Ten of us on my programme at Columbia University are Jordanian. We share a common interest in social change and a belief that we can forge a better future for Jordan and the region – even if that belief is sometimes tested. Our Jordanian upbringings are varied, even though we grew up in the same country. Most of us went to private school, while some attended public school; most of us grew up in Amman, while others lived in nearby cities and towns. Some of us hail from Palestinian parentage, others from tribal Jordanian origin. But more often than not, our families are of mixed origin and have life stories that make Jordan the fascinating human experiment that it is. We are a microcosm, if you will, both of the county's heterogeneity and its cohesion.
Our group enjoys the following origin combinations: Syrian-Jordanian, Palestinian-Jordanian, Syrian-Bosnian, Bosnian-Bulgarian, Syrian-Palestinian, Circassian-Palestinian, and Jordanian-Circassian. Missing from our ranks are a wide range of other ethnic origins including, but not limited to, Armenians, Chechens, and Kurds. Three of us are Christian, while the majority are Muslim and we practice our religions with varying levels of zeal, ranging from the very devout to the non-practicing. Of those who attended private school, there are Catholics who went to Protestant school, Muslims who went to Catholic school, and non-Circassians who attended Circassian schools. One person in the group is married to an Egyptian, and another is Christian and married to a Muslim.
The group could not be more different. Yet our similarities are unmistakable. This is attested, among other things, by the way in which we all seem to get along. We were thrown together as a group of strangers, but quickly and smoothly formed our own little tribe, characterized by common traits of hospitality, support, openness and collaboration - not to mention a good dose of humour. If I seem to be painting a sentimental picture, it is because this group represents what may become an endangered collective species. In fact, for all the lip service our leadership pays to embracing the varied origins of the Jordanian people, it is despite their best efforts, not because of them, that we have managed to maintain some semblance of cohesion.
Look, for example, at our parliament. Engineered since 1989 to reflect not the reality of Jordanian diversity, but a manufactured version of what conservative forces think Jordan should be – ‘Jordanian’ in the most narrow and parochial sense. The latest parliamentary ‘reform’ process, lauded by some for its success, produced a parliament that reflects the same combination of tribal affiliation, narrow self-interest and strong-arm politics as those that preceded it. This did not occur by coincidence, but by design, through a new-old election law that ensures a weak and subservient parliament that is not truly representative of the people. Some in Jordan and elsewhere were quick to jump on the latest election results as further proof that the Jordanian people were ‘not ready’ for democracy - that they are too simple minded to look beyond their noses or to understand the intricacies of politics.
But what of this impression of the Jordanian citizen as a bumbling oaf that even some Jordanians are so ready to embrace? It is an impression our official media expertly portrays. I recall a community meeting I helped organize with residents of a neighbourhood in Amman, attended by the minister of tourism and the mayor of Amman. The people of the neighbourhood, represented by local leaders, housewives and students, among others, were protesting a gentrification project in their local area. They made some very pertinent points, and asked some hard-hitting questions. There were reporters present from every official news outlet who sat through the entire event. I was taken aback the next day, reading what appeared to be a story about an entirely different event. The papers ran a pre-prepared press release outlining the official position on the project and claimed that the neighbourhood people listened and went home convinced the project was in their best interest. The television report showed officials speaking, followed by one person profusely thanking the king for his generosity in bringing this project to his neighbourhood. This is the norm in official reporting and one which many of us seem to have fallen for over the years.
Why are some of us so quick to accept this image of our fellow citizens as incompetent? Why do some individuals and groups place the rest of the country, and often all Arabs, in a separate category as backward, uncivilized and incapable of positive change? Is this a remnant of our colonial past? Is it an issue of class? Is it an ego trip for some at the expense of others? It would seem to be all of those things combined - a lethal combination of self-loathing by proxy that renders us far less capable of joining efforts for collective good. In the many years of working with people of varying backgrounds and social locations in Jordan, I was constantly struck by what I saw as the perpetual juxtaposition of hope and despair. Hope from the creativity of new ideas and of traditional community values, but despair at the seeming inability to preserve what is good about the past and build on what is remarkable in the present. Hope from engaging with remarkable individuals and small collectives, but equally despair from policies and decisions that disable Jordanians and appeal to the lowest common denominator.
A manifestation of this lowest common denominator approach is a political reform process built on the assumption that Jordanians can be tricked into accepting tepid half-measures, which look good on paper but which achieve little in terms of real change. Another manifestation is the attitude of members of Jordan’s elite. This group have internalized this ‘othering’ of their fellow Jordanians to the point that they would rather see the country hindered, dependent and hobbling, than embrace the possibility of real change. Their fear is that this change may render them personally less powerful or secure. Yet another manifestation is the passivity of many average Jordanians and their willingness to accept a corrupt system if they themselves can find a way to benefit from it.
A political reform process is needed that ceases to play games and which embraces the very diversity that is the country's saving grace. Equally needed is a process of self-reflection that places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of every Jordanian, from the king on down. Each one of us must recognize the role we have played, whether actively or passively, in the process that has led us to this sorry state, as well as the role we can play in pulling us out of it. Only by taking individual responsibility can we collectively begin to tip the hope/despair balance in favour of the country and the region.