Gentrification and grassroots resistance in Amman's oldest district
With no cars on the streets since the Jordanian government implemented a curfew to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the neighbourhood feels unusually quiet.
Forced to stay indoors, residents of Weibdeh can't wait for life to return to the streets, and for cafes and restaurants to reopen. But not everyone is looking forward to seeing Starbucks open its doors.
Since the beginning of the year residents, shop owners and activists have been organising themselves to prevent multinational corporations from taking over one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Amman.
A grassroots campaign named 'Ma7alli' – which means local in Arabic - was formed to oppose the international corporations encroaching on local businesses, and to prevent what activists see as the neighbourhood's loss of authenticity.
"Opening big multinational chain stores like Starbucks and McDonalds will ruin small local businesses," says Linda Al-Khoury, one of the campaign organisers. She says the campaign's goal is not only to stop big corporations from opening chains but also to preserve local heritage.
|With beautiful stone houses, courtyards enveloped by fragrant jasmine and streets lined with olive and pine trees, Weibdeh is one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Jordan's capital|
With beautiful stone houses, courtyards enveloped by fragrant jasmine and streets lined with olive and pine trees, Weibdeh is one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Jordan's capital.
Traditional stone homes have already been demolished to make way for the construction boom in central Amman, where conservation laws are very limited. For activists like Al-Khoury, the destruction of historic buildings represents a traumatic loss of shared memory and local identity.
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A photographer and a leading figure in the arts scene in Amman, Al-Khoury founded Fann wa Chai, a tea house and art gallery in Weibdeh where she organised events and exhibitions.
"In 2007 I was one of the first to open an art institution in the area," she says. Al-Khoury spent a year renovating an old stone house where she opened Fann wa Chai in 2013.
But the quiet and quaint hill of Weibdeh started getting more and more popular. Soon shisha cafes, burger joints and restaurants popped up all over the neighbourhood. Al-Khoury was forced to closed doors last year because the landlord wanted to charge too much for rent.
|Activists collect signatures for a petition to stop multinational corporations from opening chains in historic Amman. [Ma7alli]|
"We used you be able to rent a nice house for 250 JD [$353]. Now the same house is rented for 1000 JD [$1410]," says Al-Khoury, adding that Weibdeh is now one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Amman. In a pattern repeated in many other cities around the world, wealthier people have moved in bringing with them the tensions of gentrification.
While rents have been driven up, old residents have been thrown out. Many homes have been converted into Airbnb apartments and several rent ads have been placed only in English, targeting the foreigners who can afford to pay rents higher than the average Jordanian salary.
|The grassroots campaign 'Ma7alli' was formed to stop international corporations encroaching on local businesses and prevent the neighbourhood's loss of authenticity|
Local activists started a petition to oppose the opening of Starbucks, McDonalds and the multinational retail Carrefour because they believe the multinational companies will contribute to further increase rents and negatively impact residents and local businesses in historic neighbourhoods of Amman.
Campaigners say that investing in local shops encourages reliance on local resources, provides more job opportunities and reduces the costs and pollution involved in transporting imported products. Instead of relying on imports, they say that Jordan should invest more in the local economy and protect local producers.
Run entirely by volunteers, the campaign has collected more than 2500 signatures. Activists sent letters addressed to Jordan's prime-minister Omar Al-Razzaz, who is a resident of Weibdeh, and Amman's mayor asking them to take action to protect local heritage and small businesses.
"Companies like Starbucks are only interested in their own profit," says Omar Alfaouri, a long-time resident of Weibdeh. "They are not interested in preserving the neighbourhood or giving back to the community. They are destroying the old city's identity," he adds.
Alfaouri's family moved to the neighbourhood in the 40s, where they opened a souvenir shop which he says is one of the oldest in Amman.
"We lived our entire lives here and we don't want these big businesses to come because this would be a disaster for small shop owners," he says. "We are happy with our own small shops. We walk to different shops to get what we need, talk to the shopkeepers, we all know each other."
Alfaouri promptly joined the campaign because he believes that life as he used to know it in Weibdeh is at risk. The small local shops, he says, keep neighbours in touch with each other and foster a sense of community. He fears that social relations will be affected if local businesses shut down and tenants are priced out, and feels that the changes brought by investors and developers are harming long-term residents.
While the campaign against Starbucks and McDonalds is new, Alfaouri says that residents have been fighting against the commercialisation of heritage and trying to safeguard the historic and architectural sites threatened with destruction for development for over a decade.
"We have been pressuring the Amman municipality and the government to study urban development in the area and to come up with good regulations to preserve the area," he tells The New Arab.
|For activists, the destruction of historic buildings represents a traumatic loss of shared memory and local identity|
Al-Khoury underlines that current regulations are not enough to protect heritage since anyone who destroys historic buildings can simply pay a fine to the municipality. She adds that other historic areas of the city have already been destroyed by investors who didn't care about preserving local heritage.
Investors and developers, however, argue that Amman has witnessed a population boom and that development is inevitable.
|Many residents and shop owners in Weibdeh joined the campaign. [Ma7alli]|
Unlike other municipalities across the country where mayors are elected, Amman's mayor is appointed. But Alfaouri thinks residents should be consulted when it comes to making decisions that will have a big impact on their neighbourhoods.
"If something is affecting us, destroying our houses and our heritage and destroying the harmony of the place then something must be done," he argues. "The residents know more about what is good for their area than anybody else so we should be consulted."
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For some, the fight to preserve Weibdeh is also an ideological struggle against neoliberal urban development and to defend the rights of residents who feel they are losing their rights to the city as corporate giants and investors take over historic areas.
According to Fadi Amireh, the founder of Jadal, a non-profit cultural space in downtown Amman, Starbucks and McDonalds stand for a culture of consumerism that threatens local shops and family-owned businesses.
|The fight to preserve Weibdeh is an ideological struggle against neoliberal urban development to defend the rights of residents, as corporate giants and investors take over historic areas|
"Those multinational chains represent a system of profit and endless economic growth that is plundering the world's wealth at the expense of our wellbeing," he tells The New Arab. "We need a new economic model that is beneficial to humanity and to the planet."
The recent closures imposed to fight against the coronavirus might offer residents and decision-makers an opportunity to reflect on what is more important in their city.
Under the current curfew, only small markets, bakeries and pharmacies are allowed to open to fulfil essential needs. Malls and big commercial centres are temporarily closed and only authorised vehicles are allowed to move. Most Jordanians have to walk to local shops in their neighbourhoods to buy food and medicine.
For Alfaouri, this illustrates what should be the priorities. "We have to preserve the identity of the city and the wellbeing of residents" he says. "Not everything is for sale."
Marta Vidal is a journalist focusing on social justice and human rights. Her work has been published by MEE, Al Jazeera, the Washington Post and other outlets.