In the News Cafe

IRBID, Jordan—I don’t mean to sound cynical, but the average Matthew McConaughey film has more character than Irbid at first glance. If you don’t know—and you shouldn’t—Irbid is the second largest city in Jordan. Tucked into the northwestern corner of the country, it’s a stone’s throw—sometimes literally—from Israel and Syria. Under “culture” for Irbid, my guidebook suggests in typically British understatement, “try to go to Amman or Damascus.”

I’m here to study Arabic for the summer on a “language immersion” program, a euphemism which here means “no English.” Fortunately, Irbid maintains a small town attitude despite its population of more than half a million, and finding conversation among locals is easy.

And you’ll find a lot of it at News Café, the hippest place in Irbid, which is sort of like being the hardest working Government concentrator. Walk in on a weekend night and you will see about fifty dudes, mostly college-age, all smoking hookah (called “argyla” here) or cigarettes while playing backgammon or cards. Typical topics of conversation are sports, weather, women, and—of course—politics.

Backgammon and hookah are to the Arab world what chess and vodka were to the Soviet Union. By the third game, you’re best friends with your opponent and by the seventh his once-cautious lips are sputtering anxieties and frustrations about an-nidhawm—“the system.” When conversation turns to the royal family or the military, words become whispers, mirthful looks turn to nervous glances, and cigarettes suddenly receive as much fidgety chewing as they do smoking.

I realized this when, with the big stupid grin of an American, I loudly joked to my Palestinian friend that Jordan had military conscription to create a national pride that, in reality, has little basis for existence. Scanning the room with the corner of his eyes, his facial expression was ashen as he mouthed “mukhabarat.” “Mukhabarat”—the secret police—is a word that has scared many people before it scared me, a naïve American in a coffee shop.

Jordan’s feared Mukhabarat is just one of many symptoms of Jordan’s perpetual insecurity as a nation-state. The overt arbitrariness of its borders, its lack of historical congruity, and the Palestinian roots of two thirds of its citizens each reveal that it isn’t the stable nation-state it pretends to be. Nonetheless, it acts like one, and with time the act has become convincing. The longer the theater goes on and the longer the people dutifully, fearfully clap, the more the people think they are clapping because they enjoy the theater. And, if you become tired of pretending to enjoy the show, play backgammon.

Eric T. Justin ’13, an associate editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.