Meet the Jordanian illustrator keen to change Amman’s ‘ugly’ image


Jordanian illustrator Ahmed Al Khalidi enjoyed taking street photos on holiday before Covid restrictions kept him at home in Adelaide.

He emigrated to Australia 16 years ago, when he was part of a new generation of Arabic digital artists.

Instead of photos he could no longer take, he started sketching pictures of buildings and architecture in Jerusalem and Amman. These are two of the cities he most identifies with, along with Adelaide.

The themes were home, country and where his house is,” says Mr Al Khalidi, who is in his late 40s.

Many of his Instagram followers, especially Diaspora Arabs, “felt it was their story too and they wanted more,” he says.

He produced a black and white poster of Jerusalem, then, this year, a similar one of Amman. They were commissioned by the Jacaranda art gallery in Amman, whose owner is Australian. Mr Al Khalidi has collaborated with the gallery since its creation in 2007.

The Jerusalem poster has sold well as violence has escalated in the city over the past two years. The Amman poster was also a best-seller, although many consider the city unattractive, with plain, white buildings and a lack of greenery.

“I once saw on TV that Amman was ranked among the ugliest cities in the world. I don’t see it that way,” says Al Khalidi.

He grew up in Kuwait and fled to Jordan with his family when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. The largest Al Khalidi family is made up of Jerusalemites known for their scholarship. They were mostly uprooted when Israel was created in 1948, but their reputation has endured.

Amman, a collage by Jordanian illustrator Ahmed Al Khalidi.  Photo, Ahmed Al-Khalidi.

Mr. Al Khalidi’s older brother, Suleiman, is a prominent journalist. His sister, Rana, studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London.

His mother Maha is also a painter and his other brother, Salem, is an aeronautical engineer. Mr. Al Khalidi studied design and multimedia in Jordan, Ireland and Australia and his works have been exhibited in solo exhibitions. They have also been exhibited at the 2007 International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Spain, the National Museum of Art in Jordan and at art festivals in Portugal, the United Arab Emirates and Australia.

Amman: a city wrongly decried

Although much of Amman is an urban sprawl, its original seven hills, poor eastern neighborhoods and downtown have character, Al Khalidi says.

“I don’t look at Amman as a whole. It has mountains and parts that make it distinctive,” he says.

The city was abandoned for over millennia until the Ottomans settled Circassian refugees from the Caucasus in Amman in the 1880s.

I once saw on TV that Amman was ranked among the ugliest cities in the world. I don’t see it that way

Ahmed Al Khalidi, artist

In 1921, Transjordan, which later became Jordan, was declared a British protectorate, with Amman as its capital. At that time, Amman’s population was only 2,500 people compared to four million today. Syrians and Palestinians played a vital role in staffing the bureaucracy and building the economy of the new country.

Amman remained small until waves of Palestinian refugees arrived in 1948 and 1967. Syrian refugees arrived in the 1980s and over the past decade after two revolts failed to dislodge the Assad family regime. Iraqi refugees arrived after the Gulf War in the 1990s, along with other families of Palestinian origin who were expelled from Kuwait.

In recent years, Amman has been visited by more Western tourists and students keen to learn Arabic, as upheaval has swept through the more established capitals of Lebanon and Syria.

A giant hotel called The Royal, modeled after a 9th-century spiral minaret in Iraq, is one of the few recognizable landmarks in Amman’s poster. Other architectures are borrowed from the displays of Jerusalem and other cities.

“The poster does not represent Amman exactly. It is not necessary,” says Mr. Al Khalidi.

A Palestinian connection

The Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman, Jordan, in January 2022. Reuters

He points out that the history of the city is closely linked to that of Palestine and the rest of the Levant, such as Jabal Al Jofah. It is one of the original seven hills of Amman, which is depicted in the poster.

The neighborhood was one of the main destinations for Palestinians who came in 1948 and built their homes on Roman ruins. Other Roman ruins, such as a large amphitheater and the remains of the Temple of Hercules, have survived.

In 2004, Mr Al Khalidi made his first exhibition, at the French Cultural Center in Amman. Its theme was in contradictions between Amman’s wealthier west and its poorer and older east. Years later, at a mixed media exhibition in Amman, he incorporated photos of Amman and Adelaide.

“They appeared as one city, although they are two different worlds,” says Mr Al Khalidi.

“The idea remains the same. It’s about taking parts from different places and making a house in my head.”

Updated: September 30, 2022, 6:38 p.m.


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