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Jordan Journal: Identity

Jordan Journal: Identity

In the Jordan Valley, my friend Fenner and I stayed with a Palestinian refugee named Mohammad who came to the country during the 1967 Six Day War. “Amman has no identity,” he tells us.

He’s right: Jordan is confused. Its history has never been separate from a larger, pan-Arab history, and as a country it is mostly a western invention designed to be an ally in the region. Meanwhile, its Palestinian population has remained a steady seventy percent of the total for years now. It is a country with no identity and a population of exiles who want nothing more than to return home.

Me under a Palestinian flag at the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah.

Me under a Palestinian flag at the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah.

Identity is confused throughout the wider Arab world. Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire with the Sykes-Picot Agreement after World War I, ethnicity and nationalism have never matched. It is a weakness among Arabs in the Middle East that is seldom discussed: when nationalism is disjointed and messy, a nation has an automatic disadvantage. It is one of the reasons why Iran (Persia) seems to be winning its Middle Eastern Cold War of sorts against Saudi Arabia.

To begin with, the oil-rich Gulf States—Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar—are truly identity-less. Less states than pseudo-states that exist merely due to the presence of oil, these countries have been forced to rally behind Salafism, a radical, oppressive, and often violent (not to mention skewed) interpretation of Islam, in order to unite.

Meanwhile, the Ba’athist movement, which stresses pan-Arabism and a need to nationalize and unite the Arab world under a single, secular state, has been ruling Syria for decades now. Essentially, this means that there can’t really be a such thing as Syrian nationalism: for as long as Syria is Ba’athist, being a Syrian nationalist means either disagreeing with the idea of a Syrian nation-state (and thus rejecting Syrian nationalism) or disagreeing with the Syrian government. It’s a confusing notion that helps (among many other factors) encourage the Syrian rebels to embrace religion rather than nationalism, and thus turn toward extremism.

Then, there is Iraq. The ethnic and religious divisions in this nation have fueled sectarian violence for years following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government. As a result, being “Iraqi” is essentially meaningless; it matters only whether you’re Kurdish or Arab, Sunni or Shi’ite. Religious divisions also spiraled Lebanon—a gerrymandered Christian state with a constantly growing Muslim (especially Shi’ite) population—into a fifteen year-long civil war from 1975 to 1990. These divisions continue to exist today, as a sort of scar, reminding Lebanese of their violent history.

A wall cutting though the village of Bil'in.

A wall cutting though the village of Bil'in.

The exception, though, is Palestine. Regardless of what Golda Meir said to make herself sleep well at night, Palestinians do exist, and always have existed. For one thing, even when the Arab world was united under successive Islamic Empires, there was always a special pride if you lived in the Holy Land of Palestine. Additionally, Palestine was a center of tolerance among all three monotheistic religions for centuries: this gave it a certain status that elevated above the word “Arab.” And, finally, there is the undeniable truth that oppression unites: just as slavery, segregation, and ghettoization have pushed blacks into a corner in the United States, the Palestinians in what is now Israel have been pushed into a corner by ethnic cleansing, occupation, and apartheid. The response of both of these communities has been to strengthen their identities.

It can be seen, too. Walking through the streets of Amman, Fenner and I saw a confused city, unsure whether to rally behind Islam, Palestinian origins, or the king. In Ramallah, however (where we spent most of our trip), magnificently political street art formed as a vibrant glue among a population living under occupation, while tents in the center of Yasser Arafat Square educated the community on the imprisonment of Palestinian children.

Street art on the security barrier in Bethlehem. 

Street art on the security barrier in Bethlehem. 

So next time someone argues that Jordan and Palestine have the same culture, and that Palestinians should simply go to Jordan, or that “Palestinians don’t exist,” give them a short lesson on the Arab identity.

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