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The City and the Writer: In Amman with Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Amman as you feel/see it?

Amman has a nervous energy—it’s busy and ambitious and wants to punch above its weight, and there are always new projects and strange dreams unfolding on one hill while on the neighboring hill the realities of political and economic instability keep so many people in a holding pattern. Amman is a city of overlapping contrasts.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The day my grandfather died, January 4, 1991. His name was Husni Fariz, and he was one of Jordan’s most beloved poets. He was also a legendary teacher, and the boys’ high school in his hometown of Al-Salt is named after him. He died on a frigid winter morning, a thick fog swallowing up the city. The decades-old apricot tree in his backyard, prolific companion of childhood summers, collapsed. It was my first real experience with grief, and a very personal loss was shared with hundreds of people who kept arriving at my grandparents’ house for days on end to give their condolences. Participating in the rituals of mourning claimed me for the city.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Modern-day Amman is built on seven hills (each of which is known as a jabal). My grandparents’ home is located in Jabal Elweibdeh. Fortunately or unfortunately, Jabal Elweibdeh is experiencing a growth in popularity among young people and visitors, and many of its beautiful old homes are now coffee shops and art spaces. What may be unnoticed by visitors and by entrepreneurial locals is the rich artistic and literary heritage of the Jabal. Some stories say that Elweibdeh gets its name from a wildflower that grew only on this hill before it was urbanized. In my lifetime, Elweibdeh is known for its jasmine, the vines spilling over garden walls and perfuming the streets named after Arab poets. On a recent walk there, I took a picture of a storefront where the owner had written lines from Amal Dunqol’s iconic poem لا تصالح (“Do Not Reconcile”): Poetry (and resistance) thrive among the jasmine vines.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Very few Jordanian poets are translated. Among those whose books are available in English, I admire the work of poet Amjad Nasser. Peter Twal, who is from Madaba, is an outstanding Jordanian-American poet and winner of the 2018 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I love Darat Al Funun (the House of Arts), a gallery and art space comprised of six old homes and warehouses originally built by Jordanian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian families. Each of the structures has a story, and they are braided into the consistently compelling exhibits that are curated in these reclaimed spaces. The garden, with its spare courtyard and fountain and beautiful trees, where you can sip coffee or mint lemonade, is my favorite place to write in the city.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

There is a bookseller, Hassan Abu Ali, who owns a little kiosk in the heart of the old city. Abu Ali is a beloved national treasure and his bookstore is named “Arab Culture Kiosk.” He can advise on new releases as well as the classics—Arabic and translations of great world literature. He stocks everything: poetry, political analysis, ancient and modern histories, cookbooks, astrology. And he personally calls his customers when he gets a book in that he knows they will love.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Amman is infinite cities within the city because its citizens come from so many places inside and outside of Jordan. They often keep their connections to their original cities and homelands alive and they have such widely varied experiences. The winding streets and steep staircases from Jabal Elweibdeh and Citadel Hill and Jabal Amman into Albalad, the old center of town, are filled with small shops and restaurants and stories from across the region. The wars and migrations that drove people out of their homes and to Amman are alive here; they are part of what makes up the daily life of the city. There is also a temporal city. The stretch of morning before Friday prayers is my favorite Amman landscape. The city is still relatively quiet—most businesses are closed and most neighborhoods move at a very slow pace. At most, you might leave your house to pick up fresh falafel and fattet hummus for family breakfast from the corner shop. It is still possible to hear yourself think on Friday mornings and to lean into the day slowly, noticing all the small gestures of the world around you. Few cities still offer this magic.


Where does passion live here?

It’s such an interesting question when it comes to Amman. I think in some ways Ammanis do a lot of work to survive the extreme conditions their city is always confronting—water shortages and unemployment and unravelings. People find interesting outlets. Amman weddings are legendary, for example. The extravagant and the modest are all very passionate—we love our wedding caravans through the night streets of the city, car horns honking, wedding singers’ covers of pop songs and old classics billowing across the Jabals in between prayer calls.


What is the title of one of your works about Amman and what inspired it exactly?

My poem “Apricots” (published in the New England Review) is an elegy for that tree that fell in my grandparents’ garden and for the Amman of my childhood that is disappearing in many ways. 


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Amman does an outside exist?”

Ammanis are always leaving or trying to leave. People are always working on visas to study or work where life seems easier, or they’re lamenting how one city or another does a better job than theirs. But in truth, Amman consumes me when I’m there and it can feel like an entire world. It demands so much attention even as it grumbles about its own frustrations.



Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is an American writer of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritage. She is the author of Water & Salt (Red Hen Press), winner of the 2018 Washington State Book Award; and Arab in Newsland, winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington and an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her essays and poetry have been published in the Kenyon Review Online, the Rumpus, World Literature Today, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mizna, the New England Review, TriQuarterly, and others. Her chapbook, Letters from the Interior, is forthcoming from Diode Editions.

Published Nov 11, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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