Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Really Jordan

My friend Clare and I have been laying the groundwork for some Jordanian high school students to come over here to college. On the principle that the more positive interaction between East and West the better, I still believe in our plan, even though one of the assumptions impelling us has turned out to be false. For one thing, many Jordanian high schoolers don't need our help. In Amman, Jordan has six to eight private high schools, most with church origins but now secular, many offering the International Baccalaureate degree. Their graduates already go on to university in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. Amman also has six or so good private Islamic high schools. Furthermore, King Abdullah has enticed the headmaster of Deerfield Academy, a top American prep school, to Deerfield's new partner school, The King's Academy in Amman. And finally, Amman has some good public high schools. I now realize that Clare and I had succumbed to a bit of a rescue fantasy, whereas in fact Jordan has the best educational system in the Middle East.

There are students in Jordan who could use our help, but we will not be able to help them. Among the million-or-so Iraqi refugees now in Jordan, surely there are teenagers, well-educated back home in Baghdad, who would love to go to college in the United States. Mostly, these young people have no educational future in Jordan, for several reasons. First of all, Jordan, overwhelmed by this latest influx of refugees, will not allow Iraqis into Jordanian public schools. And the security service is cracking down on Iraqi students who have been going to school illegally, sometimes with a school's tacit consent. Furthermore, Jordan has stopped issuing temporary visas to Iraqis and has begun enforcing the monetary penalties on overstaying the old visa's thirty-day limit. Without a valid visa, even a wealthy Iraqi child can no longer attend a private school in Jordan. To meet this crisis, two Virginia missionaries opened a school for Iraqi refugees in Amman. The Grace School could have been a conduit for Clare's and my efforts; however, for reasons unknown (but on which we can speculate) the Jordanian government closed the Grace School in April. Therefore, even before any consideration of the U.S. visa problems Jordanian-Iraqi students would have, Clare and I can not help out with this surely overwhelming need.

The educational situation in Jordan is a paradigm for the country itself. Places are not always what they seem--and especially at first glance to a tourist. On the one hand, with its well-educated and optimistic populace, Jordan should be a good candidate for the western business investment that the Jordanian IWF-ers, in hosting the conference, were hoping to promote. On the other hand, the government of King Abdullah may fall, as some western analysts predict, if and when the U.S. leaves Iraq. In this scenario, the influx of Iraqi refugees, and the Jordanian government's refusal to recognize them as such, are harbingers of upheaval to come.

The Jordanian women of the IWF, like many of their countrymen, want to bring to Jordan not only western business but also western tourists. Again, this is a two-sided situation. On the one hand, Jordan is a haven for tourists: friendly, clean, inexpensive, and full of interesting places to visit that are delightfully uncrowded. A woman can walk around Amman at night and know that she will not be accosted, scammed, cheated, robbed, or mugged. This is the Muslim way of life at its best--zero tolerance for thieves and utmost courtesy for guests. On the other hand, we know that there are fundamentalist jihadists and (potential) suicide bombers in Jordan, in the way that we don't know quite that there are any in the U.S. right now. Less than two years ago, Iraqi refugee jihadists blew themselves up in three of the western chain hotels in Amman: the Radisson, the Days Inn, and the Grand Hyatt, setting for the IWF Conference. Several western embassy and business folk have been murdered in the last few years. Therefore, an American in Jordan, like in Turkey, knows that something happening is all or nothing. This dual consciousness is a strange travelling companion.

There is also the matter of the constitutional monarchy and King Abdullah. The omnipresence of the king's image (photos of him everywhere) seems, on the one hand, to reflect his popularity among his subjects. On the other hand, his government, like so many Middle Eastern bureaucracies, is tainted. One of my new Jordanian acquaintances, referring obliquely to her government's corruption, asked me if there were corrupt officials in America. When I said that "yes, of course, human nature is the same everywhere, and it is the rule of law that helps us deal with it where I live," she was intrigued. Unfamiliar with the process of holding someone accountable, she asked me to go through our justice system step-by-step. My friend's circumlocutory appraisal of her government is borne out by the Jordanian blogosphere, home to comments--sometimes humorous, sometimes grim--about the king's revolving-door and therefore ineffectual cabinet.

While Clare and I were in Jordan, King Abdullah was working, as he had been for some time, on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In fact, just as his country (without oil, or water reserves) is hoping to make its fortune as the regional middle-man, so Abdullah has staked his reputation and clout as peace broker. Since the IWF Conference, much has fallen apart. One minute all is quiet at the Allenby/Hussein Bridge, the major crossing between Jordan and Israel, in the West Bank. When Clare and I were near, Jordanians, with pride, pointed in the bridge's direction. Now, only weeks later, the U.S. State Department has warned Americans to stay away from the bridge. During my stay in Jordan, I wondered, in the back of my mind, if there was something more to King Abdullah's cancellation of a day trip to Ramallah in the West Bank than was reported. The Jordanian Times was torn between two stories: it was the weather; once airborne, the pilot realized the royal helicopter needed repair. Something didn't seem right. But what was I really seeing? Of course, now we know that Palestinian society was disintegrating, and as a consequence the King's day trip was just too dangerous.

The turnaround of Abdullah's helicopter and the turnabout with the Hussein Bridge show that the fortunes of Jordan could go either way, quickly. Thinking particularly of my new friends and acquaintances there, I hope that Jordan can maintain sovereignty and the middle way on which it has embarked. The risk is that Abdullah has staked too much on his relationship with the U.S. Human Rights Watch rumor has it that the new hillside headquarters of the Jordanian secret service is home-away-from-home for the C.I.A. Everything has a price--and our foreign aid budget for Jordan has quintupled over the last few years.

Rumor aside, Abdullah's political stance--moderating, mediating, secular, paying homage to western ways--is perceived as an American one. Abdullah does not seem to be the quintessential Arab his father was. King Hussein knew how to put on a red kaffiyeh and break bread in the eastern desert with his Bedouin constituents. Abdullah is less close to his nomadic roots. Despite the role he has taken on as peace broker, he does not have his father's masterful ability to balance his country between opposing forces. And now that Palestine has fallen apart, what will happen to Abdullah next door? Having stepped forward as a peace broker between his neighbors Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Abdullah is now weaker. Two days ago, the King of Jordan returned from Sharm El Sheik in Egypt much diminished, because Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, at the Sinai conference was unwilling to give Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority what he, presumably with the backing of Abdullah and Hosni Mubarak, came to the Red Sea to ask for. However, one would never know that Jordan's King Abdullah had suffered a setback, for the end of the Egyptian conference was quickly followed by a two-day visit of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Ben Abdul Aziz to Jordan. Hundreds of Jordanians lined the streets of Amman to cheer the royal progress, wave flags, and feast on sheep and camel.

What am I really looking at? Like I said several months ago at the beginning of my blog, in politics I am at best a sceptic and at heart a pessimist. Therefore, I'm going back to Jordan soon, and on to Syria, while I can.

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