Within hours of reports that the Governor of Amman, Khaled Abu Zaid, had, at the behest of a member of parliament – cancelled the much-anticipated concert of the Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, due to the band’s work being “incompatible” with Jordanian customs and traditions – waves of dissent echoed through social media.
“If this is about our customs, why do they allow for scanty artists to play in hotels and nightclubs?” asked one citizen. “Culture cannot thrive where ignorance is shoved so far down your throat until you’re forced to call it tradition,” wrote Ban Barkawi. “The issue isn’t just about the lack of respect towards art and music,” said Jordanian musician Yacoub Abu Ghosh, “The issue is about a direct attack on the constitution and law that guarantees freedom of expression.”
“It’s such a shame that we still live in a world where people are prosecuted for refusing to conform to an idea of who we are supposed to be and how we’re supposed to think,” wrote pianist Dina Tal.
“This is larger than Mashrou’ Leila,” wrote activist and writer, Nermeen Murad. “[There] is an entrenched system that is “cutting its nose to spite its face”. Banning diversity is what is contributing to the threat to our security and not the other way around.”
In a statement posted on Facebook, the band was officially informed that their performance would have been “at odds with what the Ministry of Tourism viewed as the “authenticity” of the site,” despite having played at the Roman Theater, where the concert was to be held, several times in recent years. In a statement the band said:
“Informally, the story is much more problematic. We have been unofficially informed that the reason behind this sudden change of heart, few days before the concert day, is the intervention of some authorities. Our understanding is that said authorities have pressured certain political figures and triggered a chain of events that ultimately ended with our authorization being withdrawn.
We also have been unofficially informed that we will never be allowed to play again anywhere in Jordan due to our political and religious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom.”
The banning of the band is problematic, and not just for the people who bought tickets. There’s obviously much more at stake here.
First, let’s put aside the conventional arguments regarding tourism (despite the ability of this particular band to draw in large crowds, both locally and throughout the region), as well as the official statement claiming a clash with the “authenticity” of a historic site (in a country that commonly hosts crummy mainstream musicians in its historic sites). Let’s put this all aside and simply recognize it as the bullshit that it is, because we’re smart enough to smell it.
Censorship is just the tool, it’s the status quo that’s the problem here, and in case you haven’t noticed – the status quo hasn’t exactly been working for us.
The problem, which has been highlighted by many Jordanians in the past 24 hours since the announcement, can be summed up in one word: pluralism, or really, a lack thereof. This is the lack of political pluralism within a political sphere that is empowered to erode and curtail any attempts at cultural pluralism, within a country that badly needs it.
We’ve seen this all before. This has always been the general attitude conservatives possess in Jordan, resorting to the knee-jerk “customs and traditions” mantra as a way to ban or censor any type of media they see as being at odds with the mainstream. Whether it’s a song, an artist, a film, a book, or even an opinion, every time we’ve seen the “customs and traditions” mantra evoked, it is typically followed by censorship; the best surgical tool the state has to keep pluralism at bay, and maintain the status quo. Censorship is just the tool, it’s the status quo that’s the problem here, and in case you haven’t noticed – the status quo hasn’t exactly been working for us.
Whenever this is pointed out, the conventional argument for security and stability tends to also creep up, and while this too is another serving of populist bullshit, it might be more critical to note that while a boat in the harbor is safe, that’s not what boats were built for.
The status quo is about keeping things as they are, in a world that is moving quickly and a society that wants to do more than just stand still. Society wants to thrive, and it wants to progress; not depreciate on the sharp decline of a region gone to hell. To achieve this, there is a requirement to accept diversity in all its forms. There is a need to have an environment where more than one idea can be accepted, where a multitude of viewpoints can come together to create something better, where we can forge a better version of ourselves. Without that, the future will be indistinguishable from the past.
So the country is currently split unevenly between those that want to move forward and those that prefer to stand still; progressives and conservatives. The latter, unfortunately, remains politically empowered. The latter, unfortunately, considers the Arab Spring just some passing bad weather, rather than the cognitive shift it has been. The latter, unfortunately, fails to see the long game. The latter, unfortunately, does not recognize diversity, even when it’s right in front of them.
The only diversity Jordan has ever really been home to are the elements that have been thrust upon it. The story of Jordan is the story of refugees – people that have shaped this country for over a century, bringing their own customs, traditions, and more importantly, ideas, along with them, and embedding them into a changing society. This is who we are, and this is what we’ve always been.
So whenever that “customs and traditions” mantra is evoked, it feels like another anchor sinking to the bottom of the harbor, keeping that boat as motionless as possible.
This lack of pluralism, this lack of diversity within culture, within society, within the body politic, permeates into everything. It is our identity crisis manifested. If you don’t look like me, if you don’t speak like me, if you don’t dress like me, if you don’t carry a familiar family name like me, if you don’t believe what I believe, if your silhouette doesn’t match the contours of the archetypical Jordanian we’ve imagined in our heads – that cardboard cutout that we believe has magically remained untouched and unspoiled by foreign elements – then you are at odds with me. You are not “one of us”. If you have to live here, then fine, we’ll tolerate you, but don’t you think of importing those “foreign” ideas of yours. Keep them at the border.
This conservative belief is what has us living with a 19th century mindset in a 21st century world. It’s an ideological position that fails to see a country that has already, and continues to be, dramatically reshaped. The last census notes the expansion of the population by 87% in the last decade alone. One third of the Kingdom consists of people that do not carry Jordanian citizenship, and around 38.6% of the Jordanian population now lives in Amman, which is also home to half the non-Jordanian population. Let those figures sink in for just a minute. Isn’t this a declaration that our society has been physically altered? Doesn’t the reality that surrounds us relatively ensure that these alterations are now permanent, and not simply a passing crisis or bad weather?
Now, throw technology into this eclectic mix; the ability for the overwhelming majority of Jordanians – that are under the age of 30 and grew up online – to be exposed to a diverse range of content, ideas and perspectives they could never get from a defunct public education system or a censored mainstream media.
Throw the post-2011 blues into this medley, a scene that saw the youth retreat from the pavements of disappointing protest to find temporary solace in social media – gravitating towards newly formed digital groups that embrace a variety of cultural, social, and political beliefs. We may be hiding behind the safety of hashtags, but the access we have to alternative music, alternative film, alternative news, alternative perspectives, alternative debate, is simply put – infinite (at least when the state isn’t busy trying to censor it).
In other words – this is a society that has already changed, and continues to change. And a changing society is one that naturally challenges customs and traditions; breaking them, refashioning them, compounding them – because that’s what’s supposed to happen to customs. The problem is that the people who either do not recognize this change, haven’t experienced it, or simply fear it because it challenges the identity imposed on them or the status quo they’ve grown accustomed to and thrive in – are the same people that have been granted the political authority to deny and actively resist that change. And who better to empower with decision-making authority than conservatives that have not only failed to truly recognize the impact of a society that has changed dramatically since the Arab Spring erupted, but fail to comprehend the impact of their decisions in the long run. Yes, many of those decision makers have been “elected” by the people (insert cautious question mark), so one could argue the people have only themselves to blame – but most of the people making decisions in this country are appointees.
The banning of Mashrou Leila is really just another symbolic symptom of the disease we carry. It’s a reminder of the unchanging status quo.
But think about this for a minute: when plurality is rejected, censored or banned, what kind of country does it yield? Think about the status quo that will exist a decade from now, and the country you’ll be living in, and raising your family in. What kind of country does this look like? Is it a country that can operate smoothly in the digital global village it must live in? Is it a country that has evolved from the collision and fusion of ideas unhindered by conventionality? Is it a country that is home to a diverse political landscape? Is it a country whose youth are open-minded, critical, and progressive, or a country whose youth have grown up to become more radicalized in the only two permissible options available to them: religion or nationalism?
This is obviously not about a single event being canceled, or a single band expelled, or even what Mashrou’ Leila’s body of work represents culturally for a post-Arab Spring youth that have undoubtedly found a voice in the rapidly evolving alternative cultural spectrum. The banning of Mashrou’ Leila is really just another symbolic symptom of the disease we carry. It’s a reminder of the unchanging status quo. A reminder of all the times we’ve seen these symptoms crop up over the years, and more so in a post-2011 Jordan where “preservation” has trumped “progression” under the guise of a cautious “go slow” attitude from the powers-that-be. It’s a reminder that pluralism is still banned in Jordan, let alone accepted.
But more importantly, it’s a reminder of a status quo the people have failed to challenge, or, have collectively decided to steer clear of out of fear from rocking the boat. That failure is a collective burden. It’s on us. We allow for it. If past reactions to state infringements on freedoms and diversity are any evidence – and they have been many since 2011 – then the banning of Mashrou’ Leila will be met with an immediate howl that will taper off in a matter of days. The people in power know this. The people in power rely on this inaction. They dangle shiny objects to distract us, and we, the audience, with our collective short-term memory loss, relish it.
That is perhaps, our biggest problem of all.
And now, we continue with our regular scheduled programming: