The Mecca Mall
by HEATHER MCROBIE
Just before I first moved to Amman my boyfriend at the time gave me a book about Jordan that he annotated with his own notes and little jokes. He was a graduate student and so I unkindly joked at the time that he had time to produce such labour-intensive gifts, but it was touching nonetheless. It touches me more now.
There was a picture in the book that he gave me of a statue of Artemis in Jordan’s National Archeological Museum, and next to it my then-boyfriend wrote about how Artemis was remarkable because she was both the hunter and the symbol of the home. I think he was right that it was strange, that she was both the one who leaves and the one who keeps the house – even then, I knew there was a choice, especially for women – the world will try its best to make you pick only one of those roles. I saw a similar picture of a bust of Artemis seven years later, in a seminar last year, when a Libyan archeologist stood there and explained how they are hiding artifacts from ISIS, and I cried in the darkness while the old man clicked through his slides of all of what will and may be lost.
Like many people coming from Europe and north America, Amman was my first experience of living in the Middle East. In that late Bush and early Obama era –when Jordan was awash with sketchy western businessmen ‘just back from Iraq’, their SUVs with tinted glasses and their job titles smudged into plausible deniability – my friends and I joked that Jordan was the ‘starter country’ for Arabic language learners and kleptocrats-in-training alike. Every expat graduated to a new city within a year or two, and in the meantime westerners were fond of the unkind nickname for the country, the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom. All of which is to say that all the dodgy influences coming and going from the north (Lebanon), south (Saudi), east (Iraq) and west (Israel) didn’t do anything to make Amman remotely sexy in our ungrateful eyes. It was shopping malls and roundabouts and people trying to get to or from the airport as often as possible.
The general sense – even from our Jordanian and Palestinian friends, as much as from the little group of internationals I fell into spending my time with (I’d yet to learn the tricks of getting away from fellow countrypeople abroad) – was that Amman was a kind of under-achieving sibling of the region’s metropolises, and it was a kind of permanent arch joke that we’d all wound up there instead of somewhere Real. It wasn’t really fair to the city that three great golden universes of history were each a taxi ride away – Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem – the places where shit went down, historically, instead of the place that just sold a lot of nice shit.
Being from England, Amman was also the first and the closest I got to experiencing what popular culture has told me life is like in mid-west America: we’d drive to the mall, we’d drink milkshakes, we’d go bowling, we’d have young-people arguments and we’d go home. The mall for bowling and for boredom-induced milkshake-drinking was called Mecca Mall, its neon sign written in the Latin alphabet, its escalators and entertainments full, just like American movies told me that malls are, with kissing teenagers and girls talking about clothes. My friends and I never did make it across the Saudi border all the way to Mecca; the Mecca Mall stood as testament to how all our lives were facsimile, in starter-setting: the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom, we’d laugh, Mecca Mall and we’ve never been to Mecca.
This constant background-noise of how studiedly unremarkable Amman was held extra significance for me because living in Jordan, in my early voyage out practice-of-adulthood, was also the last period of my life when I felt remarkable myself. My first novel had been published eighteen months after I graduated from college, at the time when my peers were facing down the tarmac-chewing period of internships and it’ll-be-great-for-your-resume servitudes, and tightrope-walking the precariousness of my status of half-waitress half-celebrity was a disorientating experience – so much so, in fact, that I’d run away to the Middle East. At twenty three, there was a serious discrepancy between the period in which a person can actually socially trade on ‘I’ve written a book’ (one year and four months) and the time I thought could glide through life as an ingénue (forever. I thought I could do it roughly forever).
So I got a job in Jordan working on human rights, and called my boyfriend in America as often as was inconvenient to tell him all the atrocities I’d either researched or read about or, you know, sometimes just dreamed about. Aged twenty-four there was an obstructive chasm between the amount of time a person can use ‘I work on human rights’ as an excuse to make Skype calls at 3am out of insomnia and weltschmertz (one year and eight months) and the amount of time I thought this professional badge of Being A Good Person would be a get-out card for having to learn to not bulldoze through other people’s lives (forever, more or less. But I promise I have learned since that there are no badges or titles that give you a pass on that). He finished his PhD on ancient artifacts while I was slowly learning to not use either the Being A Professional Good Person badge or a fluke of early success as a free pass through human interactions. I wrote to him, last year, after I’d been to the seminar of the Libyan archeologist who stood so solemn and quiet as he showed us the artifacts he risks his life to save. My once-boyfriend wrote back in a timely manner with helpful advice, and maybe that is the mark of a real good person, with no badges.
In our youthful arrogance, back in my Jordan days, my friends and I constructed this narrative about Amman so effectively – or perhaps inherited it, from whichever young people had been hanging out in Mecca Mall in the years before we arrived – that we didn’t even bother to notice when the city in its complexity refused our story. We occasionally discussed the divide between east and west Amman – one side historical Palestinian refugee housing then layered over with precarious temporary accommodation from the Iraqis who had fled since 2003; the other side the shops of Shmeisani where you could get anything you didn’t really want made out of gold (we went to look once for the most ridiculous made-out-of-gold item we could find there, and I think the winner was a stapler), and where, my research and my nightmares told me, wealthy inhabitants beat their Sri Lankan maids and confiscated their passports.
More often though, we went from our day jobs of report writing on human rights violations to our evening past-times of wandering the mall and drinking milkshakes, and our nighttime pastimes of Skyping people far away and pretending to be better than we really were.
Eight years later I live in Tel Aviv – the Mecca of my queer friends who left the countries either side of here and neon in its own self-mythologies – and Amman is two short bus rides away, give or take any trouble at the border. The man who gave me the book lives far away. Amman’s complexity shows more now – would even if these last years hadn’t beaten from me the ability to ignore that which doesn’t fit with an arrogantly neat summation of a place or person – through the Syrian refugees who have since layered over the parts of the city the Iraqi refugees were pushed into, and the Palestinians before them.
Still of all the horrors in all those reports and all those years and all the nightmares, there is a singular little cruelty in how we dismissed Amman so easily in our practice-run adulthoods. Even if, as they did in our stories, people just went to work and went to the mall and went home and lived their lives, that seems now to be something to hope for, a normality lost in the golden places nearby that we so aspired to be in and be like. Just be a place, like Amman, just be a person, like any other person. Much better that than a statue of Artemis, once revered and now with her face smashed in.