Commentary Magazine


Conversations in Jordan:
The Rulers and the Ruled

American aid to Jordan has given the little kingdom an appearance of stability that may be misleading, this report suggests.

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Jordan and Lebanon, which were the scenes of British and American troop landings last July, are now the quietest of the Arab states, as political attention focuses on Colonel Nasser’s Egypt and Colonel Kassem’s Iraq. Relative freedom prevails in Lebanon; both the pro-Iraqi Communists and the pro-Nasser Ba’athists publish newspapers, and political refugees of both camp crowd the houses of the local leaders from Basta to Ashrafieh to Junyeh. The Lebanese government hopes that the two groups of refugees will cancel each other out, and meanwhile spend their money in the country.

The authorities in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, from which I recently returned, take a different tack. Censorship and police repression make it a politically “closed” society. Its rebellious elements, moreover, prefer to lie low; they are quite aware, though they do not say so publicly, that a coup on their part might well lead to a chaotic situation in which there would be the possibility of Israeli intervention. Nevertheless, no society is hermetically sealed, and the visitor to Jordan is soon aware that political unrest continues despite the efforts of King Hussein’s government to achieve stability.

Crossing the frontier into the Hashemite kingdom, I was stopped by a beefy, red-faced Jordanian officer. Our encounter set the tone for the rest of my trip. Examining my suitcase, he found four Syrian newspapers which I had brought with me from Damascus. “These are illegal,” he announced—and then settled back comfortably behind an imposing desk to study the forbidden papers.

Amman, the busy capital city, reflects Jordan’s current state. Its contrasts are striking—the rich and modern on the one side, the poor and traditional on the other. The new buildings rising on its hills are mostly villas for government officials and American experts. The villages of shanties which surround the city have been built by the people who don’t work for the government.

Young King Hussein drives past these shanties when he goes to the mosque. The royal caravan is impressive, about a hundred vehicles in all. The army comes first: one open car after another, six soldiers in each, machine guns ready; the sergeant erect, puffing out his chest despite the mud that splashes into the car. The guards are followed by the royal family, in dozens of cars, interspersed with new army trucks packed with troops, as well as soldiers on motorcycles. After the royal entourage come cabinet ministers, officials of the royal court, and military officers of various kinds. At the end of the caravan, the senior officers, sharp-faced and neatly garbed, ride by in their Fords labeled Jaish, army. About a fourth of Jordan’s motor vehicles seem to belong to the Jaish.

El-malik hsan”—the King is a stallion—a café-owner tells me. “He has courage. And his grandfather, a great man! Do you know what Amman was like when the Emir Abdullah arrived here? Just a village. Look at it now! Do you know Polish? I was in the Polish army for nearly four years. I was a Polish general’s boy in Palestine during the war. When I was seventeen I had to join their troops. I fought at Cassino. Later they sent us back to Port Said, and I ran away. I didn’t want to leave the Arab countries again. They told me to get officer’s training in England for the Jordanian army. But I didn’t want it; the army wasn’t a fighting army, just a bunch of guards watching military installations.”

The army has established a garrison on the old citadel high over Amman. There one finds Hellenistic temples and fortifications, as well as a castle which may be Omayyad or Byzantine (the Guide Bleu has not made up its mind). The citadel has probably been a military installation since the days of King Hanun, who offended David and provoked Joab’s destruction of the Ammonites. The new Jordanian garrison has a modern look: the paths between the tents are marked by white-washed stones; trucks are parked in neat rows; electrical cables and antennas set a lively pattern.

“Military life is sweet,” says a lieutenant, inviting me into his quarters. His tent is all his own, and well built; low stone walls keep the wind out. He has an elegant uniform, an iron bedstead, a gas stove, and a radio powered by an old auto battery. An orderly brews some tea, and the lieutenant shows me a book he has been reading, written by two army officers. It is an account of Jordanian politics after the expulsion of General Glubb, and discusses the period when Suleiman Nabulsi, an admirer of Nasser, headed Jordan’s government. “You won’t find this book in the stores,” the lieutenant says, “because it contains military information,” and takes it from my hands. He is well pleased with his life high above the city; all his needs are taken care of, his pay is excellent by local standards, and he enjoys a privileged standing in the community. He often goes to the movies in Amman, and sometimes travels abroad at army expense. The potential dangers of his job make it seem quite thrilling. He feels necessary and important—at the same time he doesn’t have to do much work.

The soldiers are aware that they are part of Jordan’s ruling class, and they are proud of it. Officers and men alike do not regret the collapse of the Hashemite federation between Jordan and Iraq that was set up after Syria and Egypt joined in the United Arab Republic in the spring of 1958. “The Iraqi soldiers are only fellaheen,” one Jordanian officer says. “When they were here, they always caused trouble. It is a good thing they are gone. They did not behave like soldiers.”

“Everyone would like to become a soldier,” says the boy in my small Arab hotel. “If you get to see the King, will you tell him I want to join the army? Just as a private—that isn’t much. Here is my name; he cannot refuse a visitor such a small favor.”

“Why can’t you go to the recruiting center and enlist?” I ask.

“They wouldn’t take me just like that. You need pull to get into the army. Besides, I’m from the wrong side of the Jordan, a refugee from Arab Palestine.”

“Why do you want to join the army so badly?”

“Oh, the pay, travel, the uniform. And a soldier is somebody here; I would be able to send some money to my family. Here I work for food and a few tips.”

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The men who run Jordan are of two kinds. In one government office, I had occasion to observe both in a single morning. Work starts in this office at about nine, and the head of the bureau arrives early. An elderly man, he greets me graciously on the staircase and is delighted that I speak Arabic. He orders tea for us and his subordinates in the building’s large salon. The other officials say little while their elderly superior is talking; they seem quite familiar with the turns his conversation takes.

“People without religion are unworthy, don’t you agree?” the old man says. There is polite assent all around the mahogany table. “Let me tell you something: there are people who say that Islam is the only good religion and that one should associate only with Moslems. I don’t believe in this. I think that if a Christian sticks to his religion he is a good man, too. You will laugh, but even a Jew, if he sticks to his religion, he is a good man. What does their religion tell them? That they should behave in a moral way. What does yours tell you—the same! You see?”

The old man expounds his convictions with gusto. They are the liberal ideas that were circulating in the Ottoman Empire when he was young. He scarcely seems to realize that liberalism passed Jordan by long ago. The old man himself reigns, but does not rule, in his office; he spends much of his time greeting visitors. After a while, he leaves our table in order to meet some new dignitary, and the younger men, the technicians, take over the conversation. Among them are an economist who studied in London and an engineer who was graduated from the American University in Beirut.

“The country is calmer than it has been in years,” the engineer explains. “Now that the political troubles have stopped, the government is devoting its energy to internal problems. We have begun quite a few new development projects: for example, the East Ghor canal. An American expert who was here told us that our chief asset is our big labor force and its skill in small industrial enterprises.” (Expertise is hardly required to make such a statement: the country is full of people without work, and small workshops—two to five employees—are the traditional Levantine form of production.) “The American expert thought that we could reduce unemployment by building new industrial settlements which small entrepreneurs could rent. Trade schools are very important; there are some Germans who want to set them up. Our young people must learn something—not just academic subjects, but something practical, useful.”

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It all sounds quite positive, but I recall the Jordanian youngster in my hotel who is studying “Aviation Meteorology” under the supervision of a Point Four expert. He sleeps with five others in a single hotel room which is too small to accommodate a desk. In the evening, he sits in the lobby, the meteorology books in his lap, and participates in the general conversation. From time to time, he steals a glance at the book. He knows a few meteorological terms, but not enough English for the simplest ordinary conversation. I saw him excited only once. When the name of Gamal Abdel Nasser was mentioned, the boy’s eyes sparkled and he exclaimed: “He is our hero.” The others in the lobby—drivers, soldiers, salesmen, all with jobs to protect—shot him warning glances, but the boy could not be repressed. “Our hero,” he repeated, “and Arab unity will come!”

“Don’t you think,” I ask the economist after telling this story, “that this is what will happen to most of your students? Long before they master a trade, they will have learned to shout: ‘Arab nationalism! Nasser!’”

“Arab unity has to come,” the economist says. “The people want it; it is only a question of when and in what form. We do have faith in Jordan, and we are for gradual change. But Nasser is the symbol of Arab nationalism today. It will come. For you in the West the only question is whether you wish to be for us or against us. You cannot be with Israel and with us at the same time. If you try, we will turn to the East.”

This is a familiar form of blackmail. “Perhaps,” I respond, “you do not understand how profoundly the West is involved in the existence of Israel. It can never say. ‘From now on we are against Israel.’”

“Why not? The influence of the Jews in America and Europe? We know all about that.”

I try another tack: “What would you do if the West said to you: ‘All right, go Communist, we don’t care.’”

“You can’t do that. You need our oil, our strategic position.”

“We could use Israel as a base; you claim we are doing so already. And the oil is much less essential than the oil companies would like people to think. There are other places with oil. You as an economist should know that the only real loss would be the investments made in previous years.”

After long argument, the economist grudgingly admits that he would not really wish his country to go Communist because of Israel. His mood shifts from urbanity to exasperation: “Maybe you are right: it would be bad if the Communists took over the Arab countries. But what can we do? It is up to you to keep us from going Communist! We have so many troubles and, as you yourself say, whatever we do only makes our position more dangerous. Unemployment is our greatest problem, but as soon as we try to educate our people or find jobs for them, they turn against us. Today it is Nasserism, tomorrow it will be Communism. Nobody helps us. You will see our new Port of Aqaba. We don’t even have the money to build a road to the port. The trucks have to bull their way through the desert sands, and we lose thousands of dollars each month because the track ruins the trucks. All our imports come that way.”

“What about Nasser? Could he help you out of your troubles?”

“Nasser can’t even help himself. He is at the end of his rope.”

Thus, even this London-trained economist holds two contradictory sets of ideas. If he encounters difficulties with Arab nationalist notions, he switches to conservative Hashemite ones. The Hashemite ideas provide him with a living; the Nasserist ones give him emotional satisfaction. There is even a hint of a third set. “What about Kassem,” I ask, “could he help the Arabs out of their troubles?”

“I don’t know much about Kassem, nobody really does. But one thing is sure: the army is the stabilizing factor in all the Arab countries. The officers take power in Egypt, Syria, in the Sudan, and even in Lebanon and here in a disguised way. The same in Iraq. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who is at the head, as long as the armies establish conditions of calm.”

Had I pointed out the dangers of army rule, I feel sure the economist would have switched to a fourth political theory—democracy, perhaps. He would have told me that this was the one that really represented his deepest convictions—and he would have meant it as much as he did his other professions of faith.

All in all, the life of a Jordanian government employee is rather pleasanter than that of a soldier. Only two things are necessary to qualify for this comparative life of ease: a little schooling and a family that is politically acceptable. With that, any young Jordanian can get himself a desk in one of Amman’s large administration buildings and become an important person.

“How do you travel around in foreign countries if you don’t work for the government?” the Jordanian bureaucrats all ask me. It takes some explaining. Finally they understand: “He travels around so he can write for a newspaper and he gets money for what he writes.” They relax: that man can’t be very important, they think—no wazife, government job, no importance.

Especially for the junior civil servants, life in government offices is decidedly entertaining. Visitors are always welcome, and official business never seems to interfere with personal chatter which goes on endlessly.

In one office there are some young foreign service officers, just returned from abroad. One has come from Spain, and is showing off his white raincoat, the only one like it in Amman and the butt of numerous envious jokes by his colleagues. “Oh, the girls in Granada,” he laughs. “Amman is only a hovel. You have never seen a real city if you only know Amman and Beirut. Next time I go, I will take a car and sell it on the black market. If only they send me again!”

After he leaves, the others talk about him. They find him ridiculous. “Those foreign countries cannot be that wonderful! Still,” one of them says, “I would like to be sent abroad, too. Plenty of money and away from my family. An apartment of my own!”

At two o’clock, the employees stop “working” and go home for a long lunch.

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How do the Jordanians view America and Britain? Both nations are accused of “colonial exploitation” by Communist and Nasserite propaganda. But the British command the strong personal loyalty of one sector of Jordan’s population, the Bedouin army; and there is a deep, if not always justified, admiration for British political “cleverness” among nearly all Jordanians. Relations with America, on the other hand, are dominated by Jordan’s crying need for U.S. handouts and the desire for more of them; there is never enough.

According to a survey by the World Bank, Jordan could become economically self-sufficient only if a great deal of outside capital and skill were invested. Without even considering the very important human factor, the country would need capital investments of some $330 million, to be fed into Jordan at a steady rate of no less than $33 million a year. In fact, U.S. financial assistance to Jordan since 1956 has averaged $44 million a year, but much of this has gone for military aid and over-all government assistance. The budget for next year earmarks only $16 million for productive development. The budget, announced in April, is a curiously optimistic document. It gives a breakdown of all expenses (of a total of $114 million, $57 million are allotted to defense); it states that there will be a deficit of $22.5 million; but it does not reveal the anticipated income of the state (which in past years was less than $20 million, much less than needed). Jordan could achieve self-sufficiency if it had, or could develop, the necessary human resources, and if it could obtain more than twice as much foreign aid as it receives today. Some $88 million in aid, plus the $20 million the government collects in taxes, would be necessary to fulfill the announced budget for next year—and this would still fall short of the development funds considered necessary by the World Bank.

By commissioning all sorts of development plans, America assumed some responsibility in the eyes of most Jordanians for their execution. The Americans are, in the public mind, the “development people,” and they will be blamed if development does not seem satisfactory. The concern of the British, on the other hand, was with the army and with administering the country in a fashion that did not unsettle traditional ways. They came to Jordan as officers, military and administrative; they were able to impress their character upon the people with whom they worked. The Bedouin knows from personal experience that the army worked well, that the administration was fair. The Americans, however, came as technocrats, who were removed from the people but who interfered with their traditional ways. Thus far, few people can see any practical effects of American aid on their own lives. Technical capacity in itself compels admiration among few Arabs: it must be coupled with some sort of “personality” to make a lasting impression. The technocrats, furthermore, work among the very people who are least accessible to their charms—the urban and intellectual groups influenced by Arab nationalism and by Communism.

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Jordan’s relations with her Arab neighbors are even more precarious than those with Britain and America. The frontier with Iraq is still virtually closed. Many Palestinian refugees, who had good jobs in Iraq as skilled workers and who were pro-Nasser, were driven out after the revolution last year—which caused a new wave of bitterness in Jordan. The local press never comments on the rivalry between Nasser and Kassem, but it does carry excerpts of the proceedings of the “people’s court” in Baghdad, and it has briefly mentioned some of Nasser’s anti-Communist speeches. Generally, the press sticks very close to the government line. Only one foreign Arabic newspaper is available: the expensive Beiruti Hayat, which is influential among the upper classes. It gives complete news of the Arab world, is officially “neutral” between Nasser and Kassem, and is very anti-Israel and rather anti-Communist. Its editor is himself a refugee from Palestine, and a capable journalist.

The revolution in Iraq has undoubtedly reduced Nasser’s prestige with the Jordanians. Some observers believe that King Hussein will profit from this. They argue that pictures of the King have been seen, for the first time, in the refugee camps. But these pictures are posted only on government premises—police shacks or administrative buildings. Most disappointed Nasserites seem likely to turn to the Communists.

On the government level, the recent installation of Hazza Majali as Prime Minister seems to be a way of allowing King Hussein to determine the country’s policies on his own; Majali is expected to procure support for the King from the tribes to which he belongs. For the immediate future, Jordan can only continue its balancing act between Egypt and Iraq. The Cairo press received the news of the establishment of the Majali government coolly, the Syrian newspapers angrily. There is thus no reason to expect a Jordanian rapprochement with the UAR. Closer relations with Iraq are even less likely, so long as the Communists play a conspicuous role in Baghdad.

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The trip from Amman to the new port of Aqaba takes about 18 hours. It is a distance of 250 miles, traversed by about 400 enormous trucks which grind their way through the desert day and night. Most of the drivers make the trip alone, with one or two stops for coffee and food. I accompanied one of them.

The driver points to an old railway line. Built in Ottoman days, it originally went to Mecca, but it was wrecked during the desert campaigns of the First World War. Now it carries three trains a week as far as Ras-en-Naqab, just beyond Ma’an.

From time to time we pass the tents of Bedouins. They have heaped brushwork around the windside of their tents. Dressed in heavy fur coats, they shudder in the cold wind. Their animals graze in a wide circle around them. Their dogs run after our truck until the dust is too much for them.

“The Bedouins may look miserable,” the driver tells me, “but they have a good life. Nearly all of them get some cash from sons and cousins in the army. They don’t need much money and they get what they need. The really hard life is in the villages and on the other side of the Jordan. There they have too many people and no work.”

After inspecting the installations in Aqaba, I make my way back to Amman. I spend the last part of the trip with some soldiers. “We have been stationed in Aqaba four years,” one of them tells me. “You save a lot of money that way—there is only one movie here and you can’t spend money in the desert.”

The soldiers are sitting on one side of a baggage car, which has been equipped with two rows of benches along its walls. Opposite the soldiers sit workers and peasants. The workers, who were dismissed from their jobs at Aqaba and are returning to Hebron, stretch their quilts on the floor and lie down to sleep. The soldiers sit upright and do not talk to the workers. Even the soldiers who come from Hebron ignore their fellow townsmen. But they do make room for a blind Bedouin sha’er—a bard—who gets on the train at one of the desert stops.

On the Jordan plain, I watch about 850 workers digging the East Ghor canal, which will run parallel to the river. The workers are organized in gangs of twenty; a supervisor watches them. All the digging is by hand, with pushcarts used to move the earth. Four miles of the earthwork have been completed. The government is considering bids for the cementing of the canal.

“The workers,” an engineer tells me, “come from 140 different villages. Everywhere they need work, so we take a few workers from each region. They work eight hours and sleep in army tents.”

“How much do they earn?” I ask.

“Three hundred fils a day by government regulation.”

It is difficult to get a meal, even in the simplest street kitchens, for less than 100 fils. “Do the workers get their food from you?”

“Oh no. They have to buy their own.”

The soldier’s wage is about twice that of the worker; but because he is well fed and clothed, he can use almost all his salary for his family or for pocket money. The laborer, on the other hand, must choose between starving himself and starving his family.

In Jordan today there are only two classes, rulers and ruled. As a result of the failure of Nabulsi and his Arab nationalists, the old revolutionary middle classes have been thinned out. The vast majority of the disposable wealth (it is largely U.S. money) is in the hands of the state, which distributes it to its supporters. Those who back the government can, with the right sponsorship, join the ruling class, which comprises all government employees from the Prime Minister down to the last army private. They all live at levels which are modest by European standards, but are incomparably higher than that of the mass of the people.

This strict division into a ruling class which owns all the resources and a mass of ruled on the brink of starvation, explains the present “stability” of Jordan. As long as none of the members of the ruling class defect to the side of the masses, the latter are helpless.

The potential danger seems obvious. Once the government tries to develop Jordan’s resources, it must lift some of the ruled to a higher station. It must give them incentives, education, better living standards if they are to do the work of a developing country. The uplifting of the masses, however, breeds revolutionaries who will rouse the population against the privileged class, either in the name of Arab nationalism or in the less old-fashioned name of Communism.

The present Jordanian leaders appear to recognize this dilemma. They are not trying to equalize the status of the two classes, but rather are slowly enlarging the numbers of the privileged. This, at any rate, is the policy of the old-line pashas who now head the government. One doubts, however, that it will be continued by the oncoming generation of “technicians,” whose minds are filled with European concepts of social justice.

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East Palestine, the west bank of the Jordan, is preeminently the territory of the ruled. A European social worker in Bethlehem tells me that 18,000 of its 20,000 inhabitants need financial assistance. “It is about the same in Hebron and Nablus. Of the 10 per cent who live well, most are employees of the government or of UNRWA. A few are landowners and professionals, people living off commerce or the tourist trade. These few hate the government most of all, and wait for the revolution.”

Jordan is the only Arab country in which the Palestinian refugees are considered full citizens. The inhabitants of the camps are theoretically free to settle wherever they can, and to work wherever they can find employment. In fact, 380,000 of the refugees live outside the camps—in shelters around the big towns, with relatives, etc. Meanwhile, the population of Jordan’s 25 refugee camps has increased in the last eight years from 110,000 persons to 180,000.

In theory, refugees who find work must give up their ration cards. In practice, this happens only if the refugee finds a very good job—with an oil company or with the government, for example. Unemployment is widespread among both the indigenous and the refugee population. About 45,000 agricultural workers among the refugees and about 42,000 of the indigenous peasants are totally unemployed, while 60,000 refugees and 14,000 villagers find only partial employment. (The total agricultural work force is estimated to be about 300,000.) Among the urban workers, the situation is no better; 22,000 refugees and 14,000 “Jordanians” are unemployed, while 17,000 refugees and 5,000 “Jordanians” are only partially employed. (The total urban labor force is about 116,000.)

Complaints by the workers that “the refugees compete unfairly and drive us out of our jobs” are frequently heard in Amman. In fact the refugees, who receive UNRWA food rations for themselves and their families, frequently do accept lower wages than the native workers. Refugee registration and ration cards are controlled by refugee employees of UNRWA under the supervision of a few international functionaries. They are not very strict. Refugees are supposed to collect their rations once a month at the distribution centers where they first registered. Many of them, who moved away to work or for some other reason, return monthly to collect their rations. There is also a black market in ration books; some individuals are said to have bought as many as sixty ration books from fellow refugees who no longer need them or from families of deceased persons who have managed to keep the death hidden. They have enough pull to collect all the rations and sell them on the free market. They thus evade Jordanian import duties, since the UNRWA imports are duty free.

In West Jordan, Israel is close at hand. The other side of the armistice line is visible from many places. Government officials continue to speak of “occupied Palestine.” The numerous refugees continue to talk about what they lost. In their high voices, school children in the refugee camps sing pitiful songs promising their future return to Palestine and furious songs anticipating their future victory over “the Jews.”

Nevertheless, Israel’s very closeness compels a minimum of realism. To the Jordanians, Israel is a real country with hills they can see, that they once climbed, even if they are inhabited now by “bad Jews.” Seen from Damascus, Cairo, or even peaceful Beirut, on the other hand, Israel is only an abstraction: the embodiment of all hatreds, the symbol of one’s humiliations as an Arab. Even the stories of Israeli mistreatment of Arab minorities which are circulated in Jordan have a more realistic ring than the corresponding rumors in the souks of Damascus and Cairo. In Damascus, for example, they will tell you of tortures and rapes. In Jordan, people complain: “My uncle who stayed on back home has been forced from his land.” Or they tell you about “discrimination” at the university: “They didn’t allow me to study medicine in Jerusalem, so I came over the frontier and will go to Cairo.” Or they talk about the Israeli military regime in Arab frontier villages, about lost law suits against the government, or being forced to speak Hebrew. Or they say: “The Communists are the only party to defend the interests of the Arab minority in Palestine.”

This little trickle of gossip leaking through the closed frontiers is virtually Jordan’s only link with its neighbor. There is one other, the Israeli radio, which is listened to by many Jordanians (and Lebanese) because it provides fuller coverage of Middle Eastern news than their own stations. The high walls that close in the Old City of Jerusalem, so as to give its Arab inhabitants as few glimpses as possible of the life on the Israeli side, are symbolic. In Jordan, as the country stands today, no force in sight seems likely to remove them.

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