Amman Now

On Air Magazine – October 2006

Amman was once considered parochial and out of touch but is making its way toward hip. Nightlife entrepreneurs weened on MTV and global culture, and empowered by an influx of Saudi oil money, have re-imagined the capital’s Westside. Groovy coffee houses, classic pubs, cosmopolitan restaurants, and packed dance clubs pulse with color and life. The city is full of stylish spots. Some are effortlessly cool. But in Amman you’re never far from a cultural hiccup, when you realize that “hipness” will always be a relative term.

The sun was shining when I stepped onto the patio of Books@Cafe(96264650457, and into an instant scene. Beautiful slackers laughed over beers. A stunning, long-legged Jordanian goddess in rock star sunglasses sipped espresso and chain-smoked. Dreadlocked waiters drifted from table to table. Every last seat was taken.

I wandered inside and found a place to lounge amidst a collection of quirky creatives and diligent students lazing over lattes, and huddling over Macs. The décor was flowerchild meets mod. The music bounced between rock, reggae and chilled out electro-beats. Then I noticed a trend. Women flirted and relaxed into one another. Two men held hands. “Even in Jordan, it’s a Brokeback era,” I said. “Only here,” answered Ibrahim, 30, my friend and lifelong Amman resident. “This café is the [gay community’s] only haven. We’re still a Muslim country, remember?”

Later that night Ibrahim, two journalist friends and I descended upon Salute(+962-6-4638212, a three-tiered pub off the Third Circle. Larry, a New England-based editor gravitated toward the beer-soaked sports bar on the second level to check out soccer scores, before joining us on the exquisite candle-lit deck that overlooked a sea of city lights. We were a bit out of place. Four guys drinking together, surrounded by attractive couples lingering over a quiet, romantic drink. As we left, we dodged high dollar diners spilling out of the Living Room (+962-6-4655998), one of West Amman’s fine dining restaurants serving the latest trend cuisine. “Sushi,” said Ibrahim.

Sushi? New? That’s almost as strange as saying the town’s hottest club is at the Howard Johnson’s. Club Ali Nai (+962-6-5620528)was 50 Cent’s favorite local joint when he was in town to play a mega-exclusive wedding last year. I was blinded by bling, but it came from the stunning glass bar and old school Arabian lighting. The sound system, which blared house anthems, was top shelf. 50 Cent had tested the limits when he grabbed the mike. “It was amazing,” said Ibrahim.

After Club Nai we moved to Kanabaye ( The dark, smokey lounge was packed with young people puffing tobacco from water pipes. Arabic-electronica blared. The energy was high. We were all on the same wavelength, swaying to the beat. This was the vibe Ibrahim had come to expect from his town. This was a party. Then La Bamba came on, and the place went even wilder. Apparently Richie Valens will always be hip… somewhere.

But these cultural quirks make sense here. Nearby ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins nothwithstanding, the city of Amman is actually younger than LA and  still finding itself. The Eastside is old Amman (circa 1930) – a jumble of narrow alleys, open-air markets, and sidewalk businesses. The Westside is what’s next; a hybridization of western culture accented by Arabic roots. Like remixed music, sometimes the combination is sublime, energizing and feels natural, and sometimes it’s less than that.

Reem Shwarma grabbed us after last call. Every town has one of these. The drunken grease spot, freckled with cute nightowls. At this roadside shack on the 3rd Circle, the meat is shaved off an unthinkably large rotisserie, which drips fatty goodness upon piles of onions and fresh tomatoes. All of which is rolled into a fresh pita and slathered with tahini for a buck. This place was the real deal, delicious and authentic. And, judging by the long line, most definitely hip.