Adam shows us how to buy falafel in Amman, Jordan
Author Archives: A S
Adam takes us on a tour of his Traditional Islamic Arts Classroom
Meet Gilman correspondent Adam Simons. From Fall 2011 to Spring 2012, Adam studied in Amman, Jordan. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholars an opportunity to record videos around an academic theme and share it with classrooms back in the U.S.
I enter the café in hopes of finding some good wi-fi to skype my parents with. I ask if there is wireless internet, I am informed by the waiter there is indeed wifi at this particular establishment. Then I am asked how many guests are with me. Just me, I answer. The maître’d overhears my response and mutters something and I am abruptly informed by the same waiter that there is no more room at this café. I can see empty tables; there is plenty of room.
It is clear what has just happened. The host of this establishment doesn’t want to have a lone American use up his wi-fi and buy essentially nothing (I would have probably bought an overpriced bottle of water). Or maybe this particular café is “couples only.” Either way, after this experience I came to a realization. I came to Jordan with a particular mindset; I’ve studied abroad before, I’ve learned a considerable amount about Arab culture from my friends back home, cultural shock couldn’t possibly happen to me. But the truth is that I have been affected by it—I have been culturally shocked. I’m shocked when the above scenario plays out. I am shocked by the ubiquitous impatience of Amman, as well as the tardiness (ironically enough) which all events here subscribe to. Or by the difficulty of making new friends here, and the impossibility of meeting Jordanian women. By the lack of nightlife and recreational activities for youths life myself, and by the often hollow mimicry of American customs I see every day in malls, on TV, brand names, and fast food.
I’m not entirely sure how best to cope with this ‘shock.’ I experienced it a little when I studied in Haifa, and significantly less so while in South Korea. I realize that I’ve been handling it pretty poorly—spending too much time with Americans, perhaps for the comfort of familiarity, and not making enough time for experiencing Ammanian culture with Jordanians.
On the other hand, I do feel that I’ve learned a considerable amount of conversational Arabic, which was my main goal in coming here. While it will be important to regain familiarity from time to time (sealing myself off in my ipod or Minecraft), that needs to not take up the bulk of my time here if I am to pursue my goals of coming close to mastering conversational Arabic, making lasting friends here, and becoming deeply familiar with Arab culture as well as the politics and worldviews of the region.
So, hopefully things start looking up!
These past three months in Amman I have spent my Mondays at an internship at the Jordan Investment Board, a semi-government organization tasked with enticing foreign investors to bring their business to Jordan, through publishing flashy literature on the vital economic statistics in Jordan and researching and meeting with potential investors around the world. My interest in the economics of the region led me to this organization, and I have been doing research on companies that the Jordan Investment Board deems potential investors.
As a student of political science and economics, one issue that is particularly interesting to me is the effects of the recent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa on investment in Jordan’s developing economy. I first considered this issue when a coworker told me of his frustrations with a potential investor he had spoken with over the phone. In his view, this particular businessman showed his political ignorance in assuming all Arab countries are now politically unstable. In short, the company was scared off.
But was my coworker correct—is it wrong to assume that any and all Arab countries could be susceptible to revolt?
I decided to discuss this problem with my coworkers and supervisor at the JIB. I learned that investors were initially scared away in January by the Arab Spring revolutions and the prospect of instability and possible revolution in Jordan. Investors observed the movement that began in Tunisia and moved its way into Egypt, Libya, and Syria and feared revolution could occur in Jordan, as well, I was told. Their apprehension was certainly understandable—these regimes all appeared stable before they collapsed (though the situation in Syria remains unresolved), so why should Jordan be any different? Protests in Jordan at that time stemming from increasing inflation and unemployment as well as political tensions between the Palestinian and Jordanian populations served to further exacerbate these fears.
The King of Jordan subsequently enacted a series of reforms, made visits with European leaders to ease fears of instability, and overturned parliament—twice. My supervisor, in charge of the business processes outsourcing and information technology department says these things have made Jordan appear more stable. In the year that has passed since the Arab revolutions began the King was able to avert the protests from going the way of revolt, Jordan has remained calm and in September Jordan was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council—you can think of it as an EU for gulf nations. Resulting from these developments, Jordan is seeing investment slowly pick up again. One further consequence of the revolutions is that companies who had committed to investing in Egypt before the overthrow of Mubarak are now looking elsewhere in the region to open factories and branches. For some of them, Jordan is a brighter alternative, and I was told that at least three major companies have committed to investing in Jordan through this route.
At least for the present, it would appear that Jordan remains a bastion of stability, and as long as this is the image Jordan projects, investment will continue and the economy will maintain its growth. It is also appears that monarchies in the Middle East and North Africa (including Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and several other gulf states) are more stable than their dictatorial counterparts—good news for Jordan. Quite a lot hinges on what happens in Syria, however, and remember that the Assad regime was assumed to be stable—and then suddenly it was not. I have discussed with professors and journalists how vitally important Syria is to Jordan—it is a major trading partner, and political tensions are arising from refugees coming through Jordan’s northern border. Jordan petitioned the Arab League to except trade with Jordan from its recent sanctions on Syria (though sanctions with exceptions are not really sanctions at all). The cessation of trade with this key trading partner would have profound short-term effects on Jordan’s already-discontent workforce. A collapse of the Syrian regime could be even worse for Jordan’s stability—though political freedoms are far more lacking in Syria than in Jordan, who is to say that Jordan could remain undemocratic in light of democratic uprisings in neighbors Egypt and Syria?
There remain questions about the Arab Spring, the answers of which are of great import globally but will also have a powerful effect on investment in the Middle East. First and foremost, does a second wave of uprisings lie in wait for the region, perhaps in monarchies and Algeria who have so far been mainly unshaken by the revolutions? Second, most of the revolutions in the Arab Spring states were preceded by periods of growth and economic liberalization; can the moderate Islamic parties that are winning pluralities in Egypt and Tunisia inspire confidence in the economy again?
I would propose that the acquisition of political freedom is not only more pressing than stability and economic continuity, but necessary for Middle Eastern economies to bloom. Indeed research shows that free, democratic governments are more conducive to economic growth than other forms of government. The struggle between sustaining the recent economic booms in the Middle East and North Africa and affording its citizens their desired political rights and dignity is vital for the region’s future.
Big surprise: the political atmosphere in the Middle East is delicate, complex, and strongly tied to people’s emotions. Jordan is no exception, and in fact plays an interesting role in the politics of the region. Jordan is unique in its role as a harbor for refugees, its relationship with Israel, and its form of government. This is not something I like to bring up here because it is an extremely emotional topic for people to discuss. That being said, I’ve still managed to learn much I did not know about the political situation here.
One thing many Americans would not know is that most people in Jordan’s capital, Amman, are actually of Palestinian descent. I am told that millions left Palestine, often as war refugees (in 1948 and 1967, most notably) and were at other times forcibly moved. Jordan is seen as the most stable entity in this part of the world and has been so for decades, thus attracting these Palestinians, as well as refugees from other wars in the region such as Iraq and Lebanon. The result has been the rise of Amman from a relatively small city to a metropolis that has seen rapid growth and development in recent years.
My host family and the vast majority of friends I have made here either come from the West Bank and northern Israel or have family members who have done so. As such, their identity can be a point of political tension. If one is born and raised in Amman but has parents from Bethlehem, is she Palestinian or Jordanian? Most will tell me first that they are Palestinian, though a few identify as Jordanian. This identification may not match what appears on their national ID card, however, which designates the national origins of that person with a single letter. Jordan is distinct from other Arab countries in that their Palestinian refugee population has assimilated (the same cannot be said for Lebanon or Kuwait, for example). Politically, the biggest division I have witnessed here has been not between Christians & Muslims or whites, blacks, & browns, but between Jordanians of Transjordanian descent (“natives”), and those from Palestine and Israel. This is the cause for great tensions, indeed I am told that while Palestinians have essentially been able to dominate private enterprise, government remains the domain of native Jordanians and is a microcosm of the vying for power that goes on between Jordanian tribes, a topic I will return to shortly. This seems to be the most pressing issue for the future of Jordan. How will the king accommodate Jordan’s largest ethnic group into its political realms while remaining Jordanian? My professor told me that tensions between the two groups came to a head recently, and the king was forced to make reforms (what, exactly, I am not sure) and overturn parliament. Another friend told me that he has been to soccer matches were fans of the de facto Palestinian team were beaten for getting too rowdy or flashing the v for victory sign—a symbolic gesture for Palestinians.
This issue carries over to Jordan’s relations with its neighbors, perhaps the most intriguing being its relations with Israel. The two have officially had peace for about twenty years, though I imagine it is difficult for the government to get too friendly with Israel precisely because of its large Palestinian population. In my program we had a guest lecture talk to us about the normalization of relations between the two countries, I assume this means freeing up trade and normalization of business relations. He mentioned that while there have been several anti-normalization movements in Amman the only pro-normalization group is the government. From my perspective, the country is in great need of positions for educated workers (many young people with degrees, low demand for their services) and opening up of trade with its rich neighbor—Israel—would be of great benefit for Jordan’s unemployed educated youth. On the other hand, I cannot say I would feel the same way if my parents had been evicted from their homes in Israel and forced to move. It is truly a dicey situation with conflicting interests at stake.
With these problems before it, the government here seems to have its hands full. The structure of this government consists of the king (at the top) & a parliament with a few political parties allowed (including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Front Party), but I have heard that it is mainly a game of thrones between the native tribes in Jordan. Native Jordanians belong to one of several tribes. The tribes have their roots in Bedouin tradition, come in varying sizes (the largest of which, Bani Hassan, I am told has one million members), and vie for power in the parliament. The king has repeatedly overturned parliament and its speaker (I believe three times in the past year), which leads me to believe people are not happy with much of what the government has (or has not) done. This is not surprising if the interests of the majority of Jordanians are indeed not represented. Especially in light of the events elsewhere in the Middle East, it will be interesting to see what concessions the government will be pressured to make.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the US and (what I have experienced of) the Arab world is gender relations. What strikes me the most in this regard is not the fact that most women dress more conservatively than in America; I respect these decisions to dress modestly. It is the ways in which young men and women are expected to communicate and the degrees to which they are allowed to have contact with each other.
To me, the differences are astounding. People in Amman are generally expected to not initiate contact with strangers of the opposite gender. It would appear that the only way young people can meet is through mutual friends who can vouch for high character or in a designated environment (university, place of work, family friends, etc). On the other hand, cat-calls and rampant staring are routine among young men in public places where young women pass by. This creates what in economics is referred to as a negative externality: cafes, bars, and other establishments (even malls) will refuse service to young men who are not with women (as in couples or families). The intentions of young men in this environment are assumed less than savory. I should point out that foreign men are—conversely—often assumed to be “good guys.” I am embarrassed to admit that my nationality has granted me admittance into establishments that a Jordanian of my age, gender, and occupation would likely have been denied access to. We have the same biology, dreams, desires, and fears, but the knowledge proprietors have about the young men of their country (or, perhaps put better, lack of knowledge of my culture) leads them to make a rather arbitrary decision. This is particularly surprising because of the images Jordanians receive of Americans as selfish, opulent, sex-driven, and sometimes violent people (thanks, MTV and Hollywood). In spite of these stereotypes being constantly transmitted, people here often assume the young men of my country subscribe to higher moral standards than the young men of Jordan.
I have just described the opposite of the customs I know in the states, where we take for granted the ability to talk to anyone we want—regardless of sex—and when one initiates friendly banter with someone of the opposite gender, intentions are not presumed to be sinister. In fact, it is not uncommon for men and women to be simply—wait for it—friends. Dating between two people is not shunned by the better portion of society but instead serves as perhaps the only route to marriage. Moreover, it is considered creepy and very rude to stare at another person as they walk by, and in my city the only time I ever hear lewd cat-calls is in the wee hours of the morning as the bars begin to shoo away their patrons. These vast differences intrigue me, and I want to know the roots of this (what I perceive to be a) serious problem. Does it stem from the advent of American/Western culture into Jordanian society, or is it something deeper? This is a question I am not academically equipped to answer, but based on what I have seen in my two months here I have of course developed my own mess of thoughts on the matter.
My theory of why these young men behave the way they do in public and the consequent mistrust that pervades this society revolves around the barriers that exist here between men and women. Imagine you are a boy growing up in Jordan. You don’t have much contact with girls your age outside your family, as schools are gender-segregated up until university. Even if you know some girls, your actions, including physical contact (hand holding, footsy, etc) are severely limited by social norms (on the other hand, hand holding and arm locking is quite common among male friends, which I think makes sense—perhaps humans have to have some form of physical contact with their friends and loved ones, not unlike a cat who loves being petted). I think you can agree that your innate human affinity for love, for intimacy and for a partner would inevitably appear in other outlets, maybe even as crude as cat-calling and ogling with friends. Don’t get me wrong; it’s objectifying and I am not trying to defend this behavior, I want only to understand it.
In accord with this trend of reactions to (again, what I perceive as) repressive social norms, many of my Jordanian friends tell me their family frowns upon or outright forbids dating (a Western concept), so they date in secret in parts of town where their friends and extended family are unlikely to spot them.
So that is my theory so far. I am very interested to know others’ thoughts on this matter and am still left with many questions. As a young man I am of course limited in my view; I am curious to hear about this experience from a woman’s perspective. I presume it is more difficult still for gays and lesbians to meet prospective partners. Finally, will the Arab Spring revolutions serve to change social norms as well as political systems and ideas (or is this even necessary)? I am glad to be in a prime part of the world to observe the unfolding of these questions.