In 2012, two huge new facilities opened in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Last week, I visited both of them.
In the Abdoun district of Amman sits the Taj Lifestyle Centre, “the ultimate destination for shopping, dining and entertainment in Jordan,” a palace of globalized consumerism. Lorena and I went there last Friday. All the big international names are there: TGI Friday’s, Victoria’s Secret, Hugo Boss. And I kid you not, we had coffee at Starbuck’s and quarter-pounders at McDonald’s, I bought a new sweater from H&M, and we went to the cinema to watch the new Hunger Games movie; I snacked on the nachos and cheese, Lorena snaffled the popcorn. For real.
70 kilometres north, and occupying a much larger area of 3.3 km², is the other new face on the Jordanian map, opened at around the same time: Zaatari refugee camp. We went there on Thursday.
Zaatari is a camp for Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war just across the border. There are over half a million Syrians now living in Jordan, most of whom will have passed through the camp at some stage, and current estimates of its population knock at around 85,000. All the big international names are there: UNHCR, Save the Children, Oxfam. It’s a vast, impressive piece of planning and execution – tents and trailers for homes, medical clinics, communal wash-rooms and kitchens, schools, shops, paved roads. But what strikes you most is how the people have adapted and settled, cutting up, breaking down and rebuilding the buildings to make family homes, sprawling villas with fitted bathrooms and courtyards. There are satellite dishes everywhere. This community is a world in microcosm, built from scratch through necessity. And commerce has sprung up all over: we see cellphone stalls, bicycle repair men, grocers, barbers, kebab shops and clothing stores. I buy a shawarma from a street-side vendor. It is delicious. He doesn’t want to accept my money.
And yet there’s no escaping the truth of the poverty. Women and children queue for water and NGO hand-outs. The kids go to work instead of school, because they have to. These are desperate people trying, with tremendous help, to continue living. And there’s no escaping, either, the reason they are there. “We came from death”, says one woman. These are lost people from broken families and faraway, unrecoverable lives.
I take all this in as a passenger. Lorena’s a journalist, we’re there to research a story, and I just happen to have a vaguely respectable camera with which to take the pictures. But the effect on me is profound.
Back in Amman, we go to the mall (we walk through metal detectors, we are frisked; groups of young men are turned away). People shop. The sales are on. Jordanian families fill the hallways and piazzas with talk and laughter, chewing and chugging and slurping and buying. We have chosen to spend our day in this homogenized global village, and so have they.
We watch the movie. In case you’ve not seen or read it, The Hunger Games works on a kind of model of Imperial Rome, right down to the names of the characters from the Capital. And at its heart is the threat of rebellion, its prevention, and indeed its very desirability. Ancient Rome, famously, maintained control through ‘bread and circuses’. That’s what The Hunger Games are.
Katniss, the lead character, isn’t seeking to start a revolution; she just wants to protect her family. But she is used, manipulated, and a war begins. And the cost of rebellion is high: District 12, her home, is destroyed.
Syrians rebelled, as did Egyptians, Libyans, and Tunisians, with mixed results. Many who fought, and many who didn’t fight, lost lives, families, friends and homes. Others, including the people of Jordan, thought about it, and pulled back. Why? Plenty of bread? Plenty of circuses? Or perhaps just an acute awareness of the cost?
I see contrasts and parallels in these places I’ve been and these stories I’ve heard. I see rebellion against some things, and acquiescence to others, and I wonder why. Two places and two peoples so close together, so far apart. Two paths violently diverging. Did they think of the costs, weigh them and choose? Or were those choices made for them? And who was right?