Navigating Avenues and Attitudes in Amman

Google Maps is almost always open on my phone these days. 

Sometimes, I zoom out past the streets of Amman, Jordan, to look at a bigger picture. I wonder, “Am I even remotely close to any of my other friends abroad?” And then I look at borders; Palestine is right next door to Jordan, yet my friends of Palestinian descent can never travel there.

When I zoom out to look at the broader Middle East, thoughts of migration, colonialism, and diaspora flood my head. I think of my ancestors who, 100 years ago, fled genocide in Ottoman Turkey to find refuge in Syria. At the time, European powers had not yet set up the borders of nation-states in the region. Today, Syrians are fleeing their land to find refuge across those borders in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, or parts of Europe. And today, Daesh (known as ISIS to most Americans) wages another campaign of violence and genocide in an attempt to erase those boundaries. 

When I first examined a map of the city of Amman, I was scared, as it looked nothing like any city I had navigated before. The streets were full of twists and turns—certainly not in an organized grid. From afar, the roads looked like the veins of a leaf, moving in all directions. When I physically set foot in Amman, I realized navigation would be even more complicated than I thought: The names of streets as written on official maps are virtually unknown to residents, major streets have different names in colloquial speech, and side streets are rarely called by name at all. 

Moreover, cardinal directions are not used for geographic orientation. Instead, people (namely, taxi and bus drivers) navigate the city based on neighborhoods and major landmarks. For instance, to get home I tell the taxi driver to go to “Jabri Restaurant in the Gardens Neighborhood. Then turn right, straight until the end of the street, and then make another left.” I've been in the city for almost a month and I still don't feel in control of my location. It is the total opposite of Claremont, where streets running east to west are neatly ordered one through twelve. 

During my first few weeks in Amman, I always felt annoyed. I wanted it to be easy to walk and explore without getting lost in a maze of turns and dead ends. I wanted to ride buses with ease instead of having to rely on taxis and premeditated directions. Then, sometime last week, I came to a realization typical of Westerners in a foreign land, when I was desperately lost just one block away from my host family’s apartment. The problem was not with the windy streets of Amman, but rather with the fact that for 18 years my brain was taught to blindly navigate neatly gridded cities through colonial concepts of space.

“North is on top of south” and “west is more progressed than east.” These ideas are steeped into Western minds starting when we first look at maps and compasses as kindergarteners. We are taught to value order and precision, and to see any other modes of spacial orientation or organization as lesser.

I came here thinking I was ready to think critically about big issues of colonialism or migration, when in reality, there is so much decolonizing work left for me to do on a basic level. I know I must constantly remind myself that the mundane, the small, and the personal are political. The microaggressive comments many of us American students make about disorganization, or lateness, or confusing streets in Arab countries must go. The belief that my systems of time and space are better must go. So many of the processes that I have been taught from a young age must go if I ever wish to truly think critically about this amazing region of the Middle East. So, next time I get lost in Amman, which will be soon, I know I should not feel angry or annoyed, but in awe of another culture’s way of processing space and organizing life.

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