2013. Jordan through the eyes of a Palestinian. My driver, Ahmad.
Quite appropriate – given that the “Jordan is Palestine, Palestine is Jordan” argument has several supporters. My strongest impression about Jordan is the omni-present problem of Israel. Throughout my Jordan trip, I had to be careful about what to call the disputed land – Palestine or Israel or Israel occupied Palestine. Any of these terms could give serious offence based on the listener’s mood!
Jordan has a population of about 6 mn – out of which almost 4 mn are Palestinians. About 2.5 mn of the Palestinians are refugees who came post the creation of Israel. The balance (like Ahmad’s family) had migrated to Jordan previously. The migrants, of course, have Jordanian passports. The refugees and the more recent migrants are given yellow/blue/green cards to distinguish their status. What started as being mere border crossing cards has now come to determine citizenship. The colour of the card seems like a matter of life or death – with a green card, they get rights to go back to Palestine if they get it back, but no rights in Jordan. With a yellow card, they get rights to Jordanian citizenship with all its benefits of right to healthcare and education. Seemed all muddled to me. The refugees have also been given fairly good quality housing by the government. I saw camps dotting the suburbs of Amman – more like the Low-income Group colonies in Bombay than refugee camps I would think.
Obviously, given that the majority of the population is Palestinian, anger towards Israel runs high and deep! There seems to be a simmering discontent towards the king and his pro-american ways which are being viewed as helping the Israelis. For example, a few years back, compulsory army service for 2 years was removed – this is viewed by the common man as deliberately ensuring that the youth are not trained for a possible war. Also around 1970-71, there was a civil uprising – the Black September. Until then, along with the Jordanian army, there was also an independent Palestinian army. Not too sure about the details or the real story. The Palestinian version is that the Jordan government made moves to make the Palestinian army unofficial, which meant they would have no say in policy matters. They rose in protest and the whole country was caught in the crossfire. Yasser Arafat, as the head of PLO, used Jordan as his base at that time. Several civilians, men, women and children lost their lives. Young Ahmad, then merely eleven years old, got shot and lost 2 fingers – something that disqualified him for military service years later. You can’t have an incomplete salute for the king and the senior generals!!! The battle raged for several days and a large part of the country came under the control of the Palestinians, supported militarily by Syria and diplomatically by Egypt’s Nasser. However, at this critical stage, the West is believed to have stepped in and put pressure on Arafat – who surrendered. Arafat was then forced to shift base to Lebanon. I wonder how different the Israeli-Palestine conflict would have been if Jordan had been conquered. Jordan was created with the sole intention of maintaining a no-man’s land – a land of neutrality to buffer the presence of other middle-eastern countries. With that buffer lost, any hope for peace would have gone long ago.
We also discussed the Yom Kippur war – when the Israelis nearly took over Amman, entering from the Dead Sea side. Fortunately, a truce was called. Else, again history would have played out very differently. Lots of families separated or displaced, lands taken away, homes lost – it’s quite a tragic story – all for a city! Quite a city though! Throughout my journey through Jordan, couldn’t help feeling the strong pull of Jerusalem – so near yet so far. Not easy being an Indian – visas on arrival not possible said our agent though I was willing to brave the six to seven hours of border crossing. But again, as I consoled myself, a day in Jerusalem isn’t enough. Jerusalem deserves more respect.
Jordan seems to have evolved well into its role as the bridge between the Middle East and the West, perhaps leaning more towards the West. As one of the lone few Arab countries without energy self-sufficiency, the country has had to maintain its identity on the international scene based on the Israel issue. I heard about the whole issue of gas being supplied by Egypt to Israel cheaper than to Jordan! Not sure how much is true. Water also is understandably a big issue in this desert land – it has one of the lowest per capita availabilities of water. However, on many other counts, the country has made good progress. The road infrastructure was amazing. The King’s highway that ran through this entire country was a pleasure to drive on. The tourist infrastructure again was excellent – both in terms of comfort as well as safety. Education standards were said to be fairly good with several universities in existence. Given the political stability in Jordan, it also attracts students from Lebanon, Syria etc. Amman was very westernized in social terms. We saw lots of young people clubbing, eating out etc without any visible gender segregation. Though alcohol was rare – similar to Kashmir in that sense.
Ahmad had interesting notions on marriage. Propounded the Islamic manner of 4 marriages. He made the typical arguments. Keeps loyalty. Support for more women. I, of course, majorly disagree. The earlier king had four wives too. Each of a different nationality – an Egyptian, a Palestinian, a Jordanian and a British citizen. The current king is the son of the British wife and married to a Palestinian. Politically convenient. Whispers told us that he is not the oldest as tradition demands. But most sympathetic to the western cause. The distrust seems all-pervading.
So much history in a country so young!