The movie theater can be considered one of various modernizing forces that dramatically transformed Middle Eastern societies since the turn of the last century. Cinema Petra was the biggest and most important movie theater in Jordan throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Located in Amman, the capital of Jordan, it had a multi-purpose function. It not only screened movies but also served as a place of cultural communication and space for interaction, with room to host several thousand guests.
Ever since the introduction of cinema to the Arab world in the early 20th century, the compatibility of cinematic entertainment with Arab and Muslim norms and values has been a subject of debate: Arab cinema is frequently criticized as evidence of Westernization and acculturation. It raises questions about authenticity and acculturation, tradition, and alienation, and the roots of these relations and ideas. Many historians have conceived it solely as a tool of neocolonialism, persuading the more affluent people of the Jordan to accept Western attitudes, encouraging them to shun the language and customs of their forebears and of the working classes.
However, the Arab world gradually adopted the new medium for itself, and records show that Cinema Petra played many Arab-made dramas during the period. Picking up on timeless subjects such as romance but also contributing to the ongoing anti-colonial debates and the shaping of political opinion, Jordanians used avenues of distribution such as Cinema Petra to make and display authentic images of themselves.
Moreover, Cinema Petra also served a variety of other purposes. It was not only a movie theater but also a place of public gathering. People from different backgrounds assembled in its hall for varying reasons. While some sought recreation and entertainment, others were inspired by social responsibility or were driven by political conviction to attend political meetings or charity fundraisers. Cinema Petra played an important role for the cultural development of the city through the numerous literary events that were held there. Both guests from other Arab countries and local artists entertained with recitations from their works.
Cinema Petra thus became part of the public space needed by Amman’s inhabitants for their cultural and political activities and may be understood as an indicator of the development of Amman’s urban society. The manifold uses of the theater crosscut boundaries of class and gender. On the one hand, it was a place where the urban elite could represent themselves through various cultural and philanthropic activities and where discussions of common concern could unfold. On the other hand, with its movie shows it welcomed all inhabitants of the city regardless of social origin, provided they could pay the entrance fee.
The various social events held at Cinema Petra reflected the growing collective responsibility and simultaneously the shifting identities of Amman’s citizens. Amman’s merchants, politicians and landowners were the key actors of national affairs. Using Cinema Petra’s spacious assembly hall, they started to organize themselves politically, culturally and philanthropically. Muslims and Christians came together for rituals like obsequies, thus blurring religious boundaries. Innovative cultural experiences with educational or political undertones triggered the integration of regional trends.
Moreover, the inhabitants of Amman developed a public discourse on cultural, social, economic and political issues bridging them to the broader Arab public sphere. With the introduction and incorporation of modernizing institutions both from regional Arab and Western culture and the gradual formation of collective action, the emerging urban elite became the agents of a broader social and political transformation process which led to the formation of a uniquely Jordanian identity.
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