Our little group of journalistic pilgrims had the honor of meeting and questioning Aqel Biltaji, the Mayor of Amman, Aqel Biltaji. We sat in a large lecture hall where city representatives meet twice a week, at which point the citizenry can have their voices heard on just about any topic that they wish to discuss. As Mayor Biltaji enters the room it is hard to look away from him; he has a natural charisma and a beaming smile. He proceeded to shake every one of our hands before he took his own seat.
He told us a bit about his home, the 9,000 year-old city of Amman, and how he seeks to protect and add to its history. He explained that on of the many names that Amman has held in the last 9 millennia is ‘Philadelphia’ or “The City of Brotherly Love”. This name still holds true today, as the people there maintain such a strong sense of hospitality that if you were to try to leave one of their homes without allowing them to care for you properly, it would be perfectly acceptable for them to grab hold of you and keep you there until you do!
Mayor Biltaji has a grandfatherly demeanor, his white hair in contrasts with his healthy tan skin, and always with a glint of understanding behind his intelligent eyes. I’m not sure how many languages he speaks, but his English was impeccable as he spoke of his desires for the West to understand that Jordan is much safer than some of the other countries in the Middle East. Indeed, as you walk the streets here you will see all sorts of people, from all sorts of religions walking together and living in peace.
Biltaji takes obvious pride he takes in his job. He smiles, “Every little spot is important in Amman. If it is dirty that means I have to clean it and if it’s clean then I feel pride.” When asked if there was anything he thought we should especially experience in Amman before we left, he urged, “Try the Falafel, it’s great!” The Mayor of Amman is not elected, but appointed. Perhaps that is why he seemed to have a much more comfortable and down-to-earth manner than officials you might talk to in America. In fact he can be found on Youtube singing to a group of young Globe MUN students.
Biltaji mentioned that he came to Amman in 1948 as a refugee from Tel Aviv. The 200km journey took his family 3 days, as they could only travel at night, for fear of discovery. The story of a refugee reaching the highest office in a capital city made me think of America, where we teach our children that they can grow up to be anything.
Indeed there are more similarities between the two countries than I ever would have anticipated. My jaw was on the floor to learn Biltaji say that he often refers to the Declaration of Independence, calling it “the fourth Abrahamic text.”
As our meeting ended, I realized that all my opinions — and all I thought I knew about the Near and Middle East — were about to be upended. Some of them were already shattered to fine dust on the floor. I won’t soon forget the few hours we spent with this fascinating gentleman.
I pray that we can find more politicians as wise and humble as Mayor Aqel Biltaji.