I've just returned from a week in Amman, Jordan where I participated in a Jordanian- American youth dialogue conference organized by POMED and AID. My Friday morning panel dealt with cyber-activism and political blogging. It was a very entertaining and informative panel, with Ahmed Humaid (the internet entrepreneur and all-around nice guy who blogs at 360east, who I had met previously), Nick Seeley (editor of JO magazine, and - to my delight - Spider Jerusalem incarnate), and Esraa Shafe'i (a Bahraini blogger who directs Mideast Youth Network). I was thrilled to meet Lina Ejailat, one of my favorite Jordanian bloggers who recently started up a citizen-journalism site with Naseem Tarawneh (who unfortunately didn't make it). The organizers did a great job, and many thanks to Liana and Mohammed for including me in the proceedings.
I had expected to take part in the whole three day conference, but as it happened the focus was more (and quite appropriately) on the youth participants themselves networking and working together. That gave me the chance to spend most of the week walking the streets of Amman, scrounging through a lot of regular and Islamist bookstores, and meeting with about two dozen old friends, political analysts and journalists, UN and NGO workers dealing with Iraqi refugees, and Muslim Brotherhood leaders. I'm going to write up some of those topics in follow-up posts, but for now just some general reflections on the mood in Amman.
I had braced myself for the dramatic transformation of the face of West Amman. They were just as advertised, with all those new tunnels and bypass roads and malls and restaurants and Starbucks and... yeah. The new bypass roads and tunnels probably help traffic flow, but they make it very difficult for pedestrians to go anywhere - which, according to a recent talk by Jillian Schwedler, may not have been incidental to the political planning behind them (Hey Jillian, doesn't that merit a guest post?). I kind of like the renovation of Rainbow Street, with its new cobblestone and a bunch of new restaurants to go with the old stalwart Books@cafe (which I will always love despite the abominable service) and a tourist trap “flea market” and garish orange street signs. Clothes in such areas are skimpier than ever, and internet and mobile phones ubiquitous. Overall, it’s easy to see why so many tourists and short-term travellers come away impressed with the “new Jordan”.
I was struggling to figure out what seemed so odd when I was out past Fourth Circle (as little as possible), when it finally struck me that I don’t recall hearing a single call to prayer in the time I spent in those areas - even with a renowned salafi mosque practically across the street from my hotel. It can‘t be right that they’ve silenced (or turned down the volume on) the muezzins out there, can it? Almost certainly not. Ammanis, what say you?
The city center looks much the same, on the other hand, and what I saw of East Amman worse. The infrastructure in those areas appears to the naked eye to be crumbling, with little visible evidence of the West Amman boom other than some massive construction sites in the Abdali area, which I gather are somewhat politically controversial (people kept feeding me all kinds of allegations of corruption associated with these and other projects). I noticed more visibly salafi men in the downtown area and a lot more “Islamic dress” shops than I remember from a few years back. The second-hand market in Abdali looks three times as big as it used to be. The old stalwart downtown tourist shops I sought out to pick up some treasures for the kids seem to have disappeared. There were a lot of Iraqis out in the central and eastern parts, as Jordanians happly - and often somewhat unpleasantly - pointed out (though there may be fewer Iraqis in the country as a whole than there used to be - more on that soon). There are more bookstores downtown but I was relieved to see that the old bookshop run by Sami and his brother is still there and going strong.
The most common topic of conversation: costs of everything – especially food, rent, and gas - are going through the roof, and it's clearly getting to people. A bunch of those proverbial taxi drivers complained bitterly about how fares have not gone up despite skyrocketing gas prices. It isn't just the gap between rich and poor which is growing. Even those who used to be quite comfortable are struggling. For instance, I heard from people working with Iraqi refugee youth issues that one of their problems is that an astonishing number of Jordanian families have had to take their kids out of private schools because of the economic situation, which has contributed to the overcrowding of an already struggling public school system. That's a sign of an aspirational middle class being wiped out. These problems are compounded by the government’s crackdown on the charitable activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, which chokes off one of the main sources of relief usually available to Jordanians.
Political life appears deader than a dead dog that’s dead. A wide range of journalists and activists from a variety of political trends described the current Parliament as the worst since political life reopened in 1989. Everybody believes that Parliamentary elections were flagrantly fixed, not just against the Muslim Brotherhood but against all potentially bothersome candidates. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has been comprehensive, while protests of almost all kinds are being routinely banned – not just the Nakba commemoration that made the papers, but according to IAF leaders even a rally in Zarqa on inflation. The press has really declined: al-Rai has become unreadable, even al-Ghad is less interesting, and most of the weeklies seem worthless. I was impressed with some of the reporting of local politics in my old friend Mustafa Hamarneh’s six-month old weekly al-Sijil, and with his editorial team, but its circulation is very small and its enemies growing.
As one would expect in a country where political life is stagnant, the press moribund, and economic conditions deteriorating, there's a lot of grumbling and rumours spread like wildfire. I heard a lot about the growing mukhabarat (intelligence) presence in all areas of life, while Jordanian-Palestinian relations seem rawer and worse than ever. It almost feels like the days before the 1989 opening up of political life, or at least the way those days have been described to me (my first visit to Jordan was in 1992). I wouldn't go as far as did Bourzou Daraghai a few months ago, describing Jordan as Iran 1977, but things definitely are not good.
There are a lot of big pictures of King Abdullah up now. In my experience, there is an inverse relationship between the numbers of pictures of an Arab leader hanging in the capital city and said leader’s legitimacy. And I’m sure I shouldn’t read anything in to the fact that I heard “Don’t cry for me Argentina” playing at the Jabri restaurant on Garden Street - certainly not that anyone might draw any inferences between Eva Peron and anyone currently to do with Jordan.
That’s all for now. Over the next day or two I'm planning to post some specifics about my conversations with and about the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and about the situation of Iraqi refugees in the Kingdom, along with anything else which comes to mind.