[This article was written as a rejoinder to Lama Abu Odeh`s response to the author`s interview on the history of state formation in Jordan and regime-society relations in the context of the Arab uprisings. Click here to read Lama Abu Odeh`s response, and click here to read the original interview with Tariq Tell.]
Lama Abu Odeh begins her response to my two-part interview published in Jadaliyya by congratulating me for offering readers an analysis of Jordan’s socio-political “tapestry,” and of the “shifting trajectory of the country’s political economy,” that is “unsparing in it comprehensiveness and unyielding in its attention to detail.” However, she then proceeds to distort the interview into something it most definitely is not: an attempt to portray the East Bank as some kind of bucolic Merrie Trans-Jordan, a communal idyll disrupted by the intrusion of outsiders in the form of exploitative aghrab. In Abu Odeh’s version, my narrative is allegedly “infused” with “something akin to nativism” and disguises a hidden agenda: I want to lump together all Trans-Jordanians into a catch-all category of victimized, rural “insiders,” the better to contrast them with an “other” that on closer inspection turns out to be the Jordanians of Palestinian origin. At one point, Abu Odeh claims that this “othering” is part of the discursive strategy “of an extreme nativist … one for whom contact with communal other is unusual, unnatural, and despoiling.” My aim, according to her, is to “give legitimacy to the disengagement process undergoing in Jordan towards its Palestinian population.”
Abu Odeh is only able to sustain such a reading of my argument by indulging in a veritable litany of error and misrepresentation, with hardly a sentence not willfully misinterpreted, hardly a quote not taken out of context. Thus it is completely untrue that the “organizing idea” of my 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).” Nor is there anything in the interview that supports “the delineation of the Hashemites as ‘aghrab’ along with the Palestinians.” On any halfway charitable reading of the interview, it is clear that I am using the term aghrab as a shorthand (as I was covering a lot of ground in a limited space) for the urban wing of a composite elite that (I argue) is still divided along lines of kinship, ethnicity, and regional origin. When I then speak of an “expanded elite” that emerged from a complicated process of colonial and post-colonial state building, I do not—at any point—maintain that this social force can be collapsed into Hashemites and aghrab. Instead, I argue quite explicitly that this grouping had important Trans-Jordanian elements, all of which were firmly rooted in the rural social structure of the East Bank. These include tribal shaykhs who accumulated large estates by registering communal lands, peasants who grew rich when land prices soared in Amman or Irbid, and a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” that turned administrative position into economic gain. Abu Odeh reveals herself to be well aware of this part of my argument when she quotes me arguing that “. . . 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.”
Abu Odeh extends her cavalier ways with my words to my treatment of the uneven development of the East Bank, the factor that I maintain lies at the root of the current hirak. Moreover, she starts here by taking a quotation out of context: a truncated sentence (i.e., “. . . rural East Bankers . . . had a subaltern role as compared to the bureaucratic and mercantile aghrab clustered in Amman”) is deployed to support the allegation that I consider all Trans-Jordanians (as an undifferentiated, native, quasi-national, rural group) to have had a “bad deal.” In fact, the full quote does not speak of rural East Bankers in general or of their welfare, but of their subordinate role in a specific context: Jordan’s policy-making coalition (though even in this specific context I flag East Bank exceptions). The original sentence reads as follows:
Matters were compounded by the nature of the policy-making coalition that had attached itself to the monarchy during the mandatory period, one in which rural East Bankers (give or take a few wealthy or well connected shaykhs or Palace favorites) had a subaltern role as compared to the bureaucratic and mercantile aghrab clustered in Amman.
Together with my description of the slant of donor interests, such a claim is offered as an explanation (brief but nevertheless based on history and political economy, and definitely not an argument that “the Hashemites being aghrab themselves, have a thing for other aghrab”) for a secular policy bias against the East Bank hinterlands. Crucially, the latter is nowhere a claim about the generalized “victim status” of East Bankers, but one that identifies very clearly those parts of the East Bank that have suffered—and by default, those areas of Amman and its environs, Irbid, and the Jordan Valley, all of which contain considerable numbers of Trans-Jordanians, that have benefited—from the particular pattern of development. Given my earlier recognition of an “extended” elite with prominent, rural, East Bank elements, I can hardly have cast the process as a conspiratorial “aghrab hijacking” that “siphoned” precious resources to Amman.
Had Abu Odeh engaged more productively with this part of my argument instead of misreporting it, she would have recognized that I in fact do “establish in the analysis a homology of victimhood between the hinterlands of Jordan and the refugee camp suburbs of Amman,” at least a “homology” of popular resistance. I say quite clearly in the interview that “there were larger absolute numbers of poor people in eastern Amman and al-Zarqa.” Given the magnitudes involved, this clearly implies that the greater part of poor Jordanians are of Palestinian origin. Certainly, I also argue that the incidence of poverty was greater in the East Bank hinterlands. However, this is because (as I will explain more fully in the next paragraph) I am trying to explain the upsurge of political contention in these areas that carried over into the present hirak. It is thus by no means true that the inhabitants of eastern Amman are “absented by analysis” from my account of popular contention. In fact, I speak very clearly of a “subterranean current of resistance that has proceeded in tandem (and in some cases even preceded) the troubles in the hinterlands.” I also argue that this everyday resistance has involved “subaltern actors from both sides of the communal divide.”
It is important to stress here that it was the emphasis of the interview questions that pushed me to focus on popular resistance among the East Bankers. The questions concerned the current hirak and the key social forces that have taken part in it: the public sector workers, the retired servicemen, and the coordinating committees in the governorates. These have all been predominantly Trans-Jordanian. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has tended to send its East Bank activists to the demonstrations. Abu Odeh does not appear to dispute this part of my account, nor does she contest my claim of a shifting geography of protest that has seen an upsurge in political contention in Jordan’s south: “after all the “East Bank hinterland” is in a state of rebellion against the ruling monarchy and has been for some time. Yes, it appears that they are getting a bad deal.” She should then, presumably, agree that the “refugee camp suburbs,” whether in Amman or elsewhere, have been largely tangential to the current mobilizations. No doubt there are good reasons for this: the heavy hand of regime repression, the possibility that refugee camp residents do not fully identify with the Jordanian state or political system, perhaps even the fact that the small enterprises on which they rely have not been as hard hit as the state sector during the current economic slowdown. I am personally unsure of the reasons for the camps current political quiescence, hence my call for more research in my answer to the last question of the interview.
The highlights and corrections enumerated above cause Abu Odeh’s arguments to quickly unravel, leaving nothing to show that I am fixated on “the axis aghrab/East Bankers” as the defining social divide in modern Jordan. However, her own account of the formation of the Jordanian state and of Amman’s “conjoint urbanization” merits its own critique. While such an account may play nicely in progressive debates on migration or multiculturalism in the metropole, it would strike most progressives in Jordan (whether of East Bank or Palestinian origin) as implicitly advancing a disturbing agenda, even if unintentionally.
Abu Odeh’s formulation, that the “state of Jordan as a national entity, was created through colonial fiat by non-East Bankers (Hashemites, Syrians, immigrant Palestinians)” once again distorts what I say as I give pride of place to the British. Moreover, it looks at state formation/state building from an elite perspective. It ignores the role of East Bank tribesmen in defending Abdullah I from Wahhabi attacks in the first years of the Emirate, the role of the Trans-Jordanian National Congresses (1928-1933) in defining the county’s national identity and setting the parameters of its political field, and the role of the rank and file of the military in sustaining the regime after the British departed. It also slights the contribution of ordinary Palestinians–party activists, workers, administrators, doctors, and educators–to Jordan’s social, economic and political development after 1948.
No doubt it is true that, as Abu Odeh claims, “Jordan per country is simply unrecognizable without those non-East Banker populations.” However, it does not follow that “they are Jordan as much as Jordan is them.” Nor would many people today accept that an externally imposed process of regime formation refutes “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.” Surely she does not mean that Trans-Jordan was an empty plot before Abdullah I arrived from the Hijaz? Or that it was an unpopulated frontier (as Laurence Oliphant argued when he proposed setting up Jewish colonies in the Balqa’ in the 1870s)?
Furthermore, in Abu Odeh’s version of historical change, cities seem to count most. She claims that “it is the emergence of a new urbanity in Jordan–an Ammanese urbanity” that “defines the very history of the modern state of Jordan.” For her “Amman is the city that staged the transplantation of the peasantry of both communities” and catalyzed “their transformation into an urbane population.” There is no place in her account, or so it seems, for the different push factors driving the migration of each of the East Bank rural population and Palestinians (many of whom would become Jordanian citizens) to Amman: uneven economic development in the case of the former and Zionist apartheid in the case of the latter. Nor is there room in this urbane “theatre” of harmonious modernity for the assabiyyas that surface regularly at elections, or (as in the last two months) in violent clan conflict in Eastern Amman, for the communal tensions that regularly appear at Faysali-Wihdat football matches, or for a host of other vertical solidarities that are fed—as I maintain—by regime policies and a rent-saturated political economy. More importantly for present purposes, Abu Odeh’s celebration of “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,” echoes slogans long since deployed to dilute the Palestinians’ right of return (and implicitly to encourage them to settle permanently on the East Bank). King Hussein first launched the idea of the melting pot – announcing that Jordanians were a people “of diverse roots and origins” – in the early 1990s to combat criticisms (made by both Jordanians of Palestinian origin as well as Trans-Jordanians) that the Wadi `Araba Accords had done nothing to promote the return of Palestinian refugees. While celebrating the signature of the accord, Bill Clinton lauded Jordan for “opening its doors” to “millions of [its] Arab brethren,” and pointedly renewed the pledge made by Eisenhower in 1957 to maintain the integrity of the Hashemite regime. Adnan Abu Odeh quite rightly argues that this signaled a “new regional role for Jordan: the incorporation of Palestinian refugees in the country” (the quote is from his Jordanians, Palestinians and the Hashemite Kingdom, p.267).
How Jordan treats its citizens of Palestinian origin may well be “dirty,” but it is hardly a “secret.” I myself speak in the interview of the “deficit of rights … that King Abdullah’s Palestinian subjects labor under in parliamentary life and the military,” and there is in fact a considerable literature on Jordan’s gerrymandered elections, and how they discriminate against the urban centers where Jordanians of Palestinian origin are concentrated. The real secret about Jordan–its contours made clear by reams of well documented material on King Hussein’s covert contacts with Israelis–concerns the Hashemite elite’s intimate relationship with the Jewish state. At the very least, this has eased the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by providing a “safety valve,” in the form of an “open bridges” policy that allowed the “soft transfer” of Palestinians across the Jordan River. This has, in turn, eased the strain of maintaining Israel’s hold on the West Bank, and created the demographic basis for a Palestinian majority on the East. The WikiLeaks revelations have brought to light a further twist: some of those who have preached the doctrine of Huquq Manqusa most assiduously have been willing to forego the right to return to Palestine in exchange for a larger share (muhassassah) of power in the Jordanian state (or as Adnan Abu Odeh would have it, the Hashemite Kingdom). In espousing the myth of the “Ammanese melting pot,” while attempting to delegitimize “nativist” claims that Jordan has its own “organic natives/insiders,” Lama Abu Odeh is in danger of aligning herself with this group. An apparently radical critique (that is in fact a misreading) of my interview could end up unintentionally serving a covert Zionism, one that has almost emptied Palestine of its original inhabitants, and now seeks to keep Israel “Jewish” by managing their permanent settlement on the East
[Click here to read the original interview conducted with Tariq Tell. Click here to read the response by Lama Abu Odeh to the interview, for which this current article serves as a rejoinder.]