Amman is a city dwarfed by its neighbours. It boasts nothing to match the history of Damascus or Baghdad, the religious significance of Jerusalem or the monuments of Cairo.Tourists frequently bemoan its lack of character, historical sites or greenery, and the unimaginative stone buildings that litter its sprawling hills.The city lacks evidence of a noteworthy past; faceless concrete constructions dominate its skyline and make it difficult for one to form a clear picture of Amman’s origins. Newcomers in search of a historical context are directed ‘downtown’, to the site of Amman’s oldest mosque (built in 1924) and a few Roman ruins but are instead greeted by a chaotic market place, scores of fast-food joints and cafes – all of which boast only a very recent past.
Amman’s deficiencies may be explained by the fact that unlike say, Damascus, which claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world – with some ten to twelve thousand year history – modern Amman was only established in 1921. No doubt Amman represented the site of previous settlements, indeed some notable ones under the Romans and the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. But when the first king of what was then Transjordan chose it for the new country’s capital – over the town of ‘Salt’, the regional capital under the Ottomans it was nothing more than a village, plucked from obscurity. Amman grew therefore from rather anonymous beginnings. Its growth and changing demography since then reflect the challenges that have confronted a twentieth century nation-state that has struggled to reconcile contradictions that accompanied its very formation.
As the saying goes, there’s nothing like seeing the real thing. And I was struck by many such contradictions whilst living there that words or a passing visit could never truly reveal.The majority of Jordan’s population are not Jordanians. Palestinians represent some 60% of the overall population, having sought refuge in its borders after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.A short while after arriving in Amman,my routine banter with taxi drivers, shopkeepers and stallholders would begin with asking which part of Palestine they where from, not if they where from Palestine in the first instance. Kuwaitis fleeing the first Gulf war and Iraqis escaping the US invasion in 2003 (and the sanctions before then) have also turned to Amman; increasingly, Gulf Arabs escaping searing summer temperatures now holiday in the milder climate of the Jordan Valley.It is true to say that locating a ‘native’ Jordanian was often no easy task. People from neighbouring regions dominate Amman’s character, ‘foreigners’ under the terms dictated by Sykes-Picot.
Indeed, it was the post Sykes-Picot consensus that gave rise to a plethora of new countries in the Middle East, amongst them Transjordan. Its neighbour to the east – Iraq – currently highlights the fragilities in that consensus, because ethnically Iraq is not homogenous and competing ethnic interests may yet divide it further,opening up the prospect of further regional instability. But Jordan too was a victim.
Like other countries in the region, the borders which define Jordan’s nationhood lack any historical, tribal, ethnic, cultural or religious precedent. As a result, it has never been able to mould a strong national identity. Outside of Amman, Jordan is abundant with evidence of previous civilisations, from Roman cities like Jerash to the awesome mountain dwellings of the Nabateans in the city of Petra. It contains sites visited by many Prophets common to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and graves of eminent companions of the Prophet Mohammed lay in the Ghaur region close to the Dead Sea. But few, not even my senior excavationist friend at Petra (with his truly amazing knowledge of historical settlements in Jordan), would suggest these lend themselves to the idea of ‘Jordan’. Instead, the Jordanian political elite have used defensive political postures to build some kind of a Jordanian identity, or at least a sense of belonging.The ‘Jordan First’ campaign launched at the end of 2002 during the American build-up to war against neighbouring Iraq principally tried to keep the focus of Jordanians on domestic matters rather than the regional crisis. It occurred to me there were few grounds on which to unite the people of Jordan – the threat of attack, the fear of importing instability or the loss of livelihood were certainly amongst the few available.
‘Jordan’ is a rather difficult idea to sell therefore and conversations increasingly brought up other contradictions.Whilst on a visit to Karak, to the site of an impressive twelfth century Crusader fortress, I was kindly shown around the old town by a gentleman working at the local tourist board. It was he who bought to my attention that if we were to follow a logic based on Jordanian nationalism, why should Hijazis rule Majali territory? He was referring to the fact that the roots of the Jordanian monarchy lie outside Jordan altogether, in the Hijaz region of what is now called Saudi Arabia.That is a fact very much part of the monarchy’s claim to some kind of religious credibility, that they are Hashemites from the same lineage as the Prophet Mohammed himself. The Majalis are the established local tribes who have held longstanding influence in the region. My guide was himself a Majali, but he suggested no challenge to the Hashemite Kingdom on such terms, only to point out the flaw in the Jordanian political set-up. I found that many indigenous Jordanians, my guide among them, would rarely use the term to describe themselves, referring to themselves instead either as members of a particular tribe or as Bedouin.
Anti-colonialists frequently criticise the policies that arbitrarily divided Arab lands following World War I, creating states that lacked viability. There is strong merit in that argument. But there is another side to the colonial carve-up that even its architects may not have envisaged at the time. And that is the longevity, in real terms, of those borders. Would the boundaries create ‘nations’ that could be credibly regarded as such? Or would deeper political, social and economic associations eventually outgrow the lines that separate Jordan from Saudi Arabia, Iraq from Syria and so on?
The new forces of globalisation are challenging the walls that have traditionally fortified nation states.The Middle East is no exception to this phenomenon. But there are also deep, well-established associations that the newly created borders could not simply tear up. Associations of family and tribe cross the boundaries that the British and French drew up, and still represent a major reason for border crossing throughout the region. So too does Islam.While resting at a service station along the King’s Highway, I was met by the sight of a convoy of coaches emerging from the empty desert highway to pull in alongside us. Tens of Jordanian families dismounted to take a break from their journey to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It is a major route frequented by scores of Jordanian pilgrims throughout the year, true for every country in the region. Similarly, whilst in the grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, it took me a moment or two to understand why thousands of Iranians had come to visit Syria, and specifically this mosque, until I was told that I was standing in the courtyard that held the remains of the martyred Imam Hussein.These – amongst many other sites in Iraq, Syria, Palestine – are not just tourist destinations in the conventional sense, but monuments to an Islamic identity that is far stronger that any sense of national belonging.The notion of being part of an ‘Ummah’ increasingly carries a greater sense of reverence than the somewhat petty nationalisms I found. In their haste to divide, colonial architects may have failed to realise what forces those boundaries would have to contain.
Few Arab nations would ever be independent in the real sense, not having the necessary resources within their own boundaries to be so. ‘Pan’-Arabism and endless talk of regional co-operation are an acknowledgement of just that fact; many states are forced into cooperation for their very survival. But while political elites try to keep alive fledging ideas of nationhood, despite such glaring challenges, my experience of living amongst normal Jordanians was that few cared about the foreignness of the supposed ‘foreigners’, whether Syrian, Iraqi, Saudi or other. Poverty, injustice, corruption, high taxation, unemployment and the like were higher up the agenda. They exhibited a much stronger sense of commonality than the lines in the sand would have you believe. Is that because they are, ultimately, all Arabs? That is true, linguistically and geographically at least. But what would explain a non-Arab, an Asian no less, sharing a common history, spiritual reference and outlook, trusted by Arabs to share in their most intimate settings and discourses? The ‘Ummah’;it’s an identity that crosses borders beyond the Arab world.