Class, Concerts, Cosmopolitanism: Amman as Emerging "Cultural Hotspot"

By Rayya El Zein
Submitted to Session P4533 (Creating Jordan: Artistic Production in a Divided Nation, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper tracks the emergence of Amman as a concert destination. Bands like Autostrad, Jadal, and Morabba3 are fleshing out an independent Arab music scene that has for years been the exclusive province of Beirut. Since 2010, the material growth of Amman, an increase in festivals and festival attendance, and an increasingly cosmopolitan middle class have fueled the notion that Amman is catching up to the regional cultural hotspots of Beirut, Cairo, and Dubai, especially considering turmoil in Damascus and Baghdad. The Jordanian capital is emerging as an important destination for live music: especially alternative, independent bands.

However, the enthusiasm for Amman’s stability and the role it has come to play as a host for cultural production in the wake of the violence and instability affecting traditional Arab cultural hubs needs complicating. I work to do so by elaborating how some prominent music festivals utilize and access public space, participating in a rigidly class-stratified regime of the city. Thick descriptions of concerts during the Al-Balad Music Festival and Word is Yours Festival in 2015 flesh out both the excitement and contradictions accompanying this growth in cultural production.

Theoretically, this paper offers an analysis of listening as a public activity. In this, I diverge from literature accounting for the politics of public activity in Middle Eastern contexts (Bayat 2010; Khalili 2015). I argue that listening does not in and of itself enact public pleasure that others have argued can be liberating. I suggest that audiences gathering to listen to alternative concerts in Amman is not necessarily progressive – pretenses to free expression and progressive gender mixing, not withstanding. My research points instead to the alarming reification of class difference in Amman’s independent music industry, where the screening of access to and enforcement of cosmopolitan behavior during concerts gestures to a particular negotiation of the city and of public politics in process (Tobin 2012; Schwedler 2010). This excerpt from dissertation research insists on a critical discussion of class in an analysis of increasing(ly) cosmopolitan cultural production in Amman.