Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Hoosier in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

When one considers the most politically volatile places in the Middle East, certainly Jordan does not top the list. Jordan is perceived as a country with a stable government, a growing economy, and perhaps most importantly, a nuanced foreign policy. The countries surrounding Jordan appear far more exciting! To the west is the West Bank and Israel. East is Iraq. To the north, Syria. South is Saudi Arabia. These are countries where ‘stability, growth, and nuance’ are undoubtedly not the first adjectives that come to mind! These nations are all amidst processes of rapid change, be they political, economic, or religious. Some of these changes, like in Iraq, are more obvious. Many of these changes have been imposed by others, such as in the West Bank and Iraq. From colonialism to native oppressive regimes, people remain frustrated that their own wills have little to no affect on what actually happens in their country. In the West Bank, the response has been a combination of armed insurgency and a resignment to the fact that their fate lies with Western sympathy. In Iraq, violence and anger increases daily, as both foreign and Iraqi insurgents fight to determine the ultimate appearance of their county, an appearance that continued relatively untouched since the 1970s. Both Syria and Saudi Arabia are places where radicalism increases with every Israeli, US, or local government action. In all of these countries, there remains an incredible disconnect between official government policy and the will of the people, creating a situation where citizens are boiling with anger. This anger stems from a variety of factors, from government suppression, to the situation facing Palestinians and Iraqis, to an unstated, but rather obvious inability for their traditional lives and beliefs to fit into the ‘modern’ world. Most people simply want to live out their culture and faith, like anyone else. However, trends and events around them force their lives to take different, often worse, courses.

In spite of its reputation as a sort of proper island in the sea of Middle Eastern troubles, Jordan, in fact, fits the above description as a place of rapid change. This manifests itself in a number of areas, including economically. Modernizing trends abound in Jordan, which has brought some wealth to the small, essentially natural resource-free country; however, this has not been without loss. Just today, a well-educated Jordanian friend of mine told me: “There’s only one thing I hate about globalization. I miss Jordan.” I’m not an economist, however, so while that’s all interesting, I naturally gravitate to the political!

As much as any nation in the region, Jordan’s history has been one of continual adjustment to nearby events that affect its survival. The current war in Iraq, for example, is heaping problems onto Jordan. Not only has this small country been forced to accommodate the massive influx of Iraqis fleeing the country, causing an increase in housing prices and a mini cultural crisis, but no longer do the Jordanian people enjoy subsidies on Iraqi oil. Events in another neighbor, Israel/Palestine, have had an even greater impact on Jordan. This is fascinating, especially considering the relatively little attention it receives in the larger ‘Arab-Israeli conflict.’ The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was originally established as an essentially open land for ‘Transjordanian’ Bedouins and the Bedouin lifestyle. But, with the establishment of Israel and the wars of 1948 and 1967, Jordan absorbed enormous amounts of Palestinian refugees. Despite certain Israeli politicians’ periodic claims that “Jordan is Palestine,” and despite the Hashemites’ (the Royal family) original desire to annex the West Bank into the state of Jordan, this much smaller ‘refugee problem’ has remained a dominate factor in Jordanian life for decades, ascending the importance of mere politics. It begs fundamental questions like, “Who is a Jordanian?”

Currently, Jordanians of Palestinian descent number around 60% of the Jordanian population, and in general, they are within the mainstream of society. In fact, they dominate the private sector, as Palestinian families frequently came to Jordan better educated and with more economic resources than their Transjordanian counterparts. On the surface, there is no difference between those Palestinian-Jordanians and ‘Transjordanians,’ or Jordanians whose family originates from the land now considered the state of Jordan. Get in a cab, however, and you gain a small glimpse into the larger issues. I try to make it a point to ask cab drivers if they are of Palestinian descent; they often are. Always, they will tell you exactly where they are from and when they were forced or fled to Jordan. Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron, even Haifa are cities often mentioned. If they remember, they often talk of what it was like in Palestine. A friend of mine told me that his family still owns land in Nablus, although it is now part of an Israeli settlement. Shops here are frequently given distinctly Palestinian names like “Al-Quds” of “Khalil” (Jerusalem and Hebron in Arabic), reflecting that yearning for Palestine. There is a beautiful spot near Irbid called Umm Qais, where it is possible to look down upon Syria, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and Israel. Palestinian-Jordanians are known to climb to this point and gaze longingly upon their former homeland. While this connection to one’s roots is normal and probably even healthy, in a constantly shifting Middle East, it is much bigger, much more political. I also ask these same cab drivers, “If Palestine became a real state, where would you live?” One man told me, “Here. The life is better here. Why would I leave Jordan?” Another man, however, said without hesitation, “Palestine, of course. It’s where my heart is.” This creates (as far as I know) an entirely unique state of affairs where a majority of Jordan’s population remains intimately connected to another area of the world, despite their general integration into Jordanian society. For many, this connection is limited to stories and support for the Palestinian cause; for many others; however, their loyalty to Jordan is viewed as temporary, until they can return to their real home, Palestine. The situation is even more tenuous because Palestine is right next door. If Palestine did in fact achieve statehood, what percentage of Palestinian-Jordanians would want to leave? With whom does their ultimate loyalty lie? Many Transjordanians ask this same question. Generally, Palestinians living here are intentionally cut off from the political realm, probably out of mistrust. The continued failure of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to gain basic human rights, let alone statehood, certainly breeds anger amongst Palestinian-Jordanians. Jordan has made peace with Israel, a peace that most Palestinian-Jordanians find highly troublesome. I have been told that during Israel’s more aggressive actions (like the invasion of Jenin in 2002), large demonstrations often ensue in heavily-populated Palestinian areas of Jordan. The Jordan-Palestine relationship reached its darkest moment in 1970 with Black September, when King Hussein of Jordan forcefully drove the PLO out of Jordan, killing 3,000 Palestinians, in what became a near civil war.

Certainly, the situation is complex. Jordan has provided these former Palestinian refugees with a life they could not have anywhere else in the Middle East, especially not Palestine. They have truly become Jordanians, enjoying the benefits of being in a country where violence is rare and financial stability is possible. Furthermore, most Transjordanians sympathize with the Palestinian cause. However, while almost any Jordanian will tell you that this internal strife is a thing of the past, the situation remains contentious. Yes, Jordan is not Iraq or even Syria. This is good! However, it certainly has its own set of unique difficulties and fascinating political dilemmas for me to study.


Blogger Dad said...


This is really good stuff! Keep it coming...really makes me eager to join you! But, alas, not until February.

Hope you and Annie have a great weekend in Jerusalem/Bethlehem!


6:32 AM

Blogger Dad said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:32 AM

Blogger James said...

robin, thanks for the info and insights. its good to be able to learn about Jordan while in Guatemala. ah, the miracles of the interweb.

how much does it cost you (if anything) to use the internet in jordan?


1:15 PM

Blogger Scotter said...

Bill Clinton was interviewing Condi Rice, King Abdullah, and someone from Israel in a forum for his peace organization the other day. The part that was interesting was when Abdullah discussed Jordan's attempts to formalize the legitimacy of fatwahs so that only fatwahs out of six schools are considered legitimate. Jordan seems to be in an awkward place. It lacks serious military or economic clout. Abdullah has to walk line between the Arab nations and U.S. in order to maintain good relations on both sides.

1:43 PM

Blogger anne said...

It was even better to listen to your thoughts than just reading them!!

شكرا وانا مشتاقلك

I got some help with that in case you're curious:) And by the way, I am not a damsel you need to rescue (reference earlier post)!!! Yes, I read your blog:) Good luck on your test!

9:31 AM


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