I try to understand Families, Tribes, and the absolute obsession with Date Books, while sitting around watching TV in my hotel room.
I haven’t left the hotel barely in two days. I was working so hard yesterday and today I’ve done nothing but watch DVDs of OZ and read Robert Parker. It’s amazingly nice to take a lazy day for the first time in a long time. I’m hoping to do the same tomorrow and then start traveling again: Yemen, I think, then Kuwait, Dubai. I don’t know. I’m hoping that taking a break will allow some thoughts to form and bubble up in the absence of constant work. I want to get a handle on what are the crucial (and just interesting) stories to do now before the war, and then during the war, and what I’m most interested in is after the war. We kind of know there will be a war. We know what life is like in Baghdad now. We know what it’dll be like during the war’dbombing in Baghdad, protests around the Arab world. But after the war, nobody really has any idea what will happen. Will Iraq explode into civil war, retreat back to dictatorship, blossom in democracy. What will America do, how badly will it piss off the rest of the Arab world. Economically’since most of my stories are supposed to have something to do with money’the story will really be amazing. It won’t be another Afghanistan’destroyed and decades away from being any kind of modern country. Iraq has billions of dollars in oil money, a large number of wealthy ex-patriots, and an entrepreneurial country. So, I think once Saddam is removed and if there is some stability, the country is going to just grow so fast. So, I’m thinking I just want to be in Baghdad for a few months after the war.
Since I haven’t left the hotel today, I don’t have too much to report. But I do want to write about some things I’ve been thinking about. One thing is trying to understand Arab society. There is something that happens every time two Jordanians meet, they immediately establish what they know about each others’d names. So, ‘dOh, you’re last name is Majali, you’re from Salt.’d And then an aside to be’dMajali is a very big family. I met with a Majali, in fact, and he told me himself it’s an important family. ‘dWe signed the peace with Israel,’d meaning some relative, not necessarily a close one, was the Prime Minster when the peace was signed. But anyway, every Jordanian seems to know just from hearing the last name where the person is from. You say, Hi I’m Omer Abu-Wishah. And I say, Abu-Wishah, you’re from Tulkarem. And then they immediately know how rich or powerful or important that family is. Someone told me that one good thing about King Abdullah, the new guy, is that unlike his father he tries to promote people based on merit and not just on what family they come from. But it’s clear that it’s not a true meritocracy here. Being a Majali or a Masri means you have a huge step forward in getting top level government and political jobs. Being from some no name family means you’re probably limited. Then there are tribes. Tribes are bigger than families. A few families form a Ashari (or something like that) and a few Asharis form a tribe. The tribe can be huge. I met a guy who told me his tribe has 6 million people spread all over the Arab world, mostly in Saudi and Iraq, but also in Palestine and Jordan. He said that there is a tribal leader, his is in Baghdad, who has representatives in every country who tell the local tribe members what to do. The guy told me that if someone was in a fight from his tribe there would be no effort to figure out who was right or wrong, he would just side with his tribesman. But he also told me the tribe thing is breaking up. For example, he’da man in his 50s’said that in his grandfather’s day, the tribe would decide who someone could marry based on tribal goals. That was already not the case 30 years ago. And now, more and more Arabs don’t even know what tribe they’re in. He said his own sons don’t know their tribe. ‘dBelieve me, you ask them, they don’t know.’d There still are strong tribes in the south of Jordan, where the Bedouin live. The Bedouin tribes make up the security apparatus of Jordan’the army, the police, the Mukhabarat secret police. King Hussein liked having them in positions of power because each soldier would be loyal to their tribal chief and Hussein was brilliant, by all accounts, at manipulating the tribes so that no single one would get strong enough to have power over him and he kept them fighting each other so that no two or three would unite to overthrow him. People say that Abdullah isn’t as good at manipulating the tribes. He didn’t grow up in Jordan, he grew up in England and the US, and doesn’t have it in his blood like his father did. So, he has given tremendous power to the Mukhabarat because they are better at keeping anyone from having too much power. But they don’t just manipulate the tribes, the keep tabs on everyone, everyone feels afraid of them. They control government and private jobs. They aren’t like Saddam’s forces, they don’t very often torture or kill anyone. But they control everyone’s life by being able to deny them jobs, basically ruin their lives. And they work on families and tribes, too. So, I spoke with one of the leading Islamists in Jordan and he told me that no one in his entire (and big) family is allowed in the army or police, his son-in-law can’t get a job at the university. His brother was denied some jobs, and his brother is a prominent monarchists, but he has a bad brother, so they shut him up.
I interviewed a businessman the other day, from a prominent Palestinian family and a big tribe. He runs a major industrial company here and was one of the first businessmen to work with Israel. It nearly ruined him and his company. His name was put up in all sorts of Islamic centers as a traitor. He started carrying a gun everywhere. He lost hundreds of millions of dollars in business because so many Arab companies refused to work with him. The reason I bring him up is that he represents this other voice I hear all the time here, the opposite of the annoying conspiracy theorist Jihadis. He is desperate for peace. Absolutely desperate, because he knows that once peace with Israel exists, a true peace that includes a solution to the Palestinian issues, he will become rich. His company will grow ten fold. This is something I hear over and over again. That peace will fundamentally change the economies of Jordan and Syria and Lebanon and Israel. These economies are sitting there, stagnating, even in recession, just waiting for a peace that will make so many people rich. First off, there would be direct trade between Israel and Jordan. It’s currently at a shockingly high $100 million, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be ten times that. Then there are joint ventures between Israel and Jordan. This usually refers to the idea that Israel has a lot of companies with ideas and Jordan has a lot of low-wage workers. So, the basic formula is that Israeli companies will invent some product and Jordanians will manufacture it. And then there is all the investment in the region that won’t come until American or European or Japanese firms feel they can trust that the situation is stable enough. Certain sectors, like tourism, are obviously totally affected by the conflicts and instability, but so are every other sector from gravel exporting (big in Jordan) to air conditioner manufacturing to a million other things. My point is that there are a lot of Jordanians and even Syrians and certainly Lebanese who are desperate for peace. Who are the opposite of those angry Jihadi guys. I’ve had many, many conversations with people’dusually they are older, richer, better educated’dwho say that Jordan needs peace with Israel, a true peace, Arabs need it. This businessman I spoke with, he drove me to his private club and we sat with another friend, a Lebanese businessman. They were saying Arabs are simple, but Israelis and Americans think they are complicated. Give them a nice job, give them a sense that things have been handled fairly, and there will be no danger to anyone. Treat them with respect, treat them kindly, and make life better for them, and Americans and Israelis will never have anything to worry about. He kept on saying that Arab moderates will destroy terrorism on their own, the US and Israel don’t need to think about it, but first, the Palestinian-Israeli situation must be resolved. I’ve found that most people I’ve spoken with’deven some of the angry young ones’say they totally accept that Israel isn’t going away, they are totally ready for a two-state solution. I don’t know. It’s so confusing. There are days I think the right-wing Israeli horror is true: that the Palestinians will not rest until every Jew is thrown into the sea. Other days, I think that’s so idiotic and so clearly not true and that a two-state solution, roughly along the ‘d67 borders will be fine with everyone, will bring a true and open peace and that it’s just around the corner.
From the important to the absurd: I’ve noticed something odd. Jordanians are obsessed with date books, schedules. Every company gives everyone these leather-bound (or plastic-bound) date books. They’re very handsome and include a section at the end with all sorts of weights and measures information and maps. The maps never show Israel, just Palestine. I got one from UPS, from an air conditioner manufacturer. I have five. I interviewed a former Prime Minister and he was complaining because he has dozens and dozens. He showed me his desk, it was packed with them. And he was getting super-fancy ones with real leather binding and huge and gold letters. The officials at the Iraqi embassy have let it be known they will not accept bribes at all. But they would love date books, so one fixer is driving around Amman hunting down date books to bring to them. I don’t know what people do with them. They’re too big to carry around easily. I’m just going to give mine away or throw them out. I’d much rather have a palm pilot. I don’t understand this date book thing, but I have the sense that if I did, I would understand Arabs a lot more.