Jordan and the effort to support BDS in the Arab world

Protest of Cirque du Soleil in Amman, Jordan.

Sami Jitan The Electronic Intifada

During the last week in June, Cirque du Soleil’s signature show Saltimbanco played at the Prince Hamzeh Arena in Amman, Jordan. Approximately 18,000 persons attended the show over the course of four days.

The event itself received polarized reviews. Some said it was tiring to watch, bland and overrated. Others thought the show exceeded expectations, that the performance was mesmerizing and dream-like.

The more absorbing polemic, however, was not about what was happening on stage but about what was going on outside at the main gates of the Hussein Youth City.

On Saltimbanco’s opening day, scores of demonstrators lined the sidewalks leading to the VIP entrance. They were holding signs that read in Arabic “Cultural boycott to sanction Israel,” “Showing the circus in Israel is a reason to boycott in Amman,” and “Whoever entertains criminals and killers deserves to be boycotted.”

The demonstrations were aimed at preventing Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria show from playing in Tel Aviv on 8 August. They were the first major protests in Jordan in support of the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel since what has been dubiously called the Arab Spring.

Catering to a certain class

The Jordanian Popular Boycott Movement, which describes itself on its Facebook page as a group favoring “boycotting cultural normalization” with the “Zionist entity,” first drafted a letter to Cirque du Soleil and then to its media sponsor, mobile phone company Umniah Telecommunications, to reconsider endorsing the revue in light of the scheduled performance in Tel Aviv.

When no response was received from either, the committee organized itself through Facebook and Twitter to demonstrate first in front of Umniah headquarters in Amman and then later to call for an all-out boycott of and protests against Saltimbanco.

Excluding the majority

While the Saltimbanco protest organized by the Jordanian Popular Boycott Movement urged show-goers to turn back in light of Cirque’s scheduled performance in Tel Aviv, a few unaffiliated protestors also complained about the exorbitant price of tickets.

“First and foremost, this show caters to a class of people that does not include us,” said Mahmoud Sadaqa, a Palestinian refugee who attended the demonstration. “I can barely pay my electric, gas and water bill; how can I take all of my kids to see this show?”

Sadaqa gestured to his three sons and his daughter: “Israel kills Palestinian children and then these people [Cirque du Soleil] go on to entertain them. Those children died, but mine are dying a little more each day.”

VIP tickets in particular were astronomically priced at JD 150 (Jordanian dinars) ($211). Tickets for other sections of the arena ranged from JD 80 to JD 25 ($35 to $113).

These prices are beyond the reach of vast numbers of people considering that the Jordanian Department of Statistics reported in its 2008 Household Income and Expenditure Survey that 95 percent of Jordanian monthly incomes were below JD 600 ($846); while a study published by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) found that workers in the informal sector — comprised mostly of working class Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, as well as Egyptian migrant laborers — earn on average between JD 200-250 ($281-$351) per month (“Sanctuary in the city? Urban displacement and vulnerability in Amman,” March 2012).

Given the economic realities in Jordan, any show priced at such levels could only seriously appeal to a small segment of the population.

Corporate social responsibility

The Cirque du Soleil performance in Amman was promoted by Friends of Jordan Festival, a non-profit organization.

“Cirque du Soleil approached us in order to open up new markets,” Souha Bawab, Friends of Jordan Festival’s director, told me in response to questions about the performance.

“We want people to come to Amman to see the events instead of vice-versa. There’s live music in the performance that we would not otherwise be exposed to,” Bawab added. “Our Jordanian gymnasts were able to meet backstage with choreographers and musicians, learning new ideas from the performers.”

As part of their Corporate Social Responsibility initiative Friends of Jordan Festival distributed free tickets to the performance to 200 children from the King Hussein Cancer Foundation. The distribution of these tickets was coordinated with UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children (“Friends of Jordan Festival NGO distributes part of the Saltimbanco show tickets to several organizations coordinated by the UNICEF,” Zawya, 5 June 2012).

Friends of Jordan Festival donated part of the proceeds from the show to the King Hussein Cancer Foundation.

But not everyone who was offered free tickets accepted. Dr. Momen Hadidi, head of the Jordanian team for Family Protection Project, an organization working with victims of domestic violence, returned thirty promotional tickets when he learned about Cirque du Soleil’s planned performance in Tel Aviv (“Charity in Amman returns tickets to Cirque du Soleil over boycott,” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, 19 June 2012).

Reviving pan-Arab solidarity through protesting Cirque du Soleil

Since last year, massive crowds in Egypt “liberated” the Israeli embassy in Cairo (on several occasions) and other groups repeatedly made their explosive opinions about Egyptian gas subsidies to Israel clear. But the Jordanian “awakening” is more subdued.

Despite the economically neoliberal, pro-Israel stipulations in the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty, there is strong opposition to normalizing relations considering Israel’s apartheid policies. However, there is also a segment that is educated and privileged enough to make a choice about cultural boycott but who do not feel invested in the global boycott movement.

The lack of locally-grown campaigns in Jordan is detrimental most of all to winning the right of return for the largest Palestinian refugee population outside of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The unfortunate truth is that in light of the venerable boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) wins in the United States and Europe, the anti-colonial discourse is more and more being written by non-Arab activists.

There is no denying that it is much more more difficult to gain ownership of a BDS campaign in Jordan, a country where Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs) — free trade export zones that require partnership with Israeli firms — came out of the 1994 treaty with Israel.

Unlike in the United States, where campaigns in cities from California to New York work together to target the same corporations, at present each campaign in the Arab world acts alone. And when it comes to boycotting Cirque du Soleil, the boycott movement in Amman on its own is too small to make an impact.

The popular uprisings around the Arab world are scarcely being incorporated into the discourse on BDS. This is a major fault considering that the liberation of Palestine is not mutually exclusive from the struggle in the other Arab countries.

On 9 May Cirque du Soleil held a press conference promoting its show in Amman. Ihab Hinnawi, the Chief Executive Officer of Umniah Telecommunications, announced: “We are going to see a wave of tourism in light of the unfortunate situation of our neighbors.”

Despite the sweeping call for change in the region, Hinnawi — either knowingly or unknowingly — helps Cirque du Soleil profit off of a performance that inadvertently upholds up the status quo of Israeli colonization, occupation and apartheid.

It is hardly surprising that companies will see the situation as an opportunity for profit. It is up to the public to insist instead that solidarity be the priority.

Can Jordan play a role in BDS?

“Good cultural products have a human quality, appealing to all races, genders and nationalities,” Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, a senior associate at a Jordanian business intelligence magazine, told me. “Culture is exceptional at exhibiting heterogeneity and displaying it.”

After bringing up the merits of cultural boycott to Kayyali, he responded, “Madonna’s outspoken support of Israel is one thing, Cirque du Soleil’s performance in Tel Aviv is something else. In reality politics shouldn’t factor into which shows Friends of Jordan Festival brings to Amman … Seeing it as the fault of Cirque du Soleil is not the right paradigm.”

Kayyali added: “cultural boycott aside, there are still so many other political issues Jordanians don’t agree on, and despite all the controversy we still haven’t reached a consensus. The burden of proof is on explicitly showing the connection between the occupation and Cirque du Soleil’s performance in Tel Aviv. So far I see that connection as tenuous.”

“Protest is the foundation of culture”

When I asked Yousef Sadaqa, an 11-year-old Palestinian refugee holding a sign at the VIP gates on the opening day of Saltimbanco, why he believed Jordanians should protest a showing of free cultural expression, he responded: “Protest is the foundation of culture.”

Now more than ever, Arab populations are prone to mobilize for their collective liberations. Pan-Arabism in the last century was short lived, mainly due to European and then Israeli colonialism and the rise of the rentier state.

But in Jordan — as in other countries — any activist effort is up against powerful interests and realities, including transnational corporations bent on profit, as well as classism.

On 4 July, boycott organizers rallied in Doha, Qatar calling on Cirque du Soleil to cancel their show as was done in Amman.

A statement signed by Qatar Youth Opposed to Normalization is circulating in solidarity with the Jordan Popular Boycott Movement.

If Cirque du Soleil does perform in Tel Aviv, the next show for organizers to focus their efforts will be on the Alegria performance in Istanbul on 22 September. But as long as bourgeois consumers in the region consent to cultural normalization, the potential to contribute to the liberation of Palestine through support for BDS will be limited.

Sami Jitan is a graduate of Rutgers University with a BA in cultural anthropology and English literature. A former Students for Justice in Palestine organizer, he now lives and works in Amman as a freelance journalist.