We’ve grown used to injustice in this country. We’ve grown accustomed to remaining relatively silent for the sake of not rocking the boat. From bad laws, policies, scandals, whatever – we’ve become anesthetized; satisfied with living out our lives in this Kingdom as best we can, taking small steps forward as we move with our backs to the wall.
We’ve grown used to bad politicians, a worse political processes, unaccounted for corruption, and an economy struggling for air. When the going gets tough, we swallow anger and frustration for a meal. Because in the turbulent seas around us, no one wants to rock the boat and fall into unknown waters. And with that national consensus in mind, it’s perhaps ironic that despite this population’s best intentions and interests, the water came for us anyway.
What happened last Thursday was nothing short of a catastrophe. The city drowned and amidst all the damage and destruction it caused, it also took four lives with it. Imagine, a father breaking down on video while he stares down into a flooded apartment basement where his two children drowned. He calls out to God for explanation. Alas, only the rain is in God’s hands; everything else is in ours.
And as most of us watched from the comfort of homes or offices, the city drowned. Because when a car is turned into a submarine on the roads and tunnels it trusts its government will keep maintained – at least up to a standard that can withstand 45 minutes of rain - then that is nothing short of a city drowning. Because when this happens every year, and when the only explanations the people get is that our Capital’s infrastructure is archaic – outdated for 21st century weather – or that Amman’s hilly geography is to blame, or that climate change is to blame, or that our situation is unique that no other country in the entire world faces it, or that the people are to blame for being litterbugs - when this is the reasoning public officials give us, well, then, there’s nothing left to do but watch helplessly as your city drowns. And then wait for it to happen again.
Once you start to peel away at the layers, what reveals itself behind the lack of empathy, is a socioeconomic class problem.
But when the water clears and the aftermath is left exposed, what’s left in the debris is an understanding that while this may very well be an engineering problem, and subsequently, perhaps, a financial problem as well (both of which are a topic for another day), it is also an empathy problem. Once you start to peel away at the layers, what reveals itself behind the lack of empathy, is a socioeconomic class problem.
Here’s our situation as I see it: the country’s political elite are also, for the most part, the country’s economic elite, and when they examine these problems they look at them through a personal lens; through a personal context of which they are familiar with. How ‘the other’ lives is impalpable.
So let me pose this essential question, as cautiously as I can: If the Prime Minister, or any cabinet member, or any former cabinet member, or the Mayor of Amman, all made so little income that they lived in your average basement of your average apartment building, and, God forbid, another catastrophe of this proportion occurred (which it is destined to) – what would the reaction be? Would a public official callously say “who told you to live in a basement apartment?” or perhaps when being interviewed on a national news programme, say, unsympathetically, “who leaves their children in a basement apartment?”
Many expressed shock that such statements were made by public officials. Yet, there’s nothing shocking about it. Does it sound callous? Of course it does. But is it to be expected? Of course it is. Because these officials are operating in a completely different context than the majority of this population, and it’s a context that cannot possibly yield the empathy required.
I am not speaking of the empathy that comes after the political elites discover that this catastrophe actually affected people to the extent that they might be quite angry with them. I am not speaking of the kind of empathy that arrives after the fact; the kind of empathy where the power structures hand out money to the lower class as compensation for losses and in exchange for silence. Rather, I am speaking of the kind of empathy that drives policy from the ground up. The kind that is institutionalized; embedded deep within the political culture – a total understanding of how the overwhelming majority of people in this country actually live and the realities they face on a daily basis. That empathy is non-existent.
People are made of stories, not atoms.
Because when public officials speak to average citizens, or talk about average citizens, they do so as if they’re referring to another species of people they’ve only read about in books. When they meet with them and shake their hands – it’s a transient moment, to be forgotten about the minute that official lays their head down to sleep at night. When they visit them because political theater demands it, they are tourists in an alien environment; just visiting.
This is not to say all public officials are callous or uncaring. I’m not trying to paint a picture of sinister intent, but rather one of outright ignorance (in the literal sense of the word: lacking knowledge or information). Due to the significant social class divide in this country, these officials are simply not privy to the realities faced by others. It’s a context that isn’t relatable to them. And because this isn’t a democracy where we get to choose people from amongst the crowd and hold them accountable, we are stuck with an appointed, top-down power structure that is disconnected from the majority, and inevitably views them as ‘the other’.
This lack of operating context can’t help but reveal itself in times of crises, like the emperor with no clothes. From the lifting of fuel subsidies and the continuous tax hikes to their city outright drowning, sweeping away their possessions or family members – people are pushed to the brink, and react. How the political elite view or deal with this reaction is usually dismissively, due to the critical knowledge gap they operate under. There might be some awareness, but little understanding – and the difference between the two is all the difference. Because you’d have to walk a mile in those wet, wet shoes.
Of course, this divide is a two-way street.
In this specific context, while officials wonder who on Earth would live in a basement apartment, the average citizen cannot fathom how the political elite have been unable to resolve the problem of their city drowning, over and over again. Alexa, Bushra, Huda – the storm names of just the past five years have been piling up, and in their wake they remind us of the conditions average people live under, and the fact that this erratic weather is a new normal. With every storm, people do what they have to do to prepare for the worst. The elite look at this and wonder disapprovingly why the lines at the bakeries are so long when a snow storm approaches. They, and their social strata, will chastise them on Twitter.
Survival means something completely different to the haves and have nots.
So when you have this strata of society of which political officials are drawn from, you inevitably have the top-down policymaking and lack of accountability that has bred the injustices this population has grown accustomed to being silent about. Subsequently, public officials do not “serve” the people that elected them, they are appointed to “help” the people. We are ‘given’, and we ‘receive’ and we are told to be grateful. But when a black swan emerges, and push comes to shove, and officials are forced to defend their institutions or roles – they do so with the same top-down attitude. A vernacular of condescension, where, between the lines, you’re essentially told that you, as an average citizen, cannot possibly grasp the political reality. And maybe that’s true, but there’s an actual day-to-day, socio-economic reality that the appointed political elite cannot possibly fathom either.
Take for instance deaths by asphyxiation – an annual, winter occurrence. Every winter, people are found suffocated in a room with a rusty red, Aladdin gas heater, with the windows closed and maybe even a towel under the door to trap the heat. Sometimes, it’s even an entire family. In the past few years, we’ve all read headlines like, “Family Dies in Mafraq gas heater accident” or “Gas leak kills family of seven” or “Newlyweds die of gas heater fumes” or “6 suffer from Asphyxia in Karak”, and so on.
What the headline don’t tell you, what they cannot possibly portray, are the conditions that these families lived in. The fact that the room they were found in likely reeked of mold - wallpapering the cold concrete all year long – and was likely the only room in the “house” to begin with. The fact that that gas-powered heater is the only source of heat for a family of six, the fact that to stay warm they sleep next to each other on cheap sponge mattresses, that there is no central heating or no heated floors or a fireplace demanding costly wood – none of this comes across in the headlines. Knowledge gap.
So every year, despite awareness raising campaigns, another handful of victims are claimed to asphyxiation. I used to wonder, how is it possible that this happens every year? How is it possible that people haven’t been heeding the warnings or learning from example? When it happens every winter, there can’t possibly be a father that closes the bedroom door at night without realizing that the gathering fumes are deadly. But the reality is likely that this father is thinking about how his family is going to survive another cold night, and they take a deadly, but rather calculated risk. Freeze to death, die silently of gas fumes, or manage to make it through the night and live another day. When you’re not a member of the elite, your options become drastically limited.
However, these prevailing realities are not something officials are constantly conscious of enough to factor in when policies are designed, or when a reaction to an unexpected event is demanded. Being unelected, they do not come from these communities, and more importantly, they do not view themselves as accountable except to the King and, on the rare occasion, to the court of public opinion - a storm they can confidently maneuver given that the public has temporarily taken the road of silence. They view poverty as theoretical and hypothetical, rather than a tangible reality.
Subsequently, they look at these storms as mere passing weather, and indeed, even the middle class (and I include myself in this category) will tend to see it the same way. We don’t see it as a catastrophe because for many of us, our belongings weren’t swept away, or our loved ones didn’t have to be rescued from basements or ground floor windows. Our jobs do not demand we be on the streets, and so we outsource that reality to the policemen, to the army, to the sanitation workers, to the unsung heroes whose photos populate our social networks to the praise of those who sacrificed nothing.
“The city was flooded; it didn’t drown,” insisted the Mayor recently, correcting a journalist’s question on TV. But it did my dear Mayor, you just operate in a very different context. For many, that’s exactly what happened – the city drowned.
And beyond there are four drowned bodies to prove it.