A National Silence


There is a question that keeps me up at night, and it’s largely to do with our national distractions – the ones that have been so fascinating to watch, especially in recent weeks.

We’ve had a Jordanian citizen shot and killed by Israelis in cold blood, inspiring haphazard protests that quickly died down once the warm spring weather rolled around and the aroma of road-side barbecue overwhelmed. But not before a war-of-words unfolded over whether Israel really apologized or not; what the definition of an apology is; whether the Israeli ambassador should be kicked out or not; and of course, why a Jordanian soldier who killed a handful of Israeli children in a previous era should be released from prison. Dignity is lost, but silence follows. An opportunity to reassess a controversial relationship is squandered. We await with bated breath, the findings of a report destined to collect dust.

No matter.

The next scene features the son of a minister condescendingly insulting…Jordanians? The poor? Proud owners of Kia Sephias everywhere? No matter. An eruption of digital admonishment follows – in the form of a hashtag of all things. Even the elites come out to play, berating their fellow country club member in a scene reminiscent of a snake eating itself whole. Dignity is lost, but silence follows. The elephant in the room goes unnoticed, and an opportunity to discuss the abhorrent growing classism that continues to undo the stitching in our social fabric is squandered.

No matter.

Scene three is the dismantling of a major roundabout in the Capital, along with the hideous statue it once housed. A flurry of photos from the scene. But perhaps this issue of urban concern will ignite debate on the state of traffic, or the ongoing lack of decent public transportation in a city overwhelmed with more residents than it can carry. Perhaps even a critical discussion on the role citizens play in the developments reshaping the very place they live in? Instead: extensive digital exchanges on whether the statue was ugly or not is what dominates.

No matter. Next scene.

An aggrieved citizen, who was (apparently) denied a chance to speak during a public forum with the Prime Minister, throws a shoe at him in anger. Photographic evidence of the event is buried, but no matter. A surge of statements on Jordanian morality, traditions, and conventions ensues – a consensus on civility in these uncivil times is what follows. The citizen is berated for his lack of good manners. But what did the man want to say that was so important? Was it about farming assistance promised to Jeresh residents years ago? Was it about income inequality in his district? Or was it a question about what kind of jobs the JD15 million investment in an “industrial city” that the PM was there to announce, will end up actually creating? Silence follows.

In between all these distractions are headlines featuring both good and bad news. Signs of progress in some areas; obvious indications of regression in other areas. Like the spring weather in Jordan, one doesn’t know whether to wear a jacket or a t-shirt; be pessimistic or optimistic. More money from the IMF; more money from the World Bank. Billions of debt in the face of economic stagnation. Silence. New reform plans: an electoral law, decentralization of governorates. Silence. Continued media censorship, activists in-and-out of jail on catch-and-release basis. Silence. Dwindling education rankings, more refugees, political and corporate corruption. And silence.

When a country is so engaged in the microscopic, and often times insignificant – leapfrogging from one to the other – how long can it avoid tackling the major issues openly and critically? Is it out of ignorance? Fear? Uncertainty? Hesitation? A lack of passion? Apathy? There’s so much silence amongst the sane, the rational-minded, the educated, the critical thinking masses within our society, that all the noise comes in the form of the trivial, or worse – in the form of the loud and atrocious voices – the ones that spend most of their time vilifying other citizens, questioning their loyalty to the loud applause of their sycophantic crowd, and call themselves “nashama” – the brave; the honorable; the gallant. The ones that convert dignified leadership in to the worshipping of idols, and demand everyone kneel as a demonstration of allegiance; of obedience.

These may be uncivil times, but the biggest crime of incivility being committed in this country does not come at the hands of the politicians or the security apparatus or any other faction of the state – the biggest crime comes in the form of silence. Not the silence of the voiceless majority, but that niche-kind of silence that engulfs the minority that is historically responsible for any kind of progressive change. How does a nation progress in the face of that much silence? That much loss? How is it that so many are willing to allow the loud-and-crass elements of this society define who they are as citizens; as Jordanians? When they point and accuse and say you’re not Jordanian enough; not loyal enough; your motives always to be questioned – how is it that we greet this vilification with lowered heads? How is it that the people with the power and knowhow to collectively change things…disengage and retreat to safety?

But maybe all those questions are rhetorical, so here’s the real one – the one I have no answer to; the one that keeps me up at night now that I’m a fortunate father:

How does one explain to their child years from now why the country they’ve inherited is overrun by wolves simply because when things got tough we chose to be, as Einstein would put it: “immaculate members of a flock of sheep”…?

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“Please Take Us Out, We Are Dying Here”

Refugee camp in Damascus, Syria
Yarmouk camp, Damascus. Source: Guardian

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, what story do they have to tell when they come together like this? Are they adjectives, like: unbelievable, devastating, unimaginable, inconceivable, inhuman, insane, unreal, depressing, miserable, heartbreaking, despairing, powerless? Or nouns, like: hell, dignity, destruction, fear, sympathy, ocean, humanity, mercy, rubble, refugee, hunger, impoverished?

There are images from this world that baffle me, simply floor me. This was one of them. But then I saw the BBC video from the camp and I think it managed to chip away at what remaining hope I have left for humanity. I think it may have been the little boy at the end of the piece.

This visual documentation of our collective shame is absolutely haunting, in the true sense of the word. It’s easy to look for blame, and it’s even easier to point to those in positions of leadership that have failed us once again. But the truth of the matter is, politics aside, this is a shame for the Arab world to bear. It takes an entire population to allow for something like this to happen, and remain absolutely still.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, this picture only needs one: shame.

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