Letter from Amman: a city tries to keep its balance

There are two types of Jordanians: one -- usually of Palestinian origin -- looks west toward Jerusalem for political cause and beyond to Europe and North America for education and culture.

The other Jordanian - usually of Bedouin origin -- looks east toward the Arabian desert for identity, history, and religion.

The two often meet, but equally often it is not in Jordan. They meet in the Gulf where they work. In Amman, they keep wives and children and spend holidays.

Thus Amman, where half of all Jordanians live, is a quiet, pleasant, self-controlled city. And that is a singular achievement in the boom-or-bust Arab world.

If not for the minarets and the red-checked headscarves, Amman might well be a state capital in the drier reaches of the American southwest. The seven desert hills and wadis of the city house solid white ''Jerusalem stone'' villas, a crisp new suburban university, posh hotels, and office towers -- but they also support vast tracts of crowded refugee camps. And the more-or-less permanent neighborhoods into which many of the camps have evolved resemble the barrios of San Antonio, Texas.

As with most cities, there is disagreement over what Amman is and what it should become.

''This is the new city of the Arabs,'' says the mayor, ''the city where everyone can establish his dream.''

''It's all villas and videos, that's why its quiet,'' a well-dressed Palestinian professor complains.

''More like the Palestinian Bonn,'' says the kingdom's urbane Crown Prince Hassan, ''with Jerusalem as Berlin.''

''It could be our Hanoi,'' counters a rather bitter Palestinian refugee.

Though its roots go back to neolithic times, and it was a major city in the Roman Empire, Amman was mostly a waystation on the Hejaz railroad until the mid- 1920s. And even then as the capital of Trans-Jordan it remained a small town until the first wave of Palestinian refugees arrived in 1948.

It was the second wave of refugees in 1967 and the end of east Jerusalem as a kind of de facto Palestinian capital that made Amman the city it is today. But not without growing pains.

The Palestinians tried to wrest control from the Hashemite monarchy in 1970 and were defeated. Since then there has been an unwritten social contract in which the Palestinians pursue business interests and often serve in important government posts, King Hussein rules the country, and the political leadership of the Palestinian cause is exercized by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut.

The durability of that social contract has impressed many diplomats, and most Palestinians one talks with express relative satisfaction with the arrangement.

''We don't want Jordan,'' says a Palestinian professor at Jordan University. ''We want Palestine.''

''Judging by the relative prosperity of the city, I would say this is a pretty stable place,'' a diplomat comments.

Most of the anti-Hussein sentiment comes from Palestinians with connections in Lebanon and memories of the 1970 power struggle. But in recent months, even hard-liners in the PLO have turned their attention away from King Hussein and see Syrian President Hafez Assad as more immediately inimical to their cause.

Yet no diplomat is willing to say that Hussein's crown has a lifetime guarentee. They agree that only by continuing his careful, noncontroverisal political manuevering will Jordan remain the self-controlled city it seems to be.

One of the real strengths of Amman is that its history lies before it. There is little tribal land, few generation-long feuds, no discernable religious strife.

And its success depends on the less fabulous but perhaps more enduring resources than crude oil.

''Our oil,'' Mayor Isam Ajlouni says over a glass of hot, sweet tea, ''is our people.''

Sixty percent of Jordan's manpower is abroad, most of it in the Gulf. If the shiny new cities of the Gulf are being financed with oil revenue, then Egyptian laborers are carrying the bricks and Palestinians and Jordanians are operating the essential services. Their remittances, plus sizeable subsidies given to Jordan by the Saudis and Iraq, are the basis of Jordan's economy.

Tourism contribues some income, as do agriculture and minerals, but the money that comes in with the work force in the Gulf makes Jordan what Crown Prince Hassan calls a secondary oil economy.

Preserving that status is what governs Jordanian foreign policy: Pro-Saudi, pro-Iraqi, pro-Gulf states; anti-Iranian revolution, and quietly anti-Syrian and Israeli.

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