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Nationalist Voices in Jordan

Nationalist Voices in Jordan
The Street and the State

How the “Arab street” helped forge the national identity of Jordan.

April 2005
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304 pages | 6 x 9 |

According to conventional wisdom, the national identity of the Jordanian state was defined by the ruling Hashemite family, which has governed the country since the 1920s. But this view overlooks the significant role that the "Arab street"—in this case, ordinary Jordanians and Palestinians—played and continues to play in defining national identity in Jordan and the Fertile Crescent as a whole. Indeed, as this pathfinding study makes clear, "the street" no less than the state has been a major actor in the process of nation building in the Middle East during and after the colonial era.

In this book, Betty Anderson examines the activities of the Jordanian National Movement (JNM), a collection of leftist political parties that worked to promote pan-Arab unity and oppose the continuation of a separate Jordanian state from the 1920s through the 1950s. Using primary sources including memoirs, interviews, poetry, textbooks, and newspapers, as well as archival records, she shows how the expansion of education, new jobs in the public and private sectors, changes in economic relationships, the establishment of national militaries, and the explosion of media outlets all converged to offer ordinary Jordanians and Palestinians (who were under the Jordanian government at the time) an alternative sense of national identity. Anderson convincingly demonstrates that key elements of the JNM's pan-Arab vision and goals influenced and were ultimately adopted by the Hashemite elite, even though the movement itself was politically defeated in 1957.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. The Writing of a National Narrative
  • Chapter 2. The "Domains" of National Identity
  • Chapter 3. Conceiving Transjordan (1921-1948)
  • Chapter 4. Hashemites and Jordanians (1921-1948)
  • Chapter 5. Hashemites and Palestinians (1921-1948)
  • Chapter 6. Forging the Jordanian National Movement (JNM)
  • Chapter 7. Opposition and Cooperation: The State and the Jordanian National Movement (JNM) (1952-1956)
  • Chapter 8. Success and Failure: The Jordanian National Movement (JNM) (1956-1957)
  • Chapter 9. The Hashemites Ascendant
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Betty S. Anderson is Assistant Professor of Middle East and World History at Boston University.


We have struggled and we have fought from the beginning, and on behalf of a message, just as our fathers and grandfathers fought beforehand, in defense of their message, the message of unity, the message of freedom, the message of strength, the message of building, the message of protecting our sacred things and our sacred land, and the message of protecting the land of the Arabs for the unity of the Arabs.

King Husayn


King Husayn holds the "hearts of the people."

al-Tarikh al-`Arabi al-Hadith, Modern Arab History


The quotes above come from history textbooks published by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1959 and 1975, respectively. The theme of these quotes and of the textbooks as a whole is: The Hashemites are Jordan; Jordan is the Hashemite family. A sample sentence says, "The Arabs in Jordan welcomed Emir `Abdullah bin Husayn with a great fervor, and they gave to him the title of savior of Syria. In April 1921, the Emir established a government for his Emirate." Subsequently, the subject of sentence after sentence is the reigning Hashemite king and the state he controls. The citizens of the country have no faces and no names. The British creators of the state are merely a force to be fought by the Hashemite kings.


His Majesty King `Abdullah continued until the end of the Second World War to struggle to end the British Mandate in Jordan. In spring 1946, His Majesty went to London to demand independence for his country, and for his patience and his political wisdom, he signed with Britain a new treaty abrogating the Mandate over Jordan.


Regardless of the fact that the Hashemites themselves were foreigners to Jordan, the lesson to be learned is that Jordan could not exist without the Hashemites. To succeed in their transformation from Hijazis to Jordanians, the Hashemites had literally to "imagine" the state because no such entity called Jordan existed before the establishment of its boundaries and administrative structures in 1921. They then had to manufacture institutions and a narrative inextricably connecting Jordanians to a state ruled by them. Concomitantly, the Hashemites expropriated, as part and parcel of Hashemite lore and biography, events that had taken place throughout history, yet were now bounded by the borders of twentieth-century Jordan.


These textbooks instruct students to look to Kings `Abdullah and Husayn as the generators of state largesse; to thank `Abdullah and Husayn for protecting the rights of the Palestinians; and to reward `Abdullah and Husayn with their loyalty.


His Majesty Emir `Abdullah attached importance to opening schools and spreading education among all levels of the society, just as he was concerned with the army and with improving the economy of the country and in organizing the administrative apparatus. There hastened to Transjordan many of the Arabs of Palestine and Syria to live under the protection of a just, democratic Arab government and to enjoy what Transjordan had to offer in terms of security and prosperity.


The overall message conveyed is that students should express their gratitude to the Hashemites.


As for the faceless residents of this new state, the textbooks discuss them only in relation to the places where they live: in "urban," "rural," and "nomadic" areas. The textbooks provide only simple recitations of their lifestyles and the type of schooling required for each group. For example, urban residents have a decreasing appreciation for the customs and traditions existing in the villages. Discussion of the rural areas highlights the need to reconfigure education to focus on the particular concerns of agriculture. In both areas, the biggest problem is the need for more social and recreational centers to give people direction in their free time. In discussions of the bedouin areas, subdivided into nomadic, seminomadic, and settled categories, the texts stress the people's reliance on their own laws and the problems peculiar to nomadic lifestyles. In some of the texts, the Palestinian refugees represent yet a fourth category of inhabitants, who, if God wills, will be returned to their usurped paradise. The people of Jordan have no right to act on behalf of the nation; they must only react to the dictates of the Hashemites.


In these texts, the Hashemites are constructing a history that grounds their leadership in Jordan over a designated timeline. The writing and "recovery" of such a linear narrative became a primary goal of the new nation-states of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in Europe and then the colonial world. The point behind this project was to show that a primordial nation existed on a given piece of land, that regardless of who ruled, or who colonized the area, something intrinsically unique about these people and this land could be identified. Implicit in this process is the idea that the nationalist liberation movement or the new state government served as the inevitable culmination point of that narrative. The process of compiling and constructing a national history has often proved problematic for new states, however, because of the many different definitions of identity used by the people living within and outside their boundaries. In the case of Jordan, the Hashemites had to find ways to accommodate the larger Arab nationalist narrative that served as the accepted historical, ethnic, and linguistic bond in the region prior to World War I and the subsequent division of the region into Arab nation-states. To avoid a conflict between the existence of the Jordanian nation and "the message of protecting the land of the Arabs for the unity of the Arabs," the Hashemites placed Jordan into the continuum of Arab history, and then as a logical extension of it. The Hashemites proclaimed themselves the personal bridge connecting the two narratives. As the leaders of the Arab Revolt in World War I, they took on the mantle of Arab nationalist leadership, laying claim to the leadership of the whole Arab nationalism movement from that point forward. Jordan was not just a separate state, under its Hashemite rule. It stood at the epicenter of a potential reunion of the divided Arab states, precisely because of that Hashemite leadership.


While it is understandable that the Hashemite kings would place themselves at the center of the Jordanian historical narrative, most scholars writing about Jordan over the last twenty years have failed to question the basic premise of these texts. They add to the Hashemite narrative primarily by showing that a small oligarchy of politicians—the "King's men"—and a series of British advisors augmented the work of the Hashemite family. The basic question they all try to answer is: How did the Hashemites and the "King's men" stay in power? They ask this question because the Hashemites faced a powerful opposition movement in the 1950s, working under the title of the Jordanian National Movement (JNM). The leftist political parties—the Ba`th, Communist, and National Socialist Parties, and the Movement of Arab Nationalists—became so influential by October 1956 that King Husayn granted the leader of the National Socialist Party (NSP)—Sulayman al-Nabulsi—the right to serve as prime minister of a leftist-nationalist government. However, in April 1957, the King and the "King's men" fought against their subsequent exile from the political stage and completely destroyed the JNM.


In study after study, including those by Uriel Dann, Clinton Bailey, Benjamin Shwadran, Amnon Cohen, and Kamal Salibi, to name just a few, the debate about how the Hashemites stayed in power has focused on this battle between the state and the leftist political parties that emerged in the 1950s. They wrote about the opposition, led by the Jordanian National Movement, but describe it as merely a weak attempt by disgruntled Palestinians and a few rogue Jordanians, aided by "outsiders," to upset the Hashemite balance of power. They implicitly accept the narrative of the Hashemite father-shaykh of the new Jordanian nation-tribe presented in the textbooks. They take as a given that the Hashemites were the legitimate, historical rulers over the country.


These scholars pinpoint the Palestinians as a primary catalyst for opposition because their politicization under the British Mandate and their distrust of the Hashemite regime made them particularly susceptible to the messages of Arab unity, anti-imperialism, and political liberalization voiced by the National Movement. The decade of the 1950s saw the Palestinians organizing their forces to pressure the government to increase their level of participation. These forces proved so numerous that, as Amnon Cohen writes, "their numerical strength (and perhaps even the resultant emphasis on the Palestinian problem) make it possible to view the parties [of the JNM] as primarily belonging to the West Bank." The problem with this scenario is that, by highlighting Palestinian grievances toward the Hashemites, these scholars negate the possibility that "true" Jordanian natives held similar views.


To explain the fact that Jordanians did enter the political parties of the JNM and did protest in enormous numbers against the regime in the 1950s, these scholars look outside the country for their motivators. The most influential person they found was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt and self-proclaimed leader of the leftist movement throughout the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. Benjamin Shwadran, for example, speaks of Nasser's influence when he wrote that King Husayn, when the pressure became too heavy in the mid-1950s,


capitulated to Nasser, hoping that perhaps he could fit into the Nasser scheme. He dismissed Glubb, renounced the Anglo-Jordanian treaty, and lost the British subsidy. But when he realized that Nasser meant to eliminate him completely, especially after the parliamentary elections which brought Nabulsi to power, he had no alternative but to return to the West.


Uriel Dann voices a similar opinion when he states that the king remained in power because Nasser lacked the resolve to take the final steps to dethrone him. "It is as good as certain that Abdel Nasser never gave the lead, as distinct from, at most, his presumed blessing or his generalized knowledge of plots in the offing. His underlings went much further, but nothing could replace his own active involvement." As this narrative evolved, those who fought against the regime did so under the guidance—and often the pay—of Nasser. The Jordanians and their political parties do not appear as the operative actors.


The overall viewpoint of these diplomats and scholars is summarized by Robert Satloff's statement that,


In sum, after 1957, the contours of Hussein's monarchy bore a strong resemblance to the regime built up by Abdullah, Kirkbride, and Glubb in the years before the 1948 war. There were, of course, important differences, the two most glaring of which were the departure of a permanent British military presence in August 1957 and the emergence of the emotive call for a "Palestinian entity," in March 1959. But the two eras of Hashemite history, pre-1948 and post-1957, were built on similar foundations and sustained on similar principles. What connected them were the politics and personalities of the "king's men."


For these scholars of Jordan, the tumultuous period of the 1950s served merely to solidify the strength and legitimacy of the Hashemite leadership. The Hashemites maintained their position despite the work and desires of the "outsiders" and the rogue elements in the society. No societal changes impinged upon this balance of power.


These scholars are absolutely correct in their analyses of the power of the Hashemite family and the state constructed around it. The Hashemites successfully destroyed the JNM in 1957 because they were able to garner support from key components of the society—the "King's men," the bedouin tribesmen in the army, the peasants in the villages, and the merchants in the cities—and the opposition, in the end, could not gather as much support from their own, disenfranchised urban communities. The more interesting question, which is not addressed by any of these scholars, is why those elements in the society chose to support the Hashemites, given that the Hashemites were foreigners to the area themselves and came to power on the wings of British colonialism. On the other side of the coin: Who supported the Jordanian National Movement, and why did they do so? Were they merely duped into doing so by men like Nasser, or did they have their own rationales for opposing the Hashemite state?


Partha Chatterjee has said of the interplay between colonialism and nationalism that, "In the beginning, nationalism's task is to overcome the subordination of the colonized middle class, that is, to challenge the 'rule of colonial difference' in the domain of the state." He reminds us that the colonial state was "destined never to fulfill the normalizing mission of the modern state because the premise of its power was a rule of colonial difference, namely, the preservation of the alienness of the ruling group." How, then, did the Hashemites successfully "fulfill the normalizing mission of the modern state"? How did they convince this population that Jordan had a legitimate right to exist and that they deserved this population's allegiance? Why did the JNM fail to overcome the "alienness of the ruling group"?


Recent scholarship has begun to address some of these questions by focusing on the relationship between the Hashemite state and its citizenry. Andrew Shryock, Michael Fischbach, and Joseph Massad have all examined the relationship between the Hashemite state and different social groups living within its borders. The general theme presented in all of these works is that the Hashemite leaders successfully managed to garner support for their national project because they supplied services never seen before, they provided a national narrative with resonance in the society, and they co-opted into their national project many of the symbols of the nation, tribe, family, and history so central to the area. These works have given three-dimensional life to the "bedouin" and "rural" inhabitants and begun the process of examining the most influential agencies for change in these arenas. The new emerging narrative highlights the fact that the people of Jordan did not follow the Hashemite state blindly but did so because of a burgeoning reciprocal relationship between them.


This study will focus on the far more neglected "urban" areas and the institutions most influential in generating the feelings of national identity that existed there. The urban areas are key to understanding the societal transformation and subsequent political conflict Jordan witnessed, precisely because the cities witnessed the largest expansion of institutions, services, and populations in the entire country. This means that the bulk of the bureaucratic offices, schools, and media outlets opened in the cities, influencing the largest number of rural migrants and job seekers. Out of these new institutions—these agencies of change and socialization—emerged both the supporters of the state and its opposition. Both groups contributed to the national history of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; the Hashemite kings did not work alone or merely with the "King's men." The national narrative, left out of the textbooks and the earlier scholarship of Jordan, needs to include the work of the elite politicians and the Jordanians and Palestinians who worked with and fought against the regime and its colonial overseer. In the case of Jordan, societal change wrought political conflict. The urban areas served as the focal points for these clashes because demonstrations, strikes, and party activities exploded in them month after month throughout the 1950s. The Hashemites had to recognize the demands of their changing society in order to survive in power; they did not work in a vacuum, as earlier studies and their own textbooks have suggested.


This struggle to survive grew particularly difficult throughout the 1950s as those Palestinians already politicized by years of opposition to the British Mandate came together with the Jordanians who had questioned the rule of the Hashemites. They formed the political parties of the Jordanian National Movement, and, under the umbrella of Arab nationalism, the two groups spent the 1950s opposing the Hashemite monopoly over the institutions of power and definitions of national identity. In the beginning, their goal was to make the governmental structure in Jordan more inclusive and representative, and, over the long term, to unite Jordan with one or more of the Arab countries. By utilizing this pan-national umbrella, the leaders of the JNM proposed that a reorganization of the political boundaries of the region would simultaneously solve the country's political, social, and economic problems. Arab nationalism symbolized for the leaders and participants in the JNM not just a regional political movement but also a call for revolutionary change at the domestic level. This study will illustrate that the rallying call was for the youth—the "new"—to replace the "old" politicians of the Hashemite regime. Demands for social and economic justice merged naturally with those for independence from colonial rule. The "new" would eliminate the colonialism of the "old." Thousands flocked to join the parties of the JNM, their demonstrations, and their strikes, because Arab nationalism held resonance for a society in flux.


In the 1950s, the struggle was fought most visibly on the streets of the country's cities and in the halls of government, but beneath the surface an ideological debate fueled it, fought out in the schools, the clubs, and the media. Even though the JNM ultimately failed on the political level and was destroyed in 1957, the Hashemites had to recognize that the country's socioeconomic framework had changed dramatically in the course of the 1950s, with new strata and new demands threatening their position. To succeed, the state had to adapt itself to the new conditions in the society by co-opting many of the new urban strata into its ranks and by expanding state services to many more. Thus, Jordan represents a case study about the institutions and agencies vital for the successful establishment of a new state; the interplay between changing societal conditions and political activity; and the simultaneous writing of a historical narrative defining and delineating national identity.


As this review has shown, the history of Jordan that has emerged—in scholarly works and the histories produced by the Hashemites themselves—has until recently examined only a small cadre of actors. In that story, the "Arab street" plays no role in the development of the country or the analyses of its policies through history. However, it is precisely this "Arab street" that holds a key to understanding not only developments in Jordan in the twentieth century, but the Fertile Crescent as a whole. An examination of the Jordanian National Movement will provide a window onto a society in flux, one beginning to function within a new array of national institutions. Memoirs of the Jordanian and Palestinian leaders of and participants in the Movement, newspaper accounts of the day, transcripts of radio broadcasts, and minutes of the parliamentary debates will be used to answer that question of why Jordanians and Palestinians chose to participate in an opposition movement. They will also show which agencies proved to be the most influential in disseminating ideas about national identity and political activity.


In essence, the story of the Jordanian National Movement is a personal story of the men and women who led the Movement and participated in its activities in the 1950s. Interviews with and memoirs of its leaders and participants provide an invaluable insight into the influences they felt were particularly important in their lives. Working with such sources always presents problems for the researcher, and those of the Jordanian opposition movement are no exception. For example, the fact that these people wrote these memoirs at the end of their lives, after years of political activism, clearly influences the tone. They wanted to go back in their history to locate the events that had particularly affected them. Historical memory often distorts such events. Also, only a small number of the leaders of the Movement recorded their memoirs or discussed their experiences in interviews. As a result, the work of those who did record their activities takes on added importance vis-à-vis those who did not. In a glaring example, the memoir of Sulayman al-Nabulsi, one of the most important, if not the most important, leader of the day, is inaccessible to the researcher.20 That fact does not negate the depth of his participation. In the Palestinian case, `Abdullah al-Rimawi of Ramallah and `Abdullah Na`was of Jerusalem neglected to compile memoirs before their deaths.


Despite such limitations, these memoirs and interviews still represent a microcosm of the experiences and influences young people were undergoing in the first half of the twentieth century in both Jordan and Palestine. In their own voices, these Jordanians and Palestinians bring to life the reasons why they chose to struggle on behalf of their political goals and to lead lives which condemned them to jail or exile for months and even years at a time. At the same time, their lives reflect the changing sets of opportunities available to Jordanians and Palestinians of very different economic classes, both because of the state's constructions and their own initiatives. New kinds of schools, an urbanizing population, better means of transportation, and new occupations all connected people within the state and the region in new kinds of ways. People like those who led the JNM served in the vanguard for these transformations and, accordingly, played an important role in helping others to make the transition. As a consequence, the stories of the leaders and members of the Jordanian National Movement highlight many of the socioeconomic changes Jordan and Palestine experienced in the Mandate and early independence periods. These memoirs provide the names and the lives behind the faceless Jordanians and Palestinians of the Hashemite texts. They also illustrate the fact that the history of Jordan and Palestine should not be bifurcated, as is the case in so many earlier studies; their histories merge for a period in the mid-twentieth century.


What comes through the memoirs most clearly is a personal, collective fervor to initiate political change. Ba`th Party member Jamal al-Sha`ir has said of the nationalism of these opposition members that it should be considered "patriotic," in the very emotional sense of the word.


We call ourselves patriotic; not like saying the national health service in England. No, patriotic. We are patriotic. We are the ones who love our country. . . . Actually, if we want to translate the name of the Hizb al-Watani al-Ishtiraki, it should not be the National Socialist Party, it should be the Patriotic Socialist Party. This is what they meant when they say, watani: "I love my country. You don't love my country like I do."


This may be an overly idealistic and naïve perception on the part of these activists, but it is still important to keep in mind, particularly since the histories of Jordan so often negate the passion of the participants, especially of the opposition. The most learned people in the society—Jordanian and Palestinian—came out in opposition to the Hashemite state and put forward clear policies for solving its problems. These people were not radicals inherently opposed to the government; they wanted to free their country of European control and the limitations presented by the existence of a colonial proxy government. While some people joined the progressive and Arab nationalist parties in a bid to gain power for themselves, the majority did not. They wanted to find new avenues for gaining access to governmental power so they could initiate the programs they felt would solve the problems surrounding them. They expressed a multiplicity of opinions about the possible solutions. Their passions and ideologies led them to form the parties, write for the newspapers, and lead the demonstrations that demanded these changes in the regime throughout the 1950s. The leaders who emerged in the early 1950s took on the task of mobilizing the next generation. The politicization process, thus, became self-perpetuating.


By explaining why and how the JNM proved so successful in garnering support from the urban populations, these memoirs simultaneously highlight the role the schools, clubs, media, Boy Scout troops, and national militaries, to name some of the most influential institutions, played in forming political and national loyalties. States and national liberation and political opposition movements all use different kinds of institutions to disseminate their messages. Looking solely at the actions of the elite political actors neglects the political nature of these institutions. It is not only the diplomatic and political maneuvering taking place at the elite level that activates people; local institutions play a similar if not more influential role in explaining and defining political events for the general populace. Participation in these institutions provides a framework for involvement in the national political sphere because, in them, the new political roles people need to play are identified. For a study of national development, these institutions are key because most of them were newly adapted or newly formed within the societies of the colonial and postcolonial worlds of the twentieth century. These institutions provide an insight into the mechanisms for developing and spreading new ideas and new national consciousnesses. The importance of memoirs and interviews in this analysis stems from the fact that these institutions do not have the same kinds of documents government agencies typically produce. Lists of lectures given at a specific club, archives of newspaper editions, and syllabi at local schools can be analyzed by the researcher, but only memoirs can truly articulate the influence these institutions had on the populace. Granted, these analyses are subjective and may be distorted by time; nonetheless, these memoirs provide the best information about how local and state institutions activate people on a national level. National consciousness and political symbolism certainly emanate from the political elite, but they infiltrate the population through these local institutions, these agencies of change and socialization.


The first section of this study will examine the interwar period, when the Jordanian and Palestinian leaders worked to establish their legitimacy on their respective lands. The study will focus particularly on the agencies of socialization—the schools, the clubs, and the governmental offices—to analyze how identity became an arena of contention in both Jordan and Palestine. The second half of the study will focus on the 1950s, when the new professional intelligentsia, made up of Jordanians and Palestinians, working with the burgeoning urban strata, threatened the very existence and identity of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This part of the story examines the leftist political parties these men established and incorporated under the title of the Jordanian National Movement. Struggles took place over Jordan's entrance into the Baghdad Pact, Arabization of the army, the formation of a nationalist government between October 1956 and April 1957, and the very borders of the state. Throughout the decade, the opposition influenced government decision-making from outside, via street politics, and then from inside the halls of government itself. In the end, the Hashemite state succeeded in physically destroying this national opposition movement but could not negate its influence. In reaction, in the 1960s, the state broadened its base of support to make its institutions far more inclusive. The social safety net, as well as the instruments of Hashemite socialization, became more extensive and more influential in generating a Jordanian national identity.


In illustrating this story of nation-building via the media of memoirs and interviews, this study will not provide a recitation of political events; that story of Jordan and Palestine has already been told in earlier works and in the Hashemites' own histories. Instead, this study focuses more on the reactions people had to given events and the influences people found the most useful in their own route toward national identification, whether Jordanian, Palestinian, or Arab. The political catalysts will be discussed rather than the play-by-play of political exchange.



“By focusing on the [Jordanian National Movement] and putting it in its context, not as an aberration in Jordan's history, but as a logical result of a long and ongoing practice of political expression and activism on both banks of the Jordan, Anderson adds much theoretical sophistication to the scholarship on Jordan.”
Arab Studies Journal

“This book is a significant contribution to the understanding of Jordanian history. . . . Most scholars have focused on high politics in Jordan. This is thus an important addition to the emerging literature on the Kingdom’s history at the 'non-palace' level.”
Ellen Lust-Okar, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University


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