Friday, December 6, 2013

Tribes on Campus

Last week at the University of Jordan, a professor (typically referred to as "doctors" here) was driving on the UJ campus (typically only doctors are allowed to drive on campus) and struck a female student, putting her in critical condition. According to one of my professors at UJ, the student is now in a coma. In the US this would be a terrible tragedy, but after some shows of support for family and possibly a lawsuit, the incident would likely be forgotten. In Jordan it's more complicated, because according to the campus rumor mill the girl and doctor were from different tribes.

I think tribalism is hard for many Americans to understand, and comes with many connotations of barbarism and backwardness. I think this is largely a product of most Americans' backgrounds: at some point your ancestors got off a plane, boat, or walked across the border to the US, and there was no tribe or family system in place to support them. They were forced to start over, and over centuries of upheaval, migration, and expansion to the West, North, etc., so were their ancestors. This stands in sharp contrast to the Middle East and other older societies, which have inhabited the same spaces for thousands of years. One of my Jordanian friends told me his tribe has more than 200,000 members, and that he knows 1500 of them. He can trace their history back to pre-Islamic times; about 2,000 years.

Tribal identity is a salient part of daily life for many Jordanians, but the word "tribe" evokes images in American minds of Lawrence of Arabia, sitting among camels and tents in the desert. Tribal members today, despite what some might imagine, look just like any modern Jordanian, live in cities, and have jobs just like anyone else. The only thing that sets them apart is a fierce family loyalty and a geographic concentration of family members in one area

It's not uncommon to find at the University of Jordan tribal graffiti, like in the picture below. The graffiti says, in English and Arabic "Bani Sakher". Bani Sakher is the name of one of Jordan's largest tribes; according to a friend they comprise 1/6th of the population of Jordan. Historically, the Bani Sakher lived in the area just south of Amman, trading camels to pilgrims on the Haj and occasionally fighting against Napoleon and the Ottoman Empire. They even have their own Wikipedia article, although it doesn't appear to discuss their more recent history.

Bani Sakher graffiti found on the clock tower at the University of Jordan. Rashed is probably the first name of the person who wrote it.
Large families in Jordan often own their own personal building, called a diwan. Diwans are typically used as a meeting point for family members during large events, such as weddings or funerals. I can think of nothing analogous to it in the US. In modern Amman, where familial affiliation is far less important to people, the word is sometimes used commercially in the name of restaurants (one such restaurant is near my house) but there are still active Diwans exclusively used for familial purposes around the country.

Diwan of the Al Abu Hajlah family near the UJ. Arabic students will notice the detached alif-lam, which I was told typically denotes a family name.
In recent years, incidents such as the car accident at the UJ campus have led to outbreaks of intense tribal violence on campus. Inter-tribal violence has hit Balqa Applied University in Salt quite hard this fall, leading to a number of shootings on campus and riots in the University and surrounding communities. Last year, tribal violence hit the University of Jordan, resulting in several fights like the one in the video below, which was between the Beni Sakher and Al-Warikat tribes:



The Jordanian government and Jordanian students themselves seem increasingly invested in putting an end to this type of on-campus violence in the future. Many of my urban Jordanian friends, even those with strong family ties, denounce tribal violence as idiotic. After the car accident at the UJ campus, a friend of mine snapped this picture near the center of campus on Tuesday. Their signs read in Arabic, "A university is not a war zone".


At the end of the day, nothing happened. My professor told me the girls family had forgiven the doctor involved in the accident, and that the doctor had offered to help pay for the medical expenses of the girl.

The Ministry of Higher Education has also signified an increasing willingness to crack down on instigators and participants in campus violence, announcing in May a new plan to provide extra on-campus security and try to adjust social makeups and attitudes at universities. Jordan's government, like any government, has a graveyard of unfulfilled initiatives. But perhaps combined with a shift in attitudes on the part of Jordanian students like what we saw this week, tribal violence in Jordan can be brought to an end.

And lest we get too high on our American horses, let's not forget that while Jordanians may fight for family honor, we fight for cheap TVs.

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