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Jordanians travel through time in this old signs museum

In an attempt to preserve the memory of the Jordanian capital, Amman, a calligrapher opened a museum where he exhibits shop signs installed between the 1950s and 1990s.

AMMAN, Jordan — Above Central Cafe, one of the oldest coffee shops in the center of the Jordanian capital, Amman, on King Hussein Street, lies a museum exhibiting old signs installed in Amman between the 1950s and the 1990s.

“A journey through time,” is how the curator of the Old Signs of Amman Museum and calligrapher Ghazi Khattab describe the experience of visiting the museum that exhibits signs that belong to shops, doctors, clothes shops, hotels, libraries, coffee shops and government institutions.

Khattab, who masters Arabic calligraphy, started collecting vintage signs in 1986 to preserve the memory of Amman and the work of the calligraphers.

Khattab started pursuing his passion for Arabic calligraphy while in school, and he worked for many classical calligraphers. He then developed his skills further in Germany and majored in signs art in the 1980s.

He told Al-Monitor, “My story with signs began 50 years ago when I used to take a bus from the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Wihdat — where I live — to my father’s grocery store in the Abdali district. I would notice the handwritten signs of commercial stores downtown. I found many ways to preserve this art of Arabic calligraphy by buying some of the signs, while others were either donated by their owners or I offered new signs in exchange."

“In early August I inaugurated the museum after I collected hundreds of old signs that take us back to the 1950s and 1960s and document a specific social era in Amman’s history — an era of signs filled with the names of doctors, lawyers, tailors, shops and taxi companies. My goal is to create an artistic memory of Amman,” he noted.

Khattab added, “I also seek to revive and preserve this legacy and perpetuate the names of calligraphers instead of their signs being turned into scrap. I managed to salvage signs that were kept in warehouses and restored them. These are not mere signs, but they tell the stories of individuals and exemplify the memories of an era."

He said, “These signs fill visitors with a sense of nostalgia. An elderly woman who visited the museum was surprised to see a sign with the name of a hairdresser she used to go to in the 1970s. The museum documents 50 years of life in Amman.”

One of the rare signs found in the museum is the Royal Hashemite Store sign from 1949. It belongs to Robin Kechejian, an Armenian-Jordanian who used it as a facade for a camera equipment store he owned. The sign was created by an Armenian calligrapher named Albert.

Another sign displayed in the museum is one dating back to the 1980s. Khattab took a picture of himself underneath it back then while he was in high school.

He also collected shop signs found in the city of Nablus in Palestine, which date back to 1967 when Israel took control of the West Bank. One of those signs, which was created by Palestinian calligrapher Shawky Yaish, belongs to Ghazi al-Taher clothes shop.

“Many tears have been shed already in this place [museum] by elderly people remembering the names of doctors who treated them or hotels they spent beautiful days at. Some of the signs are testimony to unfortunate events [Black September] that Jordan went through in the 1970s. Some signs still show the bullets from that era,” he added.

Entrance to the museum is free of charge.

“The reward for me [is seeing] the visitors’ love for the beautiful capital of Amman and their eagerness to learn about Arabic calligraphy and our Arabic language. As for people who are deprived of traveling [abroad] due to the coronavirus, I tell them, ‘Come and visit Amman in the 1950s,’” Khattab said.

The museum was established with financial support from the Engineering Company for Signs, founded by Khattab and his brothers.

Former Minister of Culture Mohammad Abu Rumman visited the museum and told Al-Monitor, “[It is] an important historical cultural site, not only because of the signs themselves but because each of them has a story that narrates an important part of history not found in books. They are part of the social, cultural and economic history of Amman. The most beautiful thing is that the curator [Khattab] has vivid memories of these sacred signs, their [background] stories and the places they represent — hotels, restaurants, cafes, commercial offices and libraries."

Visitors can leave messages in a guest book at the museum, and many have expressed how they relate to some of the signs.

Hoda left a message saying, “Without prior planning and by pure chance I visited the museum downtown and found my soul as I traveled back 50 years. It was an unexpected journey back in time — a journey I will never forget.”

Another woman left a message saying, “This place tells stories I will cherish forever.”

The museum includes a corner dedicated to the most famous classical calligraphers in Amman, and exhibits their traditional tools and photos to honor them.

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