My latest interviewee recently retired from teaching after twenty-three years. He taught religion and Islamic history in a government school in the north of Jordan, near the Syrian boarder. He found teaching to be hard; so many students in a class, so many class hours in a week, low pay, and the status of history and religion was so much lower than math and English language. Also, his narrative about his path to teaching religion was less than inspiring – he said that his math and science scores were not good enough to get him into medical school. That said, he did then mention that he sang the Qur’an well. I asked him what part of the Qur’an he thought would be most important for non-Muslims to know about. Interestingly, he did not mention specific verses but rather made two related points. First, the Arabic in the Qur’an is incredibly beautiful but very difficult to understand. Second, making sense of what the Qur’an is saying is not obvious.
While he did not make the connection directly, I believe he was making the point that while parts of the Qur’an could be interpreted to advocate violence, this would be a misreading. I conclude this because immediately after speaking of the difficulty of understanding the Qur’an, he began speaking of the peacefulness of the Jordanian people. He was extremely proud of being a Jordanian. He spoke about how upset he was that the Syrian regime was killing its’ own people. “You know that Assad means lion? Well the lion kills one animal and is full. This animal kills and kills and is never full. His father was the same. They drink the peoples’ blood.” This led us to several of his political beliefs. “President Assad is an Alawite – that is a bad kind of Shi’ite.” “Iran is why so much in the Middle East has problems – Syria, Lebanon.” “Sunni Muslims are peaceful.”
He then changed his demeanor slightly, and was a little more hesitant about saying the next piece. “You know there are two kinds of Jordanians – Jordanian Jordanians and Palestinian Jordanians. Jordanians are very hospitable. The Bedouins, in the old days, if your car broke down in the desert and no-one was around, a Bedouin would kill his sheep and have you stay for three days in his tent, get you help. The Palestinians are different.” “Everyone loves the king. Really – you know we have freedom of speech here – everyone loves him. You know the queen is Palestinian. So – this might be one of the problems. Also, King Hussein gave the Palestinians the same passport I have. I don’t know why – maybe it was the peace with Israel. Other places, it might say “Palestinian” on your passport, but here it just says Jordanian.” “A lot of the Palestinians have a lot of money.”
He was very proud of his children – one son, he reported with a smile, was in “the police – the secret police.” One of his daughters got top marks in science and was going on to university in science. When he had to have an operation recently, he had his teachers’ insurance, but his son’s job gave him access to the military hospital – “the best in Jordan.”
So some overall impressions: teaching religion in Jordan to Muslims means teaching the Muslim scriptures, theology and history. Someone with a religiously moderate outlook felt comfortable teaching in the government schools for many years. Class size and the status of the field are more concerning to a moderate than the content of the curriculum (though the language barrier prevented me from asking more about the curriculum itself). Finally, and less related to teaching, despite the government line, some Jordanians still clearly distinguish between those from Palestinian background and those who are not.