Middle Eastern Rhythms: Report From Literary Jordan

For his article "Middle Eastern Rhythms: Report From Literary Jordan," contributing editor Stephen Morison Jr., who lives in Madaba-Manja, Jordan, spoke with a number of authors and editors in the capital city of Amman during the aftermath of the Arab Spring. What he discovered was a literary community complicated by differing religious, political, and artistic beliefs. From the words of author and editor Basma Al Nsour, who censors herself not because of the government but rather to avoid embarrassing her tribe, to those of poet Nourredin Zuhair, who says he hates America and describes a world of cabals and conspiracies hemming him in from all directions, Morison offers a fascinating firsthand account of a changing country.

Morison has previously reported on the literary communities of Afghanistan, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, and North Korea for Poets & Writers Magazine.

The modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the country east of Israel, stretches from the southern hills of Syria to the Red Sea. The capital city of Amman, shown here, is the political, cultural, and commercial center, with a population of approximately three million people.

The ancient theater, built into a hillside in Amman, was built during the reign of Antonius Pius (138-161 CE).

The author of five books of short stories in Arabic and the editor of three local magazines, including the women's magazine Tyche, Basma Al Nsour told Morison that if there is tension in the Jordanian literary community, it exists not between writers and censors, but rather between liberal writers and religious writers.

"The political regime does not want people to question," said avant-garde short story writer Hisham Bustani. "The religion does not want people to question. Everything is given. Take orders. The school is like a military system. The university is like a prison. It's behind walls. There are gates. They check IDs." Bustani told Morison he's happy that people have taken to the streets in protest, but he's not optimistic that it will result in real change. "There's no ideology, no thinkers," he said. "The 'Arab Spring' as CNN calls it, will soon see autumn."

The author of The Cat Who Taught Me How to Fly, a recently published autobiographical novel about a former Communist's experience in a Jordanian prison during the 1980s, Hashem Gharhyba (left) attended the University of Baghdad, in Iraq, and studied to be a medical-lab technician. "A year ago, they would not have published [my book]," he told Morison and explained that the Arab Spring protests have altered the political landscape. "Now they published it without any problems."

As the general secretary of the Ministry of Culture and then the Minister of Culture, Jeryes Samawi oversaw the Jordanian Writers Association (JWA) until a constitutional reform passed in October banned ministers and members of parliament from holding dual citizenship. (At nineteen he immigrated with his mother to New York City and became a U.S. citizen). Samawi subsequently renounced his American citizenship, but in the ensuing political wrangling, he eventually resigned. Morison writes that members see acceptance into the JWA as an important social and political step in the Jordanian literary community. Other writers claim the group has become insignificant. Both sides agree there are few tangible benefits to membership. Members are not paid or granted additional access to social services, and are not more likely to have their work published.

A traditional Arabic poet, Nourredin Zuhair is a member of a small organization called Nawaris that is dedicated to developing an Arabic poetic tradition that is true to the origins of the language. "We are trying to change Arab logic," he explained to Morison. "It's not just to keep the language of the Koran alive; it's to sharpen a kind of logic that isn't here anymore, as a result of globalization."

Outside of Amman, Jordan, is the ancient city of Petra where, according to Arab tradition, Moses struck a rock with his staff and water gushed forth. The Monastery, Petra's largest monument and a popular tourist destination, dates from the first century BC. 

Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, is a valley cut into sandstone and granite in southern Jordan. One of the rock formations in the valley was named "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" after the title of an autobiographical account of a British officer, T. E. Lawrence, who based his operations at Wadi Rum during the Arab Revolt of 1917 and 1918.