Refuge, Market, and Garden: Tropes of Jordanian Stability among Amman’s Iraqi Residents

By Zachary Sheldon, University of Chicago

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Refugees and Migration Movements in the Middle East workshop organized in collaboration with POMEPS and the Center for Middle East Studies at USC and held at University of Southern California on February 2-3, 2017. POMEPS Studies 25 is a collection of their memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Iraqis have long had a hand in shaping the political, economic, and social landscape of Amman, Jordan’s capital. In addition to visitors on tourism and business, significant migrant movements have resulted from the First Gulf War, the American invasion of 2003, and the subsequent Sectarian Civil War.[1] More recently, the fall of Mosul to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and the conflict in Syria— which had become a second home to great numbers of Iraqis— renewed movement into Jordan. Iraqi arrivals range in circumstances from the elite of the old political and business classes to the around 61,000 registered refugees receiving aid from the United Nations.[2] Here, I focus on middle and upper-middle class young (18-35) Iraqis who arrived in Amman after 2003, who rarely (if ever) make return visits to Iraq, and who have either been passed over or do not desire refugee resettlement abroad. Even within this group, one finds a variety of circumstances, but the prevalent view is that Jordan is a long-term home rather than a transit country.

In this memo, I will contrast three different ways of talking about the sense of national difference that all Iraqis must contend with in Jordan. Rather than presenting a model or theory to be tested or supplemented by data, I foreground a series of conversations drawn from observations made during fieldwork. These encounters show how different ways of talking about migration offer distinctive  descriptions of the overall situation. Like other contributors to this volume, I believe that mass displacement in the Middle East calls for a critical reexamination of the concepts that secure the boundaries of national identity for migrants and their hosts. Yet pointing out the obvious epistemological limits of concepts like sovereignty, borders, or identity in order to offer better formulations is not the intent of this memo. Language— especially the language of politics— is not always a mirror of reality; concepts are put to use in creating the boundaries that govern difference and authorize the often-unequal relationships that arise across divides.[3] Rather than arguing for a specific wording these concepts ought to have, this memo considers what work they do. New arrivals to Amman—whether migrants and refugees or social scientists conducting fieldwork— must navigate a dizzying variety of legal, economic, ethnic and other categories. Yet, as we shall see, national boundaries retain a curious power to subsume and obscure other forms of distinction in accounts of our shared social world.

Refuge and the Limits of Hospitality

In Jordan, state discourses of hospitality that describe Iraqi migrants as “guests” are mirrored in the ordinary language of international support for “host communities.” Consider, then, a conversation that arose when I shared a taxi with two Iraqi women last spring. Upon learning our origins, our driver began to praise the beauty of Baghdad. The older woman seemed to recognize this comment as a play on a specific genre of courteous flattery (majaamilaat)[4] that merits a proportional response, “Yes, but things are safe and orderly (ako aman wa nitham) here.” “Thank God (alhamdulillah),” the driver replied in an appropriately humble fashion, “In Amman, we all respect one another.” He then launched into a lecture on the imperative of coexistence (ta’aiush) with all humans (bnii adam, lit. “children of Adam”), to which we passengers could only nod in assent.
We see that Although migration has placed great burdens on Jordan’s economy and infrastructure, playing host can be a source of national distinction.In its most classic form, sheltering a stranger achieves a character of grace (karama) only when it entails putting one’s own well-being at risk.[5] And when the nation as a whole is invited by its sovereign to extend its generosity to another people, this dramatic gesture can reemerge as a small celebration of local character. All this affirms the distinctiveness of Amman as a city of exceptional stability and peace that places it alongside other great Arab capitals: Baghdadis have a beautiful city, Ammanis have a hospitable one.[6] But just as this particular mode of relation emphasizes shared values while affirming national difference, it diminishes the socio-economic differences between the passengers and the driver that cut across national lines. To appreciate more granular distinctions between different sorts of foreigners, we must move beyond the domain of guest and host.

The International Relations of the Market

During a conversation with Ali, an Iraqi architect and real estate developer, I asked why, if he could afford to, he did not move to another country. “The life is too cheap here,” he replied, “My mother can have a maid for nothing and I can pay someone one dinar to carry my groceries home.” He then pointed to a man carrying a tray of juice towards our table, “Do you see that guy over there? He’s Egyptian, maybe someone like him is Syrian. They have no rights. They have nothing. He does something wrong, talks back to a customer, and they kick him out on the street.”

The irony of calling the city with one of the highest costs of living in the region “too cheap” should not be lost. But note how this statement specifies that the expense in question is the labor of various national others. There’s nothing new about the claim that Jordan depends upon the “external rents” of migrant capital and humanitarian aid that come with hosting refugees.[7] Yet the business and pleasure of affluent emigrés is made possible by the exploited labor of less fortunate migrants. The blurring of legal and economic classifications is especially stark for Iraqis who are not registered as refugees, as they can only acquire work and residency permits through depositing a fix sum in a Jordanian bank. One Iraqi engineer who managed a factory outside of Amman that employed foreign workers, and who had lost and regained his permits as his own financial situation fluctuated, liked to put it to me in English: “Money talks.” And in frank voicing the privileges of wealth, Ali, the developer, spoke volumes about the value of a hypothetical Syrian’s UN-backed asylum document, let alone the Egyptian guest-worker or Sri Lankan maid[8] who, at least on paper, have their rights guaranteed by their home governments.

For the cadre of Iraqi managers, overseers, and foremen who are reshaping the economic and physical landscape of Amman but who lack the full security of the elite, distinguishing one’s own group from other sorts of migrants plays on a dual hierarchy of class and nationality. The aforementioned factory manager noted that his company began to hire Syrian workers not only because they worked for less, but also, he said, because Syrians are an exceptionally enterprising people. Writing about class and ethnicity in the United States, the anthropologist Sherry Ortner notes that sch categories do not just intersect on a case-by-case basis, but become “enfolded” in popular stereotypes that combine prejudicial elements of both. Based on conversations with Iraqi managers at construction sites, I suspect that the complicated matrix of ethnicity, nationality, class, and legal status that might combine in a particular individual are being similarly enfolded to naturalize (or nationalize) the hierarchical relations of capital and labor that are supporting Amman’s growth.

Better-off Iraqis are hardly alone in giving voice to these inequalities, and the enfolding of class and national difference cuts both ways. As a consultant for the Jordanian government whom I met at a conference on urban refugees told me, “There are no really poor Iraqis.” Iraqi wealth is indeed highly visible in Amman, from the neo-classical villas that firms like Ali’s build in posh neighborhoods to the Iraqi-built Royale Hotel, the tallest completed building in Amman’s skyline .But if the only role for Iraqis in Amman is as an invisible refugee or as a highly visible capitalist, where do those who fit neither description locate themselves in the city?

To Be (in) a Garden
Early in my fieldwork, I sat at one of the Fallujah-style kebab restaurants in the hilly Rabiya neighborhood as five young men and I finished off our last morsels of lamb and liver. Laith placed his hands beneath his stomach and hefted it upwards, saying “This here gut (kersh) is twenty-five kilos.” At this, the other men placed their hands around their waists to compare. “Why do all of you have a belly like that?” I asked. “We are always sitting and the only thing for us to do is eat,” said Ghazwan. “It’s because you guys are really hadiga?” I asked. Everyone laughed as another man put his arm around me and leaned in to say, in English, “Yes, we are in a garden.”

Hadiga, literally “a garden” in Iraqi Arabic, has emerged as the popular term used by young Iraqis in Amman.. Although it was glossed in English as being in a garden, it is used as a predicate: “I am [a] garden” (anii hadiga). The term hadiga  conveys a sense of arrested development and lack of opportunity. Even Iraqis who did not describe themselves as hadiga noted that since coming to Amman, “nothing has really happened” or that they feel like “time started passing more quickly once I got here.”

Of course, one is never really “doing nothing” and plenty of Jordanians feel frustrated by lack of economic opportunity in their own country. What, then, distinguishes  a life of hadiga? Nights dedicated to hanging-out (al-ga’ada, lit. “sitting”) usually consist of smoking hookah, playing card games, and consuming food and drink. Although these activities could, on special occasions, take on the competitive and conspicuous form common to the Jordanian leisure class[9] they were more typically, if reflected on at all, treated as an inconspicuous part of the routine that makes up everyday life. The desire to be inconspicuous was further reflected by the way young Iraqi men favor a specific cafe that, while located close to one of Amman’s biggest shopping districts, is tucked behind a blind turn, shielded from both the pedestrian thoroughfare and a nearby highway. There, they expect to recognize one another as fellow nationals.

In contrast to the refuge, which emphasized a binary description between migrants and non-migrants and the market, which stressed differentiating between different sorts of migrants, the garden suggests an ironic, self-deprecating distinction given by a group reflecting on its own prospects for the future. An orientation towards the future likewise obtains for relations in the market shaped as they are by unequally precarious claims to legal protections. And it informs the host whose offer of refuge is predicated on the expectation the guests will not overstay their welcome. The future is uncharted territory for a conversation on migrant communities that has primarily concerned itself with spatial origins, inherited identities, and received traditions. At a moment when the spatial boundaries of the nation-state are everywhere being called into question, what does it mean for nationality to be expressed as a collective orientation to the future?

Zachary Sheldon is a doctoral student in sociocultural and linguistic Anthropology at the University of Chicago.


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— 1987 “Power Persuasion, and Language: A Critique of the Segmentary Model in the Middle East.” in International Journal of Middle East Studies 19(1), pp. 77-102.

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UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Jordan: UNHCR Operational Update, January 2017, January 2017, available at: [accessed 8 February 2017]

[1] As Geraldine Chatelard observes (2009), post-2003 migration Iraq to Jordan should be viewed not as a totally new phenomenon, but as being “embedded” within older regional migration routes shaped by long-term regional political dynamics.

[2] UNHCR, 2017.

[3] This perspective draws on  a tradition in the political anthropology of the Middle East that focuses on the language with which people describe categories of authority and power (Asad, 1970), especially in social interactions that negotiate culturally-specific boundaries (Caton, 1986, 1987) and that are inseparable from their “ephemeral, spoken context” (Shryock, 1997:29). For a general theory of tropes in culture, see Fernandez, 1986.

[4] The conversations described in this memo were conducted in a mix of Iraqi and Jordanian Arabic as well as in English. Usually, interactions involving more than two participants were in Arabic while one-on-one meetings used more English.

[5] Shryock, 2008:408.

[6] Note that Jordanians are not alone in taking pride in local hospitality and complimenting people from other places for being generous hosts. An Baghdadi meeting someone from another Iraqi province might praise the hospitality of the province’s people. This is not specific to Arab countries; Michael Herzfeld identified an identical “mode of conceptualizing cultural and political relations” between Cretan villagers and metropolitan mainland Greeks. (1985:34)

[7] Peters & Moore, 2009.

[8] For a revealing look at the exploitation of Sri Lankan domestic workers in Jordan, see “Jordan’s unfree workforce: state-sponsored bonded labor in the arab region” by Elizabeth Franz in The Journal of Development Studies Vol. 49, No. 8 (2012).

[9] Beal, 1998.