Monday, June 11, 2007

Modernity v. Tradition, Round 1

Hi everyone. My name is Sam. I'm living in Amman for the summer, proofreading grants for an NGO (but mostly reading internet news) and doing research on Jordanian identity in the late 1950s (but mostly trying to figure out what the hell Joe Massad is saying). I studied as part of the UNC program in Amman two summers ago and at the American University in Cairo last fall. I enjoy eating watermelon, visiting roadside watermelon stands, and listening to socially conscious hip hop while eating watermelon.
(seriously, I like visiting roadside watermelon stands)

I should also note that it is with considerable consternation that I post my usual crassness on the same page as Aisha's eloquent prose. If you haven't read her piece yet, read it. If you have, read it again.

Anyway, here goes.

Last Christmas Eve as I wandered the tight side streets of Jebel Amman, I was invited to sit by an old man in a shop-front holding his hands to a space-heater. I obliged. Hunched against the cold, we talked about Amman and the King and life. He fashioned himself the Jordanian Voltaire, reciting long lines of poetry from memory, mixing French, English, and Arabic. At one point, when I noted the prodigious amount of construction being conducted in West Amman, he jokingly claimed that you need a passport to get from East Amman to West Amman.

Indeed, sometimes it feels this way. The car license plates in my neighborhood reveal many Saudi and Kuwaiti residents, here for the summer to, among other things, wear their pristine white thobes and get away from the 110 degree heat (note: this is in early June. Imagine August!)

(in front of Al-Bayt Al-Kuwaiti on my street)

The antiseptic, air-conditioned malls they/I/we visit in the new part of town seem worlds away from the dingy but bustling markets of Wast al-Balad. Some have suggested that the nature of community in these respective areas differs as well. After one cab driver ascertained that we were trying to learn Arabic and living in West Amman, he clucked his tongue. “West Amman very bad for learning Arabic. In West Amman people no talk with each other…they talk on their mobiles alone…they watch satellite alone…they speak English alone. You should come to East Amman to learn Arabic. Very better.”

Which raises an interesting question. Does development necessarily break down community? I don’t know. As Sarah wisely observed, maybe the break down of real communities (that the cab driver posited existed in East Amman) simply gives way to the formation of virtual communities, where people might watch al-Jazeera solitarily but as part of a larger community of solitary al-Jazeera viewers.

For me, these questions are intricately tied up with questions of authenticity, as well. Am I getting the 'true' Arab experience in West Amman? What is the 'true' Arab experience anyway?

A few nights ago the owner of a Syrian restaurant that I went to in hip Shmeisani lamented that business was slow, as only foreigners came to his place to eat, the intricate designs on the walls and 'authentic' meals presumably exemplifying 'real' Arab culture. In contrast, most Jordanian young people headed straight for Burger King, MacDonald’s, and, as they say, Bobeye’s (no p sound in Arabic).

(across from Jordan University, notice the minaret in the distance)

Of course, this is only the case for those who can afford it. Far more expensive and exotic than street food, fast food carries a distinctly different cultural meaning here than in the original fast food nation, assuming the role of a bright, clean, well-staffed place for upper middle class people to eat.

But while I understand this academically, my avoidance of these places is as sure as the King being on the front page of Al-Ra'i every day. Instead, just as all of the starry eyed foreigners visiting the Syrian restaurant, I've sought what I imagine to be "authentic" or "real" Jordanian culture.

This concept, however, is quite limited in and of itself. To divide the complexity of Jordan into clean boxes of tradition and modernity and to pose as the objective arbiter of what constitutes the "real" Jordanian experience is to assume a quasi-colonial epistemological role of power. Besides, it just isn't accurate: such a critical lens ignores what the great Omid Safi calls "the gloriously messy middle where real folks live and breathe." And perhaps most importantly for you, oh dear legions of readers, is that it is to ignore the very real, very meaningful, and very interesting cultural intersections that occur in the space that I crudely compartmentalize as Western and modern.

Although chances are that I won't be offered a stake in a curse-protected buried treasure hunt if I visit McDonald's (as I was last week while in search of the mythic traditional Jordanian experience up in the mountains), I might see something else that is interesting. After all, everyday life isn't divided into boxes of tradition and modernity. It's composed of integration and interaction, conspicuous consumption and, well, not so conspicuous consumption, often right across the street from one another.

(at left, H2. at right, pickup truck full of tomatoes. I bet that H2 cost a lot of tomatoes.)

Understanding this unique cultural space is vital to understanding the complexity and diversity of Jordan and, for that matter, any other country.


Aisha said...

Your “usual crassness” is charmingly poignant - keep on keepin on.

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