His reputation preceding the man himself, I know it is him before I see his face.
Upon his entrance, Ali Maher, the self-proclaimed Sheikh of Amman, takes Books@Cafe by storm. Not overlooking a single table, the man begins systematically yet with the utmost warmth to greet the Café’s patrons. He later describes the magnitude of his group of friends by claiming that he has 5,000 on facebook and 1,000 whom facebook headquarters have delayed him adding—this man has brought the world’s largest social networks to its knees.
Everyone calls him Baba.
Out of breath and a little sweaty from the jovial handshakes and liberal kisses, Baba makes his way over to me where we settle into the couches on the Café’s balcony.
Tall, with a giving belly and round spectacles, Baba, at 54, is a presence wherever he goes. And he gets around. Baba is a Commissioner at the Jordanian Royal Film Commission. He is an architect and artist. He is the founder of JAID, Jordan’s first animation and industrial design studio, and the owner of Art & Arch Company. He is a lecturer at multiple Jordanian Universities and teaches art classes out of his home studio. With such an impressive CV, this jack of all trades, responds “goodness”, when I asks him what he masters.
The man loves people and considers the children of Amman his own. His heart is big and gives generously to these seven hills. A few times during our conversation he leans back to rest. His eyes are soft and he looks tired, “I’ve got so much love, bubee” he tells me. What better fatigue could there possibly be? Baba’s life is full. From drug lords in the Balad, to King Abdullah II himself, Baba’s not only rubbed elbows with them all but he’s also come to be loved by them all too. His family and the King’s go back generations but that doesn’t keep Baba from sharing his love with the middling and the lowly. Apparently this is the role of the Sheikh.
Baba explained his title and his genealogy; the two, of course, go hand-in-hand. Ali Maher is also known as Abu Omar, father of Omar. He is the Sheikh of Amman because his father was the Sheikh before him. Like an informal monarchy the Sheikhs of Amman are also the Babas of Amman; they are not just socialites but they are also the guardians of the people. The inherited title is interpreted differently by each generation; Baba takes it upon himself to feed the city’s passions. Later that evening Baba was throwing a going-away party and invited me to join at the intimate gathering—it’s in his nature to open his doors to all and I was lucky to be behind this one.
Baba’s elegant yet modest house is tucked between Rainbow Street and the Balad. A narrow and dusty staircase leads to his calm retreat— his apartment is on the top floor above his gallery space and studio. Hidden from the chaos that surrounds it, the view from Baba’s rooftop balcony is protected yet sweeping— Amman lays spread out before us while his house hugs close to the hillside. He leaves the gathering on the balcony to take me by the hand guiding me from one of his massive canvases to another.
His work falls somewhere between Chagal and Dali but with an added impressionist zeal; it’s mystical and surreal yet applied to the canvas with gruff strokes and liberal paint. “I like mensaf” he says as he gestures towards a religious-looking work: a platter of Jordan’s national dish, flanked by hungry-looking sheep, sits square in the middle of the painting. Hanging behind the beasts are hooked lamb shanks and balls of jameed roll on the ground. It’s grotesque and reverent.
He pours me a glass of whiskey and leads me outside where his guests are feasting on a generous buffet of traditional dishes brought up the hill from Baba’s favorite purveyors in the Balad. The atmosphere is casual; Baba’s guests look like they are at home, some lean on the low wall looking out toward the citadel, others sit in small clusters cradling their drinks. Baba surveys the scene; he looks happy yet nostalgic, “In the 50s, 60s and 70s Amman was full of artists and intellectuals. The city was liberal, alive with creativity. Now the theaters that once showed art-house films have closed or show cheap erotica.” Doing what he can, Baba not just professionally, but also emotionally, feeds Amman’s joie de vivre and creative vitality.
A group of young flamenco guitar players appear from the street and are led onto the balcony by one of the guests. We move into a semi-circle and the boys begin to play. Conversations dwindle. Baba smiles like he’s just heard a joke as he recognizes a tune and begins to sing.