To many outsiders, Jordan must seem like an oasis of calm in the middle of the chaotic and violent Middle East. Flanked by Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it occupies a fairly innocuous location in the South of the Levant. When compared to its neighbours, all of which have witnessed years of violent protests, political upheaval, and even cataclysmic civil wars, this assumption would appear correct.

Having lived in Jordan myself for nine months, I can confirm that I never felt unsafe or in harm’s way. To be sure, we were advised to not enter Amman’s city centre after Friday prayers, as political protest was likely to follow. More recently, large-scale protests occupied Amman’s “Duwar al-Rabi‘eh”, a major traffic intersection, where Jordanians protested against unpopular new economic policies. Regardless, these instances were major exceptions to what was otherwise an incredibly safe place to live.

However, they reaffirm the challenges that the country faces, challenges which the country has been subject to since its inception under a British mandate in 1922. Almost a century ago, Transjordan (as it was officially known), was a small community which struggled to obtain not only natural resources but also political legitimation. The population, concurrently, remained relatively low; an estimate in the 1920s placed it at around 300,000.

This was all radically changed after the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49, which led to the first mass expulsion of Palestinians from modern-day Israel. 450,000 Palestinians were settled across the Jordan river in the years following, the start of a period of rapid demographic change in the country. Ensuing conflicts since, such as the Six Day War of 1967, the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, and the ongoing Syrian Civil War, have only augmented the number of refugees and displaced persons living in the country.

The Jordanian state, to its credit, has been exemplary in its conduct to displaced persons during these conflicts, offering a safe haven to citizens fleeing from bloodshed. Additionally, it has granted citizenship to those who fled the West Bank since 1948. Many Syrians are now currently being housed in the Za‘atari refugee camp, which some estimate has become the country’s fourth biggest “city”.

Despite a fairly smooth integration process ensuring an efficient uptake of these refugees, they still naturally harbour sentiments of homesickness and longing to the area they left behind. Consequently, the Jordanian state has been attempting to harmonise the population as a whole. Thus, any attempt to properly estimate the numbers of Palestinians living in Jordan becomes problematic due to intermarriage and subsequent generations obfuscating the notion of “Palestinianness”. Furthermore, the state maintains that any calculation of the number of Palestinians violates national unity and also causes stigmatization.[1] Apart from the army, which can obstruct entry to those of Palestinian origin, the Jordanian state seeks to offer as many opportunities to Palestinians, incorporating them into the national dialogue.

My initial experience was that the tension between Jordanian and Palestinian has been largely nullified due to decades of living with one another. The 1950s and 60s saw a conflict erupt between the Palestinian fedayeen and the Jordanian state, culminating in the expulsion of the many Palestinian political groups to Lebanon in 1970. Since then, relations have been relatively non-violent. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find out that occasionally discord does pop up, illustrating that the issue, while concealed at first, still exists.

Sport, as it has done in the past, can provide an easy example of the tension between the two factions. The derby between two Ammani teams, Al-Wihdat (named after a Palestinian refugee camp), and Al-Faisaly, often has a political tone to it, with fans of the former often chanting: Allah, Al-Wihdat, Al-Quds ‘Arabi (God, Wihdat, Jerusalem is Arab).  A 2010 incident was particularly violent, as a collapsing fence led to more than 200 injured.

To many living in the West, myself included, this kind of political double-speak can seem rather baffling, as Jordan’s myriad of identities seem to affirm their commitment to national unity, whilst its citizens retain a sense of national self-affiliation. To this end, a concept I discovered this year made me better understand the way that many people in Jordan live their lives.

During the Cold War, Czesław Miłosz, the 1980 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, used the term ketman (which he discovered when reading about the Middle East, coincidentally) to describe the way people behaved under the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. To him, it is a ‘self-realization against something’, a way for someone to hide their true beliefs from a source of authority, an inner contradiction.

People espousing ketman can, in unison, declare their loyalty to a state of being, yet continue to deny internally their outward behaviour. By obtaining Jordanian citizenship, for instance, displaced Palestinians can claim to have ‘converted’ to their new nation, all the while maintaining sentiments of homesickness. This is similar to how an Eastern European poet, according to Miłosz, could write lines of Stalinist poetry, not believing any of it himself.

To me, it seems that many Jordanians show ketman. Many declare their allegiance to the state by being a contributing member to its economy, democracy and society, while secretly feeling part of something else. It remains to be seen how this state of being will progress alongside the evolving Middle East, and whether it will develop in other refugee communities.

[1] IFPO Atlas – Territory and Nation Building