Jordan | The War Next Door

A precarious calm prevails in Amman as the Syrian conflict rages on

Syrian refugees perform an adaptation of The Trojan Women in Amman, highlighting parallels between their fates and those of the women of Troy in the ancient Greek play. muhammad hamed / reuters
01 March, 2014

THE FAMILIAR RHYTHMS of the Jordanian capital, Amman—the rustling of Aleppo pines and pistachio trees, the insouciance of taxi drivers careening down the city’s steep hills while simultaneously sipping coffee and smoking—were stilled in mid-December by a sweep of arctic white. It had been snowing for hours—the heaviest snowfall in decades—bringing the city to a standstill. Outside my window, the Aleppo pines, which grow across the Eastern Mediterranean, had taken on the majestic stature of totem poles in a tundra. The trees were between 100 and 1,000 years old—enough to have witnessed Ottoman rule between 1516 and 1918, the subsequent British mandate, and independence in 1946. Over the centuries, they would have provided timber for aspiring nation-builders, and shade and sanctuary for trade caravans. Today, they are more likely to induce nostalgia among the many refugees Jordan has taken in from Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and, increasingly, Syria, which lies just two hours by highway north of Amman.

I had last been in Amman in 2010, on a trip that took me through Jordan and Syria on the eve of the Arab revolutions and the Syrian civil war. In the four years since, more than 100,000 people have lost their lives in Syria, and over 3 million have become refugees. Jordan has accepted 600,000 of them—a full tenth the number of its own population of 6 million. About 70 percent of the new arrivals are staying with host families and communities across the country, with the remainder in camps. The Jordanian government has given the refugees the same access as its citizens to free healthcare and education, and to food and fuel subsidies. Amman, a city of 3 million people, has taken in 150,000 Syrians, who at first glance were conspicuous by their absence. The city was booming, there was a fancy new airport in the shape of a desert palm, and, except when interrupted by the snow, the restaurants—Blue Fig, Sufra, Café Strada—were always full. Private consumption, according to a 2013 World Bank report, was “buoyant”—as was the mood. Foreign aid for the refugees had, according to the UN, brought in $700 million. A European diplomat I met, when prodded for his analysis on Jordan, responded simply, “chi-ching.”

But, as the same World Bank report stressed, Jordan’s situation is precarious. The refugees cost the country one billion dollars in 2013 alone, outstripping the influx of aid. The land route from Amman to Beirut through Damascus—a major trade channel—is closed, and many of Jordan’s agricultural exports can no longer reach their markets in Lebanon, Turkey and Europe. Syrian refugees are competing with Jordan’s poor for unskilled jobs and driving down wages, even as additional demand from the new arrivals is elevating rents and consumer goods prices. National unemployment stands at 14 percent—38 percent among youth. Jordan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is significantly high, and its budget deficit is immense. Disparities are increasing, and the government has embarked on a series of austerity measures that have sparked unrest, most recently in November, when protests broke out over a rise in fuel prices. The outlook remains bleak even for affluent young Jordanians who have attended universities in the UK and the US. At a pre-Christmas lunch I met Sarah Khatib, a lawyer and recent returnee from London who described herself as a rare breed and talked of the small percentage of her friends in Amman who were young professionals. She remarked that those who returned did so either because they had political aspirations, or possessed the financial resources to start their own businesses. The Syrian refugees, of course, have neither.

Because of the snow, I was unable to meet with Mohammad, a Syrian lawyer who had fled Aleppo in late 2012, but we exchanged a series of emails. Mohammad, who asked that I not use his full name, described his time in Jordan as a period of “waiting for salvation.” He had been unable to find work and wanted to return to Syria, though he held little hope of doing so soon. He left Aleppo after attending the funeral of an anti-regime activist who had been tortured to death at a detention centre run by the government under president Bashar al-Assad. Such funerals were also used as sites of protest, and attendees were often subsequently targeted by the regime’s security forces. Fearing arrest, Mohammad decided to leave the city, where “at any moment a bomb could fall on your home or school or children, out of a cannon or from an aircraft.” He and his family took a taxi west to the Lebanese border, where, having bribed their way through several roadblocks along the route, they could finally “breathe a sigh of relief.” In Beirut, Mohammad said, he found the prices “fictional” compared to his income, and so decided to fly to Amman, where his sister had a vacant apartment.

Mohammad grew up in Medinat Al-Thawra, a town in northern Syria that was once promoted as a model of coexistence between Syria’s three main ethnicities—Sunni, Shi’a Alawites and Christians—but is now the centre of fierce fighting between them. “My mother wants to deny the sectarian nature of the current conflict,” he wrote, “but I emphasise that today the social fabric of Syria is torn completely and violence on a sectarian basis is increasing.” Mohammad explained that, as he saw it, the current revolution has “tragically split Syrian society” into three principal groups: supporters of the Assad regime, mostly the Alawite and Christian minorities, who benefit from the prevailing systems of patronage and corruption; supporters of the revolution, primarily unemployed youth, university students and the country’s Sunni majority; and a vast, silent “neutral party, which tends to support the revolutionary movement in secret,” lives “in fear of arrest and torture,” and agonises over the “futility of the revolution” in the face of ruthless partisan fighting. Mohammad identified with the last group, which in the current chaos of the Middle East has been dubbed the hizb al kanaba—“the sofa party.” Mohammad told me he passed his time in Jordan contributing to political forums on Facebook. He had created separate profiles identifying himself as Sunni, Alawite and Christian, and he wrote and posted poetry in the vernacular of each. He hoped “to address the human conscience” and “to keep open the possibility of reconciliation because in the end, we will all have to live in the same land.”

By late December the snow was finally beginning to melt, and I made my way to a café in Amman’s gallery district to meet Omar Abu Saada, a visiting 34-year-old theatre director from Damascus. Omar had been invited to Amman to direct an adaptation of The Trojan Women, a Greek tragedy written by Euripides in 415 BCE about the suffering of the women of Troy upon its fall to the Greeks. In Omar’s production, which I had seen the previous evening, all the actors were Syrian refugee women who wove the stories of the Trojan women together with their own. On stage, one of the actors remembered the war: “bombing and smoke around us, it was indescribable.” Another shared her “lament over the people we left and lost. My cousin Rassad and my uncle Waheed. Please god, send us good news about them. We are shattered in different countries.” Shattered, not scattered—her Freudian slip.

The longer the war continues, the bleaker the outlook becomes, Omar told me as we sipped coffee, surrounded by shisha-smoking couples and solitary scribblers on their Macs. He wore jeans, sported a stubble, and had the cool demeanour of an artist. Omar teaches drama at the University of Damascus Theatre School, where classes still continue. He did not want to dwell on the conflict. Instead, he spoke of the plays he wanted to stage in Damascus, and said his life continues much as it had before the war. He still walked to the university, from his home in the neighbourhood of Mezzeh to Umayyad Square, across Jawaharlal Nehru Avenue. He had friends who were writing scripts. He was searching for a comedy, he said, since he was tired of how the war had swung all conversation toward tragedy. His parents and most of his friends had left for Cairo or Istanbul in late 2011, just a few months after the government first cracked down on the peaceful demonstrations that started the uprising. Omar had decided to stay. When I asked why, he described how many of his friends had participated in the revolution but left when the bloodletting began. “This is what both sides, the government and the militias, count on,” he said. “That anyone who is independent leaves.” He stressed the importance of having non-aligned voices remain in the country so that the future was not left only to those bearing arms. But such voices—Omar, Mohammad, and others from the “sofa party”—are rarely heard in the media, which prefers protagonists who are either victims or perpetrators.

In Amman, the snow had been replaced by a swirl of Christmas parties. I made my way to one, half sliding and half skiing across streams of ice. The journey lacked the decorum of the party, where the predominant look among the women involved little black dresses, plunging necklines, and long tangles of pearls. The conversation centred on what cocktails could be made to reduce the stockpile of tequila, but there were murmurs about Jordanian politics, the war in Syria and the turmoil in the wider Middle East. The parties, drinks and dancing belied the proximity of the maelstrom. But it was there, rather like the ice lurking beneath the melting snow.