Although Jordan has a homogeneous population, society is characterized by overlapping layers of identity. You’ll often come across expressions of religious and social sensibility that sound refreshingly unfamiliar to Western ears.
Almost Jordan’s entire population is Arab. This is an ethnic term, but also marks a pan-national identity, largely because nation-states are relatively new: many people in Jordan feel a much stronger cultural affinity with Arabs from nearby countries than, say, Britons might feel with Belgians. The bedouin adds a deeper layer of meaning by often regarding themselves to be the only true, original Arabs. Jordan has tiny ethnic minorities of Circassians and Chechens (who are Muslim), Armenians (Christian), and Kurds (Muslim) – all of whom are closely bound into Jordanian society – as well as Dom gypsies (also Muslim).
Roughly 92 percent of Jordanians are Sunni Muslims, and the observance of Islam is a central part of daily life for most people across the country. The call to prayer sounds five times a day in every city, town, and village. Jordan’s largest religious minority, totaling around six percent, are Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox, but also including Melkite Catholics, Roman Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Maronites, and some Protestants (Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and others). There are also small communities of Shia Muslims, Druze, and Bahai. Expats aside, there are no Jews in Jordan.
Despite the fact that all Jordanians are Jordanian citizens, there is still a distinction between those whose families came from the west bank of the River Jordan and those whose families came from the east bank. According to estimations, Palestinians make up half to three-quarters of Jordan's general population, even though they are all Jordanian. There are roughly 7% of expatriates living in Jordan, including thousands of Egyptians, Sri Lankans, and Filipino guest workers, as well as a large population of Iraqi refugees.
A tribe is a large group of families who preserve a unique history and folklore (predominantly oral) tradition and claim a specific territory. Not every tribe is desert-dwelling; some were raised in rural areas, while others have become urban. Tribal territories, which existed prior to nation-states, frequently span across national borders. Some tribes are comprised of clans and offshoots that have assumed tribe-like status, while others have banded together in larger, often pan-national tribal federations. Tribal identity is, for many Jordanians, at least as strong as religious or national identity. It is rather vague, but it is quite substantial for them.
Many people distinguish between two major social customs within tribal identity. The bedouin family, whether or not they are desert-dwellers or descendants of desert-dwellers, comprises individuals who belong to a variety of tribal groups. Even those who still dwell in tents in the desert or live in Aqaba or Amman, following tribal lifestyles, are not as common as those who do not: police officers and marketing executives are often as bedouin as camel guides in Wadi Rum. The fellahin come from a rural, northern, and western Jordanian farming tradition. Because of the historical ties that many have to rural communities in Syria and Palestine, they are often related to tribal families and households.
More than a third of Jordanians are under 15. This is one of the best-educated countries in the developing world: almost everyone you meet will be able to hold some sort of conversation in English (and possibly French, Spanish and German too). Students from all income groups and social backgrounds mix freely at the universities, where the traditional emphasis on engineering and the sciences – Jordan is a world leader in medical fields, including ophthalmology and cardiology – is giving way to new technology. Aqaba’s Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, backed by Steven Spielberg, is turning out directors and cinematographers of world-class standard. The heritage-style image of Jordan as a nation of simple tent-dwellers, scratching a living from the desert sands bears little relation to reality.