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Jordan Crossings

Joseph A. MassadColonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan.  New York: Columbia UP, 2001.  Paperback, 396 pages, ISBN: 0-231-12323-x.

In Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, a book that is painstakingly researched (there are almost 75 pages of end notes alone), Joseph A. Massad explores and analyzes the roles of the Jordanian government and the military in devising and shaping a Jordanian national identity during both the British mandate period over Transjordan in the colonial era and the postcolonial period in modern Jordan.  “Jordanian identity, like all national identities, is in flux today,” he writes.  “As a reactive identity — and indeed all identities are reactive — it seems to have a better idea of what it is not than of what it actually is” (275).  Massad’s analyses are solidly argued and well-supported with intriguing historical and cultural details, and Colonial Effects makes a substantial contribution to postcolonial questions of national identity in the Middle East and all postcolonial nations.

The unique problem of Jordan is that it was a nation that cobbled together several different groups (including various Bedouin tribes, Circassians, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and Chechens — and later Palestinians) whom it called upon to be “citizens” of the British-backed new nation; the nation needed to create a Jordanian identity and then convince or coerce these groups to adopt it.  In the first chapter, “Codifying the Nation: Law and the Articulation of National Identity in Jordan,” Massad describes the codification of law as part of the Jordanian nationalist project.  Codification, he explains, is “the productive act of identifying subjects as national,” and the government worked hand in hand with the military to both repress Jordanians and produce a national Jordanian identity.  The Nationality Law, enacted in 1928, established the criteria by which a person was considered a “Transjordanian” (as the country was then known as “Transjordan”): those criteria included paternity requirements (one’s father had to be a Transjordanian) and/or geographical factors (one had to have been born in an area considered Transjordan, even retroactively, if one was born before the creation of the nation).  If absolutely necessary, the Transjordanian identity of the mother could be used, if either of the two criteria above was not met, but, according to Massad, this “contingent agency that women/mothers are granted as substitute fathers is at best supplementary and at worst gratuitous” (37).  Furthermore, Massad points out, this and other elements of the Nationality Law were copied verbatim from British nationality laws, demonstrating the far-reaching influence of the colonial establishment on the “nationalist” enterprise.

The great pains taken by the government to assimilate these different groups to the new Jordanian nationality are described in Chapter 2, “Different Spaces as Different Times: Law and Geography in Jordanian Nationalism.”  Here, Massad focuses on Bedouins and women, both of whom did not seem to fit the Jordanian government’s ideal of a Jordanian citizen.  Bedouins were primarily recruited to the army, but were not accorded the same social and civil rights as other male citizens (this inequality changed after the Bedouins helped quell the Palestinian guerrillas during the 1970 Civil War, referred to as “Black September”).  Although Bedouins were not initially accorded the same rights, their culture was appropriated by the Jordanian government; it was refined and redefined, then dubbed the authentic Jordanian traditional cultural identity.  One example of cultural appropriation is the stardom of Samirah Tawfiq, a Lebanese singer whose claim to fame was her “Jordanian Bedouin songs.”  As Massad says, “Her ostentatious, gaudy dresses, which were supposedly inspired by Bedouin style, although they resembled nothing that Bedouin women, of any tribe, ever wore, added to her ‘Bedouin’ aura.  Her songs . . . included Urdunn al-Qufiyyah al-Hamra‘ (‘Jordan of the Red Kuffiyyah’), and many more ‘traditional’ songs composed for her by the architects of Jordan’s new cultural image” (72).  I personally remember several movies made by Tawfiq, in which she starred in the role of a young Bedouin girl, such as Bedouiyyah fi Barees (“A Bedouin [Girl] in Paris”), in which she chases after a modernized Jordanian man, wearing her Bedouin dresses and veil as she hunts for him in the streets of the glamorous French capital.

In Chapter 3, “Cultural Syncretism or Colonial Mimic Men: Jordan’s Bedouins and the Military Basis of National Identity,” Massad examines “how white colonial masculinity is institutionalized in a colonized domain as an ambivalent model for nationalist agency, later conceived as ‘anti-colonial’ ” (101).  He reasserts his Foucauldian perspective that the military and government played a repressive, but also a productive role, “producing a national identity as well as central aspects of what becomes national culture itself” (101).  Massad offers historical detail on John Glubb, known as Pasha Glubb, the British general and chief of the Jordanian army and “a classic Orientalist” (123), whose project “entailed molding the Bedouin’s body and mind into something new” (117) by designing clothing for the Bedouin soldiers and crafting them into men who embodied notions of Empire.

In Chapters 4 (“Nationalizing the Military: Colonial Legacy as National Heritage”) and 5 (“The Nation as an Elastic Entity: The Expansion and Contraction of Jordan”), Massad discusses the Palestinian question, and the effects of the flow of Palestinians into Jordan after the 1948 defeat of the Arab armies by Israel and the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River.  Massad’s unrelenting portrayal of the Jordanian government’s and military’s involvement in the Palestinian plight is enlightening.  He argues that while Jordanian nationalism (which took many forms) was initially established with colonialism and imperialism as the “other” against which it defined itself, nationalism after the flow of Palestinians into the country became more exclusivist, and came to define the Palestinian identity as its “other.”  He argues that, in an act of self-protection and political survival, the government sought to “Jordanize” the Palestinians while still enacting legal measures to ensure that a social and cultural gap between them and Jordanians was never breached: “The state’s attempt to Jordanize Palestinians was always in contradiction to its express policy at many moments since 1948 to foster divisions between Transjordanians and Palestinians . . . in order to prevent any class alliances between the two groups that might turn against the monarchy itself” (274).  For example, the word “Palestine” was abolished and replaced with the phrase “West Bank” in all Jordanian official documents and media, and the 1948 establishment of a Palestinian government was quickly sabotaged by King Abdallah, resulting in its disbanding.  In this Chapter, Massad offers further cultural differences between the Palestinian-Jordanians and the Jordanians, such as the way in which Jordanian men wore a red headscarf and Palestinian-Jordanians wore a black one, as well as the accents adopted by the two groups.

Massad’s Colonial Effects is an enlightening exploration of national identity construction that, as Massad is careful to point out, can illuminate the process of identity creation not only in Jordan, but in many other postcolonial nations as well.


Susan Muaddi Darraj is Associate Professor of English at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland, and Senior Editor of The Baltimore Review.  She is author of The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly.  This article was fist published in Jouvert 7.2. (Winter/Spring 2003); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  See, also, Susan Muaddi Darraj, “Understanding the Other Sister: The Case of Arab Feminism” (Monthly Review, March 2002).




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