Thaddeus Bell graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2012. Originally from Nyack, New York, he spent the spring 2011 semester in Amman, Jordan, where he wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network.
Though experts have been careful to point out that each set of popular protests has arisen in its own circumstances, at this point it is quite clear that the protests which have broken out in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere are not just protests which coincidentally arose simultaneously. The connectedness is clear, even if it is as simple as the fact that potential protesters in Egypt knew that protesters in Tunisia had successfully toppled their president. Since the middle of the past decade, Egypt had been experiencing a wave of protests, but these protests were fairly small, not nearly large enough to remove Hosni Mubarak from power. After January 14th, a powerful example of the potential strength on popular revolt was sitting in a Jedda hotel room: Tunisian ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, forced out of office by the force of street protests and the impression they placed on Tunisia's military establishment.
Since Mubarak's resignation on February 11, there have been two examples, and many Arab countries have experienced protests calling for the end of their autocratic regimes. An obvious, but under-discussed point, is the fact that the protests have been almost exclusively in Arab countries. The lesson which has apparently been drawn from Egypt and Tunisia is not that autocrats can be forced out of office, but rather that Arab autocrats can. Both the media narrative and the spread of significant protests support that message.
Much has been made of the impact of the media in the success and spread of protests throughout the Arab World this winter. In the United States, these discussions have focused on Twitter, Facebook, and Al-Jazeera. I don't know anyone with a Twitter account, and I only use my Facebook account to comment on my friends' witty status updates, so I cannot say much about the impact of either on the protests and revolutions of 2011. Basically, their impacts probably have been exaggerated, especially because journalists use Twitter much more than the average person in any country, even more so in a country like Egypt where internet penetration is less than 10%.
The interconnectedness of Arab media may be a broader story left out of most American analysis over the past month. I have been living in Amman, Jordan for the past three weeks, and one of the most noticeable differences between the United States and Jordan is that there is just so much more television in Jordan. Restaurants, cell-phone stores, carpentry workshops, and otherwise empty storefronts all are very likely to have a television on at any hour of the day. As I arrived in Jordan just two weeks after Ben Ali fled Tunisia, most of the televisions have been tuned in to news channels – Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Jordanian news, or one of a large number of news channels that I can't recognize.
Televisions are ubiquitous, and their programming is international. The range of culture available in many other countries is something that is difficult to appreciate in the United States. Mostly because the United States is an enormous, wealthy country with a major film and television industry in Hollywood, Americans are just not exposed to very much foreign cultural output.
Jordan (and I expect, the rest of the Arab World, to varying extents) couldn't be more different in this respect. Because Jordan is a fairly small country, with a small television industry, most of the hundreds of channels available via satellite are imported from across the Arab World. News, sports, sitcoms, dramas, and documentaries are available from many different Arab countries. When it comes to watching, the Arab countries constitute a shared media space.
The game show Arabs' Got Talent is a clear example of that shared media space. Filmed in Beirut and broadcast on Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center, which is headquartered in Dubai (and which also owns the news channel Al-Arabiya), the show features contestants who compete for a cash prize. This show is based on the format established by Britain's Got Talent, and it is notable that “Arabs” replaces “Britain” or “America” in the Arabic-language version of the internationally popular franchise. Each contestant is noted by his or her country, be it Palestine or Morocco, but the show is ultimately about Arabs and for Arabs, which the audience sees as a reasonable demarcation of a talent-pool.
What does this have to do with revolution? I have only been in the Middle East for a few weeks, but I think it is very much worth noting that the successes of protests in Tunisia and then in Egypt have inspired protests elsewhere in the Arab World, and not very much elsewhere. I think it has something to do with the centuries of Arab culture, compared to the few decades of today's state boundaries. At the present moment, I think the shared media across the Arab World, particularly television, helps to sustain the sentiment of Arab unity which has allowed Arab protesters to be inspired by the successes in Tunisia and Egypt.
COMMENT FROM PROF. SAMER SHEHATA - April 3, 2011
Thaddeus’s insightful essay captures something very important about the uprisings and revolutions taking place in the Arab world: their Arab regional dimension. The Arab world is a
regional sub-system: that is, a set of countries that make up a region within the international system which are more closely connected than simply being neighbors or sharing land borders. There are obvious and not so obvious connections – dense connections – between people and governments in the Arab world. People in the Arab world are connected by language (despite the different dialects) and a common (often real, sometimes imagined) history and culture. Moreover, the Arab world shares the fact that the majority of its residents are Muslim and Islam forms a common background cultural heritage (despite the fact that the region is diverse in terms of religion encompassing Christianity, Judaism and other
There is also a common Arab public sphere in which people in Morocco and Mauritania (on the Atlantic coast) can watch the same television (news and entertainment) as people in Syria
and Kuwait, thousands of miles and a different continent away.
There are also formal political ties between these countries – the Arab League, founded in 1945, for example which includes all Arab states and the Gulf Cooperation Council which includes six Arab Gulf states.
Thaddeus writes that “Because Jordan is a fairly small country, with a small television industry, most of the hundreds of channels available via satellite are imported from across the Arab World. News, sports, sitcoms, dramas, and
documentaries are available from many different Arab countries. When it comes to watching, the Arab countries constitute a shared media space. “This is another indication
of what I call a common Arab public sphere. Jordanians can watch and understand an Egyptian sit-com and Algerians can watch and understand a news program broadcast from Dubai or Doha, Qatar. There is to a large extent a common Arab public sphere with a number of television channels playing an especially important role, particularly Al Jazeera followed by Al Arabayya. Thaddeus calls this – rightly – “a shared media space.”
This common regional system – and the fact that the connections between the “Arab world” are quite dense (where people identify and empathize with people in other Arab countries) is one of the reasons that the protests have had more of an impact inside the Arab world and less so in countries such as Iran (within the Middle East, bit not Arab).
Thaddeus is completely correct when he writes: “I think it has something to do with the centuries of Arab culture, compared to the few decades of today's state boundaries. At the present moment, I think the shared media across the Arab World, particularly television, helps to sustain the sentiment of Arab unity which has allowed Arab protesters to be inspired by the successes in Tunisia and Egypt.” Rather than thinking of state boundaries as being artificial, however, perhaps we can think about people in the Arab world (and elsewhere) having
multiple and overlapping identities: they can be Jordanian and Arab, Muslim and Sunni for example.
COMMENT FROM TIARE DUNLAP - MAY 9, 2011
I am really struck by Thad's point about the role of social media having been overemphasized in recent strides towards youth supported political revolutions. Although it certainly makes for attractive headlines, the dream of the countless hours our generation spends facebooking resulting in significant political change is still a far cry from reality. I shudder to think that Twitter will be remembered as our Woodstock.
April 25, 2011
Standing in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, I felt more Christian than I had ever felt since leaving home four years ago. The church was not the Wailing Wall, and it was not the Temple Mount; although I don't consider myself a member of any one of the three great religions who stake a claim on Jerusalem, standing within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the most important Christian churches in the world, it was clear that I belonged at this site, unlike my outsider status at the Muslim and Jewish sites I had recently visited. Perhaps there's something to the Middle Eastern conception of religion.
Growing up in the United States, and particularly in the liberal New York suburb where I spent most of my childhood, religious identity was a matter of faith; if you believed in the major points of a given religion, then you could claim membership in that religion. As simple as that. As much as religion is something that most American parents impose on their children, the assumption about religion in America is that if someone asks you your religion, then it's possible to respond by saying you have no religion. In the Middle East, or at least in Jordan, that response doesn't even make much sense.
In Jordan, religion is much more of an inherited identity, one which is more similar to the American conception of ethnicity than that of religion. Whereas in America religion is a private matter, which someone is unlikely to ask you about, religion in Jordan is a question of official status. Many people publicly display their religion; as much as half of the population might be giving a definite indication of their religion (Muslim or Christian) just by wearing a hijab, Christian cross, or other clearly Islamic clothing. While this type of public demonstration of religion exists in the United States, it is the exception rather than the norm.
If your religion is not instantly identifiable by your appearance, there are many other markers for religion. Many first names and family names are either Christian or Muslim, as are certain hometowns. All of these factors contribute to religion as a public identity, in contrast with the prevailing American view of religion as mostly a matter of private faith.
Religion is even present on government-issued identification cards. One of my Jordanian friends, who would probably call himself agnostic in America, was surprised to hear that my New York driver's license had no religious identification on it. As certain Jordanian laws apply differently to different religions (particularly Muslims versus non-Muslims), it is necessary for the government to know what religion someone is a member of.
Back in America, I would usually consider myself an agnostic or an atheist, which is why I was surprised by my reaction to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I came to Jerusalem as a tourist more interested in the contemporary politics of the city than its religious significance. But Jerusalem, like Jordan, is organized by religion. Being in Jerusalem, my heritage and culture placed me in the category of Christian, in a way that had nothing to do with faith. At the Muslim Temple Mount and the Jewish Wailing Wall, I was a visitor at someone else's holy place. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and at other Christian sites throughout Jordan and Israel-Palestine, I am at home in the place of “my people,” regardless of how I feel about the religious significance of the site.
July 25, 2011
In Jordan, the vast majority of the population is considered Arab. Unlike the Gulf states, there are no masses of foreign workers brought in from abroad to work in technical positions or manual labor. Nor do Arabs in Jordan share the land with another historical population, like the Kurds of Iraq and Syria or the Berbers of Arab North Africa. Jordan has some South Asian maids and Western expatriate professionals, but both communities are very small and incidental to the make-up of the broader Jordanian population.
Despite the appearance of ethnic and racial homogeneity, Jordan's population contains numerous cleavages. Most prominent is the division between East-Banker Jordanians, who trace their roots to within Jordan's present borders, and Palestinian-Jordanians who trace their roots to neighboring Palestine. Although Palestinians are a slim majority of Jordan's population, and constitute much of the dominant business class, the government and military are dominated by East-Banker Jordanians. Palestinian activism has long been considered a threat to the Jordanian state, and it led to civil war in 1970. The ethnic dynamic in Jordan is often simplified as tension between East-Bankers and Palestinians, as though those two categories are free from internal divisions.
Living in the Jordanian town of Ghor al-Mazra this summer, I have had an opportunity to see some of the nuances within the Jordanian population. The Ghor region, which stretches along the border between Jordan and Israel/Palestine, is populated by a Black Arab population not present in the rest of Jordan. Their ancestry is unclear, but they appear to be the descendants of slaves brought to the Middle East centuries ago.
When I travel out of the Ghor to the regional capital of Kerak or the national capital of Amman, conversations about my work usually follow a similar arc: when someone hears that I work in the Ghor, they are usually surprised, and express concern or confusion that I would choose to live there. Granted, the Ghor is very hot and can be uncomfortable during the summer, but I also have heard a number of jokes about how it's odd that I'm living in the Ghor, considering my white skin. Sometimes, people in Kerak or Amman ask me whether it's even possible to teach “these people” anything. The tone of these conversations impress upon me the Ghor's reputation as a backward area with ignorant or immoral people, a stereotype which I believe is compounded by the visibly darker skin. For better or worse, the Ghoranis (as residents of the Ghor are called) generally stand out among other Jordanians, allowing generalizations to stick more easily.
Although they look different from the majority of Jordanians, the residents of Ghor al-Mazraa consider themselves primarily Jordanian and Arab. The main minority identity they acknowledge is a regional one: they recognize the unique characteristics of the Ghor region, which has hotter, drier climate than the neighboring highlands, along with a different economy based on irrigated vegetable agriculture. However, this regional distinction parallels the racial divisions within this part of Jordan, so when someone refers to Ghoranis, there often seems to be a racial subtext. Other Jordanians also sometimes use racial slurs to refer to the Black Arabs of the Ghor, which belies the apparent unity of East-Bank Jordanians.
Given that Black Arabs are a visible minority, it is interesting that they don't consider themselves to have roots any different from other Jordanians. I am reluctant to ask my co-workers and students about their race, but I have learned that the Ghoranis say that their skin is darker just because the Ghor is much hotter than most other places in Jordan. Ghoranis form a fairly clearly defined minority, and there certainly seems to be a racial basis for the formation of the clear minority, but at the same time Ghoranis contain considerable variation in appearances. Like some African-Americans, some Ghoranis are actually quite fair-skinned and might not always be identified as Ghoranis if they were in another part of Jordan.
I'm not fluent in Arabic, so it's difficult for me to understand the dynamics of the society I'm immersed in. Jordan contains many different tribes, refugee populations, and regional minorities, like the Ghoranis. Also, written accounts of Jordan's diversity are not widely available, and it is almost impossible to find anything written about Black Jordanians. This paucity of information may be partly due to the lack of an audience, but it is also true that the government is keen to present Jordan as a unified, relatively homogenous state, given Jordan's newness and its history of civil strife. The government discourages discussion of Jordan's minority identities, which they see as threats to the development of Jordan as a unified nation-state with a common national identity and narrative.