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Materialist Analysis in the Service of a Nationalist Thesis: Response to Interview with Tariq Tell on the Hirak Siyasi in Jordan

[Jordanians are seen reflected in a vehicle's window in Amman, Jordan. Image by Muhammed Muheisen/AP Photo] [Jordanians are seen reflected in a vehicle's window in Amman, Jordan. Image by Muhammed Muheisen/AP Photo]

[This article was written as a response to a recently published two-part interview with Tariq Tell on the history of state formation in Jordan and regime-society relations in the context of the Arab uprisings. Click here to read Tariq Tell's rejoinder to this response.]

Political agitation and social dissidence have become daily occurrences in Jordan. Strikes, demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, denunciatory public statements, public property destruction episodes, altercations and violent clashes with the police and baltagiyya, and cabinet turnover: events such as these have become the daily staple of news coming from Jordan.  All of this would qualify as a form of pre-revolutionary ferment, given the background of the Arab Spring, but the consensus term offered to denote the brewing political scene in Jordan is the default one of al-hirak al-siyasi. The judgment seems to be that such acts of dissidence are exactly that, dissidence, with no potential to spread, intensify, and spin into anything like a revolutionary situation. 

The world wonders why.

The two-part interview that Jadaliyya conducted with the Jordanian scholar Tareq Tell offers the readers the opportunity to learn the answer to such a question. Indeed, Tell obliges the Jadaliyya readers by offering a very complicated and comprehensive account, not only of the political parties involved in the Hirak, but of the history of the establishment of the state of Jordan, the nature of the Hashemite monarchy and the historic alliances it has struck to stabilize its rule and achieve its dominance, the various social and communal groupings that make-up Jordan’s demographic tapestry, including their political orientation and the nature of their national identity formation, the dynamics of the urban/rural divide, and the shifting trajectory of the country’s political economy. Tell’s analysis is unsparing in its comprehensiveness and unyielding in its attention to detail. To my knowledge, it is the only account of its kind available in English that manages to explain a great deal to an uninformed audience with words that fill no more than two online pages! This is a great feat, to be sure, and one for which Tareq Tell should be congratulated.

However, there is something seriously amiss with Tell’s analysis. Despite the great care with which Tell uses the objective and neutral scholarly voice in offering his account, something akin to a nativism deflects his analysis, one that echoes the Trans-Jordanian nativism that he attributes to East Bankers when he says, “Trans-Jordanian nativism still looms large in the national imagination of East Bank activists.” Well, it’s not only the national imagination of East Bank activists that is infused with such nativism; it is also perhaps that of East Bank scholars, of the likes of Mr. Tell.

The organizing idea of Tell’s analysis is that Jordan is ruled by a coalition of two political forces whose most distinct quality is their outside status, the Hashemites, a British “imported dynasty”, and what he calls aghrab [strangers]. And who are those aghrab? Well, at first they are described as, “merchants and bureaucrats who filtered into the East Bank during late Ottoman period.” But then, with time they develop into the urban-aghrab defined as “… the descendants of the ‘external elite’ … of Levantine colonial functionaries who collaborated with British rule, as well as the Ammani bourgeoisie that emerged from the waves of migrant and refugee flows into what was once southeast Syria between 1851…and 1991.”  Let us make no mistake; those aghrab may not be confused with the “Jordanians.” Indeed, they are to be contrasted with them—in so far as they belong to the “elite” ruling coalition, Tell proposes that we describe them as “Hashemite [rather] than as Jordanian, clustered around a once-immigrant core whose origins lie in the Hijaz and the urban centers of Greater Syria (Mandatory Palestine in particular).”

But who are the other to those “Hashemite” aghrab? After all, the country is called Jordan, so who has the privilege of being denominated “Jordanian?” Who are the insiders who are being dealt a bad hand by those aghrab clustering around the other aghrab, the Hashemites?

Tell describes them in different ways. Sometimes he calls them “rural East Bankers,” by reference to their economic activity (at least, most recently) combined with their regional location in the East Bank writ large. Other times, they are referred to as the “Trans Jordanian base” of the Hashemites. Yet other times, their victim status is more specifically regionally located in the “East Bank hinterland.”

And what is the nature of the bad deal the insiders are getting from the outsiders? Well, Tell is not short of ways to describe it. One is “… rural East Bankers … had a subaltern role as compared to the bureaucratic and mercantile aghrab clustered in Amman.” Another, “The result was a lasting and entrenched policy bias ….that favored the urban centers of the northwest and the Jordan Valley while neglecting the East Bank hinterlands.” Yet another, “An economic fault line had emerged that ran alongside an older national-regional divide, prominent since mandatory times, between the regime’s rural (or at least once-rural) Trans-Jordanian base, and the urban aghrab.” And in case you still haven’t gotten the point, “they advertized a fissure between the Amman-based elite and the popular base of the monarchy, essentially between the aghrab and once-rural East Bankers now largely transplanted to the military and the bureaucracy.”

At first blush, those claims on Tell’s part are not all that improbable; after all, the “East Bank hinterland” is in a state of rebellion against the ruling monarchy and has been for sometime. Yes, it appears that they are getting a bad deal, but is it really the aghrab that are siphoning off precious resources that should rightfully go to the native hinterlands?  Should one immediately interpret the fact that, historically, Amman has absorbed most of the state’s investment in infrastructure and economic production to be a form of the aghrab hijacking the state and expropriating its resources for their own benefit? What if Amman, in its relationship to its rural environs, is not the exception, but the rule, as such urban to rural patterns of overinvestment to underinvestment seem to hold true in almost every Arab country, as we have been made painfully aware from watching the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria? Frequently, Tell refers to East Bankers as “transplanted peasantry.” What if the vast urbanization of Amman functioned not as a conspiratorial scheme drawing the resources away from the East Bankers to the benefit of the aghrab in Amman, but as the engine the state used to transplant and urbanize the “East Bank peasantry,” whose small agricultural and pastoral economy proved inadequate to sustain them or lift them out of poverty, given the scarcity of rain in Jordan, but especially after the educated children of the peasants (through the implementation of compulsory state education) no longer wished to remain peasants? In other words, what if what moved to Amman was not just investment, but East Bank populations as well, making it the massive urban hub that it is today? In fact, Tell admits just as much when he says that the Hashemites built a Transjordanian base by entering into a “social alliance” with the East Bankers “institutionalized by means of a bloated bureaucracy and an overgrown military… while cementing an authoritarian bargain based on the exchange of political loyalty for public sector jobs and patronage.” It sure does sound like a great deal of state resources were moved to Amman, the capital and the seat of the “bloated bureaucracy and overgrown military,” not to please the agrhab, but the East Bankers themselves!

Tell says nothing as to how exactly the aghrab managed to secure this “policy bias” in their favor and at the cost of East Bankers. Is it that they controlled decision-making positions in the state that allowed them to divert resources to their coffers? If not (and I suspect that Tell is short of evidence to support such a proposition), did the aghrab use East Bank decision-makers as a front for their interests to help them secure this “bias?” Is it that they had the special ear of the king, who consistently made decisions to build up their advantage, even to the disadvantage of the East Bankers? Is it perhaps that the Aghrab controlled the levers of the economy of the state, which they consistently used to pressure the king to submit to their interests? Or is he saying that the Hashemites, being aghrab themselves, have a “thing” for other aghrab, favoring them at every turn, at the expense of the natives?

And how is it that the aghrab managed to preserve this policy bias throughout the shifts of the political economy of the state? Is he saying that they had a prominent position in the economy when it was “dirigiste,” which they were then able to use to secure privileged positions when it turned to neoliberalism? If so, how were they able to do that despite the massive shift in state resources on behalf of East Bankers that occurred as a result of the social alliance mentioned above? Maybe Tell is saying something a little more nuanced than that. Maybe he is saying that an elite aghrab class entered into a partnership with East Bank elites, the latter using their position in the state as decision makers, who promoted their conjoined interests at the cost of the poor of both communities: the East Bank hinterlands and the poor Palestinians living in the camps and East of Amman? If so, then what is the value of insisting on the aghrab as the bad people, without also implicating their East Bank partners? And why not establish in the analysis a homology of victimhood between the hinterlands of Jordan and the refugee camp suburbs of Amman? Or is the fear that if one does so that the whole inside/outside division, that of the aghrab/East Bankers, that is fundamental to Tell’s analysis of the situation, would simply have to be given up?

Still more, is it not equally conceivable that the East Bank state elites, themselves spun into a capitalist class with the neo-liberalizing of the state economy that promoted its own interest, made do without any partnership with the aghrab, and, in fact, in explicit exclusion of them? After all, this is an elite who, having secured for itself the power of the state, were able to transform it into the “goodies” of the economy. Who needs the aghrab when you are so ideally situated? Tell can go ahead and drop the name of Bassem Awadallah, a Palestinian who worked as financial adviser to King Abdullah, and spend precious lines in a short interview discussing Queen Rania (a Palestinian) and her family, and the charges of corruption against them, to suggest the towering presence of Aghrab in the state; but, Awadallah alone can hardly explain an enduring “policy bias” on behalf of the Aghrab, and even Tell himself admits to the tentativeness of the evidence against Queen Rania and her family.

The delineation of the Hashemites as aghrab, along with the Palestinians in Jordan, allows Tell to ignore three towering facts that if recognized would take any bite out of his analysis. The first: the aghrab/East Banker distinction mapping onto an insider/outsider distinction assumes the presence of a national entity that has an organic insider/native, who then is made to suffer the presence and imposition of foreign non-national outsiders. But if the state of Jordan as a national entity was created, as Tell himself describes, through colonial fiat by non-East Bankers (Hashemites, Syrians, immigrant Palestinians) to include them and East Bankers in one national entity, a state called Jordan, and if the presence of these various groupings has continued from the moment of its birth throughout its history, then Jordan as a country is simply unrecognizable without those non-East Banker populations.  They are Jordan, as much as Jordan is them.

Second, Tell ignores the decision by King Abdullah the first to award Jordanian citizenship to the inhabitants of the West Bank in 1949 and to annex it to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan the year after. Attributing the aghrab status to the Hashemites allows Tell, the East Banker, to disavow and dissociate from this decision, as it is one aghrab endowing the status of citizen upon another! Through this double disavowal, both remain aghrab, no matter what, and regardless of the legal niceties of the situation. In fact, this double disavowal allows for a reversal of the meaning of the historic expropriation that has taken place. Instead of Jordan annexing the West Bank to its territory, preempting thereby the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territory that was not under Jewish control in the aftermath of the 1948 war, it was the aghrab who have, in fact, “annexed” the East Bank, creating an everlasting policy bias against the native East Bankers!

Third, the delineation of Amman, where most Palestinians live, as the site of the injustice inflicted on East Bankers, ignores the role that Amman has played as the “melting pot” between East Bankers and West Bankers, through intermarriage and the comingling of accents and identities, and the emergence of a new urbanity in Jordan—an Ammanese urbanity—the history of which defines the very history of the modern state of Jordan.  After all, Amman is the city that staged the transplantation of the peasantry of both communities, as Tareq describes them, and their helped their transformation into an urban population. It is this commingling, intermarriage, and conjoint urbanization, in which an East Banker is not distinguishable from the West Banker, that has forced the Jordanian state, trying to “disengage” from its Palestinian population, to use the family name and the question, “where was your father born?” to create an arbitrary distinction between the two communities, and, in fact, to create them anew as a state policy! Such commingling is only referred to in the most paranoiac fashion in Tell’s analysis. He says “…. both individually and as a group, the 'aghrab’ have long-since forged multifarious links (including financial and marital ties) with elements of the ‘indigenous’ Trans-Jordanian elite.” It is limited to the elites, according to him, and for utilitarian reasons! This is so far from the truth that only an extreme nativist would make such a claim, one for whom contact with the communal other is unusual, unnatural, despoiling, and to be “disengaged” as soon as it takes place!

Towards the very end of the interview, and having repeatedly insisted on the dominant role played by the aghrab in Jordan, Tell calls on historical and anthropological research to be returned “from the hinterlands and used to elucidate the political sociology of the largely Palestinian population of Eastern ‘Greater Amman’ and central Irbid, as well as the political economy of the small enterprise sector that sustains them. Key questions here will concern the factors that kept the vast majority of this group back from the fray during the last two years, and the fate of the traditions of popular resistance that took them into the street so regularly during the 1950s and 1960s.”  Tell wonders why this segment of the Palestinian Jordanian population has not participated in the hirak! Better an afterthought than never! Still, one wonders why Tell wonders of the political absence of this group, having spent his analysis using the axis aghrab/East Banker as the defining one, placing them squarely in the category of the Aghrab! It is only natural that a group absented by analysis would be politically absent. For, after all, how can Tell wonder at their demobilization, when his analysis itself has denied them any sense of entitlement to the state of Jordan per aghrab?

“The dirty secret about Jordan,” an observer noted, “is how it treats its citizens of Palestinian origin.” Through reversing this observation and insisting on the idea of the aghrab mistreating the East Bankers, Tell’s analysis gives legitimacy to the “disengagement” process in Jordan towards its Palestinian population. This is deeply unfortunate, and what it proves in the end is that the real aghrab are East Banker nativists, who insist at every turn, against fact and law, that they are determinedly aghrab to the idea of a state for all its citizens!

[Click here to read the two-part interview this article is in response to. Click here to read the rejoinder by Tariq Tell to this response.]

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