Jordan prides itself on its modernity and comfortable living standard, and it has long been praised for its role as a bridge between the Arab world and the West. While you might occasionally pass a Bedouin tent by the side of the road on the outskirts of Amman, you’re much more likely to drive by a KFC or a Burger King. And if you hang out in the right places in Amman and just speak English, it might even feel like you’re back in America (albeit with better food). But, over the four months I’ve been here, I’ve gotten a sinking feeling that the traditional, religious conservatism of Jordan’s past and the rapidly modernizing forces of the global economy have not neatly come together at some midpoint to create an oasis of Middle Eastern capitalistic wonderfulness, for a storybook ending where East meets West and everyone lives happily ever after. Rather, these two opposing trends seem to have been forced to collide – rapidly, at that – resulting in occasional flare-ups when traditional cultural norms don’t mix with modern institutions and values.
Jordan is a very tribal society, with most of the non-Palestinian Jordanians (about 30 to 50 percent of the population) seemingly belonging to a tribe or clan or just a big family (note: everything in this post is based on my observations and conversations, as well as some news articles – definitely no hard-and-fast data). People are often more loyal to the tribe than to the state, and they most certainly tend to respect tribal ties and the traditional tribal system of solving disputes more than they do the Jordanian government’s laws. One professor of mine told us that people aren’t really supposed to punish their fellow tribesmen in certain cases; as such, he said, a policeman might let off someone he catches for a minor violation like speeding just because that person shares the policeman’s name. This can pose a challenge to the rule of law when the largest tribe in Jordan consists of something like 1 million members – one sixth of the country’s population.
Often the first question a Jordanian will ask upon meeting someone else is what his family name is. In the extremely collectivist societies of the Middle East, family is of utmost importance. Jordan is no exception; most Jordanians seem to know the big families and can pinpoint where someone is from or what religion he follows based on his name. Let’s just say “Gittleson” throws them off a bit.
At the universities, tribes have come to play an increasingly common role in campus life, with students voting in student union elections solely for candidates from hand-picked by their tribal leaders or only hanging out with other members of their tribe. Occasionally, violence erupts around student-election time or over minor disputes. Last month, a 20-year-old student was stabbed to death at Balqa Applied University in Salt, the most fiercely tribal city in all of Jordan. A first-year student from a different tribe allegedly got angry, because – I kid you not – the other kid was “staring” at him (although I'm sure there must have been something else brewing, too), according to The Jordan Times:
In his initial testimony … the suspect said that two days before the incident, he exchanged words with the victim because they were staring at each other, one official source close to the investigation said.
“The suspect claimed that on the day of the incident he approached the victim to discuss the staring matter but the victim drew a knife and attempted to stab him,” the source told The Jordan Times on Saturday.
The student’s death set off riots that shut down Balqa Applied University and that spread to other universities around Jordan. The University of Jordan saw some disturbances, but thankfully I was away that week up north in Ajloun.
Speaking of Ajloun, when I was there the cook at the nature reserve and I had a great conversation about how tribes settle scores outside of the normal system of justice. The cook was a member of a tribe in the Ajloun area, and there had been a big fight between his tribe and another one a few weeks before; apparently flare-ups happen a lot. Our conversation has since been supplemented by conversations I’ve had with others about this parallel system.
Here’s how I think it works: Let’s say someone from Tribe A kills someone from Tribe B. Everyone – and I mean everyone – expects violence to occur within the days following the crime; that’s actually probably the weirdest part of all of this – the fact that the revenge violence is so expected. Anyway, members of Tribe B will try to kill the best/smartest/coolest member of Tribe A. It’s the Biblical concept of an-eye-for-an-eye manifested in today’s world. That is, unless tribal elders step in first and arrange an ‘atweh, or a formal, signed decision in which an exchange of money usually occurs and any disagreement is put aside. The decision is generally widely accepted by tribal members. A little later, official government court proceedings occur, but the offending party will most likely just get a relative slap on the wrist due to his case already being taken care of via the tribal route. The government would not want to tread on the long-established, ancient tribal system; in addition, the mitigating influence of many people in the government hailing from the tribes of the involved parties would keep the government’s punishment weaker.
Tribes and the government can clash in other ways, too. Last Tuesday morning, the police carried out a drug sting on a house near Mujema’ Jaber (Jaber Commercial Complex), a 5 to 10 minute walk from my home. When the police entered the house, people inside allegedly locked them in and attacked them with knives. Police opened gunfire, killing the elder brother of the drug suspect. Turns out that brother was a "tribal leader and a landlord" from the Neimat family.
When the man’s relatives found out that he died shortly afterward at a hospital, they started rioting on the busy streets by Mujema’ Jaber. They threw rocks, destroyed police cars and lit a police kiosk on fire. The police shut down the area and fired tear gas to control the crowd. Several people were injured in the drug bust and the rioting, including policemen. All this took place right by my house – I was stuck in traffic forever coming home from the university! But, despite a very heavy police presence in the area over the next couple days, everything calmed down. Why? In part, because:
Late Tuesday, several tribal leaders from southern Jordan visited the funeral house of the Neimat tribe in the adjacent Khalda neighbourhood encouraging its leaders to act with “wisdom and self-restraint”.
For videos and photos of the incident, click here. It’s all in Arabic; scroll down and fast-forward to around halfway through the first video to see the police shoot the tear-gas canisters.
Back to the universities: The debate over the influence of tribes in higher education has been picking up steam in light of last month’s death at Balqa Applied University:
Recent attempts to address university violence on tribal basis have fuelled an existing controversy between traditional powers and advocates of “state of law and institutions”.
An anti-violence code of honour based on tribal ground signed last semester by students of the Amman University College affiliated with the Balqa Applied University (BAU) was recently made public following campus violence that spread to the town of Salt, where the university is located. The document triggered a wider debate on the role of tribal values in these incidents. …
Signatories to the agreement included a number of students referred to as “tribes’ representatives in the college”, who stated that they will resort to tribal traditions to resolve fights or disputes that erupt between them or their relatives on campus.
Articles of the code of honour include one on “resolving different tribal conflicts by resorting to tribe representatives in the college” and another about striking deals between these young tribal leaders to nominate candidates for student council elections, either through negotiations or drawing ballots.
The document has received much criticism but also support from student activists and political commentators. It’s possible that what seems like a long-overdue conversation on the role of tribes in a modernizing Jordan will soon take place in the universities, a discussion that could make a big impact in Jordan as a whole.