We’ve been doing a lot of writing in Jordan, but instead of formal papers, our professors have opted to require journal entries. The idea is that we can get at the same sort of analytical ideas that papers would without spending time editing or paying close attention to footnotes. Between all of the travel and reading we’ve been doing, I’ve really appreciated the informal format! The following is a lightly edited version of one of my journals for class.
I had a conversation with Raghda, my host mom, over dinner one night while Robbie and Henrik were eating out. It was the first time I felt like we really got to have a conversation beyond pleasantries. We ended up talking about travel and all of the places that Raghda has been. Apparently when her husband was alive, they travelled quite frequently. She’s been to America multiple times, Australia, much of Europe and of course the Middle East. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that she has family in many of those places; she also explained that her family is the largest Christian family in Jordan, traced back to this region before the advent of Islam. Of course she doesn’t know her whole extended family, but I guess she has tens of thousands of relatives in Jordan and abroad.
I was most interested in the fact that she’s been to Israel. We’d just had Orientation the day that I talked to her, and Israel was pointed out as a clearly touchy subject. She said that she liked going to Israel, though, and that all of the people there were very nice. She said that she thought the government was bad, but governments everywhere are bad, and that’s not the fault of the people. So while some people don’t like Israel (as she alluded vaguely to the serious anti-Israeli sentiment throughout the Middle East), she didn’t have a problem with the people there.
I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Raghda is neither Palestinian nor Muslim, but the terms in which she talked about Israel struck me. So much of politics has to do with relations between groups of people, and if those people haven’t actually met, the terms of the discourse are much more negative. When Jordanians meet Israelis or other Jews, though, their impressions are changed. Safa’a [one of our program coordinators at Amideast] hit this point home for me when she talked about the Jews she met in Europe being “actually quite nice,” as if that was genuinely surprising. I shouldn’t be surprised by that, I guess; I’m sure many Americans think something similar about Arabs (seeing them as terrorists or ungodly or whatever other prejudice they have). Wouldn’t it just be nice if everyone actually met some people from the groups that they were stereotyping and vilifying, though?
I’m pretty sure that that’s a major way to create positive change in political discourse from a seemingly small or insignificant source. Vilifying people is just so much easier if you don’t actually know them. That’s why I’ve heard some gay activists say that coming out is the most important thing they could have done to further LGBTQ rights. It turns “those people” into neighbors, friends, relatives.
This also relates to a problem in American political culture. I read an article in the Economist a couple of years back about the increasing segregation of American communities along political lines. Democrats want to live around other Democrats and Republicans around other Republicans, which leads to less discussion between people of different political affiliations and tends to polarize and intensify political feelings.
I think the same basic thing has happened with Israel in relation to the rest of the Middle East. Jews and Muslims are no longer living in the same communities or having interactions with each other, which means that they can vilify each other on broad religious lines that are not rooted in actual human interaction. The same might be happening with Christians and Muslims in places in the United States. Jordanians don’t seem to have any problem with Christians, since there are plenty of Christians in Jordan, but some Americans in small town Missouri (and elsewhere) who have never met a Muslim or an Arab can vilify Middle Easterners on religious and ethnic lines. Justifying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan no doubt would have been more difficult if the US had significant Iraqi or Afghani populations dispersed throughout the country. Can anyone imagine the US going to war with England? Or with Japan?
There will always be vilification and hatred. I’m not saying that we can ever fully get rid of those things. But I think the more we come into contact with other people and other cultures, the less hatred we’ll see, and the less it will be able to seriously influence political discourse. I think that the sort of thing we’re doing right now might be the best solution. Studying abroad and sister cities type organizations that put communities in contact with one another expose people to other cultures on a personal level. I don’t see how anyone could go through this kind of experience without some sort of changed views on the world or without coming to a better understanding and acceptance of people from other places. I just won’t ever forget how warm and welcoming and loving my host families have been in Morocco and here in Jordan.
I suppose I should also consider Raghda’s views on Israel in the context of some of our class readings. Albert Memmi talks about the Israel-Palestine conflict as a way in which leaders of post-colonial Arab states distract their populations from more important issues. I’m not sure that Memmi applies as well to Jordan as some other states; Jordan has a clear stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict thanks to its large Palestinian population. But he’s touching on a way in which post-colonial states create an oppositional structure of identity that I think does apply to Jordan. When I was reading Jordan’s charter, I got the sense that it was trying to create a narrative in which Jordan had been opposed to the formation of Israel from the start. This is to some extent true, but the narrative of Jordanian opposition to the existence of the state of Israel is somewhat misleading. For one, Raghda’s refusal to vilify the Jewish people defies the attempt to define Jordan in opposition to Israel. Perhaps this form of identity is less applicable to Christians and/or people who have actually met Jews. But it also ignores some periods of Jordan’s history in which Jordan and Israel tried to come to some sort of peaceful understanding. This oppositional identity ignores peaceful interaction and probably also makes such interaction more difficult.