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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Tribal tensions beneath the surface in Jordan

Some of you may recall a post I did in July 2009 about tribal bickering at a soccer game in Jordan between a Jordanian team and a 'Palestinian' team.
Approximately 70% of Jordan's population is 'Palestinian.' The family of King Abdullah (known as the 'Hashemites') is transplanted from the Gulf region. It was 'given' the 'Kingdom' of Jordan (then known as Trans-Jordan) as a consolation prize by the British after losing custodianship over the Islamic holy places in Mecca and Medina to their cousins the al-Faisals (the Saudi royal family). I'll explain that more fully below.

In the meantime, the 'Jordanians' (the King's family? the nomadic Bedouin tribes from the area who never crossed the Jordan River into Israel seeking economic opportunity?) nearly started a brawl at a soccer game over the weekend. The soccer game was between - get this - a 'Jordanian' team and a 'Jordanian - Palestinian' team:
The tensions reached their peak over the weekend when tens of thousands of fans of Jordan's Al-Faisali soccer team chanted slogans condemning Palestinians as traitors and collaborators with Israel. Al-Faisali was playing the rival Wihdat soccer team, made up of Jordanian-Palestinians, in the Jordanian town of Zarqa.

Anti-riot policemen had to interfere to stop the Jordanian fans from lynching the Wihdat team members and their fans, eyewitnesses reported. They said the Jordanian fans of Al-Faisali hurled empty bottles and fireworks at the Palestinian players and their supporters.

Reports in a number of Jordanian newspapers said that the Jordanian fans also chanted anti-Palestinian slogans and cursed Palestine, the PLO, Jerusalem and the Aksa Mosque.
Imagine that? They 'cursed' the 'holy' Aqsa mosque. Well, that ought to tell you that even they know that the mosque was never a Muslim holy site. It was built atop a Jewish holy site to try to vanquish Jewish claims to the site - a pattern Muslims have repeated all over the world (ask the Hindus in India).

What those of you who have not lived in the Middle East may not realize is that the entire concept of a 'Jordanian' or 'Palestinian' is nothing but a fiction. These people are all Arabs from different tribes and families, but essentially ethnically all the same people. They're less different from each other than the Jets are from the Sharks.
That incident was deemed important enough that US charge d'affaires in Amman Lawrence Mandel wrote a cable about it to Washington. Wikileaks released that cable on Monday.
According to the dispatch, written on July 28, 2009, by the US charge d’affaires in Amman, Lawrence Mandel, “Anti-Palestinian hooliganism and slogans denigrating the Palestinian origins of both the Queen and the Crown Prince led to the cancellation of a July 17 soccer game” between two rival teams, one – Faisali – which “is the favored team of tribal East Bankers,” and the other – Wahadat – the “proxy champions” of the Palestinian Jordanians.

Faisali supporters chanted about the Palestinian origins of Queen Rania with the cheer, “Divorce her you father of Hussein, and we’ll marry you to two of ours.”

According to the dispatch, “There is broad recognition throughout Jordan that the Faisali-Wahdat incident exposed the uncomfortable gap between East Bankers and Palestinian-origin Jordanians – one that most would rather keep well-hidden for the sake of political stability.

“The connection between this rift and the Hashemite monarchy, including the newly-appointed Crown Prince, makes the incident even more unsettling.”

The charges d’affaires said that even the “most forthcoming contacts” were reluctant to talk about the issue, “recognizing that it strikes at the core of Jordanian identity politics.”

One source was quoted as saying that non-Palestinian East Bankers are “uncomfortable with the increasing pressures for reform that will inevitably lessen their near-monopoly on political and social power.”

The dispatch said that Jordan’s “self-censoring media” did not deal with the hooliganism at the game, nor tell why the game was called off. Internet news sites, however, were replete with commentary on the game.

Many on the Internet “defended the Faisali supporters as ‘real’ Jordanians fighting against undue Palestinian influence.”

According to the dispatch, “The King’s silence on the game and its political implications is deafening. High level government contacts and members of the diplomatic community are puzzled by the King’s failure to respond to a verbal attack on his family that also dips into Jordanian identity politics.”

While perhaps unintentional, the dispatch read, “The King’s silence has effectively empowered the pro-status quo establishment.”
And of course, the 'pro-status quo establishment' consists of people who will never allow the dispute between Israel and the 'Palestinians' to be resolved unless it means that they can push their entire 'Palestinian' population back across the Jordan River.

What many people outside the region don't appreciate is the extent to which so much of the rivalry here is tribal rather than ethnic or religious. Sure, there are rivalries between Sunnis and Shia, between Christian Copts and Egyptian Muslims, and between Jordanian Bedouin from the royal family and 'Palestinians.' But the entire notion of dividing the Middle East into nation states is an artificial one imposed by the British and the French in the 1920's. The real divisions here are based on tribes and families (even in Israel by the way - although the divisions here are much, much less sharp than in the Arab world). That's the real reason why this region hasn't known peace for the last 100 years. The divisions among the tribes always ensure that there are new things to fight about.

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