Jordanian Stories From The Land Of The Rich And Poor

Many argue that today, Jordan’s middle class is much larger than it was a few year back. However, since I came back to the country I feel the opposite has been true. This is in line with many economists who observe the growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Swallowed in the gulf is the middle class, leaving only polar opposites of the socioeconomic spectrum. But this is not a post about economic theory or economic analysis. It’s about storytelling.

My own socioeconomic status, as well as that of my family, allows me absorb stories of polarities on a daily basis. I hear stories about the poorest people you can ever imagine. And then I hear stories about the uber-wealthy personalities and their flamboyant lifestyles. Every so often, you get to hear both stories in the same conversation. A young man, with a dead father and a blind mother, and 8 siblings to support; no education, no opportunities, selling something that no one will buy, just to get those 60 or 80JDs a month. Meanwhile, another young man is about to get married and the wedding is at the Four Seasons, with 400 guests, including a famous Arab singer, and both the bride and groom landing in a helicopter amidst a sea of fireworks. The young man and his new wife will live in the 300 square meter high-end apartment, and works for his father’s company which he’ll probably inherit in a few years.

There are tons of stories. Every one more outrageous than the other. The ones I just stated are not the worst of their kind.

And its strange for me. The wealthy tend to stay strictly in their circles as do the poor, and rarely do they ever interact, so rarely are these stories every shared. But for me, personally speaking, I often interact with both segments of society so I feel like a middle man, or a carrier of odd and contrasting news.

The wealthy stories are always interesting but forgettable, like a mild joke someone tells you and you laugh because you simply never heard it before. It’s the ones that reek of poverty that have a tendency to settle on one’s brain for a long time.

When I went to the Bag3a refugee camp during Ramadan, we were literally bombarded by people wanting something from us; anything. We took down people’s names just to get them to step back. What was interesting were the stories that people would just scream out at us. Everyone was in the same boat so there was no shame factor to consider; the idea that screaming my poverty would make me look less-than was non-existent. And they would tell us the strangest stories about blind fathers, and deaf mothers, and amputee brothers and retarded mentally and/or physically challenged sisters, sometimes all in the same family. The women would tell these stories with such convictions while the kids, already catching on from probably years of experience, would make up similar stories to garner our sympathy, all the while giggling together when our backs were turned at the absurdities of things you could tell they were inventing. But like I said back then, you really don’t know. However absurd these stories may sound when told in a moment of invention and desperation, the potential for them being real, and factual, is so high. You might actually grab a random kid and tell him to lead you to their home just to prove him wrong only to be proven wrong yourself. So you just don’t know.

These stories are constant reminders for me about that huge gap between rich and poor. In a country as small as Jordan and in a city as small as Amman, you get to see that without having to travel far. This is a country where there are people who have lived here their entire lives, have been to Milan and Rome but have never ventured past the borders of West Amman. A population that has literally never even gone downtown and think poor people live close to the airport. This is also a country with a large population that has rarely ever a 50JD bill. Most in fact will deal with a 20JD bill as the highest currency.

I remember reading a story in the newspaper once where the King visited this group of people who were living somewhere near Aqaba (I can’t remember the salient details), but this elderly women had never seen, and I mean literally, had never seen any paper currency over a 5JD bill in her entire life. I was surprised at the time that they even knew who the King was, or that Jordan is a monarchy for that matter.

This post was inspired by an email I received recently from a reader who didn’t quite enjoy the posts I wrote about the refugee camp, specifically the pictures of families which he felt might have been in bad taste, in the humiliation sense of the word.

Obviously there is a context to consider, and this is to say nothing of the fact that I do request permission of people before taking their photos. The pictures are part of the storytelling. It is part of documenting a segment of society that is dominant in size yet had absolutely no voice. Not anymore, anyways. The middle class used to be the middle man for all these stories, carrying them from one class to another. Yet as those people disappear so do the stories.

And someone needs to hear them.


  • i might sound like the semantic police but metally disables or just special needs is much better of a word than retarded.
    Volunteer work, like the one you did, is the thing that will help bridge the gap between the two. even though it is really hard to pin point the people who need help the most.

    The reason i see volunteering is because as you said the upper class that is supposed to be charitable to the poor ignore their existence in an out of sight out of mind manner. while the poor are really cynical of any outsiders to their community and if it is not under the umbrella of charity usually you will get many snide remarks about how you are better off and act all high and mighty around them which does turn people off from helping them.

    honestly things look grimmer in the future for that slice of the population and something should be done to help them weather the rough times on the horizon

  • As an outsider I cannot claim to understand Amman’s social/class divisions entirely, but one thing I did notice while I was there was a general neglect on the part of the upper classes to do the sort of volunteer work that the Action Committee has undertaken. There’s been a lot of press about the surge of “corporate philanthropy” in Jordan, and while undoubtedly a good thing, corporate philanthropy doesn’t involve elites going into refugee camps and seeing the standards of living there in person. I think it is really important that you are doing this and allowing people to see it through your writing. Perhaps it will motivate others to get involved.

  • Bambam/

    Looking at recent history of the word retard or retarded usages divulge even to the casual observer let alone the semantic police that the word has been so much diluted to the point where it lost its original meaning. It has come to symbolize something of an innocuous nature than of a demeaning one. Children use it in their banter and adult use it in the context of describing a lethargic person. It is hard to tell from reading through Nassem’s text whether he was referring to someone who is mentally/physically challenged, or he was talking a fully developed sober nonresponsive to stimuli type of person

  • Hatem, it is obvious that he meant mentally/physically challenged..

    Because if you read the context “And they would tell us the strangest stories about blind fathers, and deaf mothers, and amputee brothers and retarded sisters, sometimes all in the same family”


  • Mohannad,

    In the scheme of things one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, so between what was verbally uttered and what was factually meant is a world of difference. Parsing words is a very tricky game, remember former President Clinton during his impeachment hearing when he stated that it all depends on what the word is…

  • Naseem, watch out, your words can be used against you one day 😀

    Hatem, it is simple plain english.So based on your analysis, what did he mean when he said blind and deaf? Did he mean they are blinded by the media and deafened by the system?

    Come on! being dennis miller is not funny 😀

  • Sorry Isam, but Fahed el Fanik should really make up his mind! Every 6 months the guy changes his opinion on the distribution of wealth in Jordan and on whether middle class Jordanians are slipping into poverty.

    Plus increasing payrolls is NOT a solution; it is very temporary, and it only leads to further inflation. Fanik seriously believes that the economy will eventually fix itself and that everybody will be happy.

    The answer is not subsidies, nor is it increasing wages, these are simply short-term remedies.

  • Naseem, you do a great job at not only telling but showing … which is an integral part in – if not the core of- delivering the truth

    Hatem 😀 what’s articulated and what’s expected could be two different things but it’s important to keep in mind that word meanings are context dependent! now, answer Mohanned’s question :p

  • I hope that Nas doesn’t think that we are muddying his topic with our back and forth chatting.

    Pheras Hilal,
    What do you think about performance based remunerations as opposed to merit increases.

    Hi, where on earth have you been?!

    please don’t delete, this is my last reply.Period.

  • here it is … sorry i was in a hurry yesterday …

    Pheras , this article is not about his opinion … its about statistics … i dont deny that living expenses are increasing … but come on if you say you dont have enough to eat why buy 2 mobile phones and 2 packs of cigarittes everyday ?? these cose about 100 JD monthly which they can spend on basic needs … right ?

  • you know what isam yes i seriously think its their fault that they are poor its because they are lazy and good for nothing human
    and there is no brighter light that the oracle of delphi himself, mr. fahed il fanek. with is reality altering view of how things truly are.

  • While no one can deny the existance of poverty in Jordan, those stories cannot be an indication for the diminishing of the middle class.

    Official statistics can be more credible than any single observation of any of us unless there is another credible institution that studied the situation in Jordan and came up with a different story.

    We are becoming more and more of a consumer society. Rich people have more options to spend their money on than they used to have a decade ago, and thus the gap between the rich and the poor looks larger.

    Dr. Fahed Al Fanek bases his analysis on numbers. Jordan might not have reached the level of the industrialized countries, but we are progressing according to the official numbers.

  • when it comes to statistic one of the two things that you look at is how these statistics where collected and who collected them.

    anyways that aside i don’t know of any economist that would make such a statement based on the number of utilities and amenities(similar to cigarettes and mobile phone) in a house and using word plays to make statistics have a lesser impact(top 10% make almost 10 times as much as the bottom 10% , 29.6 and 3.3% respectively is the share of consumption as quotes from 1997! ).
    usually when you want to discuss the middle class you look at indices like the % of population below poverty line (30% 2001 est) unemployment rate, savings and consumption per household and Household income or consumption by percentage share.
    he specifically selects misleading statistics to prove his points and its not like a one time occurrence since he consistently does that in his writing
    thats my 2 cent about the Dr.

  • based on numbers:

    our unemployment is at 15.4% and inflation is at 6.2%

    in Jordan, numbers always, always, always lie.

    and when you mix those numbers with fahed al-fanek…well…

    nuff said

  • As a foreigner living in Jordan, I completely agree with the divide. I’ve seen it before, but in huge metropolitans where through some twisted logic, its actually possible people haven’t ventured out of their own comfort zones. But Amman is so small in comparison that the divide makes my stomach turn – and its funny how more foreigners have actually seen more of downtown and refugee camps than actual Amman residents who think poverty’s just an abstract concept.

  • ” you know what isam yes i seriously think its their fault that they are poor its because they are lazy and good for nothing human”
    This one of the most racist remark anybody can utter and minefist,the reason ya Mr or Ms Bambam economic genius ,the poor are poor because because of the wealthy , filthy and lazy rich “elites” that have been rubbing the poor for long time.

  • Salaam ‘Alaikum

    THANK YOU, Nas, for this post. This is one of the things that most bothers me about living in West ‘Amman and moving in the English speaking circles or reading the English magazines. Sometimes I feel like it’s two different planets.

    Whether or not the middle class is diminishing (and can anyone really claim that it is the same or easier than it was five years ago? we all know it is harder), poverty exists, and not every poor person (perhaps even most?) is some lazy bum unwilling to work. That is such a very American, Puritan perspective on poverty… poverty is not necessarily the result of a character defect. There are people in this country living on less than a dinar a day, as unbelievable as that sounds to those of us who live in flats that cost 350 / mo, take taxis everyday, eat at places like BK and Pizza Hut, and so forth.

Your Two Piasters: