Cultural shift in Jordan

A slow awakening

What is causing the generational conflict in Amman? Two poles are currently in the process of emerging, pitting a new independent cultural identity against a politicised rural and Bedouin one. By Yazan Ashqar

In recent years, Jordan has been shifting steadily towards its own ʹawakeningʹ. National institutions are constantly being questioned by Jordanian youths and changing values are caught between two contradictions: firstly, a daily political/economic reality that affects culture, education, family relations, not to mention the dynamics between young people and urban life, and secondly, the media representation of the cultural values of young people.

The influx of refugees following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011 has affected Jordanʹs economic, political, social and cultural landscapes. Sure enough, diversity is promoting a healthier environment of cultural exchange and dialogue in Amman. Yet the country is also plagued by stagnating state reforms, governmental mismanagement and corruption, as well as reduced regional aid, all of which places a burden on Jordanʹs infrastructure.

Two generational cultural conflicts

Under these contradictions, two generational cultural conflicts are currently emerging in Amman, pitting a new independent cultural identity against a politicised rural and Bedouin one. Dr. Aseel Sawalha argues that the conflict is also a political one. Dr. Sawalha is a Jordanian researcher who is currently researching this identity and the desire for more individual freedom.

This generational ʹshifting of valuesʹ is projected not just onto one sector of the Jordanian society, but onto society as a whole, even if such a suggested grouping implies some sort of unity. On the contrary, however, the concept of a culturally-unified Jordanian society doesnʹt exist, but is merely the image propagated by national and official media.

Female activists in Amman demonstrate for the abolition of Paragraph 308 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Younger generation boosts womenʹs rights: last year, the Jordanian parliament abolished a controversial law, which had allowed rapists to go unpunished if they agreed to marry their victims. The paragraph – Article 308 – was finally deleted in August 2017 during a programme of penal reform. Young women had been fighting for the abolition of Article 308 for years

Zoom in and you will find many complex and interrelated sets of norms, traditions and cultural values that cut across the many socio-economic divides. In this regard, any talk about a generational cultural conflict should necessarily take this reality into consideration.

Exposure to western lifestyle and cultural values, mediated by large viewership of foreign film and TV productions, as well as the Internet – and more recently the rising number of foreign expats residing in Amman and their various methods of interactions with the local youth (in jobs made possible by NGOs, and also in cultural neighbourhoods such as Jabal Al-Lweibdeh and Jabal Amman) – are all helping to trigger a cultural shift in values where it is economically and culturally viable to do so.

Young people seeking independence

Although the family-centred society is still largely intact, just like almost anywhere in the Middle East, it is facing objections from a large sector of Ammani youth seeking a greater sense of individuality, privacy, freedom of cultural and political expression, living independently, postponing marriage – and creating and subscribing to subcultures. Nor should it be forgotten that well educated young men and women often regard marriage itself as an easy way of escaping the familyʹs clutches.

Although a lot of young people are seeking more individualism and private accommodation, the tough cultural and economic realities in Jordan are a major obstacle. Young men are still expected to obtain a university degree, find stable employment, save money, get married and start a family, ʹopen a houseʹ and lead a ʹnormal lifeʹ as dictated by society.

Men and women alike are expected to remain living in their family homes until either is married. Culturally, for most parents of the older generation, itʹs not even comprehensible why a young person would want to live alone independently, even after graduation. If this is hard for young men, it is nearly impossible for single females to live alone independently, with some few exceptions such as pursuing a degree in a university in another city, where females generally live in student housing with strict rules applied, or if they happen to be a single mother with kids.

Stark economic reality

Even if cultural barriers are non-existent, there is still an economic hurdle to be overcome. The cost of living in Amman is expensive – the current CPI sits at 120, according to statistics from TradingEconomics.com. Whatʹs more, young people are finding it increasingly difficult to find a job after graduation. According to Jordanʹs department of statistics, unemployment rates reached 18 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (13.4 % for males, 33.4% for females).

Even if a new graduate is lucky enough to land a job, the chances of starting with a decent salary, which offers a reasonable standard of living or, at the very least, annual salary increases, are slim.

Naqsh cultural cafe (photo: Hakim Khatib/MPC Journal)
A green oasis and meeting point for the younger generation in the heart of Amman: cultural cafes such as "Naqsh" in downtown Amman are just one example of innovative grassroots projects that promote cultural dialogue between East and West

For many years, Amman and its middle classes lacked representation in the media. This was partly due to the deterioration in quality of national television productions from the 1990s onwards and partly owing to the low importance attached to the capital and the Jordanian middle-class culture, as the state chose to focus on representing Bedouin tribal cultures.

The under-representation of middle-class culture was evident everywhere: in local television programmes, fictional TV series and even in local newspapers. The private sector tried to intervene, and the single most successful attempt was the establishment of "Roya TV” in 2011 by a local Jordanian investor. Its daily programming, and various series such as Caravan; a youth talk show, and the comedy series Female, mainly focussed on the one thing that was lacking; the social and cultural life of the Ammani middle class and its youth. Roya TV has thankfully gone some way to redressing the balance.

With almost everything centralised in Amman, the changing of cultural values is more likely to be fast-paced there. There are far more cultural events and activities happening on an almost daily basis in Amman than ever before.

Individuality and the shifting of values is generally expressed through cultural activities. The arts and culture scene in Amman is flourishing more than ever. More independent art spaces, galleries, hubs, and cultural cafes are opening, financed by individuals or organisations. Cultural initiatives such as book-reading clubs are opening in numbers all over Jordan, and events such as rock and hip hop live music from regionally famous local artist bands are a regular thing now. This high exposure to international arts and cultural events, including art exhibitions, a design week which just completed its second annual run, film festivals and screenings, talks and panels, and other arts and culture forms, and the interaction with expats all help in facilitating this shifting of values.

The explosion of cultural activities in Amman implies a sense of hope in the midst of all these difficulties. While the previous generation is smeared by political defeat, large parts of the newer generations, politicised or not, are realising that the only way to move forward is to really just move beyond traditional cultural and political values. But faced with some harsh economic realities, it is not going to be easy.

Yazan Ashqar

© Goethe Institut Cairo / "Perspectives" 2018

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