I will never forget what happened one Ramadan not so long ago in Jordan. I am an expatriate American mother married to a Palestinian refugee. I came to Jordan so that as a newly converted Muslim, I could raise my children in a safer and more Islamic environment. I gave up my country, my family, most of what I held dear in my life so that my own children would know their Arab and Islamic heritage.
Trying to raise my children as an Arab mother yet also trying to provide them with the best of both worlds was not an easy accomplishment. But then, I knew that all worthwhile things demand a lot of effort. At last my oldest son entered one of the government universities in Jordan. My husband and I did not want him to get his bachelor's degree from the United States as we felt he was too young to be exposed to the more permissive American society.
I never encouraged my children to participate in politics or take part in demonstrations of any kind. I had seen the results of such demonstrations regardless of the nobleness of the cause. Many times I had watched from my home, children chanting songs of freedom for liberty and justice in Palestine, only to sadly see them dispersed by policemen chasing them with heavy clubs with which to beat them. I am talking about very small children here, not even older ones.
Whenever there was a demonstration staged by adults and teenagers, I could also see within the crowds, not only policemen with clubs, but the Mokhabarat (equivalent to the CIA) dressed in civilian clothes, secretly whispering into their walkie talkies. All my children knew, as everyone did in Jordan, that there was a sophisticated system of spies dispersed throughout all levels of society, from the classroom to the workplace. Even among groups of friends, there was always someone to "report" any expression not favored by the Royal family and Jordanian government.
It has been claimed that democracy in Jordan is for those that "respect" themselves. I had always thought democracy to be for all, regardless. And of course, this respect meant not to openly criticize the government or the Royal family. To do so entailed certain imprisonment and torture. Every neighborhood contains someone who has been foolish enough to speak out against the government or Royal family. And those someones either have been driven crazy as a result of interrogation or permanently scarred for life. Even a member of parliament, an elderly religious sheikh, Abu Zant, was grabbed by the police and severely beaten while crying out, "I have a heart condition."
"Yeah, we'll fix your heart condition, don't worry," he was told.
His only crime was that he spoke the truth. His punishment was the cruel beating he received. His beating was an example and a warning to all that no matter the rank, the age, the physical impairments. Punishment is swift and sure for any who dare to say what they know is right.
But my children were relatively safe, I thought. They knew what happened to their classmates who took part in demonstrations. My oldest son had one such boy in his class before he graduated from high school that was beaten and held in prison simply for passing out leaflets. The boy was not allowed to complete his high school education.
I had warned my son, "Please do not even think of passing out leaflets or joining in any demonstrations. Your whole life will be ruined."
And he had assured me with, "Don't worry Mom, I am not that foolish to throw away my whole life for a few papers. I saw what happened to my friend. He is such a nice guy but he will never be able to graduate."
That Ramadan when my son didn't come home for the weekend (he used to live in the dorm because his university was several hours away), I assumed it was because he was studying for his tests. I knew he prayed and fasted and that he was a good boy, one that would not get into any kind of trouble. He had never been a problem while he was growing up and I did not expect him to ever be one.
If mothers could take the pain of their children and incur it on themselves they would. The day my son came home, my heart sank and my knees gave in. His clothes were torn. He had huge black and blue spots all over his body and some cuts still oozed blood. His glasses had been bashed in and he had a large bump on his head. He looked like he had been to Hell.
"Oh, my God, what happened to you?" I screamed. I felt nauseated. I felt every bruise, cut and bump as if it had been me who had been through this horrible ordeal.
"I was on my way to see my grades," he said, still visibly shaken. "It was just after Iftar and after some other students and I had finished praying in the mosque. So, though I heard a lot of commotion outside, I didn't pay much attention. All I could think of was to see how my grades were on the exams I had taken. Once outside on campus, I got caught up in the demonstrators who were running away from the police. They were everywhere and brutally beating anyone who was unlucky enough to get in their way."
"One police, after he broke his club on my head and nearly knocked me unconscious, grabbed me and took me to a room at the university that was being used as a jail for those taking part in the demonstration. There, I was beat again. This time all over my body though I shouted that I had nothing to do with whatever was going on. The next day I was released. I knew the reason why. My name wasn't on the list of those who had taken part in the demonstration. I had just been accidentally caught while passing through from the mosque to where my grades were posted."
Later on, after my son showered and tried to rest from his nightmarish ordeal of the day before, I asked him why the students were demonstrating. "Was it something political?"
"No, it was only to lower the tuition at the university. I am one of the lucky ones. Some students got killed that day. Some were hospitalized. Many were in their last semester and they will never graduate."
It is Ramadan again this year. I still shudder when visions of how my son looked, after being released by the Jordanian police for being caught in a demonstration he did not take part in, flash before me. His outer wounds have healed now, but both my son and I shall bear for life internal scars that will never heal. Such is the fate of those who take part in demonstrations in Jordan. Such is the status of a dysfunctional democracy where the only democracy apparent is emptily echoed in the rhetoric of those in power.
Ruth Anderson is a freelance writer living in Amman, Jordan.