Saturday, March 5, 2011

Is Jordan Next?

To many of my fellow Americans, Jordan is a famous former basketball player or maybe a famous river in the Holy Land. To travelers, Jordan is a country that deserves to be better-known for its natural and cultural treasures. It may now also be a nation at risk.

I refer, of course, to the anti-government protests that have roiled countries in the Muslim world - countries as diverse as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. Media reports say reform-minded demonstrators took to the streets today in the Jordanian capital city Amman to demand, among other things, a constitutional monarchy with King Abdullah II as its titular head in place of the present near-absolute monarchy. The demonstrators - who count among their number the disciplined Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood - are also protesting rising prices, the profound gap between rich and poor and Jordan's reputation for corruption.

So far, the protests have been largely nonviolent, excepting street clashes that injured eight protestors last month. Crowds running in the low thousands have not rivaled in size the massive demonstrations in Cairo's now world-famous Tahrir Square. With discontent rising, and protestors not satisfied with the King's appointment of a new prime minister, that could change.

One can only hope that Jordan is able to manage peaceful, equitable change.

It is an often-beautiful country, rich in Roman, Jewish, British and, of course, Arab history and antiquities. It is also rich in rugged landscapes, some with scriptural associations: the supremely salty Sea of Galilee, the gorgeous Wadi Rum (where much of "Lawrence of Arabia'' was filmed), the beautiful pre-Roman, rose-red lost city of Petra, and the River Jordan itself, smaller and more sluggish than I'd imagined. Also different than what I'd imagined are the country's Palestinian refugee camps; with their two- and three-story concrete buildings topped with protruding rebar, they look like established towns. Everywhere outside the cities are rocks, ravines and lonely country roads. Who, I wondered, during a late-night highway stop in the desert, is the Jordanian Hank Williams? Who captures the loneliness and vastness of this place?

When I visited, in January 2002, there were few Westerners in sight. At a carefully preserved old Crusader fort, a representative of the Jordanian Tourist Board went up to a touring American couple and thanked them for coming; the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were the unspoken subtext.

Only once did I engage in a conversation about Sept. 11; this at a dinner with well-educated, well-spoken Jordanian business executives at an Amman hotel. After a good meal of lamb kebob, hummous, rice and cardamom-tinged coffee, several of my fellow diners allowed the attacks were a terrible thing - and wondered why the Israeli intellience agency Mossad attacked New York and Washington and how they got word to all the Jews who worked at the World Trade Center not to go to work that day. There was no convincing them that did not happen, that Arabs chiefly from Saudi Arabia carried out the attacks.

That's what happens where there is no free press, no unbiased reporting, little public debate or political give and take - and where not enough travelers bring news and beliefs from the wider world. Establishing free media would be a good start for the reformers - which will hopefully include the intelligent, seemingly decent King Abdullah II. Nonviolence and respect for diversity are other things to hope for. If they become everyday realities, maybe more travelers will come to know Jordan.

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