When conducting research on tribal law in Jordan, it was quite common for me to hear older men (and even tribal judges themselves) counselling me that the time to conduct such research had passed.1 I became accustomed to elegiac monologues from such men explaining wistfully how, ‘these days, the youth don’t sit and learn in the d̅iw̅an (the guest room) the way they used to. They’re always on their phones! They’re on Facebook, WhatsApp and I don’t know what else!’2 Indeed, the adoption of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile telephony in Jordan has been rapid and striking – and many Jordanians (young and old) cannot seem to put their phones down. These older men were perceptive to note the importance of the d̅iw̅an historically in creating a particular kind of (male) public (Habermas 1962) or even what Michael Warner (2002) terms an oppositional ‘counterpublic’, where the know-how of tribal customs could be passed down from father to son. However, this article will question whether the break with older publics, antagonisms, emotions and modes of sociality is as stark as such testimonies suggest. These criticisms of young people’s social media usage have come at a time when my interlocutors’ and my social media feeds teem with reports of ‘tribal clashes’ (ashtib̅ak̅at ‘asha’iriyya) across Jordan. In fact, this was precisely why self-appointed guardians of the social order like these older men were counselling me not to confuse such violent goings-on with Jordan’s venerable ‘customs and traditions’. While many youths are now spending a lot of time on their phones, the introduction of a new medium of communication has also intensified their engagement with certain pre-existing kinship logics3 – even if their elders view those engagements as illegitimate.
In this article, I draw on six months of dedicated fieldwork that focused on Jordan’s tribal law and on more than four years spent living and working amongst Jordanian tribesmen to track a reported upsurge in feuding in Jordan since 2011.4 The data analysed here involve more than fifty formal interviews with leading journalists, tribal leaders and members of the security apparatus, as well as a substantial archive of local media reports and extensive participant observation.5 My interest in this topic dates back to 2012, when I was researching the effects of changing marriage practices on kinship structures. In that year alone, despite my best efforts to avoid them, I witnessed five of these tribal clashes first-hand, all of which followed the same pattern: following a perceived slight, youths would send out calls to action via Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and text messaging. At the appointed time, they would try to burn the shops and vehicles of the rival family and then fight their rivals when they tried to defend their property. Eventually, the gendarmerie would arrive and separate the sides using tear gas, truncheons and armoured personnel carriers.
Just what made these clashes (and those involved) ‘tribal’ was shaped by deeper histories of resistance and accommodation involving kin groups and colonial and postcolonial state policies. Like the Ottoman and British empires before it, the Jordanian state has long sought to stamp out raiding and feuding as some of the many threats to its monopoly on the use of violence. Like its predecessors, though, Jordan’s government has found that tribes can facilitate its attempts to monopolise violence. The result has been a marked tendency to allow tribal law to continue in rural, Bedouin areas dominated by a non-Palestinian population that predominates in the security apparatus. This century-long policy tendency has been alternatively interpreted as a site of (and sign of) resistance to the state (Watkins 2014), a key tool for the subjugation of Jordan’s Palestinian population (Massad 2001), and a canny strategy for patiently encompassing those tribes (Abbadi 2006). While these interpretations are often opposed both within popular discourse in Jordan and in the scholarly literature on Jordan, they are not actually mutually exclusive. More fraught is the historicisation of these dynamics, with some (e.g. Massad 2001) emphasising British colonial influence and others emphasising the continuity of these forms of divide and rule at a number of scales over time, from Ottoman attempts to manage its hinterlands through a mix or tribal patronage and punitive raids (Abbadi 2006: 39–44; Boehm 1984: 39–50; Shryock 1997: 38–94) on forwards.
This history of the differential application of tribal and state law has had a profound impact on how people in Jordan now negotiate notions of law, lawlessness and criminality. At the time of research, the media tended to label clashes as ‘tribal’ when they happened in rural areas while labelling similar conflicts between kin groups in refugee camps and other urban areas ‘group clashes’ (ashtib̅ak̅at jam̅a’iyya). Journalists who considered themselves tribespeople tended to think that the term ‘tribal clashes’ was denigrating to tribes, while those who did not (often urban and Palestinian-Jordanian journalists) tended to see the distinction as trivialising tribal violence and its lawlessness. Such differences of opinion index both a shared frame of reference and two markedly different experiences of it: tribal and nontribal.
The history of the differential application of state law remains, but, increasingly, any victim with kin who are willing to go along with the process can in theory avail themselves of tribal law. They can even expect a degree of government imprimatur when dealing with the crimes of dam (‘blood’ or homicide), ‘ird (‘honour’ or sexual crimes), and taqtiyya al-wajh (‘cutting the face’ or breaking truces). Some urban and immigrant groups claim their own tribal traditions, while others simply claim that ‘the Jordanians taught us about tribes’. For its most vocal proponents, tribal law promises to prevent this sort of chaos – not foment it. There are supposed to be customary limits on legitimate retribution when one’s kin were under attack: rules about who can be targeted, when they can be targeted and how each side’s guarantor (‘the face’) is to keep the peace in subsequent truces on the pain of giving up a large surety. Through a series of truces, attempts at restitution and reconciliations, the conservative proponents of tribal law argue that it can help bring communities together even after appalling atrocities have been committed. Yet, many people, far from seeking tribal prerogatives that they have historically been denied, instead reject tribalism as backwards, chaotic and mafia-like.
This article begins by examining the methodological advantages and pitfalls of approaching a social field amidst the introduction of a new medium of communication, focusing on how such moments can highlight the workings of local ‘media ideologies’. I then detail some of the ways in which tribal dispute resolution has been shaped by a very specific ideology of ‘face-to-face’ communication that has long struggled to reconcile itself with the realities of tribal conflict. In the following section, I use a meeting with one of a new breed of Facebook sheikhs in his d̅iw̅an to illustrate the challenges of projecting the d̅iw̅an’s masculinist and gerontocratic dynamics onto social media. I then examine what has happened as feuding and tribal conflict more generally move online, creating openings for new actors to emerge and create their own conflicts and publics using new technologies. In the final section, I argue that the riotous efflorescence of online journalism and new media spaces that coincided with the ‘Arab Spring’ is quickly being absorbed back into what Jordanians call ‘the security apparatus’. Subject to fierce competition, libel lawsuits and accusations of incitement, the capture, registration and regulation of Jordan’s new online journalistic establishment comes to resemble that of the tribal notables who came before them – especially as foreign security concerns increasingly come to shape Jordanian debates on everything from faith to foreign policy.
Understanding New Media
The emergence of new media has long provoked anxieties, at least since Plato warned of writing’s potential to corrupt the transmission of oral traditions in Phaedrus. So it is little wonder that similar anxieties persist today when novel forms of mediation arise. Against the technological optimism sometimes associated with visions of ‘global villages’ (McLuhan 1964: 37) and ‘technological singularities’ (Kurzweil 2005: 21–34), techno-pessimists join the fray with jeremiads warning of the social, economic and spiritual ruination that awaits those who embrace these technologies (Postman 1985; Turkle 2011). The older generation of Jordanians can thus certainly be forgiven for assuming that new media represents some challenge or other to ‘tradition’ (whatever that is). Yet, many anthropologists have long attempted to tell a much more nuanced story, enquiring after the hopes and fears that such scholarly debates index, as well as the complexities of using such technologies in practice.
In enquiring into what Ilana Gershon (2010) has called the ‘media ideologies’ of my Jordanian interlocutors, this article builds on an earlier anthropology of media from the 1980s and 1990s, much of it inspired by the introduction of television and audiovisual recording equipment into previously marginalised communities (Abu Lughod 2004; Ginsburg 1991; Turner 1991). This work has laid the groundwork for more recent work on the Internet and social media, helping anthropologists to cut through some of the hype and approach online sociality as just another site of human sociality (Boelstorff 2008). Daniel Miller (2011: 190), for instance, has argued persuasively that Facebook and related media are, in a sense, ‘conservative’. He means this in at least two senses. First, more trivially, social media helps to bolster relationships in the face of migration, busy schedules and progression through the life course. It helps to counteract the social entropy that leads social relationships to atrophy through disuse. However, in a more fundamental sense, online social networking sites underline how humans are, to a degree, always already ‘social networking sites’ (161). These new online tools work against both the ideology of modernist individuality and its practical day-to-day dynamics, reintegrating people into community accountability structures.
Yet, if Miller seeks inspiration for his theory of Facebook in Nancy Munn’s (1986) The Fame of Gawa, where the goal of sociality becomes the extension of self in time and space through the creation of ‘fame’, then this article draws inspiration from another Melanesianist trope. This is what Marilyn Strathern has called ‘cutting the network’. As Strathern notes, people would become immobilised and sociality would be impossible if they were caught up in ‘potentially endless networks of relations that seemingly did not cut themselves’ (1996: 529). This is why Strathern argues that ‘social relations depend on multitudinous factors that truncate the potential of forever-ramifying blood relations’ (530).
The point is not to imply that Miller’s focus on extension and forging new social bonds is wrong or that there is something unique about his (or my) interlocutors. People across the Arabic-speaking world today also seek to use media to forge new social bonds and animate the kin networks in which they find themselves entangled. Indeed, in a particularly compelling account of one rural Moroccan youth’s search for love, Matthew Carey (2012) chronicles his key interlocutor’s, Hicham’s, pursuit of the low-risk/low-reward strategy of using mobile phone technology to call random numbers in the hopes of finding a suitable wife. Hicham’s experience here might well resonate with the millions of young men across the Arabic-speaking world today in countries like Jordan consigned to bachelorhood and dependence on their fathers long into adulthood unless they can find ways to animate their kin networks (Hasso 2011). Yet it is important to understand how cutting off social relations can also be generative as the other side of the same coin – and how new media can be brought to bear on such projects of self-making through othering.
In this regard, this article builds on Gershon’s (2010) work on the role of social media in social detachment: social media promises avenues for self-making by connecting with others, but it also facilitates self-formation through disconnection. Like the US college students whose Facebook practices Gershon studied in The Breakup 2.0, Jordanians experiencing the same technological innovations at the same time also had complex ‘media ideologies’ about what new forms of communication were – and were not. Though for very different reasons, social media like Facebook was also seen as a source of discord among almost all of the Jordanians I interviewed. Whereas Gershon found that the neoliberal milieu of contemporary campus life turned students into hyper-individualised neoliberal subjects who struggled with romantic attachment, Jordan’s often contentious and fissiparous agnatic kinship structures dominated local concerns in my data. Social media was widely believed to intensify individual and collective forms of male self-making through conflict and violence. All my interviewees believed that the new forms of communication provided new vectors for insult and affront, as well as new avenues for organising retaliatory action that might bypass pre-existing structures of authority and decision making, and put more power in the hands of the crowd and its inflamed passions. What’s more, new forms of communication threatened to bring strange men into the household where they might seduce or harass daughters and sisters in ways that would force male relatives to avenge real or perceived slights against women, the house, the patriline or some combination thereof.
Careful attention to local media ideologies is crucial if one wishes to avoid overly homogenising accounts of the uptake of new technologies or, worse, crude technological determinism that ignores its own cultural assumptions. For one thing, against a popular Anglo-American paradigm in which the solution to problems of communication – even violence – is always more communication (Peters 1991: 30–31), my interlocutors (like Gershon’s US college students) presented compelling accounts of how more communication was precisely the problem. More importantly, while these feuds were unfolding during the Arab Spring and ‘#Occupy Everywhere’ (Juris 2012), they were also distinct in very important ways. Certainly, there was no shortage of Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Teargas, but there is a danger in rushing to find in such developments what she terms ‘a global cultural convergence of protester aspirations and practices’ (2017: xv). It is important to account for the local specificities of the aims of social actors and their moral claims, as long-time ethnographers of Egypt like Farha Ghannam (2012) and Lila Abu Lughod (2012) warned from the beginning of the Arab Spring. While Jordan has seen its own hir̅ak (movements), selfconsciously embracing just such a globalised paradigm of bottom-up activism, even those facets of these hir̅ak most imitative of foreign precedents have ironically been forced to emphasise their own tribal character as a means of bolstering their authenticity (Yom 2014).
Understanding Face-to-Face Communication
As the ethnographer Andrew Shryock (1997) notes in his study of Jordanian historians, adapting discourses of (and about) a world of agonistic, face-to-face encounters to new forms of mediation is no mean feat. The Jordanian men whose attempts to write history that Shryock chronicles struggled with the challenge of relating scurrilous and defamatory narratives designed for the d̅iw̅an – ‘lies’ (kidhib) in the local idiom – into texts that could circulate far beyond their originally intended publics. As Shryock seeks to collect oral historical accounts and commit them to tape, he quickly discovers the deep fears of his interlocutors that words transposed from one medium to another might betray their authors. The tape recorder becomes a diagnostic not so much of veracity as of dominance: only the most powerful and well insulated have the confidence to disseminate their narratives far beyond the d̅iw̅an (Shryock 1997: 179–182). If such anxieties could be provoked so readily by older men’s history writing and a foreigner’s tape recorder, then it is little wonder that the profusion of social networking and phones with recording capabilities greatly accentuates these fears. Amidst rapid technological change at the level of practice, tribal sociality remains ideologically committed to face-to-face encounters in the d̅iw̅an. Yet, the materiality of new media challenges such commitments amongst the older generation, becoming part of a deeper history of technological transformation dating back to colonial sedentarisation projects and the introduction of the automobile. This history underlines how there has long been a problematic disconnect between the ideology of face-to-face communication and the technical realities of actual tribal sociality.
Compared to sedentarisation and the introduction of the automobile, the introduction of new forms of communication has had a much more diffuse effect on older paradigms of dispute resolution, grounded as they are in ‘face-to-face’ communication. It is not simply the guarantors who vouch for their kin’s compliance in truces who are ‘faces’ here. The groups themselves (as well as their individual members) also have their own idiomatic ‘face’, or discrete social reputation. It can be metaphorically ‘blackened’ via various affronts, just as the colouring of one’s face may literally darken in moments of interpersonal conflict as blood rushes to one’s cheeks. In such a situation, unless one’s metaphorical ‘face’ is ‘cold’ (incapable of experiencing shame), it becomes incumbent upon any self-respecting individual or kin grouping to ‘whiten’ their face through retaliatory action. Such beliefs are long standing, and, in many ways, ‘Face-book’ is immediately recognisable as a tool for the extension of one’s ‘face’. While such continuities with older logics were widely accepted by interviewees, however, it was the disjunctures that fascinated them.
One of the most interesting and dynamic of these disjunctive ‘traditions’ to my interlocutors was a kinship category known as khamsat-ad-dam (the five of blood). The category is given its fullest expressive form in didactic commentaries that are imparted to children and visiting anthropologists alike in the d̅iw̅an. Holding an imaginary dagger with a clenched fist, the more senior man explains to his juniors that all the relatives of the killer to ‘the fifth grandfather’ are subject to a degree of collective responsibility for homicide. With each generation, a finger is dramatically released until, after five generations, the imaginary dagger is relinquished. These are the people who, following a murder, are potentially subject to jalwa (banishment) or tha’r (revenge). It is a vivid and evocative image. It is also a very partial representation of the reality – as my patient teachers were always quick to note. It is assumed that some of the khamsa will try to wheedle their way out of responsibility, while more distant kin may seek to join the fray for various reasons: in the hopes of building new family coalitions, making off with some booty in subsequent raiding or maybe just becoming a protagonist in a good story and earning some local renown. There are also good reasons why, at various times, the principle of five generations of collective responsibility itself has been attacked as both overly broad and not broad enough.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the concept of khamsat-ad-dam related to me by my interlocutors was the introduction of the automobile to Jordan. Suddenly, the potential for unintentional homicide skyrocketed, especially when compared to the sort of face-off implied by a knife fight or even a gunfight. While the nature of car-related deaths might mitigate claims of malicious intent, the victim was no less dead, and there remained a sense that families should be entitled to satisfaction following the loss of beloved kin. As a result, there was a concerted effort to limit collective responsibility to three generations rather than five, thereby decreasing the number of people who would have to undergo the hardships of banishment. One respected local historian even told me that, since a man can hold a dagger with three fingers (and the ring and pinkie fingers move together), only three generations should ever be banished and that all my interlocutors arguing to the contrary were ignorant. The government’s tendency to encourage previously nomadic groups to sedentarise (and accept the state’s authority in place of such stateless structures of dispute resolution) has further pressured families to settle disputes quickly and with minimal violence while cutting off collective responsibility at three generations.
Despite the fact that almost everyone I spoke to saw social media as creating conflict, my Jordanian interlocutors did not naively accept a dichotomy between dynamic modern technologies and a static, objectified tradition. Indeed, most Jordanians I encountered were intensely concerned with history and the historicity of their customs and traditions. Even the threats posed by technology to face-to-face sociality and to sober attempts to prevent such conflicts from ‘widening’ beyond a delimited group of responsibilised (Dean 1999) kin were understood to predate the Jordanian state and the Internet. From car crashes to ever-evolving systems of guarantorship and the institutionalised banishment of five (or three) generations of a killer’s family, the technical mediation of such ‘face-to-face’ relations among kin groups has long been a significant problem and part of the work that the d̅iw̅an is supposed to do. As we will see in the next section, the d̅iw̅an presents itself as an interactive space that can defuse conflicts involving sprawling networks of actors by focalising them in the bodies of senior men and their assembled kin and then orchestrating their separation while tempers cool. Here, elders cut the network to avoid creating opportunities for kin to ‘cut the face’.
A Facebook Sheikh
If the emergence of social media has often left those in their sixties and seventies confused and increasingly marginalised, a new generation of leaders in their forties and fifties has begun to blend many of the trappings of sheikhly authority with a bit of Internet savvy to make their own claims to tribal authority. For illustrative purposes, I will centre this section on an encounter with the man who (of the dozens of self-styled sheikhs I have met) has most assiduously cultivated an online component to his sheikhly persona: a man I will call Sheikh Abdullah. While I may seem to dwell on this encounter at length and highlight certain atypical aspects, much of it was completely typical of my interviews with other judges, from the rituals of hospitality to the depictions of tribal law and tribe-state relations. In our discussion, he made clear how he saw tribal law much as tribespeople in many other parts of the former Ottoman Empire do: as, ‘a self-conscious kind of social engineering, in which the older and more mature members of the community tried to manipulate a homicidal conflict in such a way that it first could be contained and then … be resolved’ (Boehm 1984: 142). As the ensuing discussion will make clear, the tribal conflict mediation that I witnessed in Jordan was likewise a moral project. It placed a high normative value on a specific kind of social harmony, one that seeks to accentuate and reify hierarchies of age, gender and wealth. Yet, despite his popular Facebook page with thousands of followers, including hundreds who would ‘like’ everything he posted, the sheikh made clear through both his explicit answers to my questions and his tacit self-presentation how dependent he remained upon the interactive space of the d̅iw̅an.
I first met Sheikh Abdullah, appropriately enough, through Facebook. A tribal judge, he would frequently post pictures on his Facebook page of satisfied disputants reconciling in his d̅i̅an, which was a goat hair tent next to his well-appointed house in the capital of Amman. Through a series of Facebook messages and some mutual friends, I arranged to meet the sheikh at his home one evening. When I arrived with our mutual acquaintances, he led us to his studied replica of a Bedouin tent with a ceiling fan, a flat-screen television and large, imposing pictures of his father, his grandfather, Jordan’s king and its crown prince. He sat us down and had a young boy pour us each a cup of coffee in a small, thimble-like cup before promptly disappearing. In his wake, three more boys emerged, each carrying a platter: dates, chocolates and cookies. We demurred a bit. They insisted. After we had all taken some sweets, they filed out and left us to our own devices. My friends took pictures of themselves and remarked on the décor. When the sheikh presented himself again, we were interrupted by the arrival of another guest. Indeed, a couple men would file through over the course of the meeting, although they barely registered in the conversation. A woman came out with tea, and the sheikh remarked, ‘My Sudanese is off for the day,’ most likely to emphasise the number of servants at his disposal but also to draw my attention to the foreignness of the woman serving us, who had probably been hired in part for her East Asian appearance. Some men in analogous situations would be even less subtle and tell me unprompted – lest I, as a foreigner miss, the point – that the foreign domestic worker in front of me was most certainly not their own daughter, further asserting that the sight of one’s kinswomen serving strange men would diminish a man’s claims to power and authority within ‘tribal society’.
The d̅iw̅an’s modes of hospitality ideologically centre certain senior men as its primary givers, subsuming and erasing women and junior men as mere extensions of these senior men in ways that in turn govern who can speak and when, with those who ‘give’ hospitality encouraged to monopolise discourse in the d̅iw̅an, while those who enact the hospitality are largely excluded. More than its physical space, it was this human component of the d̅iw̅an that most set it apart from the modes of online tribal sociality that people like Sheikh Abdullah are now turning to, where at least in theory anyone can have their own account and start their own webpages.
This is the dîwân. It is open to anyone. Anyone can come here. Now we have stone houses, but we still keep the d̅iw̅an for guests.6 This is where the sheikh is found. He’s the big [man]. He fixes problems amongst the people. He judges. This is the basis of the tribal system.
I next asked the sheikh to explain the process of resolving disputes, and he said he would do so using the procedure for homicide as an example. He told me that the first step after the governor and police deem a homicide tribal (a determination heavily dependent on whether those involved responded as individuals or tribes) is for them to impose a ‘security truce’ for three and one-third days. At this point, the guilty party and those related to him through his family notebook (a government document listing one’s patrilineal relatives) would be banished from the area, ostensibly for their own safety and reasons of public order. The two families would then be expected to agree upon a sheikh who would act as a tribal judge and organise the ‘truce of recognition’. This second truce would involve a meeting of the guilty party and his banished kin and the victim’s family under the protection of the tribal judge overseeing the truce in his own diwan. There, the two sides would agree to a blood money payment and choose guarantors from each side (‘faces’), who would be held responsible if the truce is broken. The third truce or ‘tribal truce’ would happen after some time passed and some blood money collected, which would be paid following a delegation. When the last of the blood money was paid (or before with the sufferance of the victim’s family), those banished from their homes could return. The reconciliation would be the fourth meeting of the disputants, marking the payment of the final sum and a return to normal social relations.
Proponents of tribal law like Sheikh Abdullah believed that the use of government courts and their jails brought nothing but ‘loss’ because they did not lead to material compensation, reconciliation or socially generative relations. The sheikh explained how the blood money is ‘lightened’ by the people under tribal procedures. The delegation that is sent to the reconciliation asks for a particular sum, but it also asks for prayers for the prophet and His Excellency the King (all of which is mirrored in the documents that participants sign at truces). Over time, the sum may be adjusted or the terms of the truce may be altered such that people can enter the other side’s domain without violating the truce. In this way, demands for punitive damages are supposed to give way to mercy and then forgiveness on the part of the victim’s family, the ‘owners of the blood’.
The sheikh told me that there were three types of cases: honour, face and homicide. He estimated that he judged fifty cases a year, which would mean he had overseen about five hundred in his career. Of these cases, he estimated about 60 per cent were homicide and 40 per cent were honour. Of the homicides, many were car accidents in which the blood money payment had to be negotiated between the families, the police and the insurance company. He said that cases of ‘face’ were exceedingly rare yet also especially important because without truces, anarchy would reign, making such cases the key to stopping cycles of retaliatory violence. This was precisely why the notable failures in recent years of previously respected tribal ‘faces’ to negotiate truces that would hold (discussed in more detail in the next section) has led to such consternation. The ‘face’ (or guarantor) is the ‘loser’ if the truce is broken, having promised to pay a surety if someone on their side is found to have broken the truce, ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Such ‘cutting the face’ could range from an unauthorised revenge attack by a member of the khamsat ad-dam to a family member simply wandering into the other side’s territory during a truce.
Sheikh Abdullah was by far the most enthusiastic proponent of social media whom I encountered and surely represents an emerging pattern in which the gender and age hierarchies of the d̅iw̅an are increasingly projected into online spaces. After years of hearing almost nothing but complaints about Facebook, I was shocked when I asked him to compare Facebook and the d̅iw̅an and he said: ‘The d̅iw̅an is face-to-face. You see the effects of words on the face of the other. … But now is better [because] everyone can see the reconciliation on the Internet.’ Yet, even he had to admit some ambivalence about the relationship between his online and offline personae and social media’s violent potential. He complained that cases of ‘old revenge’ would start on Facebook with youths relitigating old cases that had been settled by their elders decades ago until they spilled over into violent confrontations in the streets. He also related an example of a reconciliation he had overseen that had been ‘spoiled’ when a young journalist published the blood money payment online in the midst of the proceedings in his d̅iw̅an. The two sides, angry over the publication of the monetary sum, had broken off the reconciliation, causing the gendarmerie to move in and prevent the return of forty families that had been previously banished. In the next section, we will see more examples of how the social media use of such younger men further complicates the struggles of men like Sheikh Abdullah to take the advantages conferred upon them by their wealth, lineages, age and gender and project those advantages into online spaces. If tribal law seeks to contain violence and empower senior men by cutting the network, youths have found that ‘cutting the face’ offers an alternative means of cutting the network, one that can quickly turn the tables on their elders.
Feuding Goes Digital
Plenty of social media activity (and activity in general) in Jordan has nothing to do with feuding and tribalism – especially in urban areas. Jordanian social media users enjoy sharing jokes, poetry, inspirational images and a lot of Islamic and nationalist content. They also take vast quantities of pictures of themselves, their friends and their mundane activities. Yet the nature of pre-existing rural Jordanian social networks tends to make kinship integral to the adoption of new media, which can mean exclusivity as well as inclusivity. For instance, because mobile phone companies used to offer discounts to calls within their networks, kin often pressured each other to switch carriers to save them money, leading to different carriers being associated with different tribes. Nowadays, Facebook groups specialising in tribal news like the Sakhr News Agency (2018) and the Huwayt̅at Tribe (2018) boast followers in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Likewise, when it comes time to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ people on social media and share content, it is often to one’s tribe that one turns: for connections as well as affirmative, non-controversial material that can be unproblematically ‘liked’ and ‘shared’. The semiotics of such circulating images proclaiming tribal solidarity tend to revolve around connecting the name of one’s tribe with other prestige symbols, including international brands, nationalistic symbols like flags and traditional Bedouin regalia and paraphernalia. As a medium, Facebook seems to present vastly greater prospects for such strategies of extension. At the same time, though, cutting the network by precipitating the dissolution of pre-existing social relationships offers another way to animate an inert kin network.
The clashes that broke out between the Huwayt̅at and the Ma’ani tribes in 2013 represent a particularly extreme instance of the schismogenic (Bateson 1935) potential of this combination of kinship and social media. Following clashes at Al-Hussein Bin Talal University that left four dead, there were reports of people being pulled off buses, having their IDs checked and being attacked based on their last name. These sinister rumours, which turned out to be true, became far more concrete when a group of Sharia Court employees that I was working with (none of whom were from either family) began repeatedly watching a viral video on Facebook that claimed to show the corpses of two Ma’anis who had supposedly been killed by the Huwayt̅at. Debate raged as the video was played and replayed: Was it real or fake (kidhib)? Were the corpses who they were purported to be? Most importantly, just what sort of agenda was pushing this video – and the conflict more broadly? Was this being disseminated by Huwayt̅at as a means to gloat or by Ma’anis to rile up their kin for another round of revenge? Might there be darker forces at work (Israel, the United States, the Ministry of the Interior) driving all this to sow chaos in Jordan amidst the tumult of the Arab Spring?
Whatever grand machinations did or did not lie behind the clashes, as events progressed they became less about the rival families and more about challenging all existing authority structures. A particularly striking post a week after the four deaths at the university depicted four men with kefiyyehs covering their faces holding a stolen Ministry of the Interior banner and assault rifles. The most popular comments were ‘There’s no correct solution but the correct one from long ago, which is for the southern desert to be independent from the rest of the governorate’ and ‘The Huwayt̅at are an army that doesn’t need training.’ Meanwhile, elder members of the community were complaining that all this was ignoring the proper channels through which such conflicts were supposed to proceed and that people were being attacked with little in the way of genealogical precision. Most victims of these attacks were not from the khamsat ad-dam of the killer, and, in any event, the government had announced a truce which important men from both families had backed.
Again, the making and breaking of kin bonds emerge as two sides of the same coin – in this case, in the attempt to extend the network by nurturing a broad-based tribal political bloc to wrest more services from the government requires cutting the network by actively banning and excluding existing power brokers. The next section will explore how Jordan’s government is increasingly taking an active role in shaping these conflicts online, before they reach the streets.
A lot of people just dislike the page in general. … Our tribe has maybe twenty-two or twenty-three families, and one or two families are in the upper class. A lot of the members of parliament are from them … and they are not the biggest family either. … When we want something from the government and the people in the upper class don’t give us this service, we put the problem on the page. It helps the average citizen, but they hate us for it.
Bringing the State Back In
It is not just kin groups working to cut the network. Cutting the network has long been central to the work of the Jordanian state as well – and it is increasingly translating existing logics to social media. In the short term, Jordan’s government has attempted to stop the clashes (following the basic logics of tribal law) by blockading the traditional domains of the respective families to keep them apart. Yet, this itself has led to more protests (media in tow, naturally). With the 2011 Arab Spring and its Internet-mediated dimensions as a backdrop, 2012 was the year when the Jordan government began applying its Press and Publications Law to the Internet, requiring websites to be registered with the government and to have a full-time editor with at least four years of membership in the Jordanian Press Association. In 2015, a new electronic crimes law came into effect, which now extends sanctions for libel and slander to online ‘speech’. Through both laws, various sovereign prerogatives compete in an increasingly global system comprised of responsibilised guardians of social order. In fact, journalists themselves are increasingly under pressure to mediate conflict in ways redolent of tribal notables before them.
The dominant political debates in my conversations with journalists in 2016 and 2017 were about what people could legitimately articulate online. Chief among the controversies were a string of high-profile cases in which Islamists were arrested and accused of interfering with Jordan’s foreign policy through social media by publicly criticising Jordan’s American and Gulf backers (Azzeh 2016; Sweis 2015). Then the Christian journalist Nahed Hattar was arrested for an allegedly blasphemous anti-da’esh Facebook post that would soon lead to his assassination on the courthouse steps (Bulos 2016). The journalists I interviewed were highly ambivalent about the increase in government regulation. I met journalists who had served time in prison and been intimidated by politicians for video content that they had promoted to viral status. I met an editor who had resisted complying with the press law until he was left choosing between acquiescence and a government blockade on his website that left him unable to make payroll. He noted, though, that the authorities never tried to shut down his site’s Facebook page: they just blocked his website and thus his source of advertising revenue. Even the authorities’ frequent visits to his office to encourage him to comply with the law to end the blockade had been (at least on the surface) cordial enough. Virtually every journalist also at some point defensively told me, ‘We have freedom of expression like you do in the West.’ I certainly would not dismiss such claims – although I might question the degree to which ‘the West’ actually lives up to the ideals they seemed to be envisioning – especially to the degree that it is in fact Western security concerns, and specifically US security concerns, that increasingly impinge on the exchange of ideas within Jordan’s public culture.
Given their increasing centrality to the dissemination of information online as average citizens and opposition figures alike became more reticent in the face of such government crackdowns, I was particularly keen to understand how these journalists approached the tribal clashes at the centre of this article. I had noted that news of ‘tribal clashes’ made up a significant portion of the content online news sites produced, on par with drug busts and car pileups. Yet, most journalists were, overall, uninterested in these sorts of stories when I spoke to them, especially compared to issues of foreign policy and press freedom. I was repeatedly told that only someone who had spent a lot of time living in rural areas would care about such things. Several journalists showed me how they took police press releases and posted them, unedited, without alerting the reader that they were reading reposted content.
In these press releases, the actions and claims of the ‘security apparatus’ were discussed in the third person, pre-packaged for placement underneath the banner of a news site, at which point they came to read like ready-made short news items on a local disturbance. The appeal here was obvious: competition was fierce, budgets were tight and free content was not to be refused – even if such ‘copy-paste’ methods were bemoaned as ‘unprofessional’. When journalists did produce original content, they were mindful of the risks of getting the story wrong – and of providing the wrong kind of information and antagonising the wrong people. When I asked why journalists did not name the tribes involved in ‘tribal clashes’, I was told, ‘We don’t want the fight to widen so, for instance, if there is a clash in Ma’an, we don’t want for people to read about it in Zarqa and then start a fight there.’
None of this has stopped these clashes or (as far as I can tell) necessarily lessened the amount of bloodshed and disruption caused by them. At the same time, whatever bad faith motives might lie behind the attempt to use such examples of online incitement as a rationale for government regulation of the Internet, there is little appetite in Jordan for romanticising the violent clashes that the authorities ostensibly want to stop. More insidiously, though, the whole way in which people think about social conflict is influenced by the communicative restrictions that are slowly emerging. leva Jusionyte (2016), drawing on fieldwork conducted among Argentinean journalists caught between shadowy informal networks and official corruption, has noted a trend in coverage towards what she terms ‘crimecraft’. Like Jordanian journalists, these journalists find that the need to maintain good relations with the authorities encourages them to report the official narrative while allowing other truths and opinions to subtly emerge through the comments thread online, which can be moderated and subsequently disowned if need be.
Not unlike a certain discourse of tribal conflict involving the highly regulated age, gender and class hierarchies that are instantiated though the d̅iw̅an, this sort of crimecraft can also be extremely exclusionary towards different sorts of claims making by more or less marginalised voices. The concept of crime is very much consonant with the Weberian notion of the state as that entity which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, thereby figuring state violence as the bulwark against all other violence and in some cases even peaceable dissent. Given the pervasiveness of the belief in Western scholarship and popular culture that the Internet fosters diverse viewpoints, it would be deeply ironic if Jordan’s social media dynamics were increasingly coming to homogenise a heterogeneous world of scurrilous (and potentially explosive) talk in cloistered d̅iw̅ans through the extension of a more neutral, state-endorsed hegemonic account of dissent, social conflict and nonstate violence as inherently ‘criminal’. Yet, despite increasing state regulation of social media networks, total homogenisation seems unlikely. The guardians of the social order complain that no sooner have they begun to crack down on people’s public Facebook activity than the problems begin migrating to more cloistered WhatsApp groups, where hundreds or thousands can connect through end-to-end encryption software. Indeed, state-backed coverage of ‘tribal clashes’ itself shows no signs of abating despite a long history of attempts by various state and civil society actors to subsume it within a discourse of criminality. The persistence in Jordan of state-sanctioned discourse of ‘tribal law’ and its ‘tribal clashes’ represents yet another example of how cutting the network continues apace as more partial and fragmentary coalitions (and narratives about those coalitions) are allowed to persist and even encouraged – but only within bounds.
The focus on how changing media technologies have affected Jordanian society turns up a decidedly ambivalent picture that supports neither a dire 1984-style alarmism nor the sorts of celebratory accounts of social media’s liberatory potential associated with early accounts of the Arab Spring. It also challenges the idea, though, that social media is inherently about extension and points to ways in which ‘cutting the network’ (and/or cutting the face) is also a canny use of such technologies. Youths connect with each other (and undermine their elders) by attacking rival kin groups, upending truces and reconciliations and severing incipient alliances in the process. Their elders, in turn, insist on setting limits to culpability and responsibility at five (or perhaps three) generations, while government officials try to blockade contentious content and, in extremis, entire towns. Would-be disruptors in Jordan like youth, Facebook sheikhs and journalists rush to take advantage of such gaps where the control of states and existing kin networks is lacking. Social media gives them access to a far wider audience than they could ever reach through speech and paper, yet they are also hemmed in by the contradictory demands of the government and their followers to both extend and cut the network. Those who balance such informational and representational challenges can build large followings, wield real power and profit. They can bring people together and make themselves the centre of attention – but only if they can balance the sensibilities of their audience, those embroiled in the conflicts they comment upon and the state. In this way, increasingly registered, responsibilised and expected to defend the social order, social media mavens of all ages find themselves challenging – but also growing into the roles of – those grizzled old tribal notables who fear their days are numbered.
I would like to thank all the Jordanians who supported my research and gave generously of their time and wisdom, especially Mu’tasim Mahadeen and Mohammad Albtoush. Funding was provided by the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Research Infrastructure Improvement Funds, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities. This article also draws on insights and experiences that date from my time conducting research funded by the National Science Foundation (Award Number 1154785). The American Center of Oriental Research in Amman provided me with valuable logistical support during my research, as well as a thriving scholarly community. Blaire Andres, Andrew Shryock, Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Narmala Halstead, Pablo Jaramillo and Andrea Pia provided useful feedback. The views expressed, however, are solely my own.
While the use of the term ‘tribal’ in anthropological theorising has been rightly criticised as vague and potentially orientalising and primitivising (Sneath 2009; Southall 1970), it is arguably precisely these qualities that encourage Jordanians to use the term, and I follow the local convention in translating’ash̅ira and ‘asha’ir̅i as tribe and tribal, respectively. Whether they love them or hate them, Jordanians arguably talk about ‘tribes’ as such precisely because the term invokes evolutionary and civilisational hierarchies. If anthropologists vis-à-vis their interlocutors often associate ‘tribal’ with a certain unilineal evolutionary teleology and a ‘denial of coevalness’ (Fabian 1983), then anthropologists must confront head-on instances (as in Jordan) where their interlocutors refuse coevalness, perceiving the anthropologist’s own time as shallow, effete and unsustainable. This rhetorical framing of ‘tribal law’ within the ethnographic encounter is highly reminiscent of the ‘symbolic condensations and displacements’ that Andrew Shryock (2004: 42) has identified in Jordanian discourses around hospitality, where authenticity is likewise projected onto a nobler past at odds with contemporary decadence. In doing so, Jordanians creatively appropriate and invert civilisational hierarchies, either inventing (and reinventing) a positively valued ‘tribal’ past in the process (Abbadi 2006) or, alternatively, seeking to hold Western anthropology responsible for having perpetuated such notions in the first place (Massad 2001). While I have registered my doubts elsewhere about the degree to which the British Empire was the first to administer Jordan through the dynamics now termed ‘tribal’ (Hughes 2015, 2016) and I draw on Christopher Boehm’s (1984) work on highly similar dynamics Montenegro (a part of the Ottoman Empire that was never ruled by the British), a full discussion of these long-running and vibrant debates would be beyond the scope of this article.
As I will show, aspects of these ‘kinship logics’ are quite idiosyncratic and historically dynamic and should not be confused with an earlier anthropological discourse of ‘kinship societies’ that has rightfully been criticised as offering an unreflexively Eurocentric notion of kinship rooted in certain ideas about the biological ‘facts’ of ‘reproduction’ (Schneider 1984). Indeed, much of what is discussed here is actually quite removed from such concerns, grounded instead in beliefs about culpability and responsibility among male agnates in the wake of violence.
As I am keen to point out when Jordanians ask why an American like myself would be interested in such things, at a time when mass incarceration in the United States is coming under increased scrutiny (Alexander 2012) and activists are rediscovering paradigms of alternative dispute resolution (Nader 1993) and restorative justice (McLaughlin et al. 2003), there is much to learn from communities that have experience with such approaches.
Abu LughodL. (2012) ‘Living the “Revolution” in an Egyptian Village: Moral Action in a National Space’ American Ethnologist 39 no. 1: 21–25.
AzzehL. (2016) ‘Muslim Scholar Detained “Over Comments on Jordan’s Role in Anti-Daesh War”’ Jordan Times15 June. http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/muslim-scholar-detained-over-comments-jordans-role-anti-daesh-war.
BulosN. (2016) ‘Jordanian Journalist Shot to Death on Courthouse Steps after Posting Controversial Cartoon to Facebook’ Los Angeles Times25 September. http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-jordan-journalist-killed-cartoon-20160925-snap-story.html.
GhannamF. (2012) ‘Meanings and Feelings: Local Interpretations of the Use of Violence in the Egyptian Revolution’ American Ethnologist 39 no. 1: 32–36.
HughesG. (2015) ‘Infrastructures of Legitimacy: The Political Lives of Marriage Contracts in Jordan’ American Ethnologist 42 no. 2: 279–294.
JurisJ. (2012) ‘Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social Media, Public Space, and Emerging Logics of Aggregation’ American Ethnologist 39 no. 2: 259–279.
KhalidiS. al- (2011) ‘Tribal Feuds Threaten Jordan’s Stability’ Reuters13 January. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-jordan-tribes/tribal-feuds-threaten-jordans-stability-idUSTRE70C2XT20110113.
NaderL. (1993) ‘Controlling Processes in the Practice of Law: Hierarchy and Pacification in the Movement to Re-form Dispute Ideology’ Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution 9 no. 1: 1–26.
ShryockA. (2004) ‘The New Jordanian Hospitality: House, Host, and Guest in the Culture of Public Display’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 46 no. 1: 35–62.
SneathD. (2009) ‘Tribe, Ethnos, Nation: Rethinking Evolutionist Social Theory and Representations of Nomadic Inner Asia’ Ab Imperio 2009 no. 4: 80–109.
SweisR. (2013) ‘Tribal Clashes at Universities Add to Tensions in Jordan’ New York Times25 April. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/world/middleeast/tribal-clashes-at-universities-add-to-tensions-in-jordan.html.
SweisR. (2015) ‘Jordan Gives Prison Term for Criticism on Facebook’ New York Times16 February. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/world/middleeast/jordan-sentences-muslim-brotherhood-leader-for-facebook-post.html.
TurnerT. (1991) ‘The Social Dynamics of Video Media in an Indigenous Society: The Cultural Meaning and the Personal Politics of Video-Making in Kayapo Communities’ Visual Anthropology Review 7 no. 2: 68–76.
WatkinsJ. (2014) ‘Seeking Justice: Tribal Dispute Resolution and Societal Transformation in Jordan’ International Journal of Middle East Studies 46 no. 1: 31–49.