A Street Art Tour of Amman is a different way to see the city and learn about issues affecting the people who live in Amman. An internet search reveals Underground Amman which offers two street art tours. I struggle to distinguish between the two. In the end the decision is made for me. Only the Downtown Amman tour fits in with my dates.
Underground Amman Street Art Tour
We arrive at the meeting place, well-known Falafel Al Quds in Rainbow Street early. Besides the expected international visitors, there’s a Jordanian family from Jordan in our large group of twenty-three. One of them knows Alaeddin Rahmeh. He started Underground Amman and is our guide today.
Alaeddin begins by telling us how he had a difficult time growing up in a Palestinian camp in Amman. Now 33, he describes how as a teenager he came home from school one day to find a hip hop concert in New York on TV. He was hooked.
Graffiti is an element of Hip Hop
With no on to teach them, he and his friends spent hours watching videos and teaching themselves head spinning and break dancing. They added their own interpretations to the dance. “It was about having fun and being part of a community,” he says.
Dance is one of five main elements of hip hop. Another is beat box. This is when the artist makes a percussion type beat with their mouth. Alaeddin demonstrates by emitting a rhythmic pffft sound – a bit like air being released from a tyre. Deejaying, rhythmic poetry (rap) and graffiti make up the rest of the five elements.
Murals Gain Acceptance in Jordan
In what I assumed was a conservative county, I’m surprised to learn that there are more than 500 pieces of street art in Amman with more being added every day. Some are commissioned pieces like the first one on our tour. Completed three years ago, a week before lockdown, it aims to promote an awareness of the natural environment. Symbols of Amman and Jordan radiate from a central white square. There are columns from the Citadel and a piece of red, black and white fabric.
Street art is relatively new to Amman. Once locals realized that murals brightened up the bland monochrome buildings of their city, they embraced the art form. Getting permission for large scale works in an agreed location is usually a formality as long as works don’t promote violence and respect cultural values.
Murals highlighting current issues
Jordanians are rightly concerned about water. The Dead Sea is losing water at a rate of a depth of one foot each year, Alaeddin tells us. Many artists use their works to highlight the water issue.
The skeleton of a fish adorns the t-shirt worn by a black and white mermaid painted on a wall. A folded paper boat floats on her head. The boat is the ‘mark’ of Sardine, a Jordanian of Armenian descent, whose vertical signature written in Arabic is in the form of a fish.
Yaratun, one of the 70% of female street artists in Amman, aims to raise awareness and encourage discussion about mental health through her work. She paints her characters in vibrant colours, but there’s something missing. Their eyes, ears and hearts are empty.
Neatly painted black script on a beige wall refers to a well-known Arabic poem. The artist has made a subtle change to the original wording which describes how the wind doesn’t blow “where the ship wants” meaning that we won’t get everything we want. Instead, Alaeddin explains, the artwork reads that “people are the wind and blows as our ship wants.”
Our group listens spellbound as Alaeddin recites the poem. The words dance and sing from his lips. We may not understand them, but can feel the emotion behind them.
This leads to a discussion about the Arabic language. The English Dictionary has around 600 000 words. There are over 12 million Arabic words not including dialects. Alaeddin explains that many words describe one thing. One word for ‘lion’ that indicates a strong lion, another tells the listener that the lion is hunting and another describes a lazy lion. Each of the 12 words for love, have a different level of meaning.
Descending one of Amman’s many hills, we pass works painted in 2018 as part of the sixth BaladK Street Art Festival. Artists from all over the world contributed. There’s a woman wearing a hijab with delicate ribbons above and below her eyes and a work by sixteen-year-old American, Phoebe. She painted an abstract work using one continuous line. Looking closely, I see faces hidden in the intricate piece.
“Blue Boy” by Nada Jevanovic is faded now, but the tears beneath his eyes remain. When murals deteriorate or are defaced, the artists don’t repair them. “They have given their art to the street,” says Alaeddin.
Another flight of stairs, with ‘love locks’ attached to a dividing fence, leads into Downtown Amman. Alaeddin describes Downtown as the “soul of Amman, the most authentic [place] where you can get anything.”
Then we’re climbing up again, this time up the Al Kahla stairs, a popular social and community space. The artworks here are peeling and old. People have signed their names and written over the black and white portrait of Fairuz, a renowned female singer. Alaeddin says locals like to wake up to “coffee and Fairuz to make the morning better.” The Jordanian guests nod in agreement.
The mural of a Sufi Dancing was voted Amman’s favourite mural in 2019. Rather tired now, the mural is surrounded by a circle of intricate ‘calligraffiti’, a style of Arabic writing combined with calligraphy.
A surprise encounter
We come across a young woman, her jeans covered in dabs of colour, painting another image of Fairuz. Is this a set up? Apparently not. Wearing a small brimmed hat over her hijab, Batool stops what she is doing to chat with us.
The tour ends at The House of Dreaming, an open space in an abandoned house that artists rented to meet and “share dreams”. Alaeddin begins taking things out of his pockets and clearing space. We gather round as he warms up. Beginning with a few dance moves, he then drops to the floor, face-up. Supporting himself with his arms, legs in the air he spins, circling his legs above his head.
All too soon it’s over and we give a big round of applause. Puffing, he admits that he’s out of practice, or perhaps getting too old for this.
This Street Art tour of Amman is worth doing
This worthwhile tour showed me a different side of Amman.
One of the guests said “I’m from Jordan and I loved it.” She saw and learnt things she didn’t know about her own city. Her daughter folded a Jordanian Dinar note into a little paper boat as her donation.
If you enjoyed this story you might like to read about my other experiences in Amman. Here’s a link to my story on a Food Tour of Amman. And you’ll find a link to my story about the view from my Amman Hotel window here.
- Read more about the Underground Amman Street Art Tour here
- The tour is free, but donations are welcome and assist the street art community
- Underground Amman’s other tour is the Hashmi tour of a Military housing project enlivened by murals on the tall blank walls. You can see a work by Australia’s Fintan Magee there.