The Middle East in Crisis

In the last eight months, the Middle East has undergone some incredible and fundamental changes. And while at this point it is difficult to discern the positive and negative outcomes of these changes, one thing is clear: the region is in a state of crisis, even if in some parts, the times of deep trouble seem to have subsided. After all, as one friend put it, other parts are “in flames.”

But it is not the national or political crisis that I’m interested in discussing. That has been attended to by the media for some time, and I am by no means able to offer anything beyond or equal to the various analyses. Rather, my interest is in the crisis of the Middle Eastern individual, or, differently put, the personal but nonetheless overwhelmingly prevalent crisis that individuals in the Middle East are presently going through.

What is this crisis? Although I haven’t lived in the region for the last fifteen years, I have regularly visited–every year, and at times twice in one year. The transformations that the region has undergone in those years are quite drastic, and are particularly evident to someone who comes only once a year, and so does not see the transformations as they happen, but only witnesses the aftermath. Every time that I’ve returned to Amman, I have been deeply shocked by how different the city appears since the last time I had been there. And when I relate my surprise to the locals, they nod in agreement, in such a way, however, that does not imply collaboration on their part, but rather seems to say that they are–like I am–simply onlookers, as though witnessing the ever-transforming city and its people from a mountain peak.

They also seem to agree on the general causes of these changes, which are many and include everything from war and political instability to the ever-increasing prevalence of western media. The widespread use of satellite television and the internet has brought Hollywood (among others) into every home in the region.

But there is an important difference between watching Hollywood movies, and trying to make one’s own. Ten or fifteen years ago–when satellite tv and the internet were being installed in Jordanian homes–the so-called West was something of a foreigner, entering one’s living room for a few hours, but receding into the background afterward. The situation is different today. The West cannot be said to exist only in those films, magazines and books that are imported from the US or Europe, but has found a home in the local culture as well.

An example: Within the last ten years, in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, there has been an influx of English-language magazines, which look and feel just like a magazine one would pick up in any airport bookshop in Europe. But beyond the cover, there is a small, but significant difference. The magazines are local–composed by local authors, with local models, and the articles concern local issues.

Just ten years ago, the only English language media produced in Jordan was the Jordan Times, the sister to the national Al-Rai’ newspaper. In the last decade, English language media has proliferated to such a large extent that now you can find everything from business journals and fashion magazines, to cooking magazines and political journals in Jordan–all written in English.

Similarly, while fifteen years ago there were few English-language schools in the region (mostly for the children of diplomats), today almost every private school in Amman advertises itself as offering a full curriculum in English. Arabic is offered as one course among others, and is the only course that is not taught in English. In other words, a large portion of Jordanian children are learning to use English as their primary language. It is a telling sign, I think, that yesterday at the pool I overheard two older women using English every other word. This would have been unimaginable ten years ago.

I am told by friends that this is also the case in other parts of the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Lebanon.

Why is this important? I think it shows the degree to which the West, and especially the English language, has become a part of Jordanian society. It shows the extent to which a large minority of Jordanians is interested in European or American style journals and magazines, and willing to pay what, in Jordanian dinars, is a large sum. It also demonstrates the fact that so many Jordanians actually prefer to read and write in English over Arabic. I admit–I am one of them. But ultimately, and this is the point I want to dwell on, it shows that there is a large minority of Arabs who are not entirely at home in their own home, in their own language.

This was not the case–at least from what I could see–fifteen years ago, just before I left. Today, by contrast, it seems to me that many Jordanians suffer from a double identity, inhabit two worlds, which, if not mutually exclusive, nonetheless make demands different enough that they lead to a sense of incongruence or self-contradiction.  Language, of course, indicates a lot more than what appears at the surface.

While psychologists have long recognized this double-identity in children of immigrants as well as in children of diplomats (i.e., in children who grow up between two worlds, two languages), there has been no discussion of the fact that a dual sense of identity can emerge in one’s home country. Just as in the case of immigrant children who grow up between two cultures, so in this instance, one finds that the individual’s relationship to his or her own culture is quite complicated. There is no simple, straight-forward “feeling at home” in one’s home. Instead, the individual appears to develop something like bifocal vision–every aspect or idea, every norm, is considered from two different, often contradictory, perspectives.

I will provide an example as a case in point.

Recently, a friend of mine told me that last year she had been invited to a wedding, which she could not attend as she was out of the country. When she returned from her holiday just two weeks later, she called the bride to congratulate her. To her astonishment, she found out that the couple had split up and was preparing to divorce. This is just two weeks after the wedding. While at first I thought this was a unique situation, the more time I spent in Jordan, the more I realized that it is by no means singular, but seems to express something essential about the way young couples are marrying and divorcing.

There are a lot of ways to explain the rapid increase of divorce in the Middle East, among them, of course, is the education of women, their increased sense of independence, and the fact that they no longer feel the need to receive the financial support of a man. In Jordan, most unmarried women work, and while a large percentage of married women stay at home (especially if they have children, as there is no child support), many do return to work after their children are school-age.

With this heightened sense of independence, comes, of course, a need to also behave and act more independently. But this is where the problem arises. While the individual Jordanian (and here I imply both men and women) has in theory learned some basic western ideals regarding individual freedom and independence, in practice he or she continues to abide by the traditional social norms and ideals. In other words, while the individual speaks in English, he or she still acts in Arabic. And this has, to my mind, lead to some serious problems–divorce being one of them.

The issue of marriage in the Middle East is complicated and difficult. But, to put it simply, the manner in which people marry in Jordan is in deep contradiction to the way an independent individual would choose to marry. I am not making any metaphysical claims about freedom, but only speaking about the ability to choose one’s partner in the way that one sees fit. Importantly, this implies that a person may be able to choose a partner with whom she or he has developed a strong and deep personal connection, rather than on the basis of external factors (such as family pressures, cultural expectations and financial reasons).

While in the past most people were quite content with the traditions involved in marriage, today there is a dissonance between the individual’s self-understanding, and his or her behaviour when it comes to marriage. As one friend put it, in the Middle East it is difficult to navigate the terrain of relationships precisely because of the “bi-cultural expectations.” For the most part, individuals who think of themselves as self-determining continue to abide by the common or traditional laws and restrictions–and, in the case of marriage, there are many of them. This seems to lead to the unhappy consequence.

Why is this the case? Why are those individuals who think of themselves as free, independent, etc., not acting freely and independently? At this time, I can only point to an answer. It is by no means a full explanation, but a first step.

Although it is evident that certain western ideals have become a part of Arab society, especially among the young, these ideals remain incomplete and in some ways superficial (and this may be due to the way in which these ideals have been mediated, i.e. via Hollywood). In other words, while we may consider ourselves to be freer or more independent than our parents, this so-called freedom is only apparent. This is because honesty is missing: honesty with oneself and with others. Thinking one way and acting in another is dishonesty.

Honesty is extremely difficult and requires courage. But lacking honesty, the individual is not free, and neither is society. Freedom or self-determination cannot emerge in a dishonest situation.

And so it appears to me that while individuals may appear to have achieved some freedom through external factors (work, income, education), this freedom remains incomplete so long as we are not thinking clearly and deeply about our ideals, and acting in accordance with them. In other words, the individual’s crisis is not only about inhabiting two different worlds, but also involves a lack of integrity in one’s encounter with and attempt to negotiate between these two worlds.

*With special thanks to ZT for insight and input.



Filed under Culture, Middle East, Social - Political, Travel

22 responses to “The Middle East in Crisis

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  2. Fascinating. I notice we’re still reading/writing between the lines though – is this part of the dual identity of being an American/Australian in Jordan blogging about sensitive cultural issues?

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