12 May 2007

no one would riot for less.

Driving down to the Dead Sea yesterday, the trip through the quiet desolation of the desert reminded me why, despite a culture antithetical to my core values and a religion to which I've grown increasingly hostile, I was drawn to this region in the first place. Although much of my idealism seems to have gone the way of the Middle East's water supply (after three days of no water at our apartment, there's now a full watermelon on my leaky toilet's seat to remind us not to use it until our landlord "sends someone to fix it." Ha! We're still waiting for the water filter promised on the day we moved in.), this place still fascinates me, albeit in a train wreck sort of way. It's precariously balanced on the cusp between a traditional past and the forces of globalization, and this dichotomy reveals itself in a way unlike any other place I've seen.

Despite the fact that Jordanians drive like over-caffienated, sex-deprived lunatics in the city, every car will always stop to allow a herd of sheep to cross the highway. Camels, sheep, and goats are as familiar a sight as the luxury cars speeding down the road. The Marriott where I work will house the participants for next week's World Economic Forum alongside the family of stray cats roaming the resort grounds. Billboards line the highway down to the Dead Sea, but the dark canvas of the low-slung, makeshift Bedouin tents still dot the desert landscape. While some of those families have forsaken the nomadic lifestyle for more permanently located one within range of the tourist cameras hoping for a glimpse of or a ride on an authentic Arabian camel, the majority go about their lives in virtually the same way as the preceding generations. Sure, they're drinking Coca Cola now, and the kids are often clad in jeans and t-shirts, but they've taken the bits of globalization they like and left the rest. Likewise, parked under the squat, sprawling trees along the highway are cars of families out for a Friday picnic. These same families probably donned their best outfits and crowded into a booth at McDonald's the night before.

Although these superficial elements of soft power may signal a future shift towards western liberal values, there's a darker side to this transitional phase. Little boys wearing jeans, drinking Coke, and playing soccer in the street grow into unemployed shabab squatting in the street, harassing women and smoking for want of anything else to do. Large numbers of disaffected young men with no outlet spells danger for any society, especially one with a historical narrative dominated by dispossession and colonialism (although the Palestinians best embody this attitude, it is by no means unique to their nation). It remains to be seen if Jordan can successfully reconcile its past with its future.

To take George Orwell slightly out of context, "If there is hope, it lies in the proles." The reformist-minded King can't do much if his adoring subjects aren't willing to go along. Case in point - Jordanian Islamic leaders ruled birth control acceptable for family planning/organization, but not pregnancy prevention, in an effort to reduce the country's unsustainable birth rate. It worked, to a point - while some women cut back, others just kept having children in an orderly fashion. The nurse at the Arab Women's Clinic, a European-backed version of Planned Parenthood, has eight children. She's probably not done yet, either. We can't change the world with well-intentioned policies dictated from the top down; someone on the ground has to also be convinced. Despite the best intentions or worst actions of the United States and the west, Arabs are ultimately the stewards of their own destiny. For better or worse, our own future in the West is now tied inextricably to the Middle East, and that is why my curiosity, if not my heart, continues to draw me back to this place despite my deep-rooted frustrations.

PS. I love Sam Harris.

"It is true that there are millions of people whose faith moves them to perform extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. The help rendered to the poor by Christian missionaries in the developing world demonstrates that religious ideas can lead to actions that are both beautiful and necessary. But there are far better reasons for self-sacrifice that those that religion provides. The fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith itself is a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness. It can be quite possible, even reasonable, to risk one's life to save others without believing any incredible ideas about the nature of the universe." - The End of Faith (79)

1 comment:

Christine said...

Great quote!