Half-capacity Jordan: whose stories do we need?


The way Jordanians imagine their national collective identity must evolve from tolerance to acceptance and from diversity to true inclusion.

Munir Atalla
23 May 2013

Since its independence in 1946, Jordan has become the home to hundreds of refugee, immigrant, and ex-patriot populations. In 1948, a wave of Palestinian refugees entered Jordan.  Since then Armenians, Bedouins, Kurds, Sri Lankans, Egyptians, Filipinos, Iraqis, Saudis, more Palestinians, Koreans, Lebanese, and Syrians have moved to Amman.

Among these immigrants were Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  There were doctors and beggars, men, women, and children.  One needs to look no further than Google’s new time-lapse project to see the capital city Amman sprawl in all directions since 1984. Yet despite its soaring population, very few immigrants have come to call Amman, home.

Some come in search of work.  Others migrate for the temperate climate. Many flee violence in their countries of origin. Every refugee has a story to contribute, but whose stories does the Jordanian collective imagination value?

There are many conflicting theories when it comes to dealing with diversity and inclusion in the formation of a national narrative. While some advocate a “melting pot” where ethnicity melts away, others prefer the idea of a “salad bowl” where individual cultures retain their integrity but coexist and even thrive.  Jordan has been employing neither of the above strategies, and in doing so has neglected its most valuable resource.  Humans move to new communities to exchange ideas and to be closer to one another.  In Amman, cultural exchange is happening despite little to no encouragement on behalf of the government.  We are operating at half-capacity.

Hashemite tolerance

Jordan was built on the ideals of acceptance and inclusion.  The Hashemites have proven themselves tolerant rulers.  King Abdullah II has worked these principals throughout his reign.  In 2004, he released a memo after consulting with several of the most highly revered figures in the Muslim world titled “The Amman Message”.  In it, he asserted that, “Islam honours every human being, regardless of his colour, race or religion.”

Christian communities across the country have historically flourished and continue to do so - but many of those have been Christian Jordanians, tribesmen who hold one of the quintessentially Jordanian, immediately identifiable last names. Circassians have been rewarded for their loyalty by serving as Royal Guards since the inception of the Monarchy.  But these are not the only groups that today make up the Hashemite Kingdom.

The Jordanian government has launched several nationalistic campaigns over the years.  Most memorable of the lot is the “Jordan First” campaign, a slogan that still sits on the tongues of many Jordanians.  There was also the Kulluna Al Urdun, “All of us are Jordan” campaign launched in the wake of the Amman hotel bombings in 2005.

Although these campaigns did wonders for the nationalist paraphernalia market, it has left many people forgotten.  Today, marginalized groups like Egyptians and South Asian workers typically inhabit and access homogenous restaurants, neighbourhoods, and stores.  Palestinians who have lived here for generations still cling to their roots because millions are strewn about the country in refugee camps.  There are entire populations that live in fear of police harassment or maltreatment.  It would come as no surprise to most Ammanites that Egyptian labourers are often treated with contempt, and have trouble bringing their spouses and children to the country.  Voting systems facilitate tribal nepotism and are specifically designed to ensure that Palestinians have limited representation in Parliament. 

Many of Jordan’s minorities are being pushed to the margins by nationalists who have a narrow definition of what a “pure” Jordanian is and resent minority groups for digging into the state’s already scarce resources.  They resent the fact that the vast majority of foreign aid is going to refugees while they struggle to afford food and water.

Looking for a new type of nation state 

The government has traditionally appealed to Jordanian tribes for its support base.  While this was a good strategy when the tribes were loyal and the numbers were in their favour, the government would do well to foster loyalty amongst minoritized groups who are quickly becoming the vast majority.  Once everyone has a stake in creating a viable, prosperous Jordan, the economy will pick up as it did after the first surge of Palestinian refugees from Kuwait in 1990.  Until then, the “pure” Jordanians should have to start on equal footing with the entire society, and stop receiving handouts from the state.

While the government has maintained the appearance of diversity and tolerance, it has simultaneously failed to snuff policies that enforce Jordanian tribal supremacy like job and educational favouritism and lopsided election laws.

At first glance, a Sri Lankan man, a Syrian refugee longing to go home, and a third-generation Palestinian who is practically Jordanian do not have much in common.  What unites them is a narrative of leaving home.  Under the current nation-state model of control, a government will always favour its “own” people.  Maybe now is the time for the Arab world to start looking into new forms of government that will leave fewer people hungry and dejected.  If Jordan is a place only for Jordanians, civic strife will be its inevitable future.

In Syria, violence has stoked sectarian divides.  The Arab world has not been ideologically united in years.  Now is the time for Jordan to step up and be a beacon for the rest of the Arab world to follow.  The way Jordanians imagine their national collective identity must evolve from tolerance to acceptance and from diversity to true inclusion.  The monarchy must cease to wear the mask of progressiveness and adopt a zero-tolerance policy for racism and favouritism. 

The rest of the immediate region is in shambles.  Palestine is being rubbed off of the map.  Lebanon is still working through its fundamental identity crisis.  Syria has been obliterated. Egypt is still early in the process of reconstruction.  Iraq has been all but lost.  Only Jordan soldiers on.  Today, Amman is the sieve that is gleaning bits and pieces of neighbouring cultures and resuscitating them.  Jordan must ride the surge of incoming cultural material and lead the Arab world into new frontiers.

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