If you want to understand modern Jordan society you need to know about wasta – a.k.a. Vitamin W.
BY CAMILLA TOFTLUND
Have you ever heard of “vitamin W”? If you have, you might know that vitamin W isn’t like any other vitamin. Vitamin W is a commonly used nickname for the widespread and widely used “wasta”. In the Middle Eastern part of the world, wasta or “vitamin W” has for many people time and time again proved to be vital in order to cope with many aspects of life. In Jordan, people even go as far as to say that you cannot survive without vitamin W. If you want to understand modern Jordan you need to know more about wasta.
This article explains how the use of wasta has changed throughout time from the traditional tribal use to wasta in modern day Jordan. In order to understand how people navigate and cope with the many aspects of life in Jordan one must understand what wasta is, how it is used and which complications it leads with it.
Wasta, a tribal custom
The original meaning of the Arabic word wasta is the act of mediating and to be in between. Wasta entails and covers notions such as friendly favors, networking, negotiation, mediating, corruption, nepotism and bribe. For most people these words have negative connotations but in order to understand the rootedness and the evolution of wasta in the Jordanian society we must return to the traditional tribal use of it, which is somehow quite different from the modern use.
Wasta is a system of negotiation and exchange rooted in Jordanian tribal culture. The word itself refer to either the act of mediating or negotiating or to the person who is responsible of the latter. The use of wasta traces back to customs among the tribes who inhabited the areas that later became known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Wasta was used as a mean in conflict solving, in order to secure stability or simply to obtain something. It is told that in the time of the Ottoman Empire mukhtars appointed by the Ottomans had to negotiate with local tribes in order to secure stability and peace. In exchange for the tribes’ cooperation local villages were provided with amenities such as water supply.
Loyalty to the family and the clan is a core value amongst tribes as well as it is in many modern Middle Eastern societies today. At the time before the borders of Jordan were drawn, loyalty to the tribe was crucial in order to secure power of lands, to maintain the reputation of the tribe and to survive in the harsh desert environments. Traditional tribal law ruled and regulated almost all aspects of life. Tribal members bear collective responsibility which means that a dispute is not only between two persons but between two tribes. If a member of a tribe violates someone else’s honor the whole tribe is conceived as honor violators and if a person from a tribe has a bad reputation it hits every member of the tribe. It was therefore in everyone’s interest that such incidents were solved by arbitrating and mediating – by using wasta.
In the case of disagreements and conflicts, killing of a member of the tribe or even in marriage tribal members sought to negotiate and mediate with one another so that tribal code of conduct was upheld and honor of the tribe wasn’t violated. Wasta was used to ensure peace between tribes, to create political alliances and to make sure that tribal custom was the controlling fundament of life. Wasta in its traditional form can be referred to as a social system as the traditional use didn’t entail money but simply consisted of social practices and negotiations.
Wasta also played a major part in the construction of the emirate Transjordan due to emir Abdullah’s persistent use of it as he attempted to establish a good relation with the powerful tribes of the area in order to win their loyalty and support. Abdullah I allotted honorable titles to tribal leaders and he even became spokesperson for the tribes in different matters in return for their trust, loyalty and support. The emir on the other hand benefitted from the tribes in distribution of services and resources from the central government.
From this time on the use of wasta converted into a way of obtaining and achieving something that is otherwise out of reach. The emirate Transjordan which later became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, was established on the use of wasta. It played a major role in the urbanization and centralization of power which is why wasta today is one of the foundations of the Jordanian society. Wasta has through time developed from being a tribal dispute solution used traditionally by the tribes of Jordan to a mode of intercession present in almost every walk of life in Jordan.
Wasta from the past in the present
Modern use of wasta is the key to perceive and understand contemporary Jordanian society and way of living. Solving conflicts or disagreements between families using wasta is still common in modern Jordanian society. However, wasta is today mostly used when trying to achieve something otherwise out of reach.
One of the social practices – which is still very much present in modern Jordanian society – that bear witness to wasta and past tribal customs is the jaha. A jaha is a gathering of people and it usually comprises elderly male family members, close friends and wise individuals respected by people from local society. A jaha takes place in two instances with two objectives; in case of disputes or problems between families or other members of society. In this instance the practice of the jaha is used in order to avoid going to court having resolved disagreements legally. This practice undeniably bear resemblance to tribal customs and the use of wasta.
The other objective of jaha is usually carried out before engagements. The jaha is an expression of mutual respect towards families of future brides and grooms. It is a social practice where a group of men get together to designate two people for marriage. A representative from each family, usually an old, wise and responsible male member of the family, is selected to speak about the bride or the groom and the acceptance of one another. The following steps towards engagement include a number of other traditional social practices such as reading the first chapter, al-Fatiha, of the Qur’an. This objective of the jaha is a formal way for an engagement request and approval. However, the compliance of traditional practices is reminiscent of tribal custom and practice.
Wasta in modern Jordanian society
So what does it mean when people in modern day Jordan express that they are in need of wasta? Usually, when asking for wasta, people are looking for someone with the right connections or someone who is able to solve whatever problem they might have. Take the following situation as an example of how wasta works in Jordan – and bear in mind that loyalty is a key word in the wasta system:
A recent graduate from the university is in need of a job but he lacks the skills needed for the position he is looking to fulfill. One of his relatives happens to work at the same institution. The graduate’s father contacts their relative and tells him that his soon needs the job. The relative might be powerful enough to make the decision to hire the graduate on his own. If not, it is expected of him to advocate on behalf of the graduate and to pull whatever strings he can. If the graduate ends up getting the job, he didn’t get it because of his skills or experience but because of his connections – his wasta.
Now this situation may sound unlikely to some but in reality it’s not. This is a very common situation in Jordan which is why many jobs are occupied by people who are not suited for them. However, helping out relatives and friends and proving loyalty to them is to many people more important than the consequences wasta brings with it. In a Western perspective the above situation would be labelled as nepotism which is usually frowned upon. In Jordan it’s called wasta and it is regarded simply as using one’s network.
The following instance where someone is looking to obtain a certain permission is a classic example of the way wasta is used. Bureaucracy in Jordan can put anyone to a test. Not only does the process of paperwork take a lot of time but one usually needs a lot of different papers and stamps from the right people as well:
A man is looking to start his own travel company and for that he needs the right permissions. Years before, he had been caught by the police for carrying drugs and the incident is therefore listed in the archives. With a stained criminal record, he is not able to open a business. His friend knows someone who works with the people who are responsible for issuing the permits that he needs. He asks his friend to talk to the people he knows and to let them make their colleagues delete whatever is listed on his criminal report. In return, he offers them all a 20% discount if they choose to use his travel company. Weeks later, his criminal report is clean and he has obtained the needed permits.
Unlike in other Middle Eastern countries, wasta in Jordan usually does not include money changing hands. Instead, gifts, invitations or discounts can be offered, but these are often declined. Honor, respect and a good reputation is important to Jordanians and there is pride in being able to deal with things and to help out friend or relatives. However, there is a mutual understanding about the use of wasta, which is comparable to a bank account; You can withdraw a favor from your account using your connections but at some point you will have to make a deposit by doing someone else a favor.
Why Vitamin W is a problem
Many people feel that wasta is a necessity in order to make their way through life and the different challenges one might face. The article “How many types of wasta does a Jordanian use” (in Arabic), featured in the government-owned newspaper al-Rai’i, bluntly tells how a Jordanian is more or less forced to use wasta from the moment his mother needs a bed in the hospital in order to give birth until he passes away and is in need of a grave. In the article, the widespread use of wasta is described as a lifestyle, a habit and even as a social addiction.
In a country where the unemployment rate is currently at around 16%, people feel obligated to use their connections in order to secure an income. One might argue that getting a job due to your connections and not your skills isn’t necessarily the worst crime one can commit. However, the continuous use of wasta in the Jordanian society does have a lot of consequences and it is affecting the cohesion of the country and society.
When politicians are able to buy people’s votes against the promise of providing them with amenities, jobs or simply money we see the ugly face of wasta. We see it when a patient in a hospital is disregarded because someone else who knows the doctor made his way to that same hospital. We see it when a university student cannot pass the exam because he is not from the same clan as his professor.
Not only do the consequences of wasta affect the people who are not able to use it, it also creates a gap in society between people – the ones with wasta and the ones without it. But due to the traditional tribal past of wasta, the way it has developed and become an engrained part of people and social practices, the perception of the negative sides of wasta might not be as clear to people as they are when seen from an outside perspective.
In a country where people are proud of their tribal past it might be hard to see that the widespread and continuous use of wasta in Jordan complicates the process of decentralization of power as only the fortunate people with the right connections are able to reap the goods of the society.