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Jordanian café owner muses on the fate of his historic neighborhood

By Sean Mathews

Rumi Cafe Amman
Rumi Café in the historic L'weibdeh neighborhood of Amman. Photo courtesy of Ayman Taqatqa

Ayman Taqatqa, owner of Rumi Café in the hip L’weibdeh neighborhood of Amman has been staring at desolate bistro tables and chairs for months now.

But make no mistake about it, desolate is not normally how one would describe Rumi Café.

Located on Al-Shariaah College Street, the beating heart of L’weibdeh, it is usually crowded with chic Jordanians and expats languidly sipping coffee and smoking as they chat under flowering Jasmine.

In this way, the scene at Rumi epitomizes the larger fabric of the neighborhood. Nestled on a hill overlooking downtown Amman, L’weibdeh was created as well-to-do families in Amman began building themselves homes and apartments there in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Today the neighborhood has the largest concentration of historic buildings in Amman.

Many of these old stone houses are home to art galleries such as Darat al Funun and Dar al Anda, and restaurants like Jasmine house, which some consider to be Amman’s only true Italian restaurant.

The mix of expats and locals, living a plethora of different lifestyles on this small hill, fits with the neighborhood’s long history of cosmopolitanism where churches and mosques stand only a few steps from each other separated by some of Amman’s only green spaces.

Nowhere is this cosmopolitanism more pronounced than the cafés of L’weibdeh. Girls with perfectly coiffed hair talk with friends wearing the hijab and those in sleek jeans and loafers sit next to men wearing the Keffiyeh and traditional dress.

Now, since March 16th Jordan has been closed to all international travel. The expats and students that could, managed to take last minute flights out of the country and since then embassies have been arranging evacuation flights.

The neighborhood is eerily quiet due to this exodus.

L'weibdeh Amman
Colorful steps in L'weibdeh. Photo by Levendeia

L’weibdeh is a popular spot for young professionals and students to come study Arabic. And in a society where many Jordanians do not drink alcohol, meeting at coffee houses with language partners and friends is a bridge for young people from different backgrounds.

Yet, if there is a positive to be found in the coronavirus challenge, it may be the filtering out of what some believe was becoming an oversaturated market in L’weibdeh and jump starting a change in business behavior.

Ayman says Coronavirus may be the one thing that saves his neighborhood and preserves the delicate charm of its gardens and narrow streets from chains like Starbucks and oversized tourist spots with gaudy plastic exteriors.

“In this situation, some restaurants will close and Weibdeh will go back to being the area it was like years ago,” he says.

Indeed, the area had become so popular with locals and visitors that taxi drivers would complain about traffic on trips there. This is in a city where it is common to sit in traffic for hours on a Thursday evening.

According to Ayman, the crisis of overdevelopment and weak players in L’weibdeh’s café scene has existed below the surface for years. “Before coronavirus I would never have thought of opening another business in Weibdeh because I knew it wouldn't survive more than another two years.”

Now he believes the neighborhood will be saved and those places that preserved historic buildings and incorporated the old L’weibdeh feel into their business models will come out on top.

“We will see a neighborhood like before, with good quality restaurants and cafés…I am hoping the coronavirus will teach humans how to act and reduce consuming.”

As we talk about the smog free air and birds coming back to Weibdeh, the café owner says, “I am one of the biggest crashed industries, but I'm hoping in some way the coronavirus legacy will last more then a month or two, so it can help people learn how to consume responsibly and deal with this world.”

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