Penetrating Jordan’s Illegal Porn Cinemas

By Mat Wolf


Vintage posters on the steps leading up to the entrance of the Kawakib Cinema in Amman, Jordan.

Muttering quietly and nervously to himself, an elderly man squeezes his eyes shut and aims them at the floor while clamping his hands to his ears. His forehead rests against the wooden chair in front of him, and the blue light of the film projector from the cubby behind him illuminates his worn, wrinkled face and white beard.

The film projected on the screen in front of him that he’s trying desperately to avoid depicts a naked, pudgy, sweaty, artificially tan man with a mullet having sex with a cream-skinned, shorthaired brunette on top of a kitchen counter. She has a tattoo on her ass and wears an oversized silver crucifix that swings back and forth between her cleavage as he thrusts into her from behind. The audio is lousy, the camera shaky, and the scant dialogue reveals the movie is probably Italian: “Ahh, fuck me! Sì! Sì! Sì!”

The old man ignores all this, just as he’s ignoring the guy three seats to his right masturbating beneath a tan jacket spread on his lap. In the front row, another man has moved on to his fourth cigarette in the last ten minutes. The smoke mixes with the rays of the projector, partially obscuring the lower right corner of the screen. As the onscreen couple moves on to anal, the mutterer finally gets himself together and stands.

“Pepsi, folks?” he calls in Arabic. “Anyone want a Pepsi?”

Ignoring the self-lovers who surround him, he moves up and down the aisle hawking soda and doing his best to keep his eyes off the screen. This activity draws ire from the 15 or so working-class men in the theater and jeers follow. They’ve come to spend their Saturday afternoon watching grainy, poorly produced big-screen smut at the Kawakib Cinema, one of just a handful of quasi-public but nonetheless illegal pornography theaters in Amman, Jordan. They don’t want their view or attention obstructed—especially not during the anal, and especially not by a man who doesn’t even enjoy the action. The soda vendor sits back down and resumes his attempt to pretend the movie isn’t happening. Dripping with sweat and wheezing, the mullet man pulls out and finishes on the brunette’s back. The camera pans left before fading into a new scene with a new couple.

A hole-in-the-wall in Amman’s old souk—an area called the Balad—the Kawakib occupies a highly visible location on King Talal Street in the city’s historic center. It’s just down the street from the Grand Husseini Mosque, one of Amman’s spiritual centers and a regular rallying location for Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the right time of day, attendees of the Kawakib’s porn matinees have their fornication viewing interrupted by the call of the mosque’s muezzin penetrating the theater’s thin walls.

No marquee or sign advertises the Kawakib’s name or its show times. Posters for long-forgotten B- and C-grade American and European action movies, along with ads for Egyptian and Turkish films and vintage porno posters, are displayed on its concrete and brick exterior. On any given day, a poster for the original Predator shares wall space with promos for films with titles like Peep and Show and the Turkish Vahsi Ve Tatli (“Wild and Fresh,” according to Google Translate).

Beneath the posters, old men in red-checkered kufiyas sprawl across the cat-urine-scented and garbage-strewn steps leading to the cinema’s entrance. Outside the ticket booth, patrons banter and sip tea or coffee between films. Emerging from this huddle, Rushdi, a 54-year-old former manager and sometime employee at Kawakib, tells me the nonporn posters on its wall are a ruse. Today, the cinema only shows porn, but it wasn’t always this way. As a youth, when Rushdi attended shows here, it featured all kinds of black-and-white movies, mostly from Egypt—adventures, comedies, romances, and anything starring Omar Sharif. Rushdi forms a make-believe six-shooter in his right hand and brushes back its hammer, saying in Arabic his favorite movies from the old days were “cowman.” He fires the imaginary weapon, smiles, and corrects himself in English: “cowboy.”

But that was the old Kawakib, which Rushdi and another employee named Atif agree closed sometime in the late 70s (they can’t remember when exactly). Flash-forward a decade to 1987 and Rushdi saw a business opportunity in the abandoned theater. He bought the Kawakib, cleaned it up, and returned it to its status as a “people’s” theater—one that offered big-screen entertainment at an affordable price. It didn’t always offer the latest films, but tickets were a fraction of the price of Amman’s newer mall cinemas.

Rushdi says the first film he showed at the 1987 reopening was an Egyptian action film called The Tiger and the Woman, and it was those kinds of general-audience movies that kept the theater in business—at least for a while. He started inserting porn into the rotation, slowly at first, but by the first decade of the 2000s, it had become his only offering.

This decision to become porn-only was driven by economics. Despite some government attempts at regulation, internet and satellite porn are legal and widely available in Jordan. DVDs and porn cinemas are another story. The Balad is full of stores selling pirated DVDs, but in an attempt to stay publicly legitimate, porn isn’t sold openly in most of them, while the latest offerings from Hollywood, Bollywood, and Egypt are. This means the Kawakib can’t compete with the DVD stores by showing old mainstream hits, and its porn-hungry customers—many of them migrant workers—are often not able to afford the internet and satellite channels. Porn became the Kawakib’s niche, and it’s working out.

Many of the men who attend screenings regularly (women are banned from the theater) are understandably hesitant to speak about their patronage of the Kawakib. The laborers who come to places like this often aren’t even Jordanian. Frequently they’re Egyptian, Syrian, Filipino, or from the Indian subcontinent, spouseless men of varying religions separated from their loved ones and looking for some semblance of companionship.

The theater attendees who don’t mind discussing their habits are perversely proud of their porn viewing. They’re afraid to speak to me by themselves, but when I talk to them in a group, they become candid, even enthusiastic. The movies themselves aren’t that exotic, after all. Breasts, dicks, vaginas, and asses hang out with abandon, but there’s typically no S&M, no homosexuality, and rarely multiple partners or orgies—these films are just straight, old-fashioned, one-on-one intercourse.

“These sex films, I like them, they are very beautiful,” says Jaffar, a clean-shaven, bald Kawakib customer who declines to give his last name. “The women fucking, and sucking, and everything—I like this!”

Flanked and apparently bolstered by a group of three other moviegoers, Jaffar says he’s a Jordanian laborer, as are his friends. For him, the internet and DVDs aren’t good enough. He prefers to watch porn on the big screen, and at the Kawakib, for just a dinar and a half (a little more than $2) he can sit in a theater with likeminded gentleman watching larger-than-life grainy porn anytime from 8 AM to 8 PM any day of the week. He likes to come to the Kawakib after a hard day’s work to “finish and relax.” He says this while grinning and making a jerk-off motion with his left hand—that kind of finish. 


A couple men on the steps of the Kawakib.

A few blocks away, the larger Raghadan Cinema is still doing what the Kawakib used to, screening a mixture of porn and stale mainstream movies and selling tickets for cheap. Management at the Raghadan denies they feature pornography, but an employee who wished to remain anonymous insists it does, just not all the time. Next to the Raghadan’s main entrance, there’s a side door with a staircase leading down to a entranceway to the Amman Cinema, in the building’s basement. Though not always open for business like the Kawakib, its stairwell has the same kinds of vintage porn posters plastered on it, which seems to back up the employee’s story. It’s hard to tell if this hybrid approach is working though. On one recent afternoon, the Kawakib fit around 15 men into its tiny screening room, while the Raghadan played an obscure all-ages Jackie Chan movie and only drew ten customers to its much larger space. Afternoon smut is kicking Jackie Chan’s ass, and doing so in broad daylight. No one at the Kawakib denies what they’re playing, and their neighbors know this all too well.

Zaid Naggar, a middle-aged locksmith and hardware salesman at a shop next door to the Kawakib, wishes the authorities would shut the theater down. “It’s a bad cinema, it only uses sex films, which is bad for the children and even the teenagers,” Zaid says as shopkeepers from next door gather around and nod their heads in agreement. He continues, saying he’s concerned the Kawakib’s activities run against Arab and Islamic values. He’s heard that men engage in homosexual acts there and he knows schoolboys skip class to attend showings. He thinks the police avoid raiding the place because they have more important things to do, but though he’s the theater’s opponent, he concedes there’s a national double standard on porn. “To be honest,” Zaid says, “you can see the sex movies on satellite, so how come it’s prohibited in the cinema?”

State-controlled newspapers from time to time report on government raids against Amman’s porn theaters, but the Kawakib has contingency plans in place should this happen—Atif says he’ll shutter the entrance and take down the posters, providing the illusion it’s closed. He says he knows the religious community isn’t happy about the Kawakib, but, shrugging, suggests they can do very little. Rushdi goes a little further and admits, hesitantly at first, that sometimes bribes are paid to keep authorities out of the cinema—though he declines to say to whom, how much, or how often he pays.

Islamic law is incorporated into Jordan’s legal system, and there is a secret police force, the Mukhabarat, but there are no official religious enforcers like neighboring Saudi Arabia’s Mutaween. Jordan is also unlike Saudi Arabia in that it actually has public movie houses of any kind—like so many things in Saudi Arabia, theaters are banned lest they encourage deviancy. So if the regular Jordanian police don’t care, or are paid not to, there won’t be any imam-led militias coming to burn down the Kawakib anytime soon. Culture, religion, and popular opinion be damned, the cinemas have a loyal and steady customer base. As such, they'll continue inviting customers to have a seat, buy a Pepsi, watch some porn, and come again.

Mat Wolf is an Amman-based freelance journalist who focuses on themes of culture, conflict, religion, and politics. He hails from the American Pacific Northwest.

Previously by Mat Wolf: Christmas in Palestine

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