- Published on Saturday, 08 October 2011 01:57
- Category: Letters from Jordan
The land east of the Jordan River was first inhabited more than 12,000 years ago and has seen dozens of civilization in its long history, from the Babylonians and Persians to the Romans and Ottomans. Jordan’s capital city, Amman, is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. This rich tapestry of culture and tradition gives the relatively young country a unique perspective and feeling.
Like much of the world during the era of American ascendency, Jordan continues to try to balance its own tradition and culture against the influx of global influences. This process of social change is evident in the unique mix of the modern and the traditional.
While in west Amman you’re as likely to see a BMW in a Starbucks drive-through as you are to see a man in traditional Bedouin robes, the daily life of the average Jordanian continues to be widely diverse depending on the person’s location and background.
A total of thirteen Palestinian refugee camps still exist in Jordan and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw yet another influx of nearly a million Iraqis. These massive demographic changes have had a profound effect on the concept of identity in Jordan.
Life outside of cosmopolitan west Amman can be very different. In the eastern half of the capital and in smaller cities like Salt, Irbid, and Ma’an, a much more traditional style of life is still embraced.
While most of the rural tribes have become sedentary and now live in permanent structures, modernization has taken its toll. The late Richard Antoun, an anthropologist and professor at Binghamton University, described Jordan’s Bedouins as “happy with the material circumstances of their lives but disturbed and apprehensive about all the social changes.”
For the Bedouins, especially, the preservation of identity is of great importance, whether its in the form of popular clothing and the essential role of hospitality or established gender roles. Resistance to the surge of modernization often leads people to hold on to tradition with a tight grip.
The role of Islam also plays an important role in daily life. Mosques dot every inhabited area and the call to prayer rings out five times daily. While Jordan is home to some Islamist and Salafist groups, the general Jordanian understanding of Islam tends to be conservative but tolerant.
Six percent of the country’s population is Christian, but little tension seems to exist between them and the Muslim majority. While the Qur’an consistently directs Muslims to foster this sort of harmony with Christians as well as Jews, the tension with neighboring Israel has certainly had an effect on popular opinion.
More than half of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, so tensions with Israel are deeply felt. Most of these were displaced in 1948 or 1967 and have never been allowed to return to or even visit their homeland. The knowledge that the “Promised Land” is less than an hour away for most of Jordan’s population yet is entirely unreachable continues to foster a sense of bitter pain, longing, and anger. For Jordanians, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a trauma that just won’t heal.
It is probably fair to describe Jordan’s royal family as generally more in line with western governments than the broader population, but the Jordanian people remain deeply fond of and loyal to King Abdullah II. The young king has spent his first twelve years on the throne continuing his father’s efforts to establish a lasting regional peace with Israel and renewing efforts to spur development through education, infrastructure, and incremental political and economic reforms through the ‘Jordan First’ policy.
Jordan’s lack of natural resources, its dependence on foreign aid, and the implications of the 2008 global financial crisis have placed a heavy strain on the Jordanian economy. Particularly in the cities, where both levels of education and unemployment are high, an interesting mixture of apathy and restlessness bubbles below the surface.
Economic hardship and the successful examples of regular people affecting entrenched political systems set in nearby Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, have inspired many young Jordanians to place greater pressure on the government to institute economic and political reforms.
74% of Jordan’s population is under the age of thirty, and while these young people have largely avoided calls for regime change, they seem serious in their desire for reform. One recent college graduate in Amman named Hassan told me growing frustration with the government’s corruption and a lack of urgency in addressing people’s concerns is having a strong influence.
“I am not an expert; I studied English,” said Mohamed Zeidan, a student at the University of Jordan and a youth activist. “But this [mentality] is part of the problem. The experts, the people making the decisions, are not experiencing what we [as youth] are experiencing. Our voices aren’t heard.” After facing so many challenges to its stability and at times its existence, the greatest struggle for Jordan is now to deal with this societal tension.by Jordan Young, Aslan Media Contributor