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Tribalism in Jordan

Exploring the cultural richness of the Bani Aissa

By Abigail Roberts | Contributor

An integral part of the Jordanian culture and society, tribalism controls how many Jordanians live and identify themselves. Last Thursday, I was privileged, along with 20 others, to be a guest of the Bani Aissa tribe (Bani Aissa means “sons of Jesus” in Arabic).

For a full evening, we danced, ate, drank tea, laughed together, shared stories and sang around a fire. We were welcomed again and again by Ahmed Abu Nidal, the father of 12 children and an esteemed grandfather figure in the Bani Aissa tribe. His brother Mohammad holds the hereditary position of tribal leader, known as sheikh.

Within Jordan, bearing the name and legacy of your tribe is an honor.

“We are one of the biggest tribes in Jordan,” said Aya, granddaughter of Abu Nidal. “We live in over three villages. . . . There are 11 branches in the tribe and each branch has a number of families. These connections help me a lot because I know someone everywhere.”

“You represent a tribe of thousands,” said Nidal, son of Abu Nidal. “What you do reflects either positively or negatively on the tribe as a whole. The tribe holds you to a higher standard.”

Along with tribes such as the Beni Sakhr and the Bani Hamida, the Bani Aissa tribe is just one of dozens spread across the nation of Jordan. Based primarily in tribal areas, the tribes of Jordan are considered by many as the purest representation of Jordanian culture and tradition. In Jordan, more so than some other countries in the region where ethnic and religious conflicts have dominated politics, tribalism plays an extremely significant role in the political process.

When an issue arises within a tribe, they seek to first peacefully solve it among themselves. In almost all cases tribal law takes precedence over civil law. For example, if a man is caught harassing a woman, in some cases tribal leaders will force him to pay 1/3 of his total wealth to her to make amends. Aya described how she always feels safe and protected. She can always rely on her tribe to be by her side.

Another example of tribal engagement in civil law is engagements. A man demonstrates his tribe’s power and his respect for his future wife by bringing as many males from his tribe as possible to what is called a “fatwa.” The bride’s male relatives meet with the groom’s male relatives to agree on the marriage.

“When I went to ask for my wife’s hand(,) I brought over 800 men with me,” Nidal said. “I rented buses to take them to Amman for the ‘fatwa.’ It was like a family outing.”

King Hussein, the late king of Jordan and a member of the Hashemite ruling tribe of Jordan, publicly supported the role of the tribe and tradition.

“Whatever harms tribes is considered harmful to us,” Hussein said. “Law will remain closely connected to norms, customs, and traditions. . . . Our traditions should be made to preserve the fabric of society.”

The current ruler, King Abdullah, has emphasized that the tribe is a basic pillar of this society.

As we reluctantly stood up to leave, Abu Nidal rose and repeated his hospitable welcome for the third time.

“You are my family now, you are a part of our tribe,” Abu Nidal said. “If anything happens to you(,) we will take you in. Welcome, welcome, welcome, it is and will always be a privilege to have you in our home.”

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