AMMAN, JORDAN – Thursday night at Books@ Café is a sight you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in Amman, or anywhere else in Jordan, for that matter. Up the stairs from the first floor bookshop that lends the place its name, the café opens into a lounge divided subtly into two sections. To the right, the youth of Amman eat and smoke argiile around a dozen or so tables. On the immediate left, a bar opens into an outdoor patio. Men cluster around the bar area, smoking cigarettes and sipping beers or arak, the milky licorice flavored drink popular throughout the region. All of these men, nearly without exception, are gay.
Established in 1997, Books@ has become a bastion of tolerance and freedom in Jordan, a country with hazy morality laws and an overwhelming Islamic majority, which has traditionally condemned homosexuality. But to pigeonhole Books@’s importance to its perceived status as a gay bar is to neglect the bar’s role in the social development of Amman as a whole.
Amman is a city of condense yet complex history. Jordan as a nation emerged only a century ago, and the city, once a small community in the desert, has come to be one of the most populous in the Arab world. Jordan’s unique position and stability in the Middle East has shaped the demographic of Amman. Throughout its short history, the city has become a haven for refugees, with an exploding population that has risen from a few thousand to just over 4 million in only one hundred years. Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Circassians, and many others have come to call Jordan home.
Historically, the settlement of Amman has divided social classes into clearly defined neighborhoods. The upper class settled in the hills in the Western portion of the city, developing the green and bountiful fields into apartment buildings and luxurious stone villas, equipped with private gardens and views of the city center in the valley below. The working class and refugees came to live in the east, crammed between the Ottoman-built Hijaz railway and the Roman Amphitheater downtown. Rarely do these two worlds ever mix.
Books@ lies squarely between the two sides of the city, and since its establishment in the late 90s, has succeeded in doing what had never been done in Amman’s history before: mixing these different walks of life.
“Books@ is unique in the way it brings people together” says Suhail Abusalmeed, who supervised construction of the café and is a dear friend of the owner. “In the 90s, you’d have Egyptian Migrant workers drinking coffee next to taxi drivers and prominent businessmen. The Princess came and mingled with members of the working class. The café brought the two halves of the city together in a way that had never been done before.”
The culture of acceptance and tolerance fostered by these early days of the café led to it becoming a favorite of the local and expatriate gay community in the city. Books@ became a proud and open home for a community who previously feared the consequences of existing publicly in Amman. While homosexuality had existed in Amman well before the arrival of Books@, the western idea of “gay culture” had no place to develop without an open space in which to exist. Before Books@, homosexuality revolved largely around sex – downtown bars in seedy districts where men went to pick up other men and have sex in a backroom. With the socioeconomic diversity Books@ offered, it naturally became a place people felt safe to be gay. This tolerance doesn’t come without backlash. “We get bomb threats all the time,” says Abusalmeed. “But the Government protects us. They use Books@ to point to the tolerance of the regime, despite the [intolerant] laws they enforce. It’s an uneasy arrangement.” In Jordan, there is no specific law against homosexuality. In 1951, the government revised the Criminal Code and took out any reference to homosexuality within its pages, effectively decriminalizing it. The question remains whether or not this was an action to intentionally take a stance on the legality of homosexuality. A clause within the Jordanian constitution allows for freedom of opinion and expression, so long as it does not contradict the “public order or moral.” A 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 97% of Jordanians answered no when asked “Should Society Accept Homosexuality?” Public order and morality are only mentioned in the Constitution, not strictly defined. Therein, it can be used as a justification by the Jordanian government at their convenience. Building Books@ came with a substantial amount of risk. “Everyone thought we were crazy. There were no shops, no restaurants here. It was all residential, and it was downtown. No one from the west would be caught dead here. But we knew we had to build.”
And they were right – Books@ became a near instant success, and soon enough, similar cafes and stores began to spring up in the neighborhood, trying to capitalize on their success. And so Rainbow Street, the current heart of the city’s nightlife, was born.