Amman suburb pays a price for new-found affluence

Real estate wealth helps attract cultural activities to Fuheis but undermines its character

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Postcard from Amman

Navigating the streets of Amman can be confusing even for its residents.

Almost every street is a carbon copy of the next ― lined with boxy five-storey buildings, clad in white stone, and without trees.

The uniformity breaks in the north-west suburb of Fuheis, a 19th-century Christian farming village, nestled in a biblical valley leading to the Jordan river.

Old villas, some renovated and resembling those in Mount Lebanon outside Beirut, remain standing in the old centre of Fuheis, together with churches and missionary schools.

A state-owned cement factory in the 1950s, and a property boom in the early 1990s gradually encroached on and consumed the area's farmland. Only a few small plots of land exist.

"The old agriculture died and Fuheis became a city," says painter Fadi Daoud, who runs the Rowaq Al Balka art gallery in old Fuheis.

A symbol of inequality

The seemingly endless construction of residential property and the opening of new shops and restaurants signals affluence, contrasting with the economic hardship experienced in many parts of Jordan.

Rising living costs and steep unemployment, officially at 23 per cent, sparked demonstrations and riots in different parts of the kingdom this month.

Four police personnel were killed and security forces arrested at least 44 people. Several hundred more are wanted by the authorities in connection with the unrest.

In Fuheis, however, there were no signs of the upheaval, which mainly occurred in outlying areas and in the poorer outskirts of Amman. Shops in Fuheis stayed open, unlike some that closed in response to calls for a general strike.

Old terracing cuts through once agricultural hills that exported grapes and peaches to Palestine, the hinterland of Fuheis until the creation of Israel in 1948.

Fuheis was also closely linked with nearby Al Salt, Jordan's commercial centre before the expansion of Amman in the first half of the 20th century.

As Amman's population rose rapidly, mainly because of Palestinian refugees fleeing successive Arab-Israeli wars, demand for property in areas outside Amman increased, as well as for construction material.

Well-to-do Jordanians preferred to live in Fuheis and visit its restaurants and cafes because of a more relaxed and greener environment.

But people in Fuheis started preferring a government job at the cement factory to farming, although the fine dust from production settled on plants and insidiously entered the lungs of those near by. They later sold their land as real estate prices rose.

While Jordan's property market declined in the past decade from a peak in the 2000s, land prices in Fuheis mostly held steady at $170 to $420 per square metre.

Property sales made many of Fuheis’s original families and their descendants rich.

The town, however, retained enough trees and old buildings to differentiate it from the rest of the urban sprawl of Amman. French and Korean engineers who built the cement factory lived in Fuheis and also helped to make the town more open.

A grass-root movement to promote culture developed in the late 1980s, sparked by young people who had studied at Russian, Syrian and Iraqi universities, Mr Daoud says.

“They were keen to improve the town once they came back,” he adds.

Their crowning achievement, he says, was the annual Fuheis music, art and literature festival in the summer. It is modelled on similar events in Lebanon and was launched without any Jordanian government support three decades ago.

At the same time several neglected properties in old Fuheis were turned into venues for events such as poetry recitals, art and meditation teaching, as well as restaurants and cafes.

One of the houses, now an events hall, was a priest’s residence.

The preservation drive helped make Fuheis among the cultural destinations of the Levant, Mr Daoud says.

He points out Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Fadwa Toukan among the prominent guests at literary events in Fuheis.

The late Syrian painter Fateh Al Modarres and Egyptian cartoonist George Bahgoury, both important figures in Arab modern art, exhibited at Mr Daoud's gallery.

They were also anti-establishment figures.

Mr Daoud steers away from talking about politics. But he says that much work is still needed to clean the environment and enforce preservation laws to stop new buildings from further encroaching on the old part of Fuheis.

Effects of pollution from the cement factory, which stopped production more than a decade ago after protests by Fuheis residents, linger in the farmland and in the groundwater, he says.

But with environmental degradation affecting Jordan's agriculture at large, the grapes and peaches of Fuheis are still mostly produced on small plots, and taste better.

“There is some farming left," Mr Daoud says. "People still come to Fuheis looking for quality."

Updated: January 17, 2023, 7:05 AM