Dispatches from Jordan

Charlie Lawrie 7 May 2014

On the surface modern Amman looks like a big American town.  All roads lead to malls. An Ikea opened a month ago. Only when the call to prayer fills the air you know you are in a very different place.

I arrived here in September last year and started working for a local charity. My boss, also my host mother, was Amman’s answer to Miss Haversham. She had no kids, and I had a sneaking suspicion that I was there to fill the gap. I had no choice but to follow her wherever she went, like a prize pug with Arabic language skills. When I left, it felt like I’d betrayed her trust. Really, though, I had deprived her of the chance to practise her English.

Other Jordanians come in all shapes and sizes. Despite the mythical hospitality of the Arab peoples, it can be very hard to get to know them. If you’re a guy, don’t expect to make any female friends. Even the most Westernised of girls will have conservative parents, demanding to know why they have been out so late. Jordanian guys, however, are something else. Fiercely independent, they leap at the opportunity to grease up their hair, smoke a strong cigarette and leer at the ladies. 

Amman hasn’t always been all about malls and ballers. At the turn of the 20th century, the city was just a series of sparsely populated settlements, clumped together in the ruins of Roman Philadelphia. Touring French aristocrats went home empty-handed, disappointed at how underwhelming it all was. This is probably because they didn’t meet any Arabs. In 1890, Amman’s populace was mostly comprised of Circassians, exiled by Russia’s Alexander II during a vigorous bout of ethnic cleansing, who took shelter in the old Roman amphitheatre.

Over the past hundred and twenty years, large migrant communities have kept on arriving. A 2010 census estimated the city’s population at 2.8 million people, a number that continues to rise. Syrians have been migrating to Jordan since the 1980s, fleeing Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s late father. Many Iraqis and Egyptians also call Amman their home. Most strikingly, over sixty percent of Jordanians are originally Palestinian.  Maybe this is why Amman feels so unfriendly – it is filled with people that want to be somewhere else. Moreover, for the majority of Palestinians and Syrians, it is a somewhere else they have never been.

Amman’s infrastructure has been trying to keep up with the mushrooming population, but it has not won the race. Cooking gas is still delivered by trucks. Rush hour starts at 8:30am, and finishes at 7pm. Public transport links do exist, but routes are so limited that any long distance journeys quickly become impossible without a car. Plans to build a tram system were thwarted by high-level corruption. Things look like they should work, but do not.

This inertia operates on a political level, too. So that everything stays the same, the Jordanian state ensures that political representation is limited to men from large tribal families (traditionally loyal to the monarch). Parliamentary politics are an agreeable shade of grey. In the midst of the political unrest that broke out across the Middle East in 2011, Jordan endured comparatively little dissent. The response to the demonstrations was equally underwhelming. King Abdullah II, perturbed by national irritation at endemic corruption, a lack of adequate political representation, and a great surge in pro-Islamist demonstrations, fired his hapless PM and appointed another, who was then himself fired six months later.

What all this means for the much-vaunted ‘youth’ of Jordan is a profound disinterest in the political process. Why get involved when it always stays the same? With 22 per cent youth unemployment among young men and 45 per cent among young women; a high cost of living; and a debilitating fear of Jordan’s secret police, you can begin to understand why life is incredibly bleak for young people in Jordan. Rather than solve their own problems, Jordanians try and save up enough money, then move to Dubai.

Foreign students living in Amman often get asked why they are here. I have been trying to think of a good answer since I arrived last September. I think I have even less of an idea now than I did then. Filled with neo-Orientalist visions of what it should have been like, I’ve been trying to get over my initial shock ever since. Amman is the modern Arab world, staring at me in the face. And it’s not a pretty sight.