New Website

Thank you for stopping by. This blog will no longer be updated. I have created a website that includes the material found here and much more. Please visit:



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Moving to a New Site

Please note that I am working on a new website that will have many features that will allow me to expand and offer you even more content and tools. This site will also be regularly updated. I will announce the launch of the website and provide you the address here very soon. Thank you for visiting this blog.

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The View from Jordan

The country of Jordan is sometimes called a mosaic. It is literally home to one of the oldest mosaics in the world, including the famous Holy Land map. Symbolically, it is also home to many different people who fled war and turmoil in the region. Its stability and hospitality over the years welcomed refugees from Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and even Sudan. It’s a temporary workplace for migrant workers and students, including 500,000 Egyptians and others outside the region. It’s a country of nearly six million people. It’s also a country that struggles with identity, including political and social identity.

When three suicide bombers struck Amman and killed over 60 Jordanians in 2005, there was no doubt people in Jordan were united, both in the way that people do when such a tragedy strikes and in protest. But it is also a country that has witnessed civil unrest in its history and where the notion of citizenship is trumpeted by tribal affiliations, country of origin or even personal interests. In fact, that seems to be what Jordan does not share with Egypt or Tunisia. What we see on our television screens are Egyptians united (for now) in their discontent at the lack of political and economic reform as well as police brutality and humiliation. Jordanians in such a case would be split in their allegiances but not their grievances — between their discontent with the status quo, their love for their land and suspicion of what others, even in their own society really want to see if serious political reform is implemented.

Sometimes people say Amman is Jordan; half the population lives in the capital. Amman is where infrastructure development and investments mostly have taken place. For Jordanians who have not traveled outside of Jordan, Amman is also the place where East meets West, culturally. However, it is hard to ignore the other half of the population. Some Jordanians, who live outside of Amman, commute daily by public transportation to work in large grocery stores, malls, telephone companies, banks, non-governmental organizations, café’s and restaurants. What they see is another world, different from theirs: Young students who attend universities and others who have traveled abroad on a grant. They meet customers and colleagues who speak about future plans, opportunities they hope to seek if they work hard or find the right person to help them.

Jordanians living outside of Amman return to their homes feeling more frustrated. They feel discouraged. They understand what they don’t have. They continue to believe that where they are born defines who they are. If they don’t know the right people, they are stuck. If they do badly on a mandatory high school exam, their future is bleak. They feel split between family obligations and their newfound individualism and ambition. Of course, some in Amman also feel this but it seems more profound to those living outside.

However, Tunisia and Egypt have sparked an amazing yet cautious sense of hope in young people here. A Jordanian friend of mine who works in Egypt and joined protesters in Tahrir Square recently posted a status update on his Facebook page: “Am I the only one who cannot sleep at night? I leave the television switched on all night on the news, so that even if I doze off I know this isn’t just a dream.” Jordanians from all walks of life agree that the status quo cannot remain. Economic grievances, including the price of petrol and tomatoes, became the talk of the town this year. Last year, a joke went around town that a famous Jordanian comedian was presented with an award. At the ceremony he posed with a box of tomatoes because it became such a hot commodity.

Discontent and apathy in the electoral system turned off a lot of voters in Amman during the last parliamentary elections. In other cities there was a higher turnout; they vote mostly for better civil services in their towns, not politics per say. A friend of mine who just returned from conducting a training workshop for children in the city of Petra said tribes there had a list of grievances — most wanted better services, including a recreational center for their children. “A small girl came up to me,” recalled my friend. “She told me: Please don’t go, we want you to teach us. We hate our school and we are so bored here.” My friend looked away and then announced, “The town is dead. They have nothing to do.”

There have been numerous reports in the western media equating Jordan with Tunisia and Egypt. It’s an exaggeration. There were nearly a thousand people scattered in the kingdom during a protest I attended last Friday. Indeed, Jordan is like a mosaic. The big picture is clear. The list of grievances heard in Egypt and Tunisia are also heard here: lack of political reform, limited freedom of expression, failed economic reform, high unemployment rate.

Nevertheless, when we examine the situation carefully in Jordan, it is difficult to see a united consensus of what exactly reform would mean or what democracy would entail. Will it include a return to the National Agenda Reform? Will it include a change in the press and publication laws? Abandoning the vague anti-terrorism penal code? Imprisonment for writings or speeches that undermine national unity, incite others to commit crimes, sow the seeds of hatred and division in society, disrupt society’s basic norms by promoting deviation, spread false information or rumors, incite others to destabilize or organize demonstrations or strikes in contradiction to the law, or commit any act which undermines the dignity and reputation of the state. If democracy is also an evolving culture, will society be willing to move forward and also work to support societal reform? Will reform in the education system, based on memorization and rote learning, be implemented?

Last week, the newly appointed prime minister announced familiar steps to improve Jordan. There were also pledges made in the past but they have not been implemented: Greater press freedom, less corruption, political reform, more jobs and transparency. Today Jordanians seem to be waiting. If implementation fails this time around though, I doubt they will remain quiet.

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Defining Democracy

Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach…” — Alexander de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America.

Published in Huffington Post

On a typical weekday, an ordinary woman from Hempstead, New York taught me an extraordinary lesson on the meaning of democracy. I sat in awe, staring at an elderly American woman with a colored knitted wool cap who could barely walk. She went up to the podium and demanded a playing slide be placed for children in her neighborhood. Of course, it wasn’t so much the request that left me speechless but the notetaking, the nodding, the necessity of being heard by decision-makers, representatives and citizens of that town, who acknowledged her request. For a moment, this old lady’s voice was heard.

It is true that the ‘culture’ of democracy is not always fully practiced in America. Evidence suggests music was played at ear-splitting levels to “humiliate, terrify, punish, disorient and deprive detainees of sleep” during interrogation. Moreover, Farmingville, Long Island was a scene of the highly publicized racist stabbing of 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero. However, there is a search for truth, discussion and debate–a ‘culture’ that promotes this. There can be no truth, or even a search for truth, without free discussion and related freedoms of inquiry of thought and opinion.

Although the word ‘reform’ is heard in countries like Jordan, a deep gap remains between what is said and what is seen. Despite being a small Middle Eastern country that continues to live up to its reputation as a mediator and a safe haven between its troubled neighbors, the ‘culture’ of democracy must include profound moments for ordinary citizens. Representation must be as memorable as the town hall meeting I attended.

The fifth Parliamentary elections will be held in Jordan this November. In the absence of true political reform and understanding of political choice and accountability, Jordanians may vote for a relative from their tribe, despite knowing little about a candidate’s policies or values. And for some voters, who are mostly apathetic, a small portable heater is all a candidate needs to win their vote. Policies are lost in a meal of rice, pine seeds and meat that triumph over a candidate’s vague policies or lack of coherent messages. Parliament does not represent the people if the people do not vote on values and public policies.

It is difficult to see signs of true reform in this year’s elections and I hope that Jordanians will look beyond the banners that dress the city. It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of choice. In fact, I have voted in nearly every election, so far. Nevertheless, I am wholeheartedly disenchanted with an elected Parliament that votes to put journalists on trial and a Parliament that cancels sessions because not enough elected officials bother to show up. The latest lassez-faire approach by Parliamentarians led to its own demise; the King dissolved it a few months ago. Since 2001, hundreds of temporary laws imposed by the government were implemented in Jordan. Some promoted economic liberalization and women’s rights that have benefited the country, while others such as the 2001 Public Gathering Law–if a permit is denied for a gathering, it cannot be appealed–have effected civil liberties. However, moderates admit that an elected Parliament would not have passed the progressive laws. The government in the past drafted liberal press and publication laws, yet the elected Parliament demanded the arrest of journalists based on so-called ‘press crimes’.

A democratic ‘culture’ creates an understanding of an individual’s rights while simultaneously recognizing the concept of citizenship. A former government official recalled a story of an elderly colleague who told him offhandedly, “I hope to become a minister and after a week they can fire me. I don’t care. I will always be known as a minister and people will always have to respect me.” He eventually became a minister. At an ‘Honor’ Killings conference held in November by a local research foundation, a Parliamentarian raised his hand to speak. He read off some notes. His voice becoming louder, angrier while ignoring the studies being presented, he finally dismissed the whole concept of a conference on ‘honor’ killings. As he was storming out, a member of Jordan’s forensic team stood up and said, ‘Don’t you want to listen to a reply to your comments? You just want to speak but not listen?’ The Parliamentarian walked out.

I am, in general, an optimistic person. Optimism is a much better choice. The Middle East, however, remains stagnant and stubborn, reckless and reclusive. And there is a fine line between optimism and denial: the difference between cleaning the dirt, and hiding it. Until we begin the fundamental process of creating a ‘culture’ of choice, ownership, leadership, critical thinking and creativity, we will continue hiding the dirt. In the absence of such cultural traits, I have come to conclude that work ethics cannot be acquired on the job. Democracy is an evolving culture. It begins at home–choosing activities, respecting other opinions, food preference. It evolves at school–creativity, critical thinking, analysis.

What is our political culture? I try hard to search for this ‘culture’ of democracy. It is scarce and sporadic like an unfinished work of art. It may be in a 140 character tweet with a #JO for Jordan, a literacy program for street children or in the excitement of a talented violinist. It is seldom seen in a big place here. Sometimes, I wonder if we will reach a point where the meaning of democracy is not only political but also cultural, intertwined in the decisions we seek and make in our relationships and activities. When we hear that democracy is a journey, I believe this is the journey of which they speak. Elections are not. They are the end results, and much is lost in between. When I look back at that winter day in New York, I realize it was a silent epiphany for me. For Americans in the room, it was politics as usual. It was already embedded in their daily life.

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Jordanian Orphanages, the Minister of Social Affairs and the Media

Written by Daoud Kuttab*

Orphanages are notorious the world over for being a very sensitive place. Losing one or both parents is a shocking and highly emotional condition. Having the same young parentless children living away from the warmth of a natural home produces even more trauma and tends to make such children more vulnerable.

It is therefore highly troubling when one discovers adults and even fellow orphans physically and sexually abusing such defenceless children with very few deterrents. This was one of the findings that a pair of Jordanian investigative journalists working for months under the supervision of the ARIJ team discovered. The journalists’ two-page report appeared in the independent daily Al Ghad on December 25, 2009. Reports supervised by ARIJ are screened and approved by a competent lawyer before being presented for publication.

The troubling report was based on hours of interviews with 20 present or former residents in Jordan’s 27 homes (four of which are run by the government). It was also based on a survey of 50 persons who have gone through the system, sworn and signed testimonies from abused children, medical records and documentation corroborating these allegations. Many of the allegations including one case of death due to negligence, beatings, sexual harassments and rape took place in past years. And while the system has improved there is clearly much to be learned from the previous and some of the continuing problems facing these helpless children.

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Google and the New Digital Future

By Robert Darnton

November 9 is one of those strange dates haunted by history. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the collapse of the Soviet empire. The Nazis organized Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, beginning their all-out campaign against Jews. On November 9, 1923, Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch was crushed in Munich, and on November 9, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and Germany was declared a republic. The date especially hovers over the history of Germany, but it marks great events in other countries as well: the Meiji Restoration in Japan, November 9, 1867; Bonaparte’s coup effectively ending the French Revolution, November 9, 1799; and the first sighting of land by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, November 9, 1620.

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Bill Moyers Interview with Howard Zinn

Watch the interview with Bill Moyers:

Renowned historian Howard Zinn joins Bill Moyers to discuss the voices of today’s people — facing big interests’ outsized influence — and his new film.

There’s a long tradition in America of people power, and no one has done more to document it than the historian, Howard Zinn. Listen to this paragraph from his most famous book. Quote: “If democracy were to be given any meaning, if it were to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come, if history were any guide, from the top. It would come through citizen’s movements, educating, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed.”

Thomas Paine

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Invictus: On Nelson Mandela

Click above and watch the trailer for this new movie (looks really good!)


Listen to NPR’s interview with Morgan Freeman on filming a ‘game’ that changed a nation

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Governance and Democracy

By Nermeen Murad

The newly appointed Prime Minister Samir Rifai was quoted as saying that he will take the time necessary to make a decision on the makeup of his team. He was also quoted as saying that he is consulting select experts for the formulation of a strategy that would translate His Majesty King Abdullah’s clear requirements of this government.

Common citizens of Jordan, I believe, also have much to tell the new prime minister. Their perception of the current situation and their aspirations for the future, in my opinion, may be much more telling at this stage than the advice of technocrats, politicians and wannabes eager to secure a place in the much coveted Cabinet of tomorrow.

It is precisely because the opinion of citizens matters so much that prime ministers or presidents are usually elected or seek the support of a parliamentary majority to legitimize their representation and authorization to take on this seat of power.

In so many ways, elections give prime ministers a power of attorney from the people to act on their behalf and dispense with their wealth and property – and therefore their future – as they see fit.

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NYT:100 Notable Books of 2009

Take a look at the NYT Review of Books 100 notable of 2009:

What were some of your favorite book this year?

Twelve collections made our fiction list, and four biographies of short-story masters are on the nonfiction list.

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