At first glance, the city of Amman is everything you would expect in the Middle East: military tanks at the airports, women in scarves, people staring at obvious foreigners and quickly hushed criticisms of the government. When I first arrived, it appeared as though Jordan, like the rest of the Middle East, was not only unlike the Western world, but diametrically opposed.
The clash between Middle Eastern and Western culture was most apparent in how collectivistic attitudes seemed to pervade every corner of the culture, sometimes to a damning extent. A prime difference has typically been how each society weighs the importance of the individual’s independence versus the good of the majority.
Yet Jordan should be viewed as an archetype of how a country can co-opt aspects of the East and West into a more harmonious identity. When there is a meeting between Eastern and Western cultures, often a polarization emerges among the people. Yet within Jordan, there is an embrace of Western practices but also a desire to give value to Jordanian culture and livelihood. Such a reality is apparent in the art currently produced in the country.
In September, Jordan held “Amman Design Week,” an event where Jordanian artists showcased their work, with pieces ranging from fashion designs available for purchase to interactive multimedia works. Despite the many differences in appearance and mediums used, almost every artist drew on Jordanian culture for inspiration.
Modern art has generally been associated with the West because of the movement’s emphasis on individualism, long regarded as incompatible with many Eastern cultures, especially in the Middle East. Yet here, Jordanian artists created pieces that were true expressions of individual thoughts and feelings while focusing on analyzing the rich culture many had been raised in.
One artist went above and beyond in this pursuit, managing to make a collective experience individualized by producing an interactive work. In Sissel Tolaas’ piece, viewers were meant to identify unlabeled scents sitting on a map of Amman and then move the containers to the location on the map where they have smelled that particular scent. The work exemplified the yin-and-yang relationship Jordanians have managed to create between their Arab heritage and the influence of Western modern art.
Though the subject matter was broad, they took these shared experiences and feelings of their people and gave them value and individuality by creating art that communicated their personal interactions and understanding of Jordan’s collective culture.
Within Amman as a whole, there is an appreciation for modernity without needing to forsake the local culture. Old men sit around smoking cigarettes in front of their shops, often gazing curiously at Westerners. Yet ask them for directions and the whole group will point you in the right direction, and they may even grab a young man from their shop to pull up a map on his iPhone.
Women might be wearing unfamiliar garbs — in Western eyes, at least — but they are also carrying backpacks full of books to their college campuses. Cafes on every corner of Amman are styled in Western fashion, with Michael Buble playing in the background and photos for sale on their walls. Yet they are photos of Petra or elderly women picking olives, and they are probably selling shawarma and not paninis. There are no hourly clock tolls — or really any clocks at all — but the Islamic call to prayer tolls five times a day. It is easier to tell time in prayers rather than in hours.
Jordan defies the traditional all-or-nothing ideology of opposing cultures. Instead of divided groups, you find people who are able to connect with various cultures because of their willingness to share and take. When peeling back the curtain, a harmonious relationship between cultures and norms is discovered, something many people would consider incredible. Yet “Amman Design Week,” and the plethora of Jordanian art that is currently being created, shows how a people can mix the best of many cultures and perspectives while honoring the traditions and norms that define their homeland.
Laila Brothers is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.
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