Although Jordan has a homogeneous population, society is characterized by overlapping layers of identity. You’ll often come across expressions of religious and social sensibility that sound refreshingly unfamiliar to Western ears.
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Almost Jordan’s entire population is Arab. This is an ethnic term, but also marks a pan-national identity, largely because nation-states are relatively new: many people in Jordan feel a much stronger cultural affinity with Arabs from nearby countries than, say, Britons might feel with Belgians. The bedouin add a deeper layer of meaning by often regarding themselves to be the only true, original Arabs. Jordan has tiny ethnic minorities of Circassians and Chechens (who are Muslim), Armenians (Christian) and Kurds (Muslim) – all of whom are closely bound into Jordanian society – as well as Dom gypsies (also Muslim).
Roughly 92 percent of Jordanians are Sunni Muslim, and the observance of Islam is a central part of daily life for most people across the country. The call to prayer sounds five times a day in every city, town and village. Jordan’s largest religious minority, totalling around six percent, are Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox, but also including Melkite Catholics, Roman Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Maronites and some Protestants (Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and others). There are also small communities of Shia Muslims, Druze and Bahai. Expats aside, there are no Jews in Jordan.
There persists a perceived difference between people whose origins lie in families long resident on the east bank of the River Jordan and people whose families originate on the west bank of the river. All are Jordanian citizens, yet Jordanians of Palestinian origin are estimated to number between half and three-quarters of the total population. Roughly seven percent of people in Jordan are expats, including guest workers – many of them Egyptian, Sri Lankan and Filipino – alongside a sizeable population of Iraqi refugees.
A tribe is an extended grouping of families who cultivate a distinctive tradition of history and folklore (mainly oral) and assert ownership of a particular territory. Not all tribes are desert-dwelling – there are many whose background is rural, and others who have become urbanized. Tribal territories, which predate nation-states, often extend across international borders. Some tribes are made up of clans and branches which have taken on tribe-like status; others have banded together in larger, often pan-national, tribal confederations. All these concepts are rather loose, but for a lot of Jordanians, tribal identity is at least as strong as religious or national identity.
Within tribal identity, many people make a distinction between two broad social traditions. The bedouin originate in families who are current or former desert-dwellers: they may once have been nomadic, but are almost all now settled. Some still live in tents in or near the desert, following traditional lifestyles, but many do not: a police officer in Amman or a marketing executive in Aqaba might be as bedouin as a camel-guide in Wadi Rum. By contrast the fellahin originate from a settled, rural, farming tradition, often in the north and west of Jordan. They frequently have strong historic links – often of family or tribe – to rural communities across the borders in Syria and Palestine.
The next generation
More than a third of Jordanians are under 15. This is one of the best-educated countries in the developing world: almost everyone you meet will be able to hold some sort of conversation in English (and possibly French, Spanish and German too). Students from all income groups and social backgrounds mix freely at the universities, where the traditional emphasis on engineering and the sciences – Jordan is a world leader in medical fields including ophthalmology and cardiology – is giving way to new technology. Aqaba’s Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, backed by Steven Spielberg, is turning out directors and cinematographers of world-class standard. The heritage-style image of Jordan as a nation of simple tent-dwellers, scratching a living from the desert sands, bears little relation to reality.