by Alex Ray
“Look, it’s not the traffic, it’s the people’s character,” the Amman taxi driver told me, as the beaten-up Nissan crawled from glitzy Abdoun to the core of the capital at Jebel Amman. The remark caught me off guard; he was the second taxi driver to deliver the same line that day.
Such frank self-criticism was comforting and took us straight past “Where are you from? What is your job? Are you married?” and into the melange of factors contributing to Amman’s often-aggravating public culture.
The Arabic term (akhlaaq) roughly translates as ‘character’ and applies more to personality and morals rather than just behaviour. It was clear that these men were referring to more than just Ammani drivers’ impatience, reluctance to give way, or stick to one lane, among other anti-social conduct.
The driver used a repurposed prayer mat to block the sun (and his view) out of the driver-side window. Then he resorted to the hopeless self-deprecation many Jordanians display when describing their country, telling me, “Even if we had public transport, no one would use it … we all have big heads … we think we are all Prime Ministers who need a black Mercedes.”
Self-centred behaviour in public is not limited to the traffic. I think it can be linked to the limited availability of public space and prevailing cultural attitudes towards it.
Public space and use of public transport, enables relatively free interaction between people from diverse geographic, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, civic interaction is a crucial element in fostering tolerance of diversity, patience, shared usage and civic responsibility. Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouny has even argued that poor urban planning and a lack of shared space contributed to the outbreak of conflict in Syria.
Arab cities are also often characterised by openly acknowledged communal divisions determining residents’ status and who they associate with. Depending on the country, these divisions are often religious and/or ethnic, and related to waves of displacement and migration.
Many Arab cities are characterised by the dominance of private cars (or taxis) and the extreme lack of public space for non-domestic activities such as schooling, shopping, exercise and socialising. As the Economist explains public spaces comprise an average 2% of modern Middle Eastern cities compared with 12% of European cities, according to UN Habitat.
Much of the decline in public space has been due to developer greed, corruption and poor urban planning, and more recently, deliberate attempts to close down spaces where protesters might gather. However, culture also plays a role, most noticeably in respect to class and gender.
Class division is probably the most distinct social division in such heavily privatised cities. The wealthy are the most insulated from the rest of society by their ability to spend nearly all of their lives shuttling between private spaces, in addition to accessing the open space afforded by country clubs, luxury hotels, private beaches and private villas.
Even many of the newly built seemingly ‘public spaces’ such as Beirut’s Downtown, Biel, and Amman’s Abdali Boulevard are really only designed for the wealthy, occupied solely by luxury hotels and stores.
As a white foreigner, I often raise eyebrows among middle to upper class Jordanians and Lebanese by mentioning that I catch the bus. They often show undisguised distaste at the prospect of interacting with lower class people. The reaction is notably worse from women, who face heightened risks of sexual harassment and assault in many Arab cities.
While public transport use is somewhat determined by socioeconomic circumstances and societal conservatism, status-chasing is widespread. As my driver’s remarks suggest, cars are strongly linked to status.
A Syrian-American friend in Lebanon once said, “If I was dictator for a day I would ban the use of valets, it’s disgusting,” referring to the widespread phenomenon of restaurants and clubs employing valets in an attempt to give customers a feeling of exclusivity and special treatment.
Status is not only expressed through upward ambition, but also by ‘talking down’ to one’s social inferiors; doormen, waiters, janitors, garbage collectors and domestic workers are the most noticeable targets.
Such positions are also often filled by imported labour and reflect a well-acknowledged reluctance by many Arabs to do ‘menial’ work. In a country with nearly 20% unemployment (40% for youth), around 30% of Jordan’s workforce are foreigners, mostly Egyptians, Syrians, Filipinos and Sri Lankans. They typically work as domestic labourers, textile workers, janitors and construction labourers. The same dynamics are reflected in Lebanon and Gulf Arab states.
The notoriously poor treatment of these workers in the region reflects a social pecking order, which differs slightly depending on each state’s history and circumstances. In Jordan, poorer Arabs such as Egyptians or Syrian refugees sit only slightly above Filipinos and Sri-Lankans in social ranking and respect. Cases of severe abuse are widespread. In Lebanon, undocumented Palestinians [and many others] are treated as second class citizens by both society and the state.
Maids and building caretakers are also often those tasked with errands in the street and neighbourhood, and experience “high levels of harassment due to prevailing and erroneous stereotypes, with Sri Lankan and Philippine maids facing more severe harassment,” says researcher Myriam Ababsa.
Sexual harassment though, is a more diffuse phenomenon in Arab public space. Diffuse in the sense that it is everywhere, all the time – and ingrained public culture is largely to blame.
Anyone familiar with old Arab cities will recognise the distinct housing patterns of enclosing open space within internal courtyards behind high walls, with few or no windows. These courtyards often were and remain the domain of women and children, who are able to go about their business free from social rules regarding interacting with strangers and members of the opposite sex. This helps to explain why public space is still largely considered the domain of men, and therefore a major factor in the prevalence of sexual harassment says Ababsa.
The dire lack of physical spaces where women can even begin to claim acceptance of and respect for their presence in public life is a major obstacle to improving gender dynamics. Even the place most powerfully associated with communal gatherings in Muslim Arab culture, the mosque (al-jaama’- literally the place of gathering), is strictly gender divided.
When I first moved to Amman in 2013 it was not uncommon for Western malls to deny entry to unaccompanied young men on the basis of protecting female clientele from harassment. Many restaurants still segregate “family rooms” for mixed gender groups from the rooms for men only, while nightclubs and bars openly advertise entrance only to “couples or mixed groups” and deny entry to single men.
The University of Jordan campus is one of Amman’s largest green open (but not public) spaces. For most students, who almost certainly attended single-sex high schools, it is the first time they are able to mix freely with members of the opposite sex who they do not know through family. For a Westerner, the social immaturity on display is telling; in scenes reminiscent of a primary-school dance, giggling clusters of boys and girls cast furtive glances and pass anonymous love notes. Here, even among society’s best-educated, sexual harassment is also rampant (link in Arabic).
To understand the extent of the policing of gender and space, consider that in Jordan it is still illegal for unmarried Jordanian men and women to live together. This means house sharing – considered an important stage of maturation in the West – is uncommon amongst Jordanian youth. In many areas of Amman, landlords will not let foreigners rent apartments for mixed genders and neighbours are known to complain to the landlord about forbidden or salacious activity if men and women are seen to be fraternising in any way.
Culturally as well as geographically, Jordan’s streets and shopping areas bridge the difference between nearby Lebanon’s more open acceptance of women in public and the extreme policing of women’s movements in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf.
In most of Amman, women are not free to walk around unburdened by the threat of harassment, and the sight of women walking alone or in groups is often taken as a free pass to harass them. Outside of shopping malls it is very rare to find a woman behind a shop counter. Even women’s lingerie stores are staffed by men.
Consider the phenomenon of street prostitution in Amman, which takes place largely during safer daylight hours. In the areas surrounding the University of Jordan for example, small groups of women clad in head to toe black abayas distinguish themselves by simply standing in the street, negotiating their services with the occupants of passing cars.
There are other instances where public culture has obvious links to broader social phenomena.
Locals and foreigners in Amman and Beirut readily admit that queuing is often not respected. Politely waiting your turn can often be a recipe for frustration, encouraging a culture of pushing in to get things done. How effective you are in receiving attention then depends on age, sex, ethnicity and perceived social status.
In other contexts, a culture of not respecting queues easily mixes with wasta (Arabic for a complex form of socio-economic nepotism) and pervasive corruption to severely degrade bureaucratic and administrative processes.
A lack of civic responsibility has also created a dichotomy between the way people treat their own property and shared space. While pride in the cleanliness of the home is common, the lack of neighbourhood, or communal responsibility for public space is stark, resembling an ‘if it’s not mine, then it’s not my problem’ attitude.
Even in wealthy areas, well-kept houses often sit next to empty lots and alleys full of dumped rubbish, and broken footpaths. Disposal of trash directly onto the streets indicates a severe lack of pride in, and respect for the city.
Public infrastructure and regulation is lacking at the most basic levels. An Ammani landlord told me that municipalities in Jordan are only responsible for the roads, not the footpaths – meaning each landlord must arrange for the private construction of their section of footpath. If a footpath is built at all, it can be done in many different and often dangerous ways.
Just as driving a car provides the physical and mental insulation and stress that allows one to be far more aggressive to another than could occur on foot, so can a lack of public space impact the way people interact.