There is always something reassuring about Amman. Despite lacking the ancient charm of Damascus, the nightlife of Beirut and the overpopulated pandemonium of Cairo, it’s tame concrete neighbourhoods and sprawling urban centres offer a certain stability lacking elsewhere. Jordan has for decades built an image for itself as a bastion of calm in a sea of instability, attracting much-needed western and Gulf patronage as a result. On my first visit to Amman in 2 years I find Jordan once again surrounded by uncertainty: although the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict is quiet for now and Iraq appears to be stabilizing, to the south Egypt remains mired in post-revolutionary political contestation and, of course, to the north overspill from the Syrian uprising prays on the minds of politicians and citizens alike. The Arab Spring has thus far only rattled but not seriously threatened, the easy-on-the-western-eye autocracy of King Abdullah II, with regular protests calling for reform, rather than regime change, and rarely attracting numbers much higher than 10,000. However, with long-standing tensions between its underrepresented majority of Palestinians and the privileged minority of Transjordanians, and a parallel but not unrelated clash between the ruling secular elite and Jordan’s popular Islamist opposition, some fear that instability caused by the Syria crisis could push the desert kingdom over the edge.
Hiding @ Ramadan
I arrived in Jordan on the first day of Ramadan, about which I am always ambivalent when in the Arab world. On the one hand, it is a fantastic festival, which visibly brings communities together. During my stay I have the privilege of sharing Iftar (the breaking of the day’s fast) in private homes and in communal cafes and restaurants and the sense of togetherness on breaking the fast is genuinely impressive and an honour to be a part of. On the other hand, throughout my trip to Jordan, the temperature average is between 35-38 degrees Celsius. Unlike many Jordanians, who tend to slow down during the day while they’re fasting – often sleeping late and leading a more nocturnal life – I still have to work: walking around the city in the sweltering heat. As a good visitor, even though I am not fasting myself, I know its rude to eat and drink in front of fasters, and yet struggled to find anywhere in Amman that would serve me food before 7.45pm. Most cafes simply close and almost all are deserted until Iftar. My salvation comes in the form of ‘Books@Café’, a trendy western-style eatery in the up market district of Rainbow Street in Jebel Amman.
Yet each day when I come to work and eat, I am not alone. Interestingly the café is full, not of westerners, but of Jordanians in desperate search of a place to eat, drink and, seemingly most importantly, smoke. Despite ‘Books’ – as it is known – having several floors and an impressive covered balcony overlooking Amman’s citadel, patrons are instead directed into an internal-facing room, far from the disapproving glare of the rest of Amman’s observant population. This social, almost institutionalized, pressure to fast is common across the Arab world, and I have seen it in Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo previously. Sometimes it actually is institutionalized, from minor laws such as the sale of alcohol being forbidden after 10 o’clock in Jordan, to the excesses of the religious police in Saudi Arabia forcibly enforcing the fast. Returning to Turkey, I discovered that no such practice exists. In Gaziantep – which I will discuss next week – cafes remain full of local patrons eating, drinking beer and smoking throughout the day. I am later told by more experienced voices that this social pressure in Jordan is a relatively recent phenomena, coinciding – not surprisingly – with the general shift towards greater religiosity over the last twenty or so years. Yet, whatever its origin, I can’t help feeling that this takes away some of the purpose of the festival. Surely the communality of fasting, and the shared moment of Iftar only has true meaning if its voluntarily entered into for religious reasons rather than due to social pressure?
The refugees of Ramtha
The main purpose of my trip to Jordan was to interview some of the Syrian refugees that have recently fled the violence. UNHCR estimates that there are currently 35,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, while the Jordanian government says that there are an additional 160,000 who have not registered, still fearing the reach of the Syrian secret police (the Muhkabarat) even when abroad. Jordan, for the most part, has done the decent thing regarding the refugees. While there were some stories of the authorities turning back Syrians of Palestinian origin – presumably not wanting to swell the numbers of Palestinians in Jordan even further – most Syrians have been welcomed. One farmer we spoke to from Deraa, the neighbouring city in southern Syria where the uprising started, said he was scared of crossing the border with his family illegally because he was worried how the Jordanian army would react. Eventually, after spending 3 months living in the forests outside Deraa, he and his family crossed. When the Jordanian army saw them, the man said he feared the worst, but instead the first soldier approached them and shouted ‘alf ahla’ (a thousand welcomes)! The man wept as he told the story.
The refugee’s stories were harrowing. All who we spoke to had come from either Deraa or Homs, which have seen some of the worst violence in the regime’s crackdown. One girl from Homs told us how the ‘Shabiha’, the militia formed by the Assad regime responsible for some of the worst atrocities so far, had ‘occupied’ the house of her friend’s family for a week, repeatedly raping the women before killing all but one of the inhabitants and looting the homestead. Sexual violence and torture, against both men and women, were prominent in the stories of all that we spoke to, although none of my interviewees were victims themselves. Indeed, it was fear for the safety of his daughters that eventually prompted the farmer from Deraa to leave after a year of escalating violence. “I love my country,” he said, “but it was no longer safe.” He had been in Jordan for 12 days.
The Jordanian government is doing its best to accommodate the refugees. In Ramtha itself there is a UNHCR camp hosting several thousand, but most live with relatives or in rented accommodation. The refugees we spoke to were being hosted in the town of Turah, a few miles outside of Ramtha, and it was local charities that were taking the lead in providing homes and support. Abu Nabil, the man who took us from home to home to meet the Syrian refugees was a retiree charity volunteer from the town rather than a government official. The government recently received a $100m grant from the US to help with the costs of helping the refugees. The eldest son of one man we spoke to, Abu Mohammad, was taking a catch up course so that he could start the school year in a Jordanian school in September. Another man from Homs had had his hearing severely damaged when shells had exploded in his furniture shop. He was being treated free of charge at the local hospital. Grants will cover these costs for the time being, but one must question whether Jordan’s already stretched infrastructure can cope with much more. Following clashes between Jordanian residents and refugees in Ramtha last week, a new law was passed stating that future refugees must live in the camps rather than where they wish, acknowledging the problems of this over-stretch. The real fear is that numbers will jump suddenly as the violence worsens: while 100,000 is just about manageable, 500,000 may not be.
Syrian overspill in Jordan
As well as the numbers of refugees overburdening the Jordanian state, there are two other serious concerns. Firstly, that the fighting might spill onto Jordanian soil. On my final night in Jordan Al-Arabiya was reporting that the Jordanian army had clashed with the Syrian army who were pursuing refugees headed for the border. A four-year-old Syrian boy was reportedly killed. It is difficult to verify some of these clashes. On the one hand the Saudi-owned media such as Al-Arabiya opposes Assad and seeks to play up any events, while at the same time the Jordanian government has been careful not to become too embroiled in the Syria conflict and seeks to downplay things. Even so, whatever the truth behind this incident, clashes are likely given the ruthlessness with which the Syrian regime pursues refugees along with Jordan’s commitment to protect them. But King Abdullah is carefully walking a fine line. Much to the chagrin of the refugees we spoke to, despite publically calling on Assad to step down, the King has not shown outright support for the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA). This is quite unlike Turkey, which hosts the FSA and is, allegedly, funneling Saudi and Qatari funds and weapons to them. Even more than Turkey Jordan fears a long-lasting civil war in Syria which could provide a base for anti-regime Jordanian groups and destabilize the whole region. Faced with this prospect, the King’s line appears to be to publically toe the line of its allies Saudi and the US regarding Assad, but practically pursuing a damage limitation exercise: protecting the refugees and defending his borders but avoiding anything that could encourage more fighting. The FSA thus have a weaker base in the Hawran district that sprawls over southern Syria and northern Jordan, than it does in the southern Turkey / northern Syria Idleb region – primarily due to a lack of support from Jordan.
The second major issue is not unrelated to this, which is divided opinion within Jordanian society itself. While the vast majority of Jordanians I spoke to were adamantly against Assad, a few voiced concerns. Some Jordanian Christians were worried of the fate of the Christians in Syria if Assad fell, aware of the exodus of Iraqi Christians when Saddam Hussein fell. There was a general fear, not unlike that found among some Turkish secularists, that if Assad fell, Syrian Islamists would take over, increasing the pressure on the Jordanian government to embrace the Islamic Action Front (Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). I was even told that several pro-Assad voices can still be read in Jordan’s newspaper columns, something I saw for myself on reading an op-ed in the Jordan Times stating that, despite all of Assad’s faults, he was better than a repeat of Iraq in Syria. While this pro-Assad (or at least, anti-Syrian opposition) group is evidently a small minority, it is potentially important given most come from the King’s core support. After all, it is the Liberals and Islamists that are most actively anti-Assad – the same groups who are calling on the King to reform. It would not be surprising if, deep down, despite repulsion at Assad’s behaviour, King Abdullah himself might fear what will come next.