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The Slow Awakening: Culture and Generational Conflict in Amman

What could make for a generational conflict in such a historically-new city as Amman? As I ask myself this question, I remember that this is a normal process in any city that is still in the process of developing an identity. A keen observer of Jordan will notice that a number of economic and geopolitical factors play an important role in formulating the modern urban and cultural identity of its capital; Amman, one that is far from being a planned development controlled by the Jordanian state.

By Yazan Ashqar

It could be said that there’s a turn towards an Awakening1 where national institutions are constantly questioned by Jordanian youths, where changing values are situated between two contradictions: first; a daily political/economic reality that affects culture, education, family relations, as well as the dynamics between the youth and urban life, and second; the media representation of the cultural values of the youth.

The influx of refugees after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011 affected Jordan’s economic, political, social and cultural landscapes. Sure enough, diversity is promoting a healthier environment of cultural exchange and dialogue in Amman, but the stagnant state reforms, governmental mismanagement and corruption, as well as reduced regional aid facilitated maximizing any foreseeable economic burden on Jordan’s infrastructure.

Under these contradictions, two generational cultural conflicts are now in the process of realization in Amman; a formation of an independent cultural identity that crosses the Bedouin/peasant politicized identities, which is also a political one - as argued by Dr. Aseel Sawalha; a Jordanian researcher who is currently researches this identity - and a desire for more individual freedom. This generational ‘shifting of values’ is projected not just on one sector of the Jordanian society but on society as a whole, even if such a suggested grouping implies some sort of unity.

But on the contrary, the concept of a culturally-unified Jordanian society doesn’t exist, but only propagated by national and official media. Any act of zooming in will find many complex and interrelated sets of norms, traditions and cultural values that goes across the many socio-economic divides. In this regard, any talk about a generational cultural conflict should necessarily take this reality into consideration.

Exposure to western lifestyle and cultural values, mediated by large viewership of foreign film and TV productions, the internet, and lately the rising number of foreign expats residing in Amman and their various methods of interactions with the local youth (in jobs made possible by NGOs, and also in cultural neighborhoods such as Jabal Al-Lweibdeh and Jabal Amman) are all helping in provoking a cultural shift in values where it is economically and culturally viable to do so. Although the family-centered society is still preserved at large like almost anywhere in the Middle East, yet it is faced with objections from a large sector of Ammani youth seeking more sense of individuality, privacy, freedom of cultural and political expression, living independently, postponing marriage, and creating and subscribing to subcultures. Nevertheless, it shouldn't be overshadowed that marriage can sometimes be an easy way out for capable males and females.

Although a lot of youth are seeking more individualism and private accommodation, tough cultural and economic reality in Jordan is a major obstacle. Traditionally, and still contemporarily, male youth are expected to obtain a university degree, work in a 9 to 5 stable job, save money, get married and ‘open a house’, foster children with his wife, and continue living a normal life as designated by society. Both Males and females are expected to live in their family homes until either is married. Culturally, for most parents from the older generations, it's not even comprehensible why a young person wants to live alone independently, even after graduation. If this is hard for male youth, it is nearly impossible for single females to live alone independently, with some few exceptions such as pursuing a degree in a university in another city, where females generally live in student housing with strict rules applied, or being a single mother with kids.

Even if cultural barriers are non-existent, there is still an economic obstacle is still for them to face, as the cost of living in Amman is expensive, and the current CPI sits at 120, according to statistics from TradingEconomics.com. Even More, youth are finding it harder more than ever to find a job after graduation. According to Jordan’s department of statistics, unemployment rates reached 18 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (13.4 % for males, 33.4% for females). Even if a fresh graduate landed a job, it's even harder to start with a decent salary, or even a fair gradual/annual salary increases to afford a decent living.

In terms of media representation of local cultural identities, Amman lacked a local media image, after local television productions started to deteriorate in the 1990’s; and it can be said that there is an under-representation of the Jordanian middle-class culture since the state shifted its focus to represent Bedouin tribal cultures rather than a peasant/urban background to harness popular support for its base2, there was an underrepresentation of middle-class culture in the local television programs, fictional TV series, and even local newspapers. The private sector tried to intervene, and the single most successful attempt was the establishment of "Roya TV” in 2011 by a local Jordanian investor. Its daily programming, and various series such as Caravan; a youth talk show, and the comedy series Female, mainly focused on the one thing that was lacking; the social and cultural life of the Ammani middle class and its youth, and now it is receiving a good amount of local exposure.

With almost everything centralized in Amman, the changing of cultural values is more likely to be fast-paced there. There are far more cultural events and activities happening on an almost daily basis in Amman than ever before. Individuality and the shifting of values finds its expression mostly in cultural activities. The arts and culture scene in Amman is flourishing more than ever. More independent art spaces, galleries, hubs, and cultural cafes are opening, financed by individuals or organizations. Cultural initiatives such as book reading clubs are opening in numbers all over Jordan, and events such as rock and hip hop live music from regionally famous local artist bands are a regular thing now. This high exposure to international arts and cultural events, including art exhibitions, a design week which just completed its second annual run, film festivals and screenings, talks and panels, and other arts and culture forms, and the interaction with expats all help in facilitating this shifting of values.

The explosion of cultural activities in Amman implies a sense of hope in the midst of all these difficulties. While the previous generation is smeared by political defeat, large parts of the newer generations, politicized or not, are realizing that the only way to move forward is to really just move forward beyond traditional cultural and political values. But faced with the harsh economic reality, this is a tough job to do.