Dispossession, displacement, migration and precarious living conditions are intimately connected phenomena. Lines of causality run in every direction. Those enduring such conditions, in their determination to establish some roots and some sense of community, somewhere, often find themselves in violation of the “laws of the land.” They are in overcrowded quarters violating some rule about density in substandard housing violating some housing code, on agricultural land violating land use regulations, or on land legally claimed by others.

Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Sanaa, Kuwait and urban centers of other Middle Eastern countries all have been either on the sending or the receiving end (or both) of population movements resulting from wars, hostilities, forced displacement and work opportunities. The very fabric of these cities has been formed and transformed by such movements, and by the degree of accommodation or hostility such groups face in host countries. Yajouz, an informally developed settlement in the northern part of the Jordanian town of Rusayfa, is a quintessential example of these processes, a perpetual site of conflicts, opportunities, displacements, migration, uprooting, re-rooting and the all too frequently elusive pursuit of security and permanence.

Jordan, which has been more accommodating of waves of displaced groups (Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis) than many of the countries in the area, had been dealt a severe blow by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Economically, Jordan lost most of its fertile and developed areas to Israeli occupation, and more than 300,000 Palestinian refugees fled from the west to the east bank of the Jordan River.

Some 150,000 of these settled in Amman. While better-off Palestinians settled in central Amman and its western suburbs, most poor refugees occupied makeshift camps located primarily in the eastern sectors of Amman. Rusayfa and Zarqa, to the northeast of Amman, were also sites for two large refugee camps, Hittin and Zarqa. These “official” camps, run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), were surrounded by “unofficial” camps which lacked many essential services and legitimacy, and were often as overcrowded.

The urban pressure generated by these overcrowded camps in eastern Amman, Rusayfa and Zarqa was part of the impetus for urban expansion along the Amman-Rusayfa-Zarqa corridor, and the development of Yajouz. By the mid-1970s, the metropolitan region was clearly divided into two socioeconomically and geographically distinct parts: west Amman and its suburbs, characterized by upper-income neighborhoods, open space and good infrastructure; and east Amman, Rusayfa and Zarqa, characterized by middle- and lower-income neighborhoods, overcrowded living conditions and poor infrastructure. Overcrowding, landlessness and joblessness (unemployment in the early 1970s was estimated at 14 percent) were perfect “push” forces for another massive population movement. [1] This time it was out-migration in pursuit of jobs and opportunities in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

From Bust to Boom

The oil boom of the 1970s swelled budgets of the Gulf countries and created a voracious appetite for foreign labor. The projects they embarked upon were all labor-intensive, requiring professionals (doctors, engineers, teachers) and skilled workers (construction workers, technicians) as well as unskilled workers.

The Jordanian government was more than eager to facilitate migration by giving civil servants long leaves of absence. By the mid-1970s, unemployment in Jordan had virtually disappeared. Still out-migration continued — no longer a result of a stagnant Jordanian economy but a manifestation of the enormous wage differentials between the Gulf states and Jordan. [2] By 1975, 28 percent of Jordan’s domestic labor force was working outside the country — more than any other sending Arab country (including Oman, Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Sudan). [3]

By the early 1980s, the country was experiencing an economic boom of unprecedented proportions. Direct and indirect aid from oil-rich countries reached 432.5 million Jordanian dinars (1 dinar was equal to $3 in 1981), one third of the gross national product. Remittances grew from 7.5 million dinars in 1970 to 475 million in 1984, one quarter of the gross national product. Real annual growth rate of the gross national product increased at an average of 10 percent. Jordan embarked on its own building and expansion spree. Ironically, the scarcity of construction labor and rising wages made the Jordanian labor market attractive to semi-skilled workers from other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria who were not fortunate enough to land jobs in the Gulf. Thus Jordan became a labor importing as well as exporting country. [4]

The repercussions of the economic boom on urban expansion and real estate prices were nothing less than phenomenal. Between 1972 and 1982, the surface area of the city grew from 21 to 54 square kilometers. The Amman municipality estimated that between 1970 and 1976, land prices rose 500 percent on average. [5] Between 1975 and 1985, land prices rose again by 500 percent. Government revenues from land registration increased from 551,000 dinars in 1971 to 24,479,000 in 1981, an increase of more than 4,000 percent.

During the same period, however, the salary of an average civil servant increased by only 50 percent. The growing disparity between the means of lower-income groups and land and housing prices led to increased spatial segregation in the city: an ever more opulent, spacious and fashionable west Amman and western suburbs, and an increasingly crowded and stigmatized east Amman, Rusayfa and Zarqa. Overcrowding in the east, combined with rising standards of living among families of migrant workers, translated into pent-up demands for affordable residential land. Yajouz and other areas along the Amman-Rusayfa-Zarqa corridor became prime targets for settlement by middle- and low-income groups seeking affordable and accessible land.

Tribal Domain or State Domain?

Historically, Yajouz was part of the domain of the Bani Hasan, one of the largest tribes in Jordan. Located at the edge of the desert, Yajouz was only scantly cultivated and often used as herding pasture. Land tenure in Yajouz was musha‘ (shared) among members of two Bani Hasan subgroups: the Khalayla and Zawahra clans. [6]

The Ottomans, and later the British, were committed to dismantling the musha‘ land tenure system and replacing it with a more individualized tenure system to allow the establishment of an individually based agricultural tax system. The British embarked on an extensive campaign in 1929 to register cultivated land to its holders. Pastoral, semi-desert and desert land were all lumped under the category “state domain.” Thus Yajouz, along with vast areas of pasture within the domains of the Bani Hasan and other tribes, became, in the strict legal sense, the property of the state.

This duality of tenure caused little or no conflict during the first three decades after registration: Most of these lands had little or no market value; the state did not enforce its rights; the tribes continued to use the land for habitation and herding; and, above all, the Bani Hasan in this area were poor and not eager to claim the lands legally and be forced to pay registration fees and taxes. This mutually convenient arrangement, however, was undermined by the pressure of the population shifts of the 1960s and 1970s. The Bani Hasan were now eager to capitalize on the resulting boom by formally registering the land, obtaining titles, subdividing it into residential plots and selling it at a windfall profit. The government, however, refused, arguing that the Bani Hasan had never established their possession of the land over time through cultivation and therefore had no legitimate claim of ownership.

As demand for land in the area grew in the early 1970s, some members of the Bani Hssan started illegally subdividing and selling small parcels of land to new settlers seeking affordable land near employment centers in Amman and Zarqa. Gradually, what began in Yajouz as isolated land transactions developed into a thriving, unregulated land market. The connections between the Yajouz land market and the Gulf economy could hardly be missed, especially during the summer season when emigrants returned home: It was the time of weddings, of foreign-licensed cars and overcrowded houses. It was also the season when emigrants brought back their savings and struck deals for land, for new houses and for additions to houses. Over 40 percent of land buyers in Yajouz were connected in one way or another to the Gulf economy. Some were returning migrants with just enough savings to allow them to purchase a plot in the area; others had family still working in the Gulf, sending remittances to finance the purchase of land and construction of a house.

As these land sales are illegal, no official titles or documents change hands. The only document used is an unofficial contract referred to as hujja (proof). In the hujja, the tribal seller guarantees to protect the buyer against the encroachment or invasion of other tribal members or neighbors, but the contract explicitly mentions that the tribal owner is not responsible for protecting the buyer from state action. The hujja has been declared illegal and non-binding by the Land and Survey Department. [7]

Over the last decade an elaborate system has developed supporting the operation of the land market: contracts specifying duties and obligations, and enforcement and dispute processing mechanisms. [8] What began as a routine and legal attempt by the Bani Hasan to register land, developed into an elaborate system of illegal transactions, with all the accompanying rights and obligations. This system developed only after the formal legal system had proven incapable of addressing the interests, grievances and claims of the Bani Hasan tribe, as well as lower-income groups and returning migrants seeking affordable housing. [9]

Many “modernists” would tend to interpret transactions through hujjas, and the accompanying rights and responsibilities, as a remnant of the “traditional” musha‘ tribal land tenure system which would gradually fade away in the process of modernization. The same sort of misinterpretation has been brilliantly captured by Ashis Nandy in his writing about religious movements in India:

Modern scholarship tends to see zealotry as a retrogression into primitivism and as a pathology of traditions. On closer look, it turns out to be a byproduct and a pathology of modernity. [10]

Similarly, in Yajouz, the existing system is not an incarnation of the “archaic” system of musha‘ land tenure. It is rather a “modern” response to a “modern” phenomenon: the nation-state that possesses the legal power to bestow legitimacy over some social claims and deny it to others.

The only part that seems to survive from the old musha‘ system is the name itself, and even that usage seems to be a political device to assert the Bani Hasan’s historical claim to the land. Before there was a state, there were the tribes, a Bani Hasan tribal leader asserted:

Before the state had rights, the tribe had rights. Before the state had land, the tribe had land. If they [officials] want us to respect state rights, they have to recognize ours.

By employing the discourse of tribal rights and musha‘ as alternative historical benchmarks, the Bani Hasan provided a frame of reference that challenged the official version of the dispute as illegal occupation of the land. It is through this discourse that the Bani Hasan were able to maintain, and indeed cash in on, their claims to the land.

Official Offensive

While building on state land has always been deemed illegal, it was not until the early 1980s that the government took steps to curtail the building process. Initial warnings and threats by the government failed to put an end to the “illegal” sale of land. Jordan’s Prime Minister Mudar Badran in July 1983 instructed the security forces to fence off parts of Yajouz, evict Bani Hasan members and new settlers, and demolish their homes.

To the government’s surprise, the Bani Hasan’s response was just as confrontational: They took up arms to deny security agents access to their land. Clashes erupted and several official vehicles were burned. Dozens of Bani Hasan members were later rounded up and imprisoned.

This incident was a precursor to the 1989 riots in southern Jordan, and indicated that tribal loyalty to the regime can no longer be taken for granted. King Hussein was quick to mend fences: Prime Minister Badran was forced to resign; a member of the Bani Hasan was appointed minister of youth as a reward for his “constructive efforts in resolving the conflict.” The new government pledged to seek a solution that would take into consideration the claims of the Bani Hasan.

Rather than being resolved, though, the conflict was transformed from one between the government and the Bani Hasan to one between the government and the new settlers. By cracking down on the new settlers individually, the government was hoping to curtail the demand side of the unregulated market. This policy was carried out through an enforcement patrol known as the Committee for Protecting Public Lands, accompanied by a bulldozer. Its responsibility was to prevent further building activity on state land by demolishing structures under construction and detaining and fining settlers. The criterion for demolition was the roof: If the roof was already installed, the structure would be left intact; otherwise, it would be demolished. [11]

The patrol effectively curtailed new construction for several months, but settlers gradually learned how to evade enforcement by working around the schedule of the patrol. The patrol roamed the area on weekdays, demolishing structures under construction and fining workers. On weekends — Thursday afternoons and Fridays — the patrol was off duty. Weekends became construction mania time in Yajouz. Construction sites sprang up everywhere, each one looking like a hive of workers carrying materials, digging the earth, setting reinforcement, hammering scaffolding and pouring concrete. Everyone was trying desperately to meet the deadline: installing a permanent roof before Saturday morning when the patrol returned. In effect, the state patrol could leave Yajouz on a Thursday afternoon only to come back on a Saturday morning to find “finished” houses, built with cement blocks and concrete roofs, that did not exist two days before. Despite the obvious vulnerability of the individual settler vis-à-vis the state, through the sheer magnitude and frequency of the building phenomenon, settlers were gradually able to evade enforcement and assert their control over Yajouz. The legality of their status, though, and the Bani Hasan claims to the land, were not recognized until after 1989, when parliamentary life resumed in Jordan.

New Displacement

Democratization in 1989 brought the claims and demands of Bani Hasan and Yajouz residents into the open. They pressed Parliament to halt house demolitions, give residents and Bani Hasan members titles to the land in Yajouz, and provide services. They pressed for municipal elections rather than political appointments. Within months, demolition had all but stopped, land titling was underway and, during the municipal election campaign, the incumbent mayor paved most roads in Yajouz and initiated services that residents had long been demanding.

This happy ending to one arduous cycle of dispossession, migration, uprooting and, finally, legitimacy was overshadowed by a new cycle of uprooting and pain as the 1991 Gulf war gave birth to a new wave of displacement: Some 350,000 Palestinians and Jordanians (10 percent of the population of Jordan) who had been living and working in the Gulf were suddenly homeless and jobless, and back in Jordan. Again, the few, the well-off, were able to reassemble their shattered lives and reestablish homes and businesses. For the most part, however, returnees had to start from square one. A survey of returning migrants at the Jordanian borders revealed some of the grim aspects of displacement. More than 70 percent of the returning families had spent more than 20 years abroad; about 30 percent had been tortured; more than 40 percent lost over 10,000 dinars in salaries, compensation, savings and possessions; and more than 70 percent owned neither land nor a house in Jordan to which they could return. [12] As a result of increased demand, real estate prices jumped more than 200 percent in the one year following the war. Returning migrants, 80 percent of whom moved to the Amman-Zarqa metropolitan area, face a housing shortage and price inflation of unprecedented proportions. Many of them are either living overcrowded with relatives, dipping into their savings to pay rent that is beyond their means, or seeking a plot of land that is distant enough, or contested enough to make it affordable. As the cycle of displacement, dispossession and migration continues, another attempt to establish some roots in the land is about to unfold.


[1] F. X. Kirwan, “Labor Exporting in the Middle East: The Jordanian Experience,” Development and Change 13/1 (1982).
[2] Wages in the Gulf were six to ten times greater than those of the exporting countries. See R. P. Shaw, Mobilizing Human Resources in the Arab World (London: Kegan Paul International, 1983).
[3] J. B. Birks and C. A. Sinclair, International Migration and Development in the Arab Region (Geneva: International Labor Office, 1980).
[4] By 1984, Jordanian workers abroad were estimated at 325,000, while guest workers in Jordan were estimated at 153,519. See M. A. Smadi et al, The Socio-Economic Impact of Guest Workers in Jordan (Amman: Royal Scientific Society, 1986).
[5] A. M. Findlay, “Migrants’ Dreams and Planners’ Nightmares,” Cities (November 1985).
[6] Specific musha‘ arrangements varied from one locality to another. In general, members did not hold specific parcels with fixed boundaries but held shares of the total land. These shares were reallocated within the clan every two to nine years to adjust for deaths and newly formed households, and to insure the rotation of low productivity and high productivity plots to all households.
[7] The Jordanian courts, however, uphold the buyer’s right for restitution.
[8] Omar Razzaz, “Law, Urban Land Tenure and Property Disputes in Contested Settlements: The Case of Jordan,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1991.
[9] On the concept of semi-autonomous social fields, see S. F. Moore, Law as Process: An Anthropological Approach (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
[10] The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 23.
[11] The “roof” criteria reflects what the Ottoman law, upon which much of the Jordanian law is based, considered evidence of revival of unused land. Such evidence grants the adverse possessor the right to compensation for the improvement added.
[12] Jordan, Department of Statistics, Monthly Report on the Returning Jordanian Migrants, August 10, 1991-June 30, 1992.

How to cite this article:

Omar Razzaz "Contested Space," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

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