Building Culture: Reflections on September 11th from Amman, Jordan


Anne Elise Thomas, Brown University

  1. On Tuesday, September 11, at 4:30 pm, I was at the National Music Conservatory in Amman, Jordan, preparing to videotape a workshop by a group of musicians visiting from Lebanon. I had been in Amman just over a week, beginning my dissertation research on youth involvement in Arab music, and was still very much learning my way around. [Author pictured right] Photo of Anne Elise ThomasThe workshop I was preparing to document was part of a large-scale event called “Souk Ukaz,” a “Marketplace of Culture,” designed to bring together artists, performers, and cultural producers from various nations to display their work and to exchange strategies for cultural production in a global marketplace. In recent years, Amman has been trying to become a center for culture and business in the Middle East, and through events such as Souk Ukaz, organizers hoped to showcase Amman to a wider audience.

  2. As the workshop was about to begin, Kifah Fakhouri, director of the conservatory, told me that something terrible was happening in the United States. Several planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We tried to check news websites for more information, but there was too much internet traffic to access these sites. At that moment the group showed up and I left the office to videotape their workshop. After the workshop concluded, the reality of what had happened was beginning to sink in. “I hope this was not done by Arabs,” people were saying, already considering the repercussions if the terrorists were discovered to have Middle Eastern citizenship. I went home, tuned in to CNN, learned what had happened, and cried with the knowledge of the thousands of lives that had been lost in a few short hours.

  3. People in Amman, as in other parts of the world, were shocked at what had happened. Many were concerned about relatives and friends living in the United States, and they mourned several Jordanians who lost their lives in the attacks. When I introduced myself as an American, people offered their condolences and their hopes that my family and friends were not affected by this tragedy. As part of my research, I had been keeping a log of the music I heard in taxis, stores, and other contexts; for days after September 11th there was no music in these places. All radios were tuned to the news or turned off. A candlelight vigil was held at the Amman citadel in remembrance of the victims, and flowers were left at the American embassy in an expression of sympathy.

  4. photo of National Consevatory of Music Amman, Jordan In the following weeks, my research was my therapy. I spent my time observing young people learning Arab and Western music at the conservatory. [Pictured right] Activities there were not seriously interrupted by the attacks, although some of the events planned for the fall were canceled as visiting musicians and groups decided not to travel to the region. One of the teachers at the conservatory had been planning to take his Arab music group to the United States for a three-week tour starting September 12; needless to say, their trip was canceled. After spending countless hours rehearsing and preparing for this tour, the group suffered both a loss of income as well as a psychological setback.

  5. While life in the United States was changed dramatically following the attacks, in Jordan the most disruptive effects of the tragedy were yet to be felt. Jordan’s economy, already suffering considerably from the year-old Intifada in neighboring Palestine and Israel, has slumped since September into even more serious recession. The number of travelers coming to Jordan has dwindled to virtually nothing. The tourist industry, which in recent years has invested a great deal in developing infrastructure to attract foreign visitors, found its much hoped-for “peace dividend” pushed even farther out of reach.

  6. Musical life in Amman has suffered the effects of Jordan’s economic slowdown. Concert attendance is down, and while it has never been easy for musicians to make a living through performance in Amman, now it is next to impossible. The National Music Conservatory has been dealt a serious economic blow as well. The NMC is a relatively young institution, founded in 1986 as a string program for young children. In 1988 they expanded their curriculum to include a wind program and an Arab music program. Initially supported by funds from the Noor al-Hussein Society, the conservatory has been struggling to achieve self-sufficiency since the death of King Hussein in 1999. The NMC now relies on significant support from private donors and institutional partnerships as well as student tuition.

  7. Currently, enrollment at the conservatory has dropped to around 50% of its normal capacity. A majority of the students enrolled at the NMC are from Palestinian families, reflecting the social structure of Amman as a whole, and since the Intifada began last year, many of these families have been reallocating funds to support the Palestinian cause. Private donations to the NMC have dried up as well, “because all of the money was going across the river,” says Julie Carter Sarayrah, Associate Director of Development at the NMC.

  8. At present, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict continues to escalate, and with the US strikes in Afghanistan and talk of possible U. military action against Iraq, the situation in the Middle East is looking increasingly unstable. Jordan, itself allied with the United States, remains relatively calm, although its location between Iraq, Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories means that Jordan experiences direct effects of regional instability. A large number of refugees from Iraq and other Gulf states came to Jordan during and after the Gulf War, and since the latest Intifada began, more Palestinian refugees have arrived.

  9. The conservatory’s history has been shaped by Jordan’s role in the region as well. The staff of the NMC has always included many foreigners, including people from Arab nations as well as from Russia, former Soviet states, Europe, and North America. With the Gulf War in 1991, many of these faculty members left Jordan, and the NMC found itself with a serious teacher shortage. At the same time, the NMC had developed relationships with a number of musicians from Baghdad who had been trained in Baghdad’s prestigious Fine Arts Academy and High School for the Performing Arts. Several of these musicians also studied in Russian conservatories, and all were highly accomplished performers in Iraq’s national symphony orchestra. As opportunities for musicians in Iraq were severely limited after the war, the NMC invited these musicians to come to Jordan and join the conservatory staff. These musicians formed the backbone for the National Music Conservatory Orchestra, established at around the same time, and they continue to form an essential core of the teaching and orchestra personnel at the NMC.

  10. One of these musicians is Mohammed Ali Abbas, now a violin and viola teacher at the NMC. I take weekly lessons with Ustaz Abbas on Arab violin, and I recently discussed these issues with him. To him, music and culture have an uneasy relationship with politics. Musicians, he suggests, make it their goal to build culture and to develop their own potential, thus enriching society and contributing to humanity as a whole. This is why, he says, in spite of the effects of the Gulf War, subsequent embargoes, and other hardships, musicians in Iraq are still actively performing, composing, and teaching music. “Serious musicians,” he says, “they like to build themselves, because they know the situation…doesn’t go back again, it takes time. So they must use this time for themselves, to grow, in music. Because otherwise it will be lost time.”

  11. Politics, says Ustaz Abbas, contributes little toward cultural development, and he is suspicious of politicians who claim to support the arts, but who in reality make these gestures for political gain only. He observes that in the Arab world, a country’s wealth seems to have an inverse relationship with the status of music in those countries. The wealthiest nations in the Arab world, he notes, tend not to promote musical activity. He blames this on a feeling of complacency on the part of these nations; a feeling that having money is enough and there is no need to develop their human potential further. When you visit these countries, he says, you see nice buildings, but no richness of cultural life. And as we have all been made painfully aware, buildings are destructible. Culture, on the other hand, is the hardest thing to develop, but it is the most valuable and lasting monument a civilization can achieve.

  12. The optimism that colored my first week in Jordan, as I experienced Souk Ukaz and Amman’s vision of itself as an up-and-coming cultural center, suddenly changed hues as the events of September 11th left the world in shock and mourning. This tragedy was put in a different context, however, with the realization that people here in the Middle East have been living for decades with violence and the painful disruption to daily life that it brings. As an American, I have been granted the luxury of peace and political stability, and the added luxury of taking these things for granted—luxuries that have made my career in music that much easier.

  13. UNESCO has designated Amman to be the “Cultural Capital of the Arab World” for the year 2002, and preparations are busily underway for this event. Government ministries, arts organizations, and the royal family have been visibly organizing and promoting activities for the yearlong project. The NMC will be heavily involved in planning the musical components of this event, which will include festivals, concerts, and the release of a seven-CD anthology of Jordanian music. Musicians and administrators at the NMC are hopeful that these projects will bring much-needed recognition of the importance of music to Jordan’s cultural life. In spite of the hardships they face—political, economic, and psychological—musicians in Amman are continuing to build their culture.
  My research in Amman is made possible by a fellowship from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers and the American Center of Oriental Research. I would like to thank the following for their contributions and assistance in preparing this response: Julie Carter Sarayrah, Mohammed Ali Abbas, Kifah Fakhouri, Zina Koro, Susan Gelb, and the National Music Conservatory.

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