To an outsider, Amman, Jordan, could seem nearly unnavigable. Until five years ago, its streets were unlabeled and its buildings unnumbered.* Even now, locals give direction by landmark, narrating the way over the phone or on hand-drawn maps.
"It's totally normal to be lost and confused," says photographer Regina Mamou, who spent 15 months studying the people of Amman get around. Once, she remembers getting directions to a party via a map the hostess had Photoshopped herself. "I had recreated it on this Post-It, and i still couldn't get to her house," she says.
Finally, her friend climbed to the roof of her building and called for her. "There's a sense that this was totally normal," Mamou says. "The fact that we have to get on top of a roof and shout down."
Understanding the "subjective cartography" of Amman is what drew Mamou to Jordan. Over the course of her year there, Mamou followed about ten Amman residents around on impromptu walking tours.*
The key, she discovered, was landmarks. Some were personal. Neighborhood convenience stores often served as key points when people gave directions. Then there were the better-known spots. "People had a tendency to focus on big, major chain landmarks, like a Hyatt or something," she says. "Hospitals were really big ones, too."
Then there were the spots everyone knew, like a bird garden across the street from her home. "I could tell a taxi driver, 'take me to this bird garden,' everyone would know where to go," she says. There was also a main artery that bisected the city; people would give directions by saying which roundabout they were near.
"Those roundabouts have names, but everyone would use their colloquial titles - one, two, three," Mamou says. "It would drive foreigners crazy."
Mamou quickly learned to distinguish between buildings that once looked the same to her. She noticed when one spot was higher than another and could pick out subtle distinctions in color.
Little has changed even though many houses now have numbers. Mail is still delivered to P.O. boxes; even Fed Ex officials call and ask for an "interpretation" as to where a spot is located.
This form of urban living has meant that people form very personal relationships with their neighborhoods. But it also means Jordanians may be less likely to explore a city as a whole. "Living in the Middle East, there's a lot of different ways in which the subjectivity of the landscape is present. As a woman, there are places you will go or won't go," Mamou says. "It also depends on where you are in the economic scale as well."
Mamou says she continued to rely on landmarks even after she returned to Chicago. But it's different there, because of the grid system and the lake. "I don't feel that sense of disorientation, of lostness," she says. "It's difficult to be actually lost."
Top photo: Seven Hills. All photos taken from the series Mapping Collected Memory.
* An earlier version of this post misstated when street names were added in Amman. It also incorrectly stated the number of residents Mamou followed around.