Jordan: Tradition and modern culture
by Sheila Freeman
When I visited Jordan for the first time in Spring 2000 I
was rather surprised to find it not quite the "underdeveloped"
country I expected.
The suburbs of its capital, Amman, are every bit as
wealthy in the conventional sense as anywhere else in the western world.
Wide tree lined clean streets, well dressed children, pretty parks and, yes,
supermarkets and malls and some of the fanciest, expensive hotels I have
The population of Jordan has perhaps doubled in recent
decades with the influx of peoples escaping the various wars and political
pressures around them. Palestinian, Kurds, Lebanese, and more.
A rich and westernized country, this is also a country
where small scale is very much thriving. The older centre of Amman is alive
with hundreds and hundreds of little shops. Few resemble in size the
enormous department stores and supermarkets we are so used to in Europe and
America. Added to shops there is also a huge and thriving open market with
everything from fish to flowers. Hundreds of shoppers scurry along narrow
roads that disappear up steep staircases.
Is this something the world would like to get
"back" to, I wondered. Of course it is not "back" to the
time before farming that some advocateóbut it is "back" before
the dominance of chain stores, multinationals, fast food and world
Travelling South of Amman into the desert the road comes
to an end at Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed). Here I met yet
another contrast, not in space but in time.
Only fifteen years ago my friends tell me there was
nothing at this spot but one lone buildingóa brick police station shaded
by a couple of scrawny trees. From time to time the Bedouins gathered with
their goats and camels and heavy black woollen tents. They stopped here
because, although there is no obvious sign of it, water can be found. Very
recently they lived as they had probably done for centuries.
Yet today there is a town of sortsóseveral hundred
one-story houses built of concrete blocks, about three sparsely stocked
shops and a little Bedouin cafÈ where all ten of my friends caught the
There is also a "rest house"óa kind of hotel
minus roomsófor the "rooms" are rows and rows of little tents
set up in the sand. So well run and efficient it is as many as half the
tourists who come to Jordan stop here at least long enough to have an
excellent meal and do the obligatory camel or jeep ride into the desert.
Today, the Bedouin here are not only keepers of sheep and
goats, a job mostly for women, but their main income is made from the
touristsófat and thin, pale and blistered, in their shorts and knobby
knees they come in the thousands, are packed into jeeps and, for a fee,
taken about a mile out into the unpaved stark and sweltering desert.
We came ourselves to climbóthe incredible pink, wind
eroded cliffs and mountainsódry and eery as the moon but incomparably
beautiful. We too were intruders in this ancient land.
Jordan is like so much of the so called
"developing" world. The pretty, unspoiled world we as tourists
would love to find - the world we read about in 19th
century novels and diaries, the world we see in the paintings and fading
photos, the world also seen in todayís glossy travel posters. The reality
is so different. The beauties are crumbling, disappearing, being wiped out.
The quiet places, the deserts and wildernesses are filling with houses and
tourists leaving rubbish, pollution and a frightening loss of wildlife. Well
restored antiquities are subject to ever increasing air pollution and human
trampling. The world we wanted to leave behind is already here waiting for
us. McDonalds has beat us to it.
We crossed lands which only recently had been rich farms
now hardly worth plantingódry and dustyóthe visible effects of global
Back in Amman you have the traffic, buses, taxies, and
horns. In the busiest parts of town there is no concern for pedestrians.
Actually, there are sidewalksóbut attempting to cross the street is like
contemplating suicide. Far from slowing down for pedestrians, the cars seem
to speed up and always lay on their horns. Despite the cars, most of the
traffic here is either delivery vans, trucks, taxies and buses. Taxies ply
for trade by pulling up by any likely looking customer and honking their
horns. The fact that you are showing not the slightest desire to get aboard
is no deterrent. Women walking aloneóespecially western womenóare
obviously in need of a lift. And for women to walk alone, especially after
dark, is not only dangerous but lonely. Local women disappear with the
And yet some of the most hospitable people I have met
anywhere were in Jordan. All were kind and welcoming but the Bedouin
surpassed belief. Far from being in danger of your money, life or
"virtue" you are far more likely to be in danger of losing Western
arrogance. I met a young woman tourist from Singapore who was invited, as
many tourists are, to stay the with a Bedouin family for dinner but was made
so welcome they asked her to cancel her holiday to continue with them
indefinitely. She was offered the best of their food, the best place to
sleep and they went to enormous trouble to tend to her every need, including
carrying heavy bags long distances. Wishing to thank them with some sort of
present she was embarrassed to have nothing to offer but a few ballpoint
pens. These were accepted with great joy and in return they gave her a
beautifully hand embroidered Bedouin dress. Stories such as this are common.
The Bedouin, like many less corrupted societies, find
generosity to be a greater proof of worth than wealth and possessions of
which they have almost none. When offered a shirt by another tourist a
Bedouin man said "Thank you very much but why would I want a shirt? I
already have two."
This land of contrasts is now being drawn into the
aftermath of 11 September. Tourist numbers dropped dramatically. The deep
suspicion of Arab culture, religion, dress and manners which already exists
in the West fuels the flames of revenge. Suddenly all Muslims are considered
"mad mullahs" "people who donít share our sense of decency,
humanity..." Although those words were meant to apply only to the
terrorists themselves it is only a small step for those donít know Shiites
from Sheikhs from Sikhs or Souks, or, for that matter, the Taliban from a
Turban, as ignorant folk lump everyone from Morocco to Bangladesh into one.
There have been terrible incidents of violence already in America and in
Britain and Europe. Striking out in blind revenge.
There is no love for Israel/Jews here; the only negative
comments from otherwise completely friendly, amazingly friendly people.
Like most people, Jordanians are horrified by US saber
rattling and bombing. To think these people will be tarnished or worse by
the anti Arab backlash is sad.
Sheila Freeman is a veteran correspondent for the Auto-Free Times
(Culture Changeís old name), based in London with Friends of the
|Moslem myth versus history?
"While there may well have been a historical individual
named Ubuíl Kassim who was later entitled Mohammed (ëThe Praised
Oneí), who raised followers and participated in the initiation of
the Arab Conquest, he likely came from northeast Arabia in what is
now southern Jordan. The deity that Ubuíl Kassim chose to follow
was Allah, a contraction of al-Lah, the ancient Arab God of
"For (Islamic historian Mohammed Ibn) al-Rawandi, Islam is
an invention for the purpose of providing a religious justification
for (Middle Ages) Arab Imperialism. The Conquest is the reason and
explanation for Islam, not the other way around."
-THE MYTH OF MECCA
Jack Wheeler, Freedom Research Foundation
View Issue #19 / View