The Reckoning of History: Young Activists, Tribal Elders, and the Uses of the Past in Jordan

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Yazan Doughan, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University

Between March 2011 and December 2012, political activists from an insular and obscure tribal neighborhood in central Amman suddenly rose to national fame. For almost two years, during the wave of Arab uprisings, Ḥirāk ʾAḥrār Ḥay al-Ṭafāyleh (the Free Ḥay al-Ṭafāyleh Movement) assumed the leading role in protests against wide-spread corruption in Jordan. By the end of 2012, however, the movement was in disarray. It disintegrated shortly after, crippled by disagreements among its members and within the neighborhood writ-large. Despite the movement’s demise, and the retrenchment of the Jordanian Ḥirāk in general, some of its politics reflected larger national trends that promise a more enduring significance. Contrasting historiographic trends in the early 1990s with current ones shows how young activists seek to construct a revolutionary past which could authorize acts of rebellion in the present, and to imagine alternative national futures. This paper discusses how these historiographic trends constitute “the youth” not only as an age group, but as a generational category of Jordanians who seek to construct a different relation to their elders and to the state by claiming a new historical past. In doing so, they constitute themselves as autonomous political actors unencumbered by the narratives of their elders’ generation and the latter’s relation to the monarchy.

Abandoned Children of the State

Partly a squatter settlement straddling the two hills of Jabal al-Ṭāj and Jabal al-Jōfeh in central Amman, Ḥay al-Ṭafāyleh is not a neighborhood in the administrative sense. Rather, the label marks a fuzzy territory home to decedents of six tribal groups that hail from a village in the south of Jordan near the town of Ṭafīleh. Despite its exceptional composition as a dense tribal neighborhood in the middle of the city, Ḥay al-Ṭafāyleh nonetheless exemplifies a pattern of rural-to-urban migration in Jordan that went hand in hand with state building and the incorporation of large segments of the population into the state bureaucracy, particularly since the 70s. As the Ṭafāyleh migrated to the city to take on low-level positions in the state bureaucracy and the security apparatus, they increasingly relied on the state for their livelihood. By now, their original village is almost completely depopulated.[1]

Like other Transjordanian groups incorporated into state structures following the 1970 Black September clashes between the Jordanian Army and the PLO, the inclusion of the Ṭafāyleh was part of a state project to construct a nativist Jordanian national identity defined in contradistinction to a Palestinian one, and understood along lines of descent. Through this double process of social incorporation and construction of a national identity, the state practically appropriated the bonds and relations of kinship that bound Transjordanians for its own legitimacy. Tranjordanian officials became paternal figures vis-à-vis their communities, while the state stood as an abstract patriarch binding all Jordanians together with a promise of care, with the King as its embodiment.[2]

This history underlies the political subjectivity of Transjordanians, like the Ṭafāyleh, who now understood themselves both as the “children of the state” (ʾabnāʾ al-dawleh), and as the “indigenous Jordanians” (ʾahl al-balad). This particular grammar of Jordanian indigeneity congealed around two historical moments. The first was in the early years after the founding of the state when educated natives demanded employment in the state bureaucracy populated at the time by Hijazi, Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese functionaries. The second moment was the Black September of 1970. However, the narrative that emerged from the clashes, which had the PLO Fidayeen attempting to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy, resulted in a reconfiguration of ethnic identities in relation to two competing state projects: Jordanian and Palestinian. From then onward, ʾahl al-balad looked at the PLO project in Jordan as a threat to their own identity which was now closely bound to the Hashemite monarchy.

After the economic crisis of the mid 1980’s, neoliberal restructuring programs limited the expansion of the state bureaucracy, and reduced welfare protections for most Jordanians, who were also suffering from high inflation rates. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the state apparatus was increasingly dominated by new bureaucratic and business elites whose world was not that of tribal politics, but of finance, investment, and international development. The Ṭafāyleh often complained that they now themselves felt like strangers (ʾaghrāb) in their own country. They blamed the new class of elites around the King both for corruption and for their sense of estrangement. For the Younger Ṭafāyleh, the state which was a parent for their parents, and won the latter’s loyalty, was no longer theirs. 

The youth could no longer rely on public sector jobs for employment, or find alternative avenues in the private sector. Gradually, they underwent a process of pauperization, whereby they became dependent on public charity programs from the Ministry of Social Affairs, or increasingly since the 2000s, from the Royal Court, which is incidentally located across the valley from the neighborhood. By 2010, when the protests started, the Ṭafāyleh had an acute sense of status loss from the bearers of national identity to the abandoned “children of the state,” or beggars who relied on state charity and poverty alleviation programs. Their access to this charity, and to the limited employment possibilities in the bureaucracy, was usually channeled through networks of patronage often mobilized through elected officials, or the intelligence department. Against this backdrop, the Ṭafāyleh, like other Transjordanian activists, sought to “reclaim the state” in the sense of “reclaiming political authority and public resources” (“istirdād al-dawlah, sulṭa-tan wa mawārid”). 

Tribal Elders, Incredulous Youth, and the Desire for a Revolutionary History

In my early research in the Ḥay al-Ṭafāyeh, I was interested to see how the Ṭafāyleh narrated themselves as an indigenous population. I expected to find an active movement of tribal historiography similar to the one described by Andrew Shryock (1997) among the Balga tribes in the late 80s and early 90s. After all, that historiographical movement emerged precisely at the time when the country was in the middle of an economic crisis and when that generation of elders who lived part of their life prior to the establishment of the modern state was quickly disappearing. The Balga tribal historians sought to document traditional tribal life, to write down the words and deeds of their tribal elders, as a claim to rootedness in the face of the modernizing nation-state. Twenty years later, however, that historiographical movement was dead. It was nowhere to be found among the Ṭafāyleh or any other tribal group in Jordan.

Unlike Shryock’s Balga elders, the Ṭafāyleh’s elders had no heroic stories to tell of their past, nor did their youth have any heroic stories to tell of their ancestors. In the youth’s narratives, their ancestors often featured, if at all, not as exemplary heroes to be emulated, but as thieves and country bumpkins driven by petty interests, unable to understand the larger historical significance of the events they lived. For example, one activist explained to me how his grandfather, who fought battles with the Jordanian Army around Jerusalem in 1948, never really understood the significance of that war. What kept the grandfather bitter “until the day he died, was not losing the war as much as losing his rifle when he was discharged [from the army]!”

When I was looking for elders to interview for oral histories of the neighborhood, my young interlocutors often blanked out on suitable names to suggest asked for more time to look for candidates. Whenever someone suggested a specific name, the others would dismiss it as “senile,” “lunatic,” or an “imbecile.” When they did introduce me to an elder, eventually, his account was fully folded into official state historiography—highlighting the Ṭafāyleh’s participation in a battle of the Arab Revolt, and how they protected the Royal Palaces from shelling by the Fidayeen in 1970. 

However, for young activists, this narrative was felt to be incredible. Parallel to it one could detect another historiographical current. It came in the form of gossip, snippets of oral history and anecdotal evidence that falsified the standard narrative binding the Ṭafāyleh to the ruling dynasty. For example, one could hear that their ancestors were in fact duped or coerced to join the Arab Revolt; that they did not intend to protect the Palace in 1970, but rather to protect themselves; that someone had seen documents in the British archives that proved that the current King’s maternal grandfather was in fact Jewish and thus refuted the King’s claim to be a rightful descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. In Ḥay al-Ṭafāyleh today, it is common to hear men in their 20s, 30s, or 40s lament their inability to narrate themselves as Jordanians from outside the discursive space authorized by official state historiography. “Our history is all lies!” was a refrain I heard often.

At the end of one protest, I sat next Aḥmad, a school teacher in his late 30s. Unhappy with the turnout, Aḥmad solicited my opinion as to what the movement should do to attract more people. I suggested that the activists should perhaps focus less on public protests and engage in face-to-face conversations with their kin in the neighborhood. The suggestion sounded impracticable to him because, he explained, “Jordan had no revolutionary heritage,” and that the only revolt Jordanians knew of was the Arab Revolt which the Hashemites led. Aḥmad’s response came as a surprise. Indeed, some of my interlocutors among the activists were engaged in discussing the history of Jordan and actively searched for books to read on the topic. During the many conversations I had with them, I have heard some mention the Karak rebellion against the expansion of Ottoman administration into the town in 1910. Activists on social media networks frequently mentioned the rebellions of Mājed al-ʿAdwān, Kleib al-Shrayydeh and Rāshed al-Khuza’i al-Freiḥāt in the early years of the colonial state in Jordan. The conversations were never precise and often mixed up the historical details. Nonetheless, there was always a sense that another history, one that constructed a Jordanian nationalist movement independent of the Hashemite dynasty, was waiting to be systematically researched and uncovered. 

One could simply read Aḥmad’s comments as a realization that certain historical facts have been obliterated by official historiography, but such a reading would miss what is truly at stake. Read with an attention to the practical function of such historiography, Aḥmad’s comments are better seen as expressing a desire, felt by many young activists, for a history of past uprisings of which an uprising in the present would be a continuation. Such a desire can be detected in the activists’ tendency to name episodes of large protests as “habbeh” (rising), harking back to the April Rising (Habbet Nīsān) of 1989.[3] Hence, the protests of November 2012 against fuel price hikes were called Habbet Tishrīn (the November Rising), and the protests of June 2018—which resulted in the ousting of Prime Minister Hanī al-Mulqī—were referred to as Habbet Ḥuzayrān (the June Rising). 

But apart from these vernacular histories, the wave of protests in Jordan since 2010 has occasioned a new wave of activist academic historiography. Two examples of this historiography stand as particularly illustrative. The first is the work of ʿIṣām al-Saʿdī, a historian whose book on the Jordanian National Movement in the first half of the 20th century (al-Saʿdī 2011) was eagerly read by many of the activists I have worked with.[4] Encouraged by the relative success of his first book, al-Saʿdī went on to write a second one (2014) that covered a later period. Another example is ʿAbdullāh al-ʿAssāf’s (2015) on the rebellion of Mājid al-ʿAdwān of 1923. Al-ʿAssāf’s book seeks to present the contemporary readers with a historical possibility that he claims was aborted, or rather pre-empted due to colonial intervention, namely a Jordanian state lead by a native Jordanian: Mājed al-ʿAdwān. Politically, presenting that episode as a past possibility seeks to invite the reader to imagining a different present that could be actualized in the future.

While the ability of activist historiography to conjure wide publics remains limited, it is not without significance. In parallel to activist historiography, a new semi-official historiographic movement has also emerged seeking to weave a rebellious tribal historiography into the official state narrative. Jordan Heritage, a non-profit company, for example, employs amateur researchers to document “all that is valuable in Jordan’s past” including the lives of Jordanian tribal leaders who led rebellions against Ottoman rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the activist historians, the researchers of Jordan Heritage have little interest in tribal politics. Rather, their research on the lives of tribal leaders emplots them within a narrative of Jordanians anti-colonial struggle against what is now construed as Ottoman occupation and British colonialism. Their individual narratives weave into the founding myth of the modern state and the Hashemite revolt against the Ottomans.[5]


Revisionist histories by Jordanian activists—whether vernacular or professional—and by semi-official historians may have little by way of agreement on what happened in the past, or what the significance of past events was. But this apparent disagreement conceals an agreement over the primacy of historical consciousness, and of historical time with the nation as its main protagonist. Despite their discrepant commitments, young tribal Jordanians feel that to better know how to act in the present, and what sort of future to anticipate, they must unearth new evidences and historical knowledge about their past. Focusing on the content of this new historiography alone would be to miss a political act of much larger significance. The case of Ḥay al-Ṭafāyleh youth illustrates how, under the spell of history, the deeds of ancestors are increasingly construed not as customs or tribal tradition, but as the choices of free individuals which must be assessed within a nationalist narrative. In doing so, young activists position themselves as “the youth” vis-à-vis their elders in order to construe a different relation to the state and the monarchy. Here, “the youth” emerge as historical subjects, who may well be inspired by their tribal past, but never encumbered by it.

References Cited

Saʿdī, Muḥammad ʿIṣām al-. 2011. al-Ḥarakah al-waṭanīyah al-Urdunīyah, 1921-1946 (The Jordanian Patriotic Movement 1921-1946). Amman, Jordan: ʾAzminah Publishing.

———. 2014. al-Ḥarakah al-waṭanīyah al-Urdunīyah, 1946-1953 (The Jordanian Patriotic Movement 1946-1953). Amman, Jordan: Maʻhad al-Mashriq lil-Dirāsāt al-Jiyūsiyāsīyah.

Shryock, Andrew. 1997. Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan. Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies 23. Berkeley: University of California Press.

ʿAssāf, ʿAbdullah Muṭlaq al-. 2015. Thawrat al-Balqāʾ wa mashrūʿ al-Dawlah al-Mājediyyah (The Balqa Revolt and the Majedian State Project). Amman, Jordan.


[1] Many claim that the Governorate of Ṭafīleh, the administrative district in which the village is located, is by now 80% depopulated. However, I have not managed to find reliable sources for this claim.

[2] The appropriation and incorporation of sheikhs or tribal judges into the security apparatus is a case in point. The Ministry of Interiors relies heavily on tribal notables in preempting tensions and violence, particularly between the youth, which is often dealt with outside the courts.

[3] Incidentally, many of my interlocutors among the Ṭafāyleh activists were quick to note that their neighborhood was the only part of Amman that participated in the 1989 April Rising.

[4] It took al-Saʿdī almost 20 years to publish his book, which was a translation of the PhD. dissertation he had written at the Lebanese University in Beirut in 1992. In the introduction to the book, al-Saʿdī outlines his reasons for writing it in the following way:

Since the history of the nation—any nation—is made by its people, with their struggles and sacrifices, the popular-patriotic role in building and shaping the historical experience/the state has been deliberately obliterated […] The national masses are most in need for highlighting their history made by their heroism and struggles and to rewrite it from their perspective. Getting to know the programs of civil society institutions during the Emirate period would inform the national masses of their nation’s past so as to give form to its present and outline its future. (12)

Leaving aside al-Saʿdī’s invocation of the masses, which reflects his Marxist background, the idea of an obliterated past that needs to be uncovered for the nation to be able to be able to imagine its future is one that runs across many historical works published since.

[5] Documentaries on the lives of Jordanian tribal leaders by the Jordan Heritage Company can be found at