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Power, Place, and Space: Ethnographies in and of Jordan

Panel XI-7, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel recenters Jordan as a critical site of inquiry in studies of the Middle East and North Africa, undergirded by an ethos that paying attention to the unfolding of everyday life in the Kingdom can shed light on broader political, economic, and social transformations taking place across the region. Jordan has historically been marginalized in Middle East studies, on the one hand derided as the “Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom” in lay discourse and on the other excluded from the traditional “prestige zones” in the academic field of Middle East anthropology, which include Morocco, Yemen (Abu Lughod 1989), Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and the Gulf (Deeb and Winegar 2012). Jordan’s marginal status as a site of inquiry has shifted somewhat in the last decade, with recently published ethnographies of Jordan making essential and exciting contributions not only to the study of the Middle East but also to longstanding debates about education (Adely 2012), masculinity (Hughes 2021), the state (Martínez 2022), protest (Schwedler 2022), and displacement (Twigt 2022). The uptick of research in Jordan is partly due to events taking place outside of the country: the eruption of war, the installation of increasingly authoritarian regimes, and neoliberal economic collapse across the region. These processes have resulted in diminished access to previously dominant research fieldsites and a subsequent rise in interest in Jordan as one of the remaining accessible sites for academic research, even as researchers who have had to pivot to Jordan might not take the country as their central point of analysis. Presenters on this panel draw upon the granularity of lived experience as a lens for exploring contemporary politics in Jordan, using ethnographic methods to examine concerns of power, place, and space across a gamut of fieldsites, ranging from archeological sites to refugee camps to electrical grids. While panelists contribute distinct insights into what ethnography elucidates about the dynamic processes producing social inequalities and animating everyday life in Jordan, they are equally concerned with the politics of knowledge production itself. How do ideas of difference between so-called local and foreign experts shape the landscape of research on Jordan and tensions around authorship and authority? How has the rapid growth of the arts and cultural sector in the last decade impacted social and class hierarchies in Jordan’s urban centers? How have recent innovations allowed for Jordan to emerge as a laboratory of production and experimentation in medical technology and green energy?
  • Decades of regional conflict, refugee migrations to Jordan, and ongoing neoliberal urban development have exacerbated widespread experiences of absence and dislocation in Amman, a capital city long maligned as lacking the cultural, political, and economic significance required of truly cosmopolitan centers. At the same time, these processes have accelerated rapid growth in the public art scene, as state institutions work to turn Amman into a world-class arts hub, international governments patronize public art as diplomacy, and the vast NGO sector incorporates arts programs into their humanitarian and development agendas. This state and institutional art patronage reflect a global uptick in humanitarian arts programs and “creative cities” development projects that promote public art as a universal and nonpartisan tool for improving life in economically dispossessed and politically turbulent contexts. Based on 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork, this paper examines the embodied experiences of young graffiti and street artists in Amman as they navigate structures of art patronage that both enable and constrain their efforts. On the one hand, interconnected state and institutional networks provide artists with opportunities to share their work and make some income through commissions in this resource-scarce country with high unemployment. On the other hand, Jordan-based artists are often marginalized within developmentalist and racialized hierarchies that position them as lacking skills and expertise compared with primarily Euro-American “international artists” who are increasingly participating in the city’s political economy of commissioned public art. I elaborate the concept of “ajānib fatigue,” or fatigue with foreigners, to ethnographically demonstrate the everyday impacts of institutional “regimes of value” (Appadurai 1986; Myers 2001; Winegar 2006) that place Jordan-based artists at a disadvantage as they build livelihoods and local artistic communities. I draw on my interlocutors’ use of the Arabic word for “foreigners” as a racialized descriptor of white and globally mobile Euro-Americans. I highlight the affective atmosphere (Anderson 2005) of exhaustion infusing their efforts to cope with widespread inequities rather than resist them outright. This paper provides insights into shifting artistic landscapes in the Middle East art since the 2011 uprisings, when public art and performance played a substantial role in shaping collective energies of dissent and political reimagination. Moreover, it calls into question universalist assumptions about art as a core feature of healthy and liberated societies.
  • Heritage discourse has historically reified the concept of a shared, universal, or world heritage (Smith 2006). In recent decades, however, there has been a shift toward an emphasis on traditional knowledge and empowering local communities in heritage management (Silverman and Ruggles 2007; Keitumetse 2013; Van Balen and Vandesande 2015). This change in rhetoric appears consistent across declarations by transnational organizations like UNESCO and WMF, statements by state governments, and demands by grassroots communities. Despite this supposed agreement, however, places, spaces, and processes for decision-making about heritage futures paradoxically remain inaccessible to many local communities. One company in Jordan, however, has managed to find purchase within this context. Since 2016, I have been conducting an ethnography of the Sela company, which aims to organize local labor in order to empower host communities to have greater determination over the heritage sites where they live. In the past six years, Sela has created a database of certified archaeological workers, produced children’s programming including a book series, and even written new national law. Sela’s singular success points to the structural traps and contradictions of the global heritage regime and of contemporary sustainable development– while also revealing a possible, hopeful means of navigating these brick walls (cf. Ahmed 2017). Rather than being pinpointed as local or foreign, Jordanian or global, nonprofit or entrepreneurial, the possibilities for transformative new models of community empowerment within cultural heritage and development rely on the ability to flexibly and inventively perform these opposing modalities at once.
  • Drawing on six months of ethnographic fieldwork at an audiology department in Amman between 2019 and 2022, I examine the provision of hearing technologies, like hearing aids and cochlear implants, to deaf Jordanians as part of a larger project on assistive technologies for deaf people in Jordan. The department is the implementing partner of a state-affiliated initiative in the Hashemite Kingdom that has given out more than 1,170 cochlear implants to eligible deaf citizens, primarily children, since 2010. These technologies seem to promise normative personhood for deaf Jordanians and were couched in the language of "benefit" (istifada): some children would benefit (yistafidu), while others would not (ma yistafidu). However, what “benefits” they accrued with such technologies was understood narrowly, primarily in terms of access to spoken language. For example, in speech therapy sessions, therapists would tell parents that their deaf children had to learn to depend entirely upon their (prosthetic) hearing, and not to “take the easy way out” (bistashilu) by using lipreading or “sign language” (understood here in a diminished way, often referring to just pointing or using gestures). The cultivation of such unisensory subjects—a form of body politics—is not unique to Jordan but is part of a broader therapeutic approach associated with cochlear implantation, which has also been documented elsewhere, like in India and the United States (Friedner 2022; Mauldin 2016). This is despite the fact that, as recent work in semiotic anthropology has been showing (cf. Irvine 2022), communication, even between hearing people, does not rely solely upon explicit discourse but also upon nonverbal signs of communication, and translanguaging is already a natural part of most people’s linguistic repertoires (Garcia and Li 2018), and this is especially true of deaf people (Kusters et al. 2017). Taking a view from Jordan, this project sheds light on how the regulation of language and communication feeds into broader political projects to govern the body and to produce modern subjectivities.
  • The rooftops of Amman are a riot of activity, forming an aerial canvas of concrete, steel, and living matter that sustains a crucial, but often invisible tier of economic and social reproductive labor. Focusing on the urban patchwork of rooftop solar water heaters in central Jordan, this paper shows how the creative adaptation and selective transformation of solar thermal water heaters materially challenges Jordan’s state-led national project of renewable energy transition. Jordan’s renewable transition is often held up by transnational investors as a model for global green growth, as it mobilized over USD $4 billion in private investment in new renewable power development. Yet the story of rooftop solar thermal production illuminates key tensions within this transition, by redirecting key revenues and iterating an alternative set of production values focused on specific community needs and environmental conditions. Solar thermal water heaters are a small-scale, portable form of distributed thermal power assembled from glass, bronze, aluminum, and steel. In Amman, these solar thermal commodities are scattered at varying heights across the city, beveling the skyline in an uncoordinated array of shapes and sizes and drawing together a vast network of actors. By tracing the flows and frictions of rooftop solar thermal systems as they alter Amman’s heterogeneous urban topography, this paper calls particular attention to the ways that solar thermal production sustains life in the wake of dispossession. Drawing from sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork based in Amman, this paper argues that simple technologies like solar thermal demonstrate alternative trajectories of renewable energy transition, offering glimpses into the possibilities for democratic forms of decarbonization while bringing critical attention to questions of embodiment and how gendered and racialized subjects are enrolled in, or excluded from, national state making projects. Methodologically, this paper builds from ethnographic engagement with the material nodes of evolving renewable infrastructures to question how evolving energy infrastructures engender novel possibilities for alternative arrangements of power. Through ethnographic engagement with people in places, this paper analyzes how the formal qualities of the built environment come to shape sociocultural and political ways of being and interacting, and the relations that animate, rework, and sometimes undo flows of energy, resources, capital, and knowledge.
  • Refugees’ relationship to place is often understood in binary terms—a dyad distinguishing between place of origin (where refugees fled from) and place of refuge (where refugees now live). However, displacement is often not a singular event but a recurring one, as many refugees once displaced must move again due to new instances of violence or in search of better circumstances. Displacement therefore represents not only the loss of place but the accumulation of many places. But how do refugees generate attachment to new places across iterations of displacement? I consider this question by drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Amman among Palestinian refugees from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus who were displaced to the Jordanian capital by the Syrian Civil War. In this paper, I explore these individuals’ attempts at emplacement in Amman and argue that relationships with contemporary places of residence are mediated by experiences of and attachments to prior places of belonging. When experiences in new places clash with frames of reference forged in previous places of residence, it can cause alienation and discursive rejection of contemporary emplacement. However, following work on assemblage urbanism and dwelling, I show how these individuals’ daily practices of dwelling can lead to the assemblage of new networks and relationships and, with them, new attachments to Amman. Therefore, by taking displacement not only as an instance of loss but also an experience of recurrent accumulation, I aim to highlight how emplacement creates, relies on and occasions the reinterpretation of palimpsests of place, memory and belonging.