Jordan is one of the lesser known Arab nations, and as such often flies under the radar of Western attention. As a country bordered by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel it quite literally sits in the middle of war zones. It is also the 4th most energy dependent country in the world and the 3rd most water scarce country in the world: it has no oil and only 16 miles of coastline. Its population has doubled in the past 10 years due to the influx of Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees. It is also ranked the 10th worst country in the world for gender equality. Honour killings (the murder of a person, most often women, accused of bringing shame on the family) are more prevalent than anywhere else in the Arab world. The country is governed by an authoritarian constitutional monarchy, with King Abdullah at its head. He is married to Queen Rania, a Palestinian beauty that often features in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Elle as a ‘modern monarch’. The government was most recently dismissed by the King in June 2018 after three weeks of public protests over increasing taxes and removal of subsidies on bread. Bread prices double from 25p per kilogram to 50p. A 25p increase, which caused the removal of the government. Beginning to see some of the challenges and paradoxes?
I say this primarily for context, because whilst confronting all of these issues, Jordan is, at the same time, the most magical, welcoming and chaotic place, in all senses of the word. It is home to the well-known and Mars-like Wadi Rum desert, the ethereal Dead Sea and the lost city of Petra, shooting location of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In addition to this, there are lesser known sites like the Dana biosphere, that turns from a dusty desert yellow to a sea of blooming green for about four weeks a year; and the Roman ruins of Jerash, said to be more magnificent than many of those within Italy.
When its borders were defined in 1917, the people within Jordan were nomads, travellers, tribes of Bedouins; moving day and night with their livestock across desert plains, and vast wadis (valleys). Slowly, these tribes began to settle, and towns began to emerge. Amman, the capital, only came into existence one-hundred years ago, but is now where approximately half the population live. Everything is centred and based in Amman, to the detriment of anyone living outside of it.
To this day, there remains an inherent tribal culture in Jordan. I was once told that if a murder occurs between tribes, the police leave it three days before getting involved, so that tribes can sort it out according to tribal tradition. Tribesmen hold most of the important positions in government, the secret police and the army. Corruption and nepotism are rife. Indeed, the first word that I learnt when I arrived in Jordan was wāsṭā, or connections. It did not take long to figure out why. The population is an eclectic mix of Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrian Christians to name but a few groups. With this come tensions. All Arab countries are a complex melange of dozens of ethnic and religious groups. But they all have one thing in common, possessing the charm of Arab hospitality. It is like nothing I have ever experienced. Indeed, my landlord in Jordan was a Jordanian-Palestinian artist and architect with a penchant for everything Italian. We spent the first night at his house eating pesto-pasta and drinking wine – yes, Arabs drink – not everyone is a Muslim; and even then, many Muslims drink too. Over the course of the year we were invited to multiple feasts and ifṭārs during the month of Ramadan at which trays of traditional dishes like maqlooba and mansaf were served, followed by dates, sugary knāfa and nutty baklava. We ate the best falafel, the best hummus, the best m’tabbal (baba-ganoush) all day every day.
We sped down the Desert and Dead Sea Highways, the only two roads that lead south, for days and weekends spent wild camping in the desert, floating in the Dead Sea and exploring the Crusader castles of Shobak and Karak. We met nomads that invited us in for tea laden with sugar and sage, went to parties with princesses and smoked shisha, whilst playing the oud, on our rooftop looking over the city. Our young Jordanian friends, although upper-class, are liberal and you can begin to see how their more liberal approach to life is conflicting with societal traditions and customs.
Jordan too though, has seen its fair share of war and turmoil. Transjordan, as it was before, gained its independence from Britain in 1946 and soon after, in 1948, together with other Arab states, it invaded Palestine. Jordan subsequently controlled the West Bank until 1950, when it was annexed, to the anger of the Arab states and international community, few of whom recognised the annexation as official. In 1967, a surprise, well-coordinated Israeli attack on the Egyptian held Sinai and the Jordanian held West Bank and Gaza saw both armies completely overwhelmed and defeated, leading to the creation of what we now know as the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Since 1948, millions of Palestinians have settled in Jordan, but the government refuses to publish the official statistics, in fear of a Palestinian coup. It is a known fact though, that Palestinians now make up the majority of the population. Jordan is one of the few Arab countries that has a peace treaty with Israel and the Hashemite monarchy is the official custodian of the Muslim and Christian Holy sites in Jerusalem. Jordan is intricately and implicitly embroiled in the problems and tensions throughout the region.
Domestic unrest too, has been prominent throughout the past decades, and just like many Arab countries, it spiked in 2011. But why no full-blown revolution? The Jordanian people demonstrated in their thousands; but they wanted reform, not a total overthrow of the regime. Indeed, what marks Jordan out, is that the monarchy is often on the side of the people, as the most recent protests show. The Crown Prince even attended some of the protests in June of this year and and it was ultimately the King’s decision to dismiss the government (remember though, he holds all executive power over the government’s decision making anyway – hence my earlier reference to an ‘authoritarian’ monarchy).
Jordan is an under-appreciated, overly-exploited country. I spent nine of the most fulfilling months of my life there, witnessing, at all levels, the workings of the country. But the issues are evident. Just as I have switched in each paragraph, from demonstrations and war to feasting and adventures, you can see it obviously on the ground too. You can look in one direction and see the beautiful mansions in west Amman and look in the other at a Bedouin sitting outside his tent. You can walk up to Mount Nebo, where Moses went to die, and from where he looked over the Promised Lands, and see thousands of years of war and conflict. Or you can see jaw-dropping landscapes of desert, mountains, sea and city that make it hard to believe it is all one country; and see a people that have been more welcoming than any other in the world. Both, I think, should be given equal attention. You cannot live one side of the story without reflecting on the other.