event. When I asked one of the officers about how we could lawfully gather in public, he insisted that all we needed to do was to inform on-duty officers in situ, and they would assess whether or not our gathering was appropriate. He then proudly recounted an incident last year in which a female mime was detained at the police station after her street performance was deemed inappropriate and disruptive. She failed to ask their permission to mime herself out of an invisible box. Whether the issue was that she did not obtain a permit for her one-woman act or that the act itself was considered offensive remained unclear.

Left feeling irresolute about the security of the street and being-in-public, I checked what the law actually states. According to the Public Gatherings Law, Jordanians do not require government permission to hold public meetings or demonstrations. [1] However, it also prohibits acts that “undermine the political regime.” This law sets up its own contradiction (protecting public expression, but not expression against the kingdom), and allows arbitrary interpretation by those authorized to control the public. In our case, it was the on-duty police officers at the Hashemite Plaza. This threat comes hand-in-hand with laws that limit freedom of speech and public expression, and at times criminalizes [2] those acts if  “deemed critical of the king, foreign countries, government officials, and institutions, as well as Islam and speech considered to defame others.” [3] Apart from official and insidious forms of repression used against journalists and activists critical of current politics of the region, the appearance of critical, noncompliant, subversive, and unfamiliar bodies in public spaces are constantly scrutinized where the law is enforced. The law is only brought into existence in this territory of the public, in the moments when the right to be in public is negotiated.

Of course, the ambiguity of the law has enabled its abuse by authorities. One memorable case was a 2016 debacle with the famous Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila.  Their verbal permit—a non-written but equally legitimate "document" in Jordan—was revoked by Jordanian authorities five days prior to their scheduled musical performance at the Roman Amphitheater (located inside the Hashemite Plaza.) The band has performed in the gated amphitheater multiple times. When asked about reasons behind this last minute cancellation, Amman’s governor attributed the decision to the musical content’s diversion from “the values, customs and traditions of Jordanian society.” [4] To pacify the masses, the Ministry of Interior reversed the decision a day before the scheduled event. However, this was not communicated to the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, responsible for archeological sites like the amphitheater, which ultimately did not issue an approval in a timely manner. This year, Mashrou’ Leila found itself banned once again a mere two weeks before its scheduled (and approved) performance at the Amman Exhibition Park—a private venue—when members of the parliament petitioned against it and encouraged the use of force to block the performance on grounds of the sexuality of the lead singer: Hamed Sinno is an openly gay man. The unequivocal censorship of Mashrou’ Leila is routed through a litany of bureaucratic mechanisms without sufficient explanation, only the inability for an illicit body to appear publicly without the implicit threat of force. [5]

Public gathering spaces are scarce in Amman, and the Hashemite Plaza is one of the few sites with a capacity for larger crowds. Although the amphitheater is a historic site and requires an entrance fee, there is no pay wall to enter the plaza itself. However, access to this “public” space is offset by its limited “open hours” and continuous policing, which determines which bodies can move in and through it. Bodies, as opposed to state subjects or citizens, are identified by visible markers that attest to their gender, sexuality, economic status and nationality—forms of social belonging that justify different treatment by agents of the law. This kind of selective censoring of bodies-in-public is partially symptomatic of the regional culture, but also due to law enforcement’s unwillingness to observe laws aimed at giving Jordanians more public agency.

The differential policing of bodies effectively gives the state control of its population’s social and political public engagement. It is widely known that the Jordanian Intelligence Service can be anywhere as an assimilated part of the general public who are empowered to manipulate media outlets and shut down dissenting ideas. [6] The plainclothes agents instigate politically charged conversations with people to try to expose and extract those with views that seem too critical or compromising in the eyes of the government. A sense of pervasive policing has thus shaped a population that distances itself from political critique and demonstration in fear of retribution. In a country where fear of terrorist invasions also prevails, political complicity seems to be too often favored over protest.

This is the context in which I situate my critical practice. My ongoing research and curatorial work focuses on marginalized Arab bodies: particularly their complex relationship with the politics of public space. In this essay, I give an overview of these censored publics and ways that art, design, and architecture take more critical stances within public spaces, particularly in Amman where design has inaugurated its own week. The city is now in the midst of reinventing its image as a cosmopolitan center and a cultural hub in the Middle East, so the ability of the municipality to take on challenges by art and art's publics is an evolving urban issue, one that is worth discussing at a time when the King is further extending his legislative and executive power over the state. In the second part of this essay, I discuss my own curatorial endeavor, Republic of Body, which took place last year in Amman as one example in which art can interject in the continued enforcement of politically neutral public space, by directly interfacing with a bureaucracy in flux.

Cultural Shifts and Public Bodies

Al-Abdali Regeneration Project situated along a virtual edge between West and East Amman. Source: Abdali Investment & Development Psc.

As I sat in the back of a cab, I reluctantly listened to the driver as he begrudged the al-Abdali development we were passing through. He was upset that his family—relocated to a low-income housing project outside the city—no longer had access to sufficient public transportation to and from the heart of Amman, making it increasingly expensive and difficult for them to get to their jobs in the capital. I listened but did not comment on the absurdity of the new development: that it enjoys tax subsidies while more urgently needed housing is pushed to the food (and literal) deserts on the outskirts of the city. After all, what if this driver was an incognito agent?

Al-Abdali Urban Regeneration Project is a massive endeavor by the government and foreign investors to re-envision a center for Amman, moving away from the congested old downtown area to a cosmopolitan, high-end representation of the city. A pristine shopping mall, luxury hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, and outdoor plazas give the impression of new public spaces manifesting in the city, but urban redevelopment is proceeding according to a host of new private concerns. The project displaced one of the largest markets and transportation hubs, which catered to and was run by low-income communities. This newly privately owned Amman has instead become a neoliberal haven aimed at attracting foreigners and the wealthy, essentially closed to the community it once served with public infrastructure. [7]

In parallel to this development, local spatial practitioners, artists, and a new generation of community members are rediscovering and reconfiguring the urban character of Amman in an attempt to claim it, and its culture, as their own. Anthropologist Aseel Sawalha explains this impulse as an effort to manifest an Ammani subjectivity, a phenomenon mostly limited to young upper- and middle-class city dwellers who associate themselves with an urban identity rather than a national one. Whether it is the growing neoliberalism in the country or a way to apprehend a city long considered transitory, [8] these Ammanis are rehabilitating the city’s existing urban fabric and seeking cultural enrichment within the city’s older neighborhoods, eschewing the newly developed spaces in rapidly suburbanizing West Amman. [9]

A palpable art scene is erupting in neighborhoods located at the edge of West and East Amman, which have undergone a number of transformations in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, the once-affluent neighborhood of Jabal al-Weibdeh became a hub for political activists—including Ba’athist Arab nationalists, anti-monarchy activists, and the Jordanian Community Party—and was referred to then as the "Nationalists’ Mountain." It was later coined the "Americans’ Quarter" in the 1960s for its plethora of foreign embassies. When the majority of embassies relocated to West Amman, the neighborhood remained a mixed income neighborhood, with a few of the original residences. The growing prevalence of art galleries and independent cultural spaces in the 2000s incited further interest in renovating the homes of old Amman, and also encouraged transformations of the surrounding urban landscapes to fit a burgeoning cultural ethos. Walking down al-Sharia Street today, you can find art, artisanal coffee, and large waves of expats looking for an authentic Ammani experience. What hasn't returned to these cultural enclaves, however, is political activism. Activism has most likely been subsumed by contemporary Jordanian nationalism, which grew out of mid-twentieth century Arab nationalism more generally.

Darat Al-Funun, Amman.

The development of privately-owned cultural spaces in neighborhoods like Jabal al-Weibdeh has contributed to broader transformations of Ammani public space, a relationship that is perhaps at very the heart of this neoliberal creep through Amman. In examining this form of development, Aseel Sawalha highlights women, mainly those belonging to middle and upper classes in Amman, at the center of these urban transformations. These women are art gallery owners and directors and comprise an overwhelming majority of those circulating cultural capital within and outside the city. [10] One example is the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, a privately owned organization located in Jabal al-Weibdeh and led mainly by women. Just recently the gallery hosted "I AM,” a group exhibition highlighting the works of 31 women artists from 12 different countries in the Middle East and its diasporas who challenge stereotypes about the "Arab Woman" in contemporary culture. The exhibition was produced under the patronage of Queen Rania of Jordan and curated by Janet Rady, and is an example of how women in control of cultural capital have the power to circulate feminist ideas within the private sector, ultimately influencing public ethos.

The effects of concentrated cultural capital in an area of the city catering to a creative class are clear, at least to someone like me living in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But for those gallery owners and directors at the forefront of arts-based development along the edges of East-West Amman, a little bit of gentrification in these working class neighborhoods, however problematic, grants them more safe spaces where their “contemporary appearances” don’t stand out or subject them to further scrutiny as already marginalized figures in a male-dominated city. [11]

WomenOnWalls Baladk Street Art Festival. 2014. GIF made from a video by Women On Walls - WOW Graffiti & Street Art.

Alongside this growing gallery scene, street art has also emerged as a way to claim Amman’s urban surfaces. Political expression and intersectional cultural identities are new hues on the sandy walls of Amman, particularly East Amman. There, street art depicts the city’s past and current conditions, hopes and ambitions of a better future, satirical pieces and simply beautiful murals. Even amid the relative freedom enjoyed in arts-centered enclaves, policing extends to the work of muralists and independent artists. If deemed inappropriate or offensive, their pieces are painted over by authorities or a self-censoring public, at times mere minutes after their creation. Although “unauthorized” art is still in existence at varying scales around the city, much of the street art produced now is commissioned by private companies, advertisers, and institutions more adept at interfacing with local authorities. Baladk Street Art Festival presented by the Al-Balad Theater is one initiative that has enabled politically-motivated work. It hosted WomenOnWalls under the theme “Fear to Freedom” as a way to presence women’s bodies and voices in Amman’s public spaces.

Although street art is popular as both method of beautification and as a way to convey subtle political messages, the shortage of literal bodies performing in physical public spaces is still an issue. As I discussed before, the state makes it difficult to appear in public without some form of permit, extensive depoliticization, or a hetero-masculine national agenda. So, in navigating the city’s urban artscapes, what new ways, other than spray cans on flat surfaces, must the body appear in this security state as a way of disassembling it?

One way is by utilizing systems created by the state itself.

The Bridge - Dina Haddadin. Courtesy of Amman Design Week. Photo by Roland Halbe.

With the support of Queen Rania Al Abdullah, Amman Design Week (ADW) was launched in 2016 with the hope that it would establish Jordan “as a recognized hub for design, creativity and modern Arab culture.” [12] Despite the gradual development of Amman’s art scene over the past several years, ADW marks the state’s official move to formalizing these efforts. Installations, events, and workshops take place around various parts of the city, mainly East Amman, where art is displayed within both enclosed and public spaces. The week presents a unique situation in which various forms of public art are pre-approved and shaped by the organizers of the event. A friend of mine who participated in ADW's inaugural event commented on how contributors were constantly pushed to create something “thematic” rather than “conceptual” or “political.” With general themes like “innovation,” “growth,” and “movement,” the event is predicated on an apolitical understanding of public space, a site of improvement rather than conflict.

The one-year-old ADW may still be too young to evaluate fully, but speculation regarding the regulation of art and design in public space must also consider the management of bodies attending or participating in these public events. If Amman’s conventional approach to policing public space is to censor and harass locals and, more often than not, leave tourists alone, how are public and cultural spaces occupied and policed when they are transformed under state patronage?

State efforts to support a public interest in culture, art and design is promising, but official forms of sponsorship also moderate the power of art and design to act politically. Cultural Institutions like Amman Design Week or the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts typically mediate between artists and the various arms of the state apparatus, like the police or the government, providing access presumably in exchange for political restraint. Routing through an institution provides a kind of legitimate distance, a cover for other public and spatial investigations in a city where public spaces are either off-limits or too difficult to occupy. What other forms of administrative distancing are required to authorize public occupations that might otherwise be foreclosed by state and self-censorship? Critique and forms of protest might actually be accommodated within the existing schema of art patronage/development/authorization, even if it diverges from the enforced neutrality of beautification efforts and even if it subverts the expectations of appearance in state-supervised public space. But it demands a strategy that plays to the legal ambiguities that police and bureaucratic entities themselves exploit to prevent such actions.

Last November, I decided to move forward with a public performance piece that is political, queer, feminist, and yet still legal. And to that end, I found myself interfacing directly with the municipality. Read about Republic of Body in part two of this essay, coming next week.


[1] Amended in March of 2011, the law extends only to Jordanian citizens. It’s still required, however, to notify authorities prior to gathering in full detail (names and addresses or organizers, the location of assembly, purpose). It is unclear what constitutes a public assembly in regards to size.

[2] Six months in prison is the punishment for insulting the King of Jordan, and up to three years in prison for criticisms of Islam.

[3] "Jordan," Human Rights Watch, 27 Jan. 2016,

[4] Katy Montoya (trans.), “Values, Traditions, and Church Objections: How Mashrou’ Leila Was Banned from Performing in Amman," 7iber, 27 Apr. 2016.

[5] See David Graeber on the structural violence of bureaucracy in "Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity" in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2016), 57-66.

[6] Siraj Davis, "Dead Mice, No Roars: The Jordanian Intelligence Service (Mukhaabaraat)," Foreign Policy Journal, 12 Aug. 2016.

[7] The Abdali transportation hub was relocated from the heart of the city to Tabarbour, a district on the outskirts of Amman, causing major difficulties for those whose means of traveling into and out of Amman is public transportation.

[8] Since its nascency, Amman has been a city for merchants passing along the Hijaz railroad, or a temporary stop for migrants fleeing conflict in the region (the 1967 June War, the Lebanese Civil War, the Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War have all driven waves of migrants into Jordan). However, the city has been “rebranding” itself as a Middle Eastern cultural center, tourist attraction, and a cosmopolitan city.

[9] Aseel Sawalha, "Art and Culture Reshaping the Urban Landscape in Amman, Jordan,” Beyond the Square Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings. Ed. Deen Sharp and Claire Panetta, (New York City: Terreform, 2016), 64-79. Ammanis also play a role in gentrifying spaces through a mixture of local upper-middle class concept cafes, art galleries featuring cool Arab artists, and walking artistic and cultural tours where working class children are taught how to a fly a kite; an activity they are actually quite adept at already (Aseel Sawalha recounting a story)

[10] Aseel Sawalha, "An Anthropological Gaze at Art: Women, Art Markets, and Urban Space in Amman," The American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR), 5 Dec. 2016.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Amman Design Week, At a Glance: