The Sounds of Downtown Amman

Walking through the main fruit and vegetable market downtown near the Husseini Mosque is an immersive experience of sound, sight, smell and sensation. Anyone who has been in a traditional Arab market knows exactly what it is. A cacophony of sounds that in moments feels almost meditative and in moments feels completely chaotic and out of order.

The sounds are the same every day, the monotonous repetition of the sellers, the bags scrunching, people walking quickly past, kids screaming, cars, carts and wheelbarrows carting items through the narrow passageways the sounds of car horns and moving traffic. It is completely enlivening and completely exhausting at the same time.

The space has this incredible ability to hold it all as if it is holding nothing at all. I walk up to a man who is selling cucumbers and ask him how much they cost, he stops his almost mantra-like repetition calling out what he is selling to let me know the cucumbers are one kilo for a half JD.

I ask him for a kilo and he gives his voice a rest while he fills the black bag. I ask him if his voice ever hurts having to repeat the same thing over and over again over the loud noises of the market, he nods his head wearily. He hands me my bag of cucumbers and returns to his vocal attempts at grabbing a shopper’s attention with the hope of selling what he has to offer.

There is something almost desperate and yet comedic and light hearted about the way the sellers make their items and their prices known and compete to make their voice heard over the noise. Only occasionally tailoring what they say to a potential foreigner by switching into broken English yet typically staying with the same repetitious mantra that usually involves the word “welcome.” It is almost as if the sellers have an unspoken agreement to stay with the same technique the same sounds the same way.

During the Spring Sessions workshop at the King Ghazi hotel with artist James Webb, we discussed sound and different ways to interpret and work with it. We took silent walks downtown simply to listen to the different sounds and brainstorm ideas on what we could do with those, how could we change them, how can we take the same sounds but compose them in a way to make a different meaning?

I hear the market sellers’ cries as mantras and even songs; what if I recorded those sounds like a chant and set it against some kind of music? What would it mean? What if I then played it on hidden speakers in the same market downtown, would anyone notice a difference? Would something change? Ultimately all of these questions feel irrelevant. And as I continue to go downtown for the spring sessions I continue to hear the sounds in potentially new ways in the ever-evolving soundscapes of downtown Amman.

 

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