“Everything is so expensive. The salaries are so low. We can’t live with dignity here.”
A Jordanian friend said this at dinner yesterday about life in Amman. She was talking about some of the reasons for her upcoming move to Saudi Arabia–a nation where women cannot drive, must remain covered in public, and where they cannot freely roam without accompaniment by a man. She will forgo the freedoms (I will, for now, ignore the slight irony in my use of that word in description of Jordan) of her home country in light of a more prosperous economy and the hope of a more comfortable life. The conversation came at an apropos time, the past three days protests have been breaking out all over Jordan in response to the government’s announcement that fuel subsidies will be removed. Gas for heating and cooking is considerably more expensive now, nearly double what it was, just in time for the cold winter months. In response, thousands of protesters took to the streets all over Jordan–the most prominent of rallies took place on Friday in downtown Amman, where 5,000 people came to peacefully protest the new measures. The rallies, the sporadic violence, the open criticism of the king, is unprecedented here. Jordan is known for being a peaceful nation untouched by the revolutionizing metamorphoses that shook many long-standing governments in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of the Arab Spring, a sort of kind and welcoming halfway house in a “bad neighborhood.” Everyone is on edge, clinging to their own hopes that everything will be fine as it usually is, as it probably will be, but still wondering–is this how it started in Syria? Is this what it felt like? Can the anger of Jordanian citizens in a downwards spiraling economy be tempered?
Meanwhile, news from just a hundred miles away, in Gaza, has dampened nearly every conversation. We were told to avoid going out on Friday and, as a result, spent almost the entire day camped out in my living room watching the news and reading twitter updates. It was a strange day–four of us very aware of what was happening, attempting to lighten the mood by making guacamole and painting our nails, but unable to avoid talking about Gaza and why, four years later, this is happening again. I had, as I think all of us did, a very visceral reaction to the whole thing that is only somewhat starting to fade. It was like deep tugging on my heart, a sort of constant anxiety that if I didn’t try and curb by clinging to my friends would bubble up to my throat, manifested in platitudes about the unimaginable plight of Gazans, and the entire strangeness of living in the Middle East while this is happening. Because actually, if I feel this unease during a few downtown protests–comfortably living in Amman, my expenses paid for by a government which at the first sign of trouble would fly all of us out of harm’s way–I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in the Gaza Strip. Or to be in Tel Aviv. I’m trying to find a neat way to wrap this up, but I’m struggling. I think things in Jordan will be fine. I don’t think any violence is imminent, or that the king’s regime is in danger of falling. I don’t know what will happen over the coming weeks in Gaza, how many more Palestinians and Israelis will lose their lives. Aside from all the politics, deep-seated hatred fueled by religion, and the myriad of other factors that further complicate and make improbable the possibility of a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict–this is what we cannot lose sight of: that the loss of innocent human life is tragic, it is nonsensical, and it should cause all of us, regardless of our political position on the matter, to take a small moment and grieve for the lives curtailed, left sadly unfinished for reasons we cannot fathom. In the words of author David Levithan, “what separates us from the animals, what separates us from the chaos, is our ability to mourn people we’ve never met.”
10-month-old Hanen Tafesh, killed on Friday. Majdi Fathi / APA images