Objects of (im)mobility in Amman, Jordan: How journeys of migration leave their impression on the home
It was under the heat of the August sun that I had been invited to sit down with Yousef and Myriam*, leaders of a church in eastern Amman, to talk about their experiences of migration in Jordan. I was relieved, therefore, when I entered the cool oasis of their home. Part of the church compound, their home sat under the shadow of the bell-tower which stood proudly amongst the minarets of the cityscape. In keeping with its surroundings, the exterior of the house was just another limestone structure, while inside lay a vibrant tapestry of colour and texture of the many items that adorned their home. Pictures and photos jostled for position on their walls; side-tables and shelves stood busy with knick-knacks and souvenirs.
I was in Jordan conducting doctoral fieldwork on concepts of home in diaspora amongst Christians in Amman. I was interested in unpacking the layered dynamics of national and religious identity expressed in physical homes and what it means to be ‘at home’ after having experienced migration. I found home to be an intriguing context in which to explore migration as a curious paradox of mobility and immobility. Multiple journeys made for different reasons with varied outcomes and future prospects all left their own impression on the home.
What quickly became clear was the extent of mobility Myriam and Yousef had enjoyed. They had travelled, they had studied, they had met and fallen in love, and they had served a religious purpose they believed in. Along these multiple journeys, they had accumulated a remarkable collection of objects which now acted as visceral reminders of these experiences.
Yousef was a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, whose family had come from Jaffa in 1948. He motioned to an old black and white photo of the historic port town that hung on the wall. His father was born on the road as the family fled east, in a guest room of a distant family member. He joked that his birth was like the nativity story, adding for clarity that neither he nor his father was in fact Jesus Christ, in case I was unsure. The family had arrived in Jordan at a time when Amman was little more than an administrative centre. His father and uncles had found work on the railway and set about contributing to the development of the city. I was presented with a photo album of a recent family visit to Amman’s now redundant railway station, which has been turned into a museum.
Myriam was from a large Syrian family. With an interest in theology and music, she had gone to Bible College in Beirut. Her educational achievements were evidenced by the gold-rimmed frames commemorating various certificates. Her musical pursuits were represented by the piano sitting inconspicuously in the corner. Piles of sheet music were precariously placed on top, about to flutter away at the slightest of disturbances. Jordan’s incessant heat was not kind to pianos, she explained, when she later played me a small tune.
It was in Beirut that they had met. Once married, they had gone on to New Zealand, where he had pursued further study. She had taken up photography, with New Zealand’s infamous dramatic scenery decorating their walls contrasting with the dryness of Jordan’s summer landscape. They had then spent time in the Netherlands working for the Church before returning to Jordan. A small pair of Dutch clogs from their time there kept my cup of tea company on the small coffee table to my side.
Yet, there were also objects which commemorated a story of immobility and of lost places. There was a wonderful array of quintessentially Palestinian ceramics and embroideries. These had been picked up during visits to Palestine and working as a church leader in Ramallah just before the Second Intifada. Continued visits to the West Bank are possible with correct paperwork; visiting Jaffa, however, is more improbable. These items symbolised a lost Palestine, keeping its memory alive through a material representation of this emotive connection.
Syria now had also become a place of inaccessibility. With pride, she showed me her collection of Syrian antiques, brass cooking pots and an old record player which she had found in the downtown market in Amman. There were ways of telling it was Syrian, she explained. One way was through the quality: ‘Syrian products are better made than Jordanian ones’. She was proud to be Syrian and lamented what she saw as a lack of ‘real culture’ in Jordan. Syria, in comparison, was a ‘jewel in the Arab crown which has been lost, maybe forever’.
Their love for collecting, commemorating and decorating their home with objects was a testimony to their journeys of (im)mobility, of places visited and loved, of places lost and mourned. Two objects sitting side by side: one reminiscent of a fond memory like Myriam’s photos of New Zealand, another commemorating something lost like the black and white photo of Jaffa. The meaning embedded within these objects was not inherently interpretable, only coming alive as these stories of movement and migration were told. It was only together that these seemingly paradoxical items formed the fabric of their home as a reflection of their life as multiple journeys. For Yousef and Myriam, migration was not a linear process; migration was multi-directional and, most probably, ongoing. Home as a simple structure had been rendered temporary as their personal sense of permanence was found in objects which sat, somewhat superficially, on its walls.
I ended my time by asking where they felt at home. There was a pause before Myriam responded, ‘my home is wherever my husband is’, reconciled to the continuous movement their life still has in store. Home may not be a permanent location for Myriam and Yousef but is rather found in the multiplicity of paths they have taken and those which lay ahead, coalescing around the objects that they together collect along the way. As a somewhat poignant epitaph to our time together, I was bid farewell by their beaming smiles from a photograph of their wedding in Syria which hung next to the door frame as I left through it.
* The names used are pseudonyms, used to protect the identity of research participants.
Annabel C. Evans
Annabel Evans is a 2nd year PhD researcher at Loughborough University in the Geography and Environment Department. With an interdisciplinary background, she arrived 'late' to the geography scene, but enjoys the critical connections between people and places she gets to explore there. Her doctoral project focuses on concepts of home in diaspora, looking at Christians of Palestinian origin in Jordan, where she spent six months in 2019 conducting her fieldwork. She is now found in her makeshift 'lockdown' office, resisting the urge to spend her time crocheting and baking. She can be found tweeting @gyace7 or firstname.lastname@example.org.