In Jordanian Camps, A Sense of Nihilism

Jordan granted citizenship to almost all of the Palestinians who fled there after the 1948 war, but many residents of the refugee camps, disenchanted with politics, talk openly of a conflict that, in their view, can no longer be resolved.
Jordan granted citizenship to almost all of the Palestinians who fled there after the 1948 war, but many residents of the refugee camps, disenchanted with politics, talk openly of a conflict that, in their view, can no longer be resolved. (Salah Malkawi - Getty Images)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 7, 2007

AMMAN, Jordan -- Ahmed Abu Amira stared down a road of the Hussein Refugee Camp, strewn with moist garbage and bordered with concrete and cinder block in a generic scene of poverty. It headed west, as it has for six decades, toward the home of his parents.

"Palestine is a long way away," he said, standing amid customers picking through his potpourri of cheap goods: combs, toothpaste, leather wallets and nail polish in yellow and green. "This conflict doesn't have any end. It will end when the world does." Bahdala, he called it, a mess. "I swear to God," he said, his face contorted in the anger of resignation, "death would be preferable."

The more than 1.8 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Jordan registered by the United Nations, along with hundreds of thousands of others in Lebanon and Syria, remain a sideshow to the region's more turbulent crises and wars, a 60-year-old diaspora whose permanence denies the notion that refugee status is temporary. But in conversations along the streets of Jordan's 10 camps, the Palestinians tell a story, however anecdotal, of a landscape where secular politics has withered, Islamic activism is ascendant and, perhaps more important, a sense of dejection, even nihilism, is rising, with uncertain consequences.

"Look at my face and tell me what it expresses," said Abu Amira, a 55-year-old with short-cropped hair and a trimmed gray beard. "There's not one person who laughs here." Traffic snarled the street outside his storefront. "Hope, these days, has died."

Palestinians are estimated to represent a majority of the small desert kingdom's nearly 6 million inhabitants, but only a fraction are registered as refugees with the United Nations, among them the great-grandchildren of Palestinians who fled Israel's creation in 1948. Unlike other Arab countries, Jordan granted citizenship to almost all of the refugees, even though their presence in camps like Hussein, virtually a neighborhood of Amman today, was considered temporary. Officially, it still is.

For years, Jordanian officials, wary of Palestinian dissent, have watched uneasily as the camps, once bastions of the secular nationalism of the Palestine Liberation Organization, have turned toward mainstream Islamic currents. Officials say Palestinians represent the majority of the rank and file of the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the camps, perhaps only half of schoolgirls a decade ago wore the hijab, a veil that covers the hair but not the face. Today, virtually all do.

But in the past five years, perhaps even more striking has been the growth of a pervasive, often angry disillusionment with any politics, secular or mainstream religious, with the onset of factional strife in the Palestinian territories and chaos in Iraq.

"You run away from one danger and go to a greater danger," said Taher al-Masri, a Palestinian and former prime minister.

The camps in Jordan remain far more quiescent than those in Lebanon, where the most radical of factions have taken a higher profile. In Ein al-Hilweh, many arguments erupt into armed clashes among young men bristling with weapons. In another camp, Nahr al-Bared, the Lebanese army has laid siege to the camp in an attempt to arrest followers of a splinter group, Fatah al-Islam, that joins Palestinians with other Arabs and was blamed for the bombings of two buses in mid-February in a town near Beirut.

But even in the Jordanian camps, once-taboo subjects are broached as residents talk openly of a conflict that in their view can no longer be resolved and that in some ways they no longer recognize. Despairing, some say they would settle for compensation from the United Nations or elsewhere rather than insist on the right to return to their pre-1948 homes, a principle once deemed inviolable. Others angrily frame the conflict, long a struggle of competing national claims to land, in the most epochal of terms.

"If peace doesn't happen, then war follows," said Fawzi Ahmed, a grocer tossing pink and white mints on a scale.

Koranic chants floated along his street, littered with scraps of bread, broken eggshells and soggy lettuce. Vendors behind rickety tables of fruit and vegetables shouted their offers: "Beans for a half-dinar!" A little ways down was Ibrahim Moussa, a retired government employee, who insisted on sharing coffee before speaking. His heavy, gray mustache bore the yellow stains of nicotine.

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