These thoughts have been wandering in my mind for some time, and have only recently, within the context of a conversation, found a way to congeal into something articulate. Actually, articulate is not the right word, but let’s go with that for now.
The other day, a fairly socially liberal colleague told me, out of the blue, how surprised he was at the girls he’s noticed at a certain club called Eight(?). For someone liberal to comment on the clothes young girls wear at these clubs (or lack thereof) peeked my interest. He noted something I found particularly interesting and that I’ve talked about here before, and I think many people feel the same way. He said that having traveled to many places in the world, he had never seen anything similar to what was on display in Amman lately.
This opens the pandora’s box of just how bad we are at imitating western social ideals.
This opens the pandora’s box of how we’ve taken only the “bad stuff” and left the “good stuff” from the western world.
This opens the pandora’s box about sexual revolution in Amman.
This opens the pandora’s box of morality and social degradation in Amman.
This opens the pandora’s box where the left becomes more liberal, and thus the right becomes more conservative, and so on and so forth until our society is torn at the seams.
This opens so many pandora boxes, and every little debate and idiosyncratic arguments you can think of when it comes to social analysis. Everyone’s favorite conversation these days. And to think, this anthology of cliche debates, which although valid, has become increasingly redundant and boring these days, and it all possibly started with the wardrobe choice of a simple 21 year old western Ammani girl who wanted to go clubbing one night.
And boy is this post timely. With Valentines Day coming up and the western side of town being painted red with commercialized plastic hearts, my cynical nature is inclined to write something about such absurdities in our developing of an underdeveloped neo-liberal culture.
But I won’t.
This post isn’t about any of those cliches. It isn’t a rant about western Amman or westernization or anything of that sort. It’s really about liberalism. It’s about how we define it, socially.
I’ve studied and continue to study the political sciences so my definitions of liberalism may invoke hints of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke and his treatsies. Maybe even some Smith, Kant or Hume. They are to liberalism what Shakespeare is to English literature: architects.
Conservatism always seems to have been defined by values. Religious, cultural, social, traditional; values. But to be liberal is an interesting thing, because technically, in our new social understanding of the word, it has simply come to mean, the opposite of conservative.
To define oneself or to define another as being liberal is pretty unique. Because it invokes a sensibility of how we define liberalism. To those looking to separate social, political and economic liberalism as entities unto themselves, should take a look at the classic literature, not to mention history, once again. They are all entwined.
When I speak of liberalism in the context of this narrative, in the context of the above issues, in the context of Jordan and perhaps the Arab world, I am not talking about a specific ideology that can be labeled as strictly “political” or “economic” or “social”.
I am speaking of an environment. I am speaking of a realm of liberalism; an on-going history of liberalism that inspired great thinkers, artists, politicians, philosophers, poets, writers. They developed an industry of ideas and free-thought. They argued with each other. They disagreed. They fought. They grappled with issues. And they inspired.
And from that, a renaissance was born.
And I feel we, in the Arab world, sort of missed that phase.
At least if we are to first define as what’s currently taking place as the emergence of a neo-liberal, wealthy strata of society.
I’ll give you an example:
Many of us who are in their 20’s and possibly culture vultures, have probably heard about these ancient coffee shops and diwans they used to have in downtown Amman, where some of the country’s greatest intellectuals, writers, poets, politicians, economists, mingled in a humble atmosphere, drinking Turkish coffee and debating. Maybe it was only for a brief moment in our history, not just Jordan’s but the modern Arab world in general. But that sort of liberal atmosphere does not exist any longer. It’s only described to us, as 20-something year olds, in books and lengthy narratives in the daily papers sometimes. Perhaps its even become part of the oral history passed down to us by our parents.
And I wish sometimes we were able to define liberalism that way. To say “so and so is very liberal” and mean that this is a person who is part of a renaissance, rather than a person who wears skimpy clothes and goes bar-hopping on a Thursday night.
I imagine an Amman where diwans, coffee shops and art galleries were the venues of liberalism, rather than bars and clubs. And that we labeled them with words like “cool” and “hip”. And that we lined up outside these places, eager to get in and listen to a respected local thinker or poet or philosopher, give a lecture or a passionate speech from the heart. Where great writers that shape the world are born. Our Tolstoys and Humes. The resurrection of Ibn Sina.
I sometimes imagine an Amman where great thinkers walk to a coffee shop in the balad to engage in the great debate. Where someone stands up to recite poetry. Where someone develops a theory; develops a book. Where ideas collide in this crucible of forward and universal thinking that build intellectual capacity. And on the tables that border the sidewalk, painters would, as Shakespeare might put it, behold the swelling scene.
I imagine people passing by and pointing them out as “crazy communists” or bohemians wanting to destroy all that is wholesome in our society.
I imagine this renaissance and think about how we define liberalism today. What it means to call someone ‘liberal’ or to be witness to a scene that is defined as a ‘liberal’ act.
Author’s Note: Based on the comments and emails received so far I feel the need to clarify one point that may have been misunderstood. I am not defining liberalism in Jordan as what a girl wears (or doesn’t), as this is just an example of how we – in the collective sense of the word – have come to define liberalism or a liberal act. That is, the eternal misconception of being liberal. There are various other examples that include atheists, elitists, intellectuals, free-traders and even people who listen to techno music: all of whom are labeled as liberals in Jordan.