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Easter, another reason Jordan is not going the way of the rest of the Middle East

Today was Easter Sunday. (Ok, technically it was yesterday – where did the day go!?)

Uniquely, it was Easter in both Eastern and Western rites today (a confusing difference of opinion about the dating of Christianity’s biggest holy day based on which calendar is being used – Gregorian or Julian).  Here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan the king has declared that all Christians should observe Easter according to the dating used by the Eastern rite.  This certainly makes thing simpler in this Muslim country where there are significant Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox minorities.  Why does it take a Muslim monarch to get Christian sects to agree on something?  (but I digress . . . )

Of course today was a regular work day for the majority of Jordanians, but Christians around the Kingdom worshiped freely and observed the holiest day of Christianity without hindrance.  This, despite the fact that Islam does not recognize the resurrection of Jesus at all.  In fact, Islam teaches that Jesus was never even crucified, hence no resurrection.  Yet, here in a country where 97% of the people are Muslim, Christians are allowed to believe as they wish and maintain their worship and devotional practices without fear of reprisals.

Not so in neighboring Egypt, where Coptic Christians are regularly persecuted and sometimes even killed while attending church services.  Large scale rioting recently broke out in a southern province when a Christian governor was elected.  However, here in Jordan the government reserves a certain number of parliamentary seats for the Christian minority (actually at a higher ratio than the number of Christians in the population – a bone of peaceful contention and debate for some).  A Coptic Christian friend of mine is so happy to be living in Jordan where he and his wife and children have no fear of public persecution.  Their church building is located across from one of the largest mosques in the city (see slideshow below) – something that might be a cause for concern in downtown Cairo, but here in Amman it ensures they receive extra police protection when things are unsettled in Egypt.

I don’t want to make it seem like Jordan is a Utopia of peace in the Middle East and that there is no tension between Muslims and Christians here.  For sure, there are small problems from time to time.  It is rare to find deep bonds of friendship between Muslims and Christians here.  However, in a society where the notion of tribe is still very alive and well, this is no surprise.  Unlike America where family bonds are broken early and people seem to develop a greater affinity for their friends than relatives, here in Jordan the opposite is true.  People live with their families for much longer (and this is viewed as normal and acceptable) and will almost always choose family over friends when making plans and determining allegiances.  This tendency naturally precludes many Muslim-Christian friendships, but it also minimizes the number of friendships outside of the family in general.

That said  there is a mutual respect between the two religions and a recognition of the need of peaceful coexistence.  This was demonstrated to me today as Muslim friends and acquaintances greeted me for Easter, using the traditional Arab greeting for any major holiday (used by all Arabs):

كل عام و انتم بالخير

Which roughly translates “Goodness to all of you every year.”  It is used during the Muslim Eids, Christmas, New Years, Easter, and other major holidays.

Some Muslim friends even went out of their way to call me and greet me and my family with a cheerful “Happy Easter!”

While the rest of the region is boiling with turmoil it is these small glimpses into everyday life here that reassure me that Jordan is not on the same slippery slope.  For sure, there are economic woes and political disquietude and even a lunatic fringe that makes “good” press, but overall there is a commitment to peace and safety for all Jordanians and guests living within the borders of the Kingdom.  Certainly this is in part due to the wisdom of the royal family represented  by His Majesty, the late King Hussein and his son His Majesty King Abdullah II.  They have set the tone for a Jordan that has been given character and heritage by its diverse tribal (Muslim & Christian) roots yet  strengthened by the recognition of the common good.

In my opinion, the peace that the Kingdom of Jordan experiences today is also a remnant of the peace left by the risen Lord who so many centuries ago had a soft spot for the people of this area – choosing to be baptized and baptize, heal, and feed thousands on this side of the river.  The love and peace he exuded can still be felt today.

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Note: If the slideshow is too fast for you to read the captions you can hover over the pictures and a control bar will pop up.  You can then cycle through the images manually.

Some more springtime pics from Jordan

As I’ve said before, spring is really my favorite time of year hear in Jordan.  A couple of weeks ago my son and I got out of the city to do a little exploring. We were mostly out past Bayyader and Wadi Seer, driving along narrow roads and getting a feel for the lay of the land just west of Amman.  There are beautiful rolling rills and amazing views out towards the plains of Moab and the Ghor.  (although I am not really certain you can see either – it was hazy and overcast in the distance – it just seemed that was the direction we were looking in)  So without further ado, here are some pics to enjoy:

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Why the Kingdom of Jordan will NOT be the next Egypt

Headlines about the Middle East have been full of news and speculation on the protests and potential regime change in Egypt.  What is happening there is a moment that will be remembered in history for years to come.  It is a popular uprising against a regime that has too long looked the other way and allowed corruption to flourish, the economy to languish and the lives of everyday citizens to fade into nothingness.  The protests seem to be a massive grass-roots effort (not needing western politics as a catalyst) to force a change that is long overdue.

Over the weekend some new sidebars accompanied the main articles about the situation in Egypt.  Many of these speculated about the potential for the Kingdom of Jordan to be the next Middle Eastern nation to be engulfed in widespread popular protest after Tunis, Yemen, and Egypt.  Friday’s post-prayer anti-government street rally and a protest near the Prime Minister’s residence fed fuel to the fire of this speculation.  And today headlines announced that His Majesty King Abdullah II had disbanded the cabinet and appointed a new Prime Minister.  Some articles characterized this move as “caving to public pressure” and painted a picture of huge street protests in Jordan forcing the King to the action.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  There have not been huge, widespread protests here in Jordan.  To my knowledge there were two significant rallies as I mentioned before.  I live in Amman currently and many people I have asked about the Friday rally near the mosque downtown weren’t even aware that it had happened.  If you were not in the neighborhood or on the street where these were occurring, you wouldn’t have been aware they were even taking place.

I saw some video posted of the anti-government rally.  There were a lot of flags being waved and there was a truck with big loudspeakers and some chanting.  But the crowd was peaceful and orderly.  There was a much bigger stir here in Amman during the month-long protests against the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in January 2009.  I attended one of those demonstrations and that ended up in stone throwing and tear-gas being shot.  The recent protests here in Amman didn’t come anywhere close to that.

Were these small protests enough to force HM King Abdullah II to do something about his government?  I find it hard to believe.   The King has demonstrated his low tolerance for government corruption and ineffectiveness before when he disbanded the entire lower house of parliament a few years ago.   There has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the the economy and politics here in Jordan over the last several months (since Parliamentary elections) and years.  Consumer prices have been on the rise and some people view politicians as affluent and out of touch with the people.  (Of course that could be just about any country in the world right?)  So is today’s government house-cleaning in response to a couple of weekend protests?  Is it because of what happened in North Africa?  Or is this a wise move that has been in the planning for a while?

Who knows.

But in the end I don’t believe Jordan will be the next Egypt, and here’s why:

  1. The economy is bad – but not that bad.  Inflation in Jordan was around 0% in 2009 and just over 5% in 2010 compared to 18% and 10% in Egypt in those same years.  Consumers have certainly felt the 5% pinch this past year especially in key areas such as fuel and staples like flour and sugar.  These increases have hit the poor hard, but life in Jordan is still much better than life in Egypt as attested to by the vast number of Egyptian guest workers who come here for little pay rather than sit unemployed in Egypt.
  2. The population of Jordan is only 6.4 million.  The entire population of the Kingdom is around 1/3 the size of the greater Cairo metropolitan area.  The population density of Cairo is over 44,000 people per square mile compared to Amman’s relaxed 4,300 people per square mile.  (For reference NYC is only 27,000 people per square mile).  When it comes to the development of and controlling of civil unrest what is Cairo going to do?   When you have that many dissatisfied people in that small of an area the potential for unrest is huge.  Amman is just not the same.
  3. Related to #2 above.  Everybody is related to everybody or knows everybody else in Jordan.  Everyone is interconnected.  Tribal affiliations still mean something.  Less than 100 years ago most of the population was made up of bedouin tribes for whom family and honor meant something.  These values still exist today and fuel the protection of the common good of the kingdom.
  4. The King is well-loved.  And so is his father.   There is an Arabic saying, “If you know the son, you know the father.”  Despite grumblings about the economy and the job-performance of elected or appointed officials people still love and respect HM King Abdullah II and HM the late King Hussein.  This ruling family has held the Kingdom of Jordan together for well over half a century – not by force and oppression nor by turning a blind eye.  They have ruled with wisdom and concern for their people.  Although not elected, from what I have seen, they have the respect and allegiance of their people.  Hosni Mubarak on the other hand has been re-elected by sham elections for 30 years.  He might well have been called king rather than president.  A “king” who ended up a petty tyrant perhaps in the eyes of his people.  Much different than the wise and respected Kings who have ruled Jordan.
  5. Despite #4, of course there  has been opposition to the government over the years.  In recent years certain Islamic groups have been particularly outspoken.  In fact these groups have been instrumental in the recent protests.  They are not satisfied with HM King Abdullah’s new Prime Minister, either, citing him as the reason they lost many parliamentary seats in the 2007 elections.  They forget however that those were the first elections after the 2005 hotel bombings.  In any event, the current opposition leaders have made it clear in a public statement that they are not seeking regime change in Jordan, but rather political reform.  Which leads me to my last point . . .
  6. Jordan is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  This means that HM King Abdullah II traces his lineage to the prophet Muhammad himself.   Islamic groups here have stated that they recognize the Hashemite’s right to rule.  I have to imagine that it would take quite a lot for Muslims to seek to overthrow a King who is descended from Muhammad.  They may take exception to his appointees, but I think it will be quite some time before we see widespread violent protesting in the streets of Amman.

Of course this is just my layman’s outsider point-of-view.  I could be totally off base, but I doubt it.   Throw a few hundred flags and a PA system in the street these days and you’ll have the western media hearing “regime change” in every slogan.

Check out the Festival of Alternative Arts!

Special Note: Tonight (Tuesday, January 25th) there is a debate on life in Gaza being held as part of the Festival.  It will be held from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Al-Balad Theater on the route down from Rainbow street in  Jabal Amman to the balad.  More info here. Unfortunately I can’t make it because of work.  Hopefully someone else can!
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I recently had the privilege of attending a film screening of Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff’s “Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza“.  The documentary observes several slices of life in Gaza after the devastating January 2009 Israeli offensive that left 13 Israelis and over 1300 Palestinians dead.  The film provided little commentary on the events, but simply showed people in their everyday contexts trying to put their lives back together after a month of bombardment and destruction.  I am preparing another post on my thought on the film, but wanted to point out that it is part of a larger event now being held here in Jordan.

From December 2010 through February 2011, the Swedish Embassy in conjunction with many local partners (including the Royal Film Commission who sponsored the film screening) is hosting the “Festival of Alternative Arts” here in Jordan.  The purpose of the festival is,

to showcase and discuss graffiti and other urban alternative art expressions. It aims at contributing to broadening the concept of art as a diverse form of expression, but also hopes to attract and stimulate an interest in urban art – in its different representations – among the large young population in Jordan.

Don't sit at home - attend a festival event!

The centerpiece of the festival is the photo exhibit “Gaza Grafitti” opening at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts on January 26th (tomorrow) and running through February 15th, 2011.  The exhibit is the work of Swedish photographer Mia Grondahl and is comprised of 60 photographs of grafitti art in Gaza over of seven year period (2002-2009).  I am personally very interested in seeing this exhibit as I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 in Gaza.  At that time I was also fascinated by all of the graffiti I saw.  Some of it obviously slogans of one sort or another, but also actual artwork.  The art that I saw in the late 90s took the form of paintings of scenes in some cases, but also amazing Arabic calligraphy.    As in parts of the West Bank where Palestinian artists have used the “security” wall as a canvas, graffiti has served as both an artistic and political release valve for an oppressed people.  I am interested to see what Grondahl observed and recorded during her times in Gaza.

I will probably go see the exhibit sometime in February.  If you are here and Jordan and want to go together drop me a line.

The Festival of Alternative Arts includes a number of other events in addition to the “Gaza Graffiti” exhibit.  A complete list can be found on their Facebook events page.

Some of the ones I found most intriguing are:

Dream Hiding Places at The Children’s Museum until January 31, 2011.  20 Palestinian children will be participating in a graffiti art workshop facilitated by a local graffiti artist.  The artwork produced will be on display at the museum.

Images/Suwar in Zarqa until January 30th.  28 Iraqi youths, refugees living in Jordan, tell their stories through use of the performing and media arts.  The location in Zarqa is not clear from the FB page.  Anyone have any idea?

Refugee Camp Graffiti Art Project on display at Nabad Gallery from February 27th to March 1st.  Workshops will be held with youth in three Palestinian refugee camps here in Jordan.  They will be given cameras to photograph the graffiti they see every day.  Then they will develop their own art.  The results will be displayed in Baqa’a camp and the Nabad Gallery.

If you happen to be in Jordan reading this, I hope you take a moment to attend one of these or other events associated with the festival.  If you’re not in Jordan – just see what you’re missing!  I’ll  try to post on anything I get to attend.

PS – I found out about this event through my new favorite resource – Jordan Events on Facebook.  For those of you who are Facebook users in Jordan it’s a great way to find out what’s going on around the Kingdom!