Appearances are everything on Amman’s Culture Street

by Alex Ray

Culture Street Shmeisani

A tiny blue and grey Tourist Police kiosk sits at one end of Culture Street, a 350 metre strip of low-rise apartment buildings in Shmeisani, an inner suburb of the Jordanian capital Amman. The area attracts tourists mostly from the wealthy Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the U.A.E.

Wedged between a 24-hour supermarket, a 5-star hotel and late-night shisha cafes, the two-man kiosk affords a clear view of the entrances to two dimly lit bars, La Gitane and Byblos.

Inside, men pay steep prices to drink with women who get a commission on alcohol sales. Some are from eastern Europe, in Jordan on temporary work permits. Others are refugees from war-ravaged Syria, Yemen and Iraq.  Women from other Arab countries such as Lebanon, Morocco and Algeria are also in the mix.

The women mostly do not drink alcohol. Each night, they leave the bar with patrons under private arrangements that allow management to claim it abides by Jordanian law, which outlaws prostitution.

Street prostitution is also not uncommon but mostly confined to safer daylight hours. Refugee women wearing abayas, the head to toe black drapes favoured by society’s most conservative elements, loiter in small groups. Their faces are sometimes covered, only to be revealed to the drivers who pull up to inquire about their services.

Late in the afternoon a beaten-up sedan pulls up in Culture St – shari’a thaqafa in Arabic. The male driver says goodbye to the heavily made-up, pudgy young woman wearing a fluoro pink tank top and leopard print leggings. The first of many women to arrive over the next hour, she keeps her eyes on the ground as she quickly covers the few metres to La Gitane’s discreetly marked doorway.

By 11 pm young touts are stationed outside Byblos and La Gitane to invite any foreign-looking men inside for “music, drinks, girls”. Distorted Arabic pop music and football commentary pour down the street from open-air shisha bars serving portly women and men lounging in Abayas and Dishdashas, smartphones in one hand, shisha in the other.

Shortly after midnight the 24-hour H&H supermarket is packed with Jordanian, Saudi, Qatari and Emirati young men begging for one last alcohol sale, hours after the liquor section was locked up for the night.

At 3 am drunk young men and women exhausted by dancing stumble from a nightclub underneath the Kempinski Hotel. Valets wait to whisk them home to upmarket suburbs such as Dabouq, Abdoun and Sweifieh.

At dawn, a lone woman wearing fishnet stockings, a short skirt and leather jacket sits on the wide median strip outside Byblos. “Do you want anything? I have to go soon,” she says. “Where are you from?” I ask.  “Iraq” she replies.

From 8 am, the street fills with office workers arriving for work.

Around mid-morning, wearing shorts and singlet I pass the police kiosk on the 200 metre walk between my apartment and the gym.  A blue-uniformed officer calls out to me in Arabic. “Hey, young man! Why are you undressed?” “What do you mean? Shoulders are not forbidden,” I reply. “This is an Arab, Muslim country, I will tell you what is forbidden and what is not, show me your ID!” he commands.

Sent packing with a warning to cover my shoulders, I wonder at the apparent double standards.  Police ignore thinly-disguised prostitution but will not hesitate to enforce the law that forbids kissing in public.

In Jordan, keeping up appearances is highly prized and a recipe for contradiction. Internationally, Jordan depicts itself as one of the most progressive Arab nations, while domestically it maintains a conservative Muslim self-image. Witness the clash between what is permitted in Culture Street’s ‘nightlife’ and what is enforced in the name of traditional family values.

Jordan has persistently high rates of so-called honour killings – the murder by male relatives of women and girls considered to have brought the family into disrepute by associating with men outside of marriage. According to Human Rights Watch, Jordan registers an estimated 15 to 20 “honour killings” each year. The rate of “honour killings” has jumped by 60% since 2016, according to the Sisterhood is Global Institute in Amman.

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