Abroad in Jordan: Place and Identity

Palestine is everywhere in Jordan.

The first ways it manifests itself to a newcomer are in the small, tangible things: little Palestinian flags hanging from rearview mirrors in taxis, I love Palestine bracelets and trinkets in gift shops, black-and-white patterned kuffiyehs.

It exists in the people too. Over half the population of Jordan consists of members of the Palestinian diaspora—people who fled their homes after 1948 or West Bankers who left in 1967 after their homes came under Israel’s control. Almost everybody I meet here in Jordan is Palestinian, even if they were born in Jordan and have full Jordanian citizenship, as most Palestinian-Jordanians do. Ask them where they are from, and they’ll name the Palestinian city or village their grandparents or great-grandparents fled decades ago. Nablus, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Jenin, Hebron; the list goes on and on. Most have assimilated into Jordanian life but almost 400,000 still live in the ten recognized Palestinian refugee camps around the country, and thousands of Palestinian refugees from neighboring Syria now seek asylum in Jordan as well.

Downtown Amman, Jordan.  (Photo by Madeline Edwards)

Downtown Amman, Jordan. (Photo by Madeline Edwards)

Even Jordan’s Queen Rania is herself of Palestinian descent, a fact that exacerbates the often tense feud between native East Bankers from Jordan and native West Bankers from Palestine. One way the fued is carried out is through soccer matches – Jordanians support the Faisaly team while Palestinians root for the Wahidat.

I tried to have somewhat of an idea of what Palestine meant before I first travelled there to see it in its most real-life forms, outside of the collective memories of its diaspora here in Jordan. I wanted to see what Palestine meant as a physical place for the people who actually live there.

At face value, the physical place of Palestine is the West Bank, parts of Jerusalem and Gaza. With the exception of Gaza, I’ve now travelled somewhat extensively around this place during my year in the Middle East. Even now I have only the semblance of an idea of what Palestine means as a place and identity. I’ve crossed back and forth across the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank and I’ve taken a number of random local minibuses across the territory to see where in the hilly pastoral landscape they take me.

They took me to many places that seemed relatively normal. I passed through the Qalandiya checkpoint one night to enter Jerusalem from the West Bank, cheered along through the rotating metal gate by a rowdy club soccer team returning from a match they won in Ramallah. They made the eerie, cage-like checkpoint seem less frightening with their joking and horsing around in soccer uniforms. Earlier that day, I walked through Ramallah’s bustling Friday market, passing by families doing daily life activities – shopping for groceries and household goods, stopping to snack on sweet corn and fresh-squeezed juice.

Friday market in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank.  (Photo by Madeline Edwards)

Friday market in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank. (Photo by Madeline Edwards)

Those clunky minibuses also took me to things that should never be a part of daily life. One afternoon I walked down Shuhadda Street, the thoroughfare that divides the tense West Bank city Hebron between the Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers. My Palestinian friends couldn’t accompany me down the street because they aren’t allowed. Their aging apartments border the street – they are forbidden from entering the rooms that face Shuhadda.  I shuffled along, every now and then presenting my passport to young Israeli soldiers stationed at small checkpoints along the street.

I had tea and ma’amoul, an Arab dessert, with a Palestinian elder of Hebron – his young son entered the room with a cast on his arm, apparently broken from rocks thrown by settlers. I later walked through the old city of Hebron beneath haphazard fencing placed above the streets by the residents – homemade protection from rocks and debris thrown from settlements built on top of the run-down Palestinian shops.  What did Palestine mean to those residents of Hebron, restricted in their own physical homes?

I sipped a beer wearing my bikini on the beach worlds away from Hebron in Tel Aviv, sunning until sunset with young Israelis. I noticed the occasional Palestinian-Israeli family pass by pushing a baby stroller or gathering together to barbecue hamburgers and kebabs on public grills. What did Palestine mean to those families, holders of Israeli citizenship?

Sunset on the beach in Tel Aviv.  (Photo by Sebastian Nicholls)

Sunset on the beach in Tel Aviv. (Photo by Sebastian Nicholls)

I attended the opening of a pizza shop in Palestinian East Jerusalem and fell in love with the fresh homemade taste of the warm crust. I asked the proud new owner for another slice in my best Palestinian Arabic, and to my surprise, he responded in a heavy New Jersey accent. “I felt like I had to come back home,” he told me when I asked why he moved to East Jerusalem from the states.  To him, home was a concept and a place, both inextricably tied to his Palestinian identity.

I walked along the part of the separation wall that runs beside the West Bank city of Bethlehem, and the colorful Banksy-inspired graffiti told me Palestine meant something to people far away from here. Honduras ama Palestina.

 A young Israeli I was chilling with in Tel Aviv told me Palestine shouldn’t mean something to people far away from here. “It’s not your fight,” he said. I’m still not sure which of the two was right – him or the graffiti.

The separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.  (Photo by Madeline Edwards)

The separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (Photo by Madeline Edwards)

I have countless friends, teachers, classmates and neighbors here in Jordan who proudly claim Palestinian ancestry when asked where they are from. As for whether or not they’d actually go back and live there if given the chance – I don’t know. Maybe that’s not even the point. I think the point is the pride and cohesiveness of a collective identity that almost makes up for not living in one’s home – much like the displaced Armenians, Assyrians and Circassians who live here in Jordan and across much of the region.  The collective struggle and tragedy of a group lends to its collective memory and identity.  

We Americans love for things to be clear and defined. I don’t know if Palestine will ever be either of those things. Both a physical home for the people who live there and a spiritual home for those who claim Palestinian identity – it’s one of the enigmas I’ve encountered as a foreigner here in the Middle East.


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Madeline is a senior at the College studying International Studies and Political Science. She just returned to Charleston from a year abroad in Jordan, where she discovered her passion for traveling throughout the Middle East.

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