Al-Khayyam: Icon of golden era of cinema falls into disrepair

Scenes from the inside of the abandoned Al-Khayyam Cinema in Jabal Luweibdeh
Scene from the inside of the abandoned Al-Khayyam Cinema in Jabal Luweibdeh, Amman. (Photos: Nayrouz Ali/Jordan News)
AMMAN — From the 1950s until the 1980s — a crucial time in the development of Amman — cinemas played a huge role in shaping the cultural and social identity of the city. However, in today’s Amman, the cinemas are mostly shells of their old selves; abandoned buildings that only bring feelings of nostalgia to the city’s old residents.اضافة اعلان

Located in the southern slope of Jabal Luweibdeh, Al-Khayyam Cinema was originally built as “Al-Fayyumi Cinema” in 1949, for its owner Abd Al-Razzaq Al-Fayyumi. Later in the early 1960s, the new owner of the building, Mahmoud Abu Qura, reopened the cinema as “Al-Khayyam Cinema”, after Omar Al-Khayyam Street, where it is located. The cinema was redesigned into the building we know today by Egyptian architect Sayyid Kuraim.

Al-Khayyam’s structure represents a brilliant example of an Ammani modernist style of architecture. Kuraim succeeded in designing a building that was influenced by modernity, yet, did not turn its back on the original identity of the city.

The building sits elegantly on the hill, blending into its geography and context.

Its unique façade, which is visible from street level, the downtown area, and opposing neighborhoods, consists of typical Ammani concrete blocks colored with the three main colors of the Bauhaus movement: red, blue and yellow. The colors create interesting asymmetrical geometric patterns intersecting to generate a masterpiece.

The 850-square-meters building consists of three floors, at a height of 17 meters. The main entrance and what used to be the ticket window are accessed from Omar Al-Khayyam Street, covered with blue-patterned ceramic tiles and leading into the entrance hall that extends into the main hall and the stage.

Stairs lead into the first floor’s cafeteria, which serves the cinema and a few offices. The second floor contains the upper hall, the control room, and offices that can be accessed by two different staircases. The third floor contains a VIP room and offices.

Mohammad Al-Bawab, a fifty-year-old Amman resident who has worked and lived in the same street his whole life, describes the scene in Amman’s golden era of cinema, between the 70s and the 80s, as “vibrant and full of life.”

He recalls winding queues of cinemagoers waiting to be let in, noting that an outdoor cafeteria was put in because people who were waiting in line outnumbered the people inside.

For Ramzi Al-Omari, another fifty-year-old resident, who also lived on the same street his whole life, “what made the cinema special is that it was a family cinema,” he said. “It had a family section and special family films, in addition to always displaying the most recent films. I remember that Omar Al-Sharif and Poussi had personally watched their film opening ‘My love... Always’ in the cinema.”

Al-Khayyam reflects a collective memory of the cultural and artistic life of the city and the social activities of its residents. The cinema’s program used to be published in official newspapers to draw a diverse audience from different social backgrounds and age groups.

Aziz, the 72-year-old owner of Aziz Tailor Shop on Omar Al-Khayyam Street and a film enthusiast, has a wide collection of pictures with celebrities who had visited the cinema, such as Mahmoud Shokoko, Ihab Nafea, Sayed Zayan, Samir Ghanem, and Samira Tewfik.

“The tickets were around 30 piasters, while a seat in the upper hall cost 50 piasters as I remember,” he recalled.

Abandoned for about twenty years and left to deteriorate, the perception of the architectural masterpiece in the eyes of the Jordanian youth considerable differs than that of their elders.

“Sadly, there is nothing but dirt and animals inside now,” said Moyyad Al-Moghrabi, a twenty-year-old Amman resident. “When I was younger, I even remember homeless people sleeping inside.”

Jabal Luweibdeh has specific building restrictions that prevent demolition of the building, leaving restoration the only option. The current owner had some plans to turn the cinema into a parking lot, but the plan does not seem to be feasible for the building’s location.

However, the ailing cinema has drawn the attention of many architects, becoming a subject of study for architecture students as an adaptive reuse project, which may open doors to resolve the issue and save part of the city’s cultural heritage.

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