Why modern Jordan sees value in a tribal law blamed for flawed justice

Jordan's nomadic tribes resolved Hatfield-McCoy-like feuds by relocating clans. Derided as collective punishment, jalwa may yet be helpful in regulated form.

Taylor Luck
Sameeh Al Amer, photographed at his refuge at the edge of the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq, is one of dozens of Jordanians forcibly evicted by tribal disputes each year.

The news was as devastating as it was sudden.      

Sameeh Al Amer’s cousin had shot and killed the local imam – a distant relative – during a heated argument.

All too familiar with Jordanian tribal law, Mr. Al Amer knew what he and his family had to do: flee their home.

“We snuck out into the night like refugees – we weren’t even able to bring our clothes,” Al Amer says from his refuge near the Jordan-Syria border. “Overnight we became a cursed people.”

Al Amer’s is one of dozens of Jordanian families forcibly uprooted each year by tribal disputes under the practice of jalwa, or eviction, in which entire clans or tribes are banished from their ancestral lands as a result of a crime committed by one of their members.

Jalwa came about after bloody Hatfield-and-McCoy-like feuds during the 19th century, a time when Bedouins living in what is now Jordan were more nomadic. It was designed not as punishment, but to distance feuding families and avoid acts of revenge, thereby preventing all-out blood feuds.

Now Jordan wants to bring tribal law into the 21st century, regulating a practice officials say metes out flawed justice that borders on collective punishment.

In the next two months, the government is set to unveil a new law that represents a compromise with tribal leaders eager to preserve their influence. It limits the scope and size of jalwa and sets sunset clauses on the banishment. At the same time, it punishes by law those who flout tribal justice, which is seen as contributing to conflict resolution.

Changing jobs, and schools

Under jalwa, Jordanian authorities and tribal sheikhs broker the relocation of hundreds of citizens across the country each year, moving families from province to province, village to village. Children change schools. Government clerks are transferred. Shopkeepers shutter their storefronts. 

In a single case in 2012, 102 families – some 700 people – were uprooted from central Jordan and dispersed throughout the country.

From afar, it resembles a massive witness-protection program. For Jordan, it's all about preserving the peace. 

In many ways, this country was built on jalwa. Many of its tribes settled here after being evicted from neighboring Palestine, greater Syria, and the Hejaz in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

As part of an unwritten agreement, Jordanian authorities have actively worked with feuding tribes to reach an atwa, or reconciliation, where both sides state their grievances and set terms for compensation.

Jordan’s governors and mayors have acted as mediators, scrambling from house to house to put a lid on simmering tribal tensions.

One misdeed, and hundreds suffer

Yet after decades of brokering informal tribal truces, the Jordanian government admits the system has flaws. 

“Over the years, certain negative behaviors have arisen from tribal justice that are against Jordanian customs, norms, and Islam – such as punishing those who have committed no crime,” says Laith Shraa, director of the Jordanian Interior Ministry’s media office and the acting spokesman.

“We work to get both parties, but often hundreds suffer injustice because of the mistake of one of their relatives.”

Al Amer’s is a case in point. After the local imam’s murder two years ago, 25 families – some 120 people – were forced to abandon their homes and relocate to tents and cinderblock huts about 30 miles north along the Jordanian-Syrian border.

Barred from reentering their home province of Mafraq, three of Al Amer’s eight children lost their jobs. Ten of his nieces and nephews dropped out of university.

Tainted by the stigma surrounding jalwa, Al Amer’s family is shunned in their new village of Hamra, unable to attend weddings and funerals, and often are turned away from job interviews in nearby towns.

Meanwhile, his 370-acre farm, dairy, and grocery store all have fallen into disarray – looted over the months and left untended. All for a crime by a distant relative whom they hardly knew – and who paid instantly with his life at the hands of his victim.

“Why should we suffer for a crime we did not commit? Do we not have courts and a justice system?” Al Amer said.

Striving for the rule of law

Tribal leaders themselves recognize that the practice of jalwa as Jordanians know it, is “inapplicable” in the 21st century.

“In the old days, if there was a problem, you would just pick up your tent, collect your sheep, and go,” says Sheikh Theeb Ensour, the head of an influential tribe who has brokered dozens of atwas and jalwas.

“Now people have office jobs, apartments, they send their kids to schools – it is a logistical nightmare.”

As the years pass, urbanization and the influx of more than a million Syrian refugees have made the practice even more difficult: there is little space left to resettle families.

Mr. Ensour and 500 tribal and community leaders joined forces in October to sign an “honor pact” to update jalwa. Under their proposal, rather than second-, third- and fourth-cousins, only the immediate family of the killer – his wife and children – would be forced to leave town.

The leaders say the tribes’ move, along with the ministry’s proposed law, would bring Jordan one step closer to the ultimate goal in which courts will adjudicate all tribal disputes.

“We eventually want the rule of law to be supreme. But until that day, tribes and the state have to work side-by-side,” Ensour says.

Debate in parliament

Observers and social scientists say if regulated under a law, tribal justice practices like jalwa could be useful tools in modern conflict resolution.

Jalwa was never intended to be a punishment. It was designed as a chance for both sides to calm down and allow space for an agreement to be reached,” says Musa Shteiwi, sociologist and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “Under regulation, jalwa can help stop violence and allow the state come in and enforce the law.”

Yet the passage of the law, which has to be approved by Jordan's parliament, is no sure thing. Some lawmakers warn that by “legitimizing” tribal justice, Amman would perpetuate a state-within-a-state that doesn't apply the rule of law to all.

“We are now at the gates of the 21st century,” says Mahmoud Kharabsheh, a member of parliament’s legal committee. “Do we really want to go back 50, 60 years?”

For Jordanians like Al Amer, unregulated tribal justice is not an option. “Until we are protected by the law,” he says, “we are at the mercy of mobs.”

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