I have shrunk and I no longer recognize the features of my city. He seems to have transformed. It used to be an open yard that I used to steer my bike through, and now it’s an isolation cell with a small window, that I can’t even jump up to to hold on to the ledge. .
In my childhood memory, stifling traffic jams do not exist, and there is no constant noise in the background – sellers of gas cylinders, buyers of scrap metal and bric-a-brac, police sirens , motorcycle exhausts; there is not even air conditioning. My teenage years remind me of the modest, cocooned Hashem Restaurant completely differently than the tourist attraction monstrosity of the same name that exists now; it’s reminiscent of half an ounce of kanafeh from Habiba’s, followed by the obligatory stop in front of the guy who was selling pictures of famous western singers – especially women, standing or lying in unmodest clothes, next to the stop shared taxi service in Daheyat al-Hussein.
I was in love with Samantha Fox, or, if we want to be precise, with her huge breasts. I had purchased the set of photos, of which the crown jewels were the two that revealed the sacred nipple. Despite this purchase, I still stopped at the man’s booth, which looked like a lottery ticket vendor’s booth, to review the pictures again, just in case a new nipple slipped out of Samantha’s shirt in my absence.
I still have these photos in a special cardboard box for memories which, as usual, are gone for good. Sometimes I think that Amman itself resides in this weird box, and that the Amman I’m going through today is another setup, a different dice roll bearing new numbers that don’t exist on any real dice except I know: instead of the local park, there are two unfinished, rusty glass and steel towers; in place of the warm one-story limestone houses are blocks and blocks of cold, boxed residential concrete, the chiming rhythms of the stonemason drowned out by the din of jackhammers and bulldozers.
I don’t know this new city, I don’t want it and I can’t overcome my childish desire to get rid of it.
In my box, however, my city is covered in snow. My father drives us in his red Citroën. He parks on the upper level of Sports City, then we dive into the heated pool adorned with a huge mosaic of a blonde woman in a red bikini, jumping into the sea. She jumps to the side, as if lying in the air, frozen so that we can see his whole body. She looks coldly at everyone in the pool, as if admiring her own curves reflected in a mirror. We dry off next to the radiators on the floor which blow warm air, while on the other side of the window, the snow settles on the densely wooded ground, little interspersed with footpaths and alleys.
It’s hot in my city: early in the morning, teenage me gets on the “company bus” (real name Public Transport Corporation), and gets off at the downtown central post office (now a Starbucks and a Carrefour supermarket), and hangs around looking for books and clothes (all second-hand). Much of my personal library is made up of used books found piled on top of each other in Saqf al-Sayl Street, sucking up dust.
My city stands on the snow before a dark wall, blindfolded and handcuffed, living those crucial, intense, anxious moments before the trigger is pulled, where the seconds weigh tons. And I stand behind the pool window, flattening my nose against the glass, my palms printing sweat. Behind me, my father is wiping my younger brother with a towel. I wonder where mom is?
The poor did not exist in my world at that time. My childhood memories contain no trace of poverty, nor of East Amman, even though the neighborhood known to all as the Egyptian Quarter was right there, just behind our elegant stone house, next to the second circle. Was this neighborhood poor at the time? Did Egyptian migrant families live there, like the Yemeni, Bukhari, Circassian and Armenian families before them, who marked certain places in the city with their family name or the name of their original homeland?
There was nothing else to do but ask my father.
My father was born in the winter of 1937, when al-Sayl (the Torrent) was still overflowing, sometimes overflowing its banks. The children learned to swim in this river, which required a column planted in the river bed to measure the level of danger. Even my father didn’t know the reason for the neighborhood’s name, or when exactly the Egyptian neighborhood became poor. Middle-class families lived there, he told me; even the Qasem family (Marwan al-Qasem was head of the royal court in the late 80s) lived there. A childhood friend of mine lived in a big stone house on the edge of the neighborhood, near Aqleh hospital. When did poverty set in? Nobody knows. No one knows how middle-class families who lived in uptown became poor and destitute. No one knows how the shops of the major downtown merchants turned into sidewalk stalls, and no trace remains of the merchants themselves.
I hear gunshots. There is a line of men carrying guns, but not all in the same uniform as they wear in the movies. Only one of them is in camouflaged trellis; the one next to him is wearing a shiny suit. His shoes reflect the light, his hair the color of dirty snow and his jacket pocket foams a garish handkerchief. And the one next to him? I can’t make it out clearly, but he’s dressed in black and wearing black sunglasses (even in winter? my childish mind wonders) and a little wire spirals out of his ear and then disappears between his neck and the darkness surrounding it.
The blindfolded city staggers a bit without falling. During this time, my father and my younger brother call me to Come here and have a banana.
I am the one who falls. Of this thing in a playground that turns and turns around its axis, what is it called? A carousel ? The children’s feet were kicking me in the head. I thought it would never end. I’m dizzy and the merry-go-round is spinning and the spinning feet are head-butting me and out of all these vortices emerges the headmaster of the school. It is a marble statue. A line of little children immediately forms into formation to rise and sing to her, their leader:
“Sitt Omaima, she is so expensive!
Her lemon yellow clothes bring us joy!
In our class, when she approaches,
His loving heart is crystal clear!
His heart was not loving at all. She was a sullen, stony-faced woman who always had a thin cane in her hand, and she ran the nursery and the first two years of primary school at my school, the Scientific Islamic College. His surname reminds me of our anthem sung as the “omaimi” anthem – just a different letter from omami, the soulful anthem known to many around the world as Internacionale. When someone my father’s age talks about his teachers, his eyes light up. They lovingly recall their full names and enumerate their virtues: “They taught us everything — they were learned masters in their fields, they were elegant, politicized: real leaders. They were strict, but they were learned. My teachers? I don’t remember their names. I don’t remember anything about them other than their demeaning treatment of us and how small it made us feel.
I remember the other principals: Sitt Omaima’s sister, Da’ad Toutah, principal of the third and fourth years of primary school, who exercised her tyranny in a different way — omnipotent, she seemed to reign beyond our kingdom; the skinny Khamis Ayesh, director of part of the school, with his improvised slaps and his thin bamboo cane. (What is this fetish for fine canes?) Each of them recruits a squadron of student informants and prefects of discipline. Queuing in military formation in front of the flag in the morning, spinning through the classrooms line after line, the bell ringing: rrrrnnnn — the lesson has started, Attention! rrrrnnnn — the lesson is over, at ease! And the dogs in their rooms only move and speak at the command of the bell.
I witnessed all of this through a bullet hole in the body of the town that staggered a bit, but didn’t fall, so it was swamped with more gunfire.
I used to really love summer: the holidays, the Haya Cultural Center, the pretty pool girls at Sport City, my older, bruised namesake, Hisham, a young man we used to look up to and to fear at the club, which became — years and years later — an officer of the secret police. (He would arrest me one day in the far future for staging protests against new taxes and rising commodity prices, and confiscating my computer and books.) The annoying neighbors with their hookahs are back home. inside their houses, no parties in the building next door (his apartments are rented by the day, week or month, and are right in front of my room), no children left to fun on our street until two o’clock in the morning, and no herds of sheep let loose for fun and leaving shreds of broken bushes and a thin layer of spherical shit everywhere.
Snowflakes are falling and my father leads us to the car. I see – out of the corner of my eye – the city was crumbling to the ground, and the three men standing above it were turning it over with their feet.