Story by Matt Kauffman // Photo by Christina Bivona
AMMAN, Jordan – Jordanian youth are so complacent in their insulated lives that they don’t have the capacity to think critically – a reality so stark it could potentially set back the development of a more democratic and politically active society.
That’s the take of Mohammad Zeidan, a university instructor, activist and blogger who focuses on youth culture. He told this to a group of American university students from Boston visiting the country to report on its people, politics and culture.
“I was meeting some friends in Tafileh” – a town south of the Dead Sea in Jordan – “in a very impoverished neighborhood,” said Zeidan, who is 25. “We talked about novels and how important they are. Then one of them, a university graduate, asked me, ‘What is a novel?’ And he meant it. He didn’t get the picture of a novel. He’d never even thought of buying a book,” said Zeidan, who teaches at May 29 University in Istanbul, Turkey.
A tall, native Jordanian and impassioned speaker, Zeidan believes that this younger generation, which makes up the vast majority of the country’s population, is absent vital critical thinking skills due in large part to the inadequacies of the educational system.
With more than 250,000 students attending 27 universities and 51 community colleges, education in Jordan has long been thought of as one of the best systems in the Arab world. Yet Zeidan believes it does not encourage independent thought and punishes those who ask challenging questions.
“Teachers are not open to criticism. If you interrupt a professor here you will be kicked out,” he said in an interview after the speech. Zeidan is finishing his master’s degree in translation studies at the University of Jordan. “At university once, I asked a critical question, a question that challenged my professor’s view, and he told me I was going to fail his course. You cannot do that here. It is crazy.”
Zeidan is the founding member of a local book club called Khair Jalees (translated to Best Companion) and discussion leader in two others – his and his friends’ attempt to alter the course of complacency. He tries to create a vibrant intellectual environment, he said, so that youth in the region can get together in non-violent ways and start talking and thinking outside defined cultural norms.
As an example, he mentioned a recent discussion in his book club about a 2011 self-published novel by Fadi Zaghmout, a young Jordanian blogger. Called “3aroos Amman,” it centers around three women and a gay man, and is filled with topics considered to be societal taboos in Jordan. Yet instead of inciting anger and violence – what might be expected in a culture where realities such as homosexuality are forbidden – the book’s subject matter triggered debate and discussion.
People “wrote about that meeting” after its conclusion, Zeidan said. “That was really cool.”
Though it’s a priority of his, tackling the failure of Jordanian youth to properly appreciate literature is just one aspect of a larger issue, Zeidan said. And this fundamental problem can’t be fixed by a few book clubs: “There is political persecution. There is no freedom of speech. Middle class families are discouraging their children from even asking critical questions because they are afraid of the repercussions politically,” said Zeidan.
It is a start, though, he added – a small step that might eventually lead to bigger ones. “Without reading, without knowledge, we will not get better.”