Rainbow Street in Amman's heart is abuzz again after posh 1920s-era homes were turned into restaurants, galleries and libraries, drawing hipsters, bohemians, intellectuals and hordes of tourists.
After decades of oblivion, the street in the historic area of Jabal Amman has undergone a facelift, rejuvenating the once sleepy neighbourhood.
Tucked away along a kilometre-long (less than a mile) cobblestone street flanked by the former homes of Jordan's old aristocratic families, Rainbow Street is now one of Amman's trendiest nightspots.
It sits atop one of Amman's seven hills and boasts majestic views from the shisha bars and cafes of terraced houses overlooking the Old City below and the ancient Citadel on Jabal al-Qala'a across.
Renovation work was completed two years ago by city planners keen on bolstering tourism and Rainbow Street has since found its way into tourist guide books and travel websites.
With more and more new eateries and art galleries opening up, it has attracted the likes of Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who once treated themselves and their children to ice cream from a local shop.
Even King Abdullah II and his wife Queen Rania once took time off to dine at the trendy Sufra restaurant, which boasts “home-made” Jordanian cuisine served in traditional pottery ware.
“Rainbow Street has become an attractive destination, particularly for tourists, thanks mainly to its historic buildings,” said Haitham Goussous, whose family owns and runs Sufra among other restaurants.
“Some people come for the food, while others come to enjoy the overall atmosphere or for shopping.”
Like most buildings in the area, Sufra was once a family home made of white stones, with large windows framed in wood, and patterned tiles that give the effect of a rug that has been unfurled on the floor.
Two years ago the Goussous family renovated the house built by an Armenian family in 1930, but kept the old architecture as a tribute to the past.
“We established this restaurant to attract those who are in a way nostalgic for heritage and like Jordanian atmosphere,” said Goussous, who returned home to help with the business after eight years in Canada and Ireland.
Casually dressed youths mingle alongside more conservative couples and young veiled women to explore the dozens of shops, shisha bars and the weekly arts and crafts market.
“We hold concerts, art exhibitions and play silent black-and-white movies and offer Internet services,” said Mustafa Abdel Fattah, the manager of Cafe des Artistes, which, decades ago, used to be a music shop.
“We try to encourage young artists by displaying their paintings and other work here. We opened the place three years ago and we did not expect it to become popular. A lot of tourists visit us to enjoy the atmosphere as well as the art work.”
At the nearby Duinde Gallery, visitors can sit and enjoy coffee or tea as they admire artworks and listen to the music of New Age composers and performers such as Jean-Michel Jarre and Yanni.
“I used to receive 10 to 15 visitors a day when I first opened the gallery in the mid-1990s,” recalls Salam Canaan, a painter.
“Now after I turned it into some kind of cafe gallery, around 100 people come every day to sit and enjoy the paintings,” he said.
Named after an old cinema theatre, Rainbow Street was the pet project of the Greater Amman Municipality which spent $7 million to inject new life here.
With little or no resources of its own to develop its economy, the desert kingdom of Jordan which like many regional countries has been caught in the global financial crisis depends largely on tourist revenues and foreign aid.
Tourist receipts contribute 14 percent to gross domestic product in the cashed-strapped country of around 6.5 million people.
“Rainbow Street was established in the 1920s and it represents an important part of Amman's history,” said Musa Shubaki, head of GAM's media department.
“Many Jordanian leaders and politicians have lived in that area. GAM sought to preserve the street because it is significant to Jordanians,” he said.
King Talal, grandfather of King Abdullah II, spent his childhood in a house on Rainbow Street during the 1930s.
Renovations were launched in 2008 and took nearly two years to complete.
“We paved the street in cobblestones, fixed sidewalks and built parking lots. People can enjoy panoramic views of Amman from there,” said GAM project manager Wael Momoni.
One of the main differences between Rainbow Street and other Amman night spots is that here, city planners insisted on preserving the old architecture.
There are no flashy high-rise buildings or giant neon signs, and the stone facades of the houses, some with porticoes and wrought-iron gates, have been preserved.
“We did all of this in a way that does not affect the spirit and authenticity of the street, which has become an outlet for Jordanians,” Momoni said.
One of the most popular hangouts lies in a side street and has been around even before the renovation project got underway: [email protected], a two-storey house with a vast terrace and back garden boasting a bookshop and a cafe where quick meals are also served.
“When I returned from the United States in 1996, I looked for a project to start a business. One day, I found an abandoned house as I walked in the street. I liked it and decided to go ahead with my plans,” said owner Madian Jazerah, as waiters ran back and forth to serve customers.
“People warned me that the cafe would not attract anyone. They were wrong,” said the architect, adding that [email protected] caters to up to 300 people a day.
Over the years Jazerah has encouraged amateur singers and musicians to perform at the cafe.
“I am glad this old house was saved and transformed into this nice cafe. When my friends and I come here, we feel we are in Europe. We feel free and happy,” said 21-year-old university student Omar Ahmad.
Environmentalists too, have their nook at the Wild Jordan Cafe, which was built by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) overlooking downtown Amman.
“Tourists and intellectuals like to come here. The menu is inspired by Jordan's nine nature reserves. We also market and sell handicrafts to help support local communities,” said RSCN Marketing Policy Manager Omar Shushan.
Rainbow Street-goers can also enjoy the Souk Jara market, where craftsmen sell their art, women offer homemade snacks and young girls display jewellery and accessories.
“I like this area. It is unique, quiet and nice,” Isabel, a French tourist who works in the fashion industry, told AFP.
“It makes me feel refreshed as I look at these old buildings, which make the entire neighbourhood more attractive.” - AFP