POPULATION: 4 million
LANGUAGE: Arabic; English
RELIGION: Islam (majority Sunni Muslim)
The land of Jordan lies along an ancient and well-used trade route, making it geographically valuable. Many powers have ruled the land, under many different names. The modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was established on May 25, 1946. The current King Hussein was barely eighteen years old when he took the throne.
Jordan is located on the East Bank of the Jordan River, with the Palestinians as its neighbors on the West Bank. South of the West Bank, Jordan shares a border with Israel. To the north lies Syria, and to the east and south lies Saudi Arabia. Iraq shares a northeastern border with Jordan.
Jordan has three distinct zones: the Jordan River valley, which is green and fertile; mountainous regions in the north and south, which have a cool, Mediterranean climate; and the majority of the country, an arid desert.
Among the 4 million people who live in Jordan, there is an ancient distinction between the people of the desert and the pople of the valley. The desert people are descended from warlike tribes. The valley people are considered more peaceful and more tolerant of other cultures.
The official and most commonly spoken language of Jordan is Arabic. Many Jordanians also speak English. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, arhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are as-salam alaykum (peace be with you), with the reply of walaykum as-salam (and to you peace). The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara .
Common names for boys are Talal, Muhammad, and 'Abdullah. Common names for girls are: Fadwa, Leila, Fatima, and Reem .
Jordanians are very superstitious people. They are firm believers in fate and omens. When someone is sick or injured, it is believed to be the result of rire (jealousy) and hassad (envy). "Coffee ladies" read fortunes in the dregs of a cup of coffee. To ward off the "evil eye," incense is burned, a lamb is offered to the poor, and a blue medallion is worn around the neck.
Jordanian folktales, particularly those of the Bedu (Bedouin), often feature themes of honor, generosity, and hospitality, all considered important Arab attributes. One folk story revolves around the legendary Hatim al-Ta'i, whose name means "generosity." Before Hatim's birth, when his mother was newly married, she dreamt that she was offered a choice: she could either bear ten brave sons or she could have one son, Hatim, who would possess superior generosity. She chose to have Hatim, and indeed he proved to be highly generous.
When Hatim was sent to take the family's camels to pasture, Hatim proudly returned to tell his dismayed father that he had given away every one of the camels, and that this no doubt would bring fame to the family name. This story typifies the importance that Jordanians place on generosity.
More than 90 percent of Jordanians are Sunni Muslim, the majority sect of Islam. The remaining Jordanians belong to a wide range of Muslim and Christian sects. Islam impacts almost every aspect of the lives of Jordanians. There is no such thing as the "separation of church and state" in an Islamic country such as Jordan. Religion plays just as large a part in government as it does in the everyday life of Jordanians.
Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed on Fridays. The main Muslim holidays include: Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year during which everyone fasts from dawn to dusk; Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawoulid An-Nabawi, the Prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid al-Isra wa Al-Miraj, a feast celebrating the nocturnal visit of Muhammad to heaven.
Fixed public holidays in Jordan include the Christian New Year (January 1); Tree Day (January 15); Arab League Day (March 22); Labor Day (May 1); Independence Day (May 25); Arab Renaissance Day (commemorating the Arab Revolt) and Army Day (both on June 10); King Hussein's accession to the throne (August 11); King Hussein's birthday (November 14); and Christmas (December 25).
Weddings are the most important event in a Jordanian's lifetime. The cost of the celebration is second only to that of buying a home. Guest lists can number anywhere from 200 to 2,000 people. Births are also joyfully celebrated, with the mother's family providing the child's first wardrobe and furniture.
The aza, or "condolence period," following a death is a very important ritual in Jordanian society. It is essential to attend the aza of a neighbor or colleague. It is even required of the relative of a neighbor or colleague of a deceased person. During the aza, men and women sit in separate rooms in the house of the deceased and drink black, unsweetened Arabic coffee. For forty days after the death, the aza is reopened every Monday and Thursday at the deceased's home. Jordanians wear black for mourning, contrary to the Islamic custom of wearing white or beige during mourning.
Jordanians are generally introverted and conservative, yet they are extremely hospitable. When invited to a Jordanian home, a guest is expected to bring nothing and eat everything. In personal encounters, Jordanians are formal and polite.
Before 1979, few houses had piped water. Most houses still simply have home storage tanks and rely on water deliveries by truck. Due to a severe water shortage, rationing is in effect.
About 70 percent of Jordanians live in urban areas, most of them in the capital city of Amman (considered one of the cleanest and most efficient cities of the Arab world). Jordan is among the top ten countries of the world in reducing infant mortality, and life expectancies are fairly high: sixty-seven years for men and seventy-one for women.
Because of the difficulty in finding employment in Jordan, particularly for skilled workers, many Jordanians go abroad in search of work. The majority go to the Persian Gulf oil states (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), whose small populations require them to import laborers from neighboring states. Working in the Gulf allows Jordanians to earn steady incomes, a percentage of which they send to family members in Jordan, thus helping the Jordanian economy.
Traditional values are very important to Jordanians. Marriages usually result from family introductions, if not outright matches. Couples are almost never forced to marry against their will, however. Upper-middle-class couples court each other in the Western style.
One out of five marriages ends in divorce, and divorced women rarely remarry because of the stigma attached to them by society. A married woman's primary role is to produce children, preferably sons. A woman with many sons is considered more powerful than a woman with only daughters. The average Jordanian family has seven children, giving Jordan one of the highest birth rates in the world.
Women are guaranteed equal rights in the Jordanian constitution. Religious laws and social custom often undermine this. However, there are a few women in the Jordanian Parliament, suggesting their improved status.
Homes are built so that floors can be added when sons marry. Sons bring their brides home and they raise their family there. Most Jordanians live in three- or fourstory homes containing extended families who eat together. Daughters-in-law are expected to do most of the cooking. Men never cook or do housework.
The Islamic tradition of women covering their faces is currently becoming more popular in Jordan. Everyday Jordanian dress is generally conservative, particularly for women. They are not allowed to wear tight clothes, sleeveless blouses, shorts, short skirts, or low-cut backs on shirts or dresses.
There are basically three styles of clothing for women in Jordan. Westernized women dress in modern Western clothes. Very religious women wear an outfit called the libis shar'i or jilbab. This is a floor-length, long-sleeved, button-front dress worn with the hair covered by a scarf. Stores catering to religious women are common in Jordan. Women from other Muslim countries shop in Jordan for libis shar'i clothing.
The third type of attire is the national costume. This is a handmade dress with embroidered and cross-stitched patterns that represent the region of the country that the wearer comes from. For example, in northern Jordan, women wear black cotton dresses embroidered with multicolored tri-angles. In central Jordan, women wear dresses made from over sixteen yards (sixteen meters) of fabric, with sleeves measuring ten feet (three meters) in length. Blue panels are stitched around the sleeves and the hem of the dress.
Jordanian men dress in Western clothing. Some men wear a Jordanian kaffiyyeh, or scarflike headdress. (The Jordanian kaffiyyeh is red and white, in contrast to the black and white Palestinian kaffiyyeh.) The kaffiyyeh is folded in a triangle and laid over the head. It is secured to the head with a double-coiled rope called an ìgal.
Jordan has one of the world's most elaborate and sophisticated cuisines, mostly taken from its neighbors. Few dishes are unique to Jordan; one unique dish is mansaf, chunks of stewed lamb in a yogurtbased sauce served with rice. Mansaf, also called fatiyyeh, is the traditional Jordanian meal served for special occasions. Kishk is required for the preparation of mansaf. Kishk dough is made of yogurt, salt, and semolina flour. The kishk is shaped into pellets or balls that fit into the palm of the hand, and then allowed to dry and harden. A recipe for mansaf that uses pasta in place of kishk, follows.
Jordanians love sweets and eat lots of them. A favorite kind of sweet is layers of a thin pastry called filo , filled with nuts or creams, similar to baklava .
Jordan is a very well-educated country. It has the highest number of university graduates per person in the Arab world. Its main export is skilled labor and professionals to other Arab countries. At 82 percent (with a target of 92 percent by the year 2000), Jordan also has one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world.
Education is free and required from grades one through ten, and then it continues to be free for another two years. Literacy training is free to all Jordanian residents.
Girls must attend school through the tenth grade and are encouraged to finish secondary and even higher education. More than half of the 20,000 students at the University of Jordan in Amman are women.
Islam teaches that it is unholy to depict the human figure. This has significantly shaped Jordanian art. Western-style fine arts became popular in the late twentieth century as more Jordanians traveled to other countries. Recently, however, there has been a revival of more traditional Jordanian art forms. This is especially true of stylized Islamic calligraphy, or artistic writing.
The traditional dance of Jordan is the dabkeh, a group dance performed by both men and women. Traditional musical instruments include the qassaba and nay, wood-winds; the rababa, a one-stringed instrument; the kamanja, resembling a violin; the ud (lute), with five double strings; the qanun, a long, guitarlike instrument with twenty-six strings; and the daff and durbakkeh, percussion instruments.
Working conditions are regulated by law, including minimum wages, minimum age for employment, vacation, and sick leave. There is no required retirement age. Unions are legal.
Although women are guaranteed equal rights in Jordan's constitution and are just as well-educated as men, women make up only 13 percent of the labor force. This is due primarily to the traditional belief that a woman's job is to marry well and have many children. Unemployment has become a serious problem since about 300,000 workers returned from Kuwait in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). Many Jordanians now take jobs for which they are overqualified, simply to survive.
The most popular sports in Jordan are football (called soccer in America) and basketball. Also enjoyed are horse and camel racing. In the 1950s, car racing was begun as a weekend sport attracting a few spectators. It has since developed into one of Jordan's major sporting events. The royal family strongly supports the car races, with King Hussein himself having raced in the rallies. King Hussein's eldest son, Prince 'Abdullah, also competes in the national rallies. Competitions are international, with most racers representing countries of the Middle East, such as Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
All films in Jordan, both in cinemas and in video form, are censored for kissing and sex scenes. Martial arts and low-grade action movies are popular among Jordanian youth.
Jordan has two domestic television stations. One provides Arabic entertainment and news. The other features foreign-language programming. Jordanians also produce their own television shows. A particular favorite is a soap-opera called a musalsal, that is shown in successive episodes every night.
Jordan receives Arabic radio broadcasts from around the Middle East and also has its own domestic stations. A favorite among young people is the English-language Jordanian station. It plays all of the latest music that is enjoyed in the West. "Radio Monte Carlo" also plays Western music. Jordanians listen more to European music than to American, but American pop star Michael Jackson is a favorite among teenagers.
There are many traditional folk arts and crafts in Jordan, among them pottery, silver and gold jewelry making, glass blowing, and basket weaving. Textile arts are women's crafts, particularly embroidery and cloth weaving. As young girls learn embroidery stitches from older women, they are initiated into the culture.
Jordan's economy is struggling. This is due to a lack of resources, a large foreign debt, and the problems caused by refugees. These refugees arrived after the 1967 war with Israel (in which Jordan lost the West Bank territory) and the Persian Gulf War in 1990–91. Almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty level, and the percentage is increasing. A severe water shortage also causes difficulties in both the public and private sectors.
Attitudes toward mentally and physically disabled people keep them hidden away, thus they do not receive the help they should.
There is an ongoing conflict between the government's desire to maintain ties with Western powers and popular support for the Palestinians and Iraq. Support for the Palestinians is necessary because more than 60 percent of the population is Palestinian.
The country's relationship with Iraq is similarly important to Jordanians. Iraq has been home to thousands of Jordanians and Palestinians. Its oil economy has provided jobs that have been vital to the Jordanian and Palestinian economies. So, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Jordanian government announced its opposition to the invasion, but it refused to participate in the forces organized to reverse the invasion.
Jordanian friendship with both the Palestinians and the Iraqis has led to problems with the United States.
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Stannard, Dorothy, ed. Insight Guides: Jordan . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.