The War on TV in Amman

ISIS, Operation Protective Edge and the Future of the Arab World as Seen From A Living Room in Amman

In the Arab world, TV-watching spikes during Ramadan. Soap operas produce new seasons in anticipation of the month of fasting, and air them during and after the sunset iftar meal. In 2014, there were some good new programs, including a sixth season of the Syrian drama Bab al-Hara, popular regionwide, but Ramadan programming this year was dominated by news from the outset.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or da’esh in its Arabic acronym, started gaining territory in Iraq in June, and by June 23, it had taken control of all border crossings with Syria and its only one with Jordan, The New York Times reported. Ramadan began June 29, and Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza began July 8, 10 days into the holy month. The Eid al-Fitr holiday came July 28, and on July 30, the death toll in Gaza had reached 1,200 Palestinians and 55 Israelis, according to the BBC.

Given these events and these numbers, Eid al-Fitr was not cheerful in Amman, where I live. People visited only those closest to them and, if they ate sweets, ate them as if they were cheating on a diet, keeping a stash in the kitchen for when guests left. No one felt like celebrating. What kind of holiday is it, they said, with what is happening in Gaza? The celebration was canceled, and during their time off, people watched even more television.

Instead of inviting family members for extravagant meals and serving sweets to friends and neighbors, residents of different origins toggled between channels showing different disasters. Palestinian families, Jordan’s not-so-hidden majority, drank in images from Gaza. The constant channel-surfing made the images, already disturbing, seem surreal. Talking heads announcing current death tolls and developments in negotiations were in there, of course, but they competed for airtime with photomontages, set to music, of the devastation. The montages showed bloodied children lying in hospital beds, Hamas fighters in their green bandanas crawling through tunnels, panoramas of the golden Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. In between the pundits and montages were interviews with distressed people. Some were conducted in hospitals, with men or women waiting for loved ones who had been wounded in an explosion. Others had rubble for a backdrop, homes or shops flattened by Israeli airstrikes, and the cameras rolled while the crowd milling around shouted that their relatives or neighbors were trapped underneath. Dishes were done, coffee sipped, Eid text messages sent while the war in Gaza raged on in everyone’s living room.

Iraqi families and Syrian families had their own upsetting scenarios to watch on television, and when the holiday ended and normal routine returned, friends traded anecdotes from television during social visits. A debate started during one visit: Do the people of Gaza have it worse, or the Iraqis? Our Iraqi hostess served coffee while her in-laws, houseguests in her flat since ISIS’ takeover of their hometown, Tikrit, argued that their situation was worse than the Gazans’. At least you know it is the Israelis hitting you, she told the visitors who were Jordanians of Gazan descent. We have no idea who the enemy is.

This was not an idle lament. When they first departed for Amman, the Iraqis said, the violence in Tikrit was a Sunni revolution against the unpopular then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A week later, they had updated their assessment: Da’esh was responsible for their departure.

The visitors, who have a sister living in the Strip, said they were right, they did know it was the Israelis. But they are under occupation, they said, and they cannot leave. You’re here, aren’t you?

Allah y’3eenna kullna, they said to one another. God help us all.

The television in the background makes the conversation seem pressing. The constant images of crises flitting across the screen make it difficult to forget that these ordeals are ongoing. The Iraqis, Palestinians and Syrians in Jordan are physically removed from the events unfolding in their respective places of origin, and safe from the physical threat they represent. Instead, they watch until they cannot take anymore, then tune out of the disturbing rotation to watch a soap opera set in old Damascus or a Bollywood film. When that is finished, they change the channel back, to see what catastrophe happened while they were looking away.

The physical and political crises that play out in the background of everyday home life in Amman are constant evidence that the Arab Spring and its uprisings were a mirage, at best. The sleepy Jordanian capital post-Arab Awakening has managed not to descend into chaos; by virtue of its stability, it has become a place where, thanks to many unhappy circumstances, people experiencing the upheaval of the past four years in the Arab world encounter others who have seen different sides of that upheaval.

The same group, of Iraqis and Palestinians from Gaza all resident in Jordan, agreed that Arab nationalism was long dead. You used to say Palestine to an Iraqi, and his blood would boil at the injustice, the hostess said. Now, Palestine is just a drop in the sea of Arab catastrophes.

If there was hope at the first hints of change, it has now been proved premature, the group of ladies agreed. What can one do now but look after the minor crises of one’s own life; try to stay on top of jobs and families and expenses? No matter which politician gets put in charge, it’s the people who suffer. Al sha’ab mazloomeen. It is the people who get oppressed.

The complaints of unrepresentative politics, unequal wealth distribution, the lack of freedom of expression, and everything else raised during the Arab uprisings remain salient and perhaps more now than ever. The notion that political change will somehow resolve them now seems naive, given the ever-present images of the suffering that followed from efforts to implement it. Arab nationalism, however, seems to have taken on a new shape of collective discontent with Arab politics, and Amman is rich with the diversity of discontents represented.

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    Susan MacDougall

    Susan MacDougall is a PhD candidate for Anthropology at the University of Oxford

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