Destinations, Middle East

Two Sides of Jordan

February 24, 2009 • By

In some of the countries I visited, it’s hard to get the real story regarding the population, the economy, education and religion.  Below I have given you an overview of Jordan today and also one person’s story of everyday life.  It is impossible for me to confirm the facts in this man’s story so please keep that in mind.

The First Side

Jordan is known as the land of smiles.  There are approximately 6 million people living in Jordan where Arabs make up the majority of the population.  The only mentionable minorities are the Circassians and the Armenians which account from 1-5 percent.  Jordanians are Sunni Muslims similar to Egyptians but Shiites do form a small minority.  The Christians living in Jordan belong in most part to the Greek Orthodox Church.  As Jordan’s location is key to stability in the Middle East, many war victims from Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq find refuge here (making up roughly 1 million).

According to Wikipedia, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a constitutional monarchy with representative government. The reigning monarch is the head of state, the chief executive and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The king exercises his executive authority through the prime ministers and the Council of Ministers, or cabinet. The cabinet, meanwhile, is responsible before the elected House of Deputies which, along with the House of Notables (Senate), constitutes the legislative branch of the government. The judicial branch is an independent branch of the government.

Jordan appears to be a rich country in comparison to the places I stayed in Africa.  Most people maintain jobs and the currency/economy is stable.  Jordanians are educated and most learn English and French.  The rural(desert) and urban areas are immaculate and the people talk openly about family life.  While some of the ethnic groups live in the desert, Jordan’s population centers around the cities of Amman, Aqaba, Irbid, Jaresh and Madaba (Dead Sea).  Many of the shop owners I met served in the army alongside American soldiers and have great respect for the United States.  Here I feel welcome and quite safe.  Most of the population works in real estate or tourism and also textiles.  The United States is one of Jordan’s largest importers of textiles.  While Jordan possesses oil reserves, they import much of their resources from Iraq.  It’s my understanding Jordan works hard at maintaining peace for it’s people.  This often comes with a price.  Neighboring countries and their conflicts often force Jordan’s hand but for now the country is at peace with Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The Second Side

While watching the sunset from my hotel balcony(overlooking Petra), I started conversing with one of the bartenders who I convinced to take multiple pictures of me at sunset.  Incidentally, it was a magnificent, blazing red sunset.   One mocha latte and two Quick hot chocolates later, our idle chitchat turned into a deep discussion where I was literally on the edge of my seat in suspense.  He would not disclose his age but I am guessing he is in his late 40s.  His first wife bore him three boys and after 7 years of marriage they decided to go their separate ways.  In his exact words, ” she wanted to separate and I was ok with it.”  They are not divorced.  Similar to other countries in this region, he maintained custody of the boys.  He then lived with his mother and children for four years before he said he needed to find a wife to “take care of my sons, to take care of me and to take care of the home.”

He talked in great detail about his mother.  She is 70-years-old (and he says very old and tired).  One of three wives,  she bore 12 sons and 3 daughters.  The youngest is 20-years-old and still living in the “big house” as he called it.  I thought this house must be huge to have that many kids in it.  The daughters still care for the mother bringing over food etc. but the “big house” is located next store to this man’s home.  Whenever the family gathers, which I guessed to be  weekly, the children and grandchildren come from near and far to be with the mother.  The father died 12 years ago but he didn’t seem like he was in the picture anyway.  When the mother visits other sons in Amman or Aqaba the family here misses her so much they beg for her to return home.  Her visits away often last two weeks.  One son has a 1.5 year old daughter and apparently grandma is very taken by this child so she likes to stay in Amman.

When it came time to remarry, this man had a difficult time.  You see dating is forbidden in Jordan.  Men and women cannot even meet for coffee.  This is a drastic difference to Egypt where couples openly dated.  In Jordan, people have to meet/date in secret.  His story goes like this….his sister living in Aqaba knew a girl who lived with her family in the house behind the sister.  The sister asked her brother to visit Aqaba to arrange a secret meeting.  He literally sneaked into a house to have coffee with this woman.  After just one hour, my friend said to this woman if you agree, we marry.  It’s my understanding there might have been one additional phone call between the two but nothing more.  It  seems very medieval to me.  He went on to describe how the sister then had to intermediate with the family to arrange for the marriage.  Apparently, the family disapproved of the union.

Married for 7 years, they have two children: a girl and a boy for a total of 5 (first wife).  He says he wished for a daugher and now that she arrived he is done.  (He clearly makes the decisions).  My friend simply raved about his 4-year-old daughter and the importance of family.  He spoke openly about education and it bothered him that he cannot obtain quality high-paying jobs.  Educating his children is paramount but he relies on the government funded education.  Private education would cost anywhere from 25-100JD and he only makes 300JD = $425 USD a month.  The government only charges 2JD for the children to attend school including books but if the books are returned damaged, parents must pay 15JD.  A hefty fee for some.

On his salary, he  supports a family of 5 children and one wife.  I gathered he paid off the first wife at some point.  In addition to working as a bartender the last 17 years, he also creates stone carvings.  He sells his artwork to the local shops in town and as far away as Amman.  The day or two he gets off from work each week he spends strictly with his children.  The only problem occurs when the days do not coincide with a Friday or Saturday(Arab weekend), which breaks his heart.  He spoke affectionately about all of his children and how he takes them out and plays with them.  The oldest son, 17, doesn’t want to hang with dad but as my friend said, ” the children here in Jordan do not leave home until they are married so I am responsible for him.”  I wouldn’t mind having a look at this man’s home, workshop and garden.  It seems to represent a slice of Jordanian life.  He invited me and my mother(who he thinks should definitely visit Jordan) to a family dinner next time I am in town.

Lastly, he told me a story about dating Jordanian style.  He had nothing to gain by telling me and I had nothing to lose by listening but I’m still hoping this is not an everyday occurrence.

A young woman attending university in Amman loved a man and told him she wanted to marry.  The man said if you love me, we will meet and sleep together.  The woman said ok I will do whatever you say.  This woman arranged for her girlfriends to lie to her brothers.  The girls would say they too were traveling to Aqaba (5 hours).  Instead, she was going alone to meet this boy.  The brothers called each of the girlfriends who all said yes they were taking a trip to Aqaba.  In Jordan, brothers are the caretakers and the keepers of the sisters.  They have great control.  It’s scary.  This woman goes to Ababa and meets at this pre-determined location and they have sex.  The man then says, “if you love me, you will have sex with my friend too or I will tell your brothers.”  Essentially, the woman is raped by 1-2  men.  A few months later, the woman finds out she is pregnant.  The brothers force the man to marry their sister.  This is very dishonorable to the family.  Everyone knows the story.  After 6 months, the “father/husband” says he doesn’t want to be married anymore and the brothers says ok.  The brothers then meet their sister for coffee.  They behead her pregnant.  Afterward,  the brothers call the police and admit they killed their sister.  The guilty brother served 7 years.

I struggle with believing this but I’ve heard many stories about men feeling dishonored and beheading women.  In fact,  a man living just outside Buffalo, NY beheaded his wife after she asked for a divorce only a month ago.  They were Pakistani-American.  Who knows?

I missed the bus to Amman.  It must have been the lively conversation.  I’m seeing Little Petra today and going to a sunset BBQ. Off to Amman tomorrow on the 7 am bus.