Planting Amman with Histories: Corinne Silva and Eva Sajovic‘s“Plant/Lives” in Context.

Colin McLaughlin-Alcock

Amman is a city that struggles with its history. There is currentlyno museum in the city that tells the story of modern Jordan or modern Amman, afact pointed out by Rana Beiruti, director of the Lab at Darat Al Funun, thespace which hosted Corinne Silva and Eva Sajovic‘s “Open Lab: Plant/Lives.” WhileAmman’s distant, archeological past is represented by several institutions,most notably the new $27 million Jordan Museum, there is little publicexploration of what connects this deep past with the present.

Modern Amman and Jordan only came into being in 1921, as productsof the British Empire. (Prior to being declared “capital” of the new nation,Amman had only a few thousand inhabitants, and was little more than farmlandand scattered ruins). There is thus a strong sense of disconnect between the trajectoryof the modern state – in which colonial legacies have led to myriad challenges(refugees, resource shortages, economic dependency) – and the deeparcheological history celebrated by Amman’s official institutions of memory. Itis not unusual for Jordanians to complain that “we have no heritage,” and for intellectualsto debate what relevance the Roman ruins have to the lives of Jordanians today,if any.

Facing this gap, what does it mean to live in Amman today? How doesone come to terms with the city’s more recent history and find one’s placewithin it?

For several years now, Darat Al Funun, a “home for the arts” inAmman, has attempted to call attention to this modern history, and to curateand represent itself as a bearer of this history. A 2013 video, “Our Story”discusses the architectural history of the six buildings which make up theDara. The video highlights the notable residents and people who passed throughthese buildings (Prime Minister, Suliman Nablusi; The British militarycommander, Peake Pasha; poet Fouad al Khateeb; and Lawrence of Arabia). Thevideo also notes that the different buildings were built, respectively, by a Syrian,a Jordanian, a Palestinian, and a Lebanese, with one building in the Circassianstyle. The buildings thus index the different ethnic populations of Amman whilesimultaneously, as a conglomeration, they evidence the past harmony of “Biladash-sham,” or “Greater Syria”—a unity before colonial partition divided Syria,Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon into separate countries.

Pointing to this architectural history, Beiruti contends that Daratal Funun can fill the void of an official representation of the city’s history.Visitors who come for the art may find in the Dara a space to access their ownpast. To this end, Beiruti has recently been curating the Dara-as-archive,seeking out the history indexed, not only in the buildings, but in the artworkshoused at the Dara, in the people who work at or have passed through the Dara,as well as in the important archaeological site found on the Dara’s grounds,which she hopes to present as living history.

It is within this context that Beiruti hosted Silva and Sajovic’s “OpenLab: Plant/Lives,” a participatory exploration of the histories and personalstories indexed in the Dara’s luxurious gardens. 18 participants worked withSilva and Sajovic to explore and map the histories of the different plantsfound in the garden. Research included interviewing the gardener and walkingthrough the garden with him, studying the different species online, and sharingpersonal stories about the plants. These personal stories of course reflectedindividual interests and backgrounds. An enthusiast of herbal medicine talkedabout the healing properties and controversy surrounding different plants. Anorganic farmer talked about issues of soil and nutrition. Another participantspoke about how her family had planted a pomegranate tree in her name in herancestral village, because when she was a small child she had foundpomegranates especially beautiful. Another talked about the symbolism of olivetrees for the current Palestinian resistance in the West Bank. (As aparticipant myself, I saw in the almond trees echoes of my home state ofCalifornia, where almond groves, originally planted by Arab farmers in theearly 1900s, have become a flash point for debate over climate change and wateruse).

The stories built on top of one another as participants affixedindex cards to a map in a sort of visual conversation. By the second day of theworkshop the plants were increasingly a source of geopolitical discussion andknowledge. We talked about the ways that guest worker populations on farms werechanging in the wake of the Syrian crisis, as the Jordanian government alteredlicensing procedures to prioritize the hiring of Syrian refugees overlongstanding Egyptian farmworkers. We also talked about water rights andimportation. A couple of participants pointed out that local tap water isunsafe to drink and has been linked to some tragic poisonings. One said thatthis is because the water is imported by Israel from the West Bank on a contractthat doesn’t clearly mandate the water be potable, just “useable”—a situationthat poses big problems to poor families that cannot afford bottled water.

ForSilva and Sajovic, these findings point to the continued violence of colonialpower, “a new form of colonialism” or “invisible empire,” where exploitationmoves not only through the military machinations of the West, but also throughclimate change, seed distribution, agricultural commerce, and water use… “If youthink about how these buildings (at the Dara) were built in the Britishprotectorate....They are the invisible root of what we see now.” Through thisworkshop, the gardens become a site where these relations of power becomevisible and knowable.


It isworth noting that Silva first came to Amman three years ago, as a resident ofthe Dara’s experimental neighbor, Makan Art Space, a place where artists and curators also grappled withquestions of Amman’s spatial history. Silva came to Makan with a set ofphotographs that she had taken in the gardens of Israeli settlements in theWest Bank. For Silva, these gardens were a tool of colonialism, through whichIsraeli settlers attempted to “merge with the landscape,” so as to make theirpresence appear natural while simultaneously erasing the violent dispossessionof native Palestinians.

Makan’sartistic director, Shuruq Harb, worked with Silva to use these photographs as apoint for opening an inquiry into the spatial history of Amman. This inquirywas driven by one of Harb’s prevailing artistic concerns, as a Palestinian whohad moved to Amman from Ramallah: to explore the ways that Jordan’s developmentremains tied to the colonial dispossession of Palestine, despite Jordan’sconceptual break with Palestine following Jordan’s peace with Israel in 1994.Harb’s other work had explored the border between Jordan and the West Bank as aspace of shared violence, and looked at the ways that Palestine remains indexedwithin Amman’s built history, despite the massive erasure of discursive andspatial change.

Harb and Silva organized a series of lectures and walking tours, basedaround Silva’s photographs, that explored some of Amman’s private gardens,plant nurseries and the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan. These activities found that,over the past 30 years, the gardens in Amman’s elite neighborhoods had changedfrom food gardens featuring local plants to ornamental gardens with green lawnsand rosebushes, that seemed to aspire to an exotic elsewhere.  This presented a strange paradox: if thesettlers were gardening to appear more native, and the Jordanian gardeners wereshedding native plants for exotics in an attempt to grasp internationalprestige, both were still caught up in the same global movement of power. Theywere linked in an invisible circuit of commerce and colonialism which couldremain hidden until brought to light through this kind of close attention.

“I thinkJordan is filled with these kinds of hidden realities,” Harb said, “like it’sthere, but there’s a lot done for you not to see or address it, and in thatway, I think the project is really good at highlighting those issues.”

Silvaand Harb’s artistic attention extracted a meaning from the landscape, or imbuedthe landscape with a meaning that had not been there before. The gardenssuddenly appeared as a spot of contention engaged with local history andregional violence.

From myview, Plant/Lives is an exciting and important extension of this earlierproject. If the first pass had found or planted meaning within the gardens ofAmman, the second looked deeper into the meanings found there and drew them outfurther. Additionally, and this is the contribution of Sajovic’s longexperience in participatory and community art—Plant/Lives engaged 18 communitymembers in this project; in the development and dissemination of a conversationon the city’s history, one that finds this conversation rooted in the city’sgarden landscape.

Amman isa city that is growing and changing quickly, in terms of both population andarchitecture, so that it can at times appear a-historical and difficult toconnect to. What does it mean to live in Amman today? Silva and Sajovic’sartwork fits within an important body of work in Amman which seeks toreinscribe this space with affective meaning. In an isolating city like Amman,such work provides an opportunity for people to act or narrate together, tofind themselves in a coherent project and shared space, and from this pointperhaps to build the tools for further political engagement or contention.

ColinMcLaughlin-Alcock is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at UCIrvine. His research is supported by a grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation.  

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