Tribal Court

Jamie is a Junior at the University of Kentucky, studying in Jordan this semester! She will be writing a few blogs for ENKOMPASS about her experience, so stay tuned for more!

My study abroad program is based in Amman, but we took a weeklong trip through the southern part of Jordan to stop at amazing sites like Petra and Wadi Rum. I had been looking forward to this trip since the beginning of the program because I was excited to see the well-known sites on our itinerary. But some of the most memorable moments of the trip came from the lesser-known places that were less touched by tourists. The first stop of the trip was to a place called Bier Mathkour, an eco-tourism site in Wadi Araba that lies along the historic Incense Route. The housing at Bier Mathkour was built by the Ottoman Empire for nomads as an incentive for them to settle. Bedouins that have settled in semi-permanent tents live in close proximity to the site, and some are employed as tour guides and general staff. Locals gave us a tour of the area, guided us on a hike to see the sunset, and then played music during dinner. Following dinner I initially thought the night was over and was pleased with this leg of the excursion simply for time spent together in beautiful surroundings.

However, we were then told that we were going on a hike to visit a Bedouin tent. We entered the tent and all sat around the edges along with ten or fifteen locals and drank tea. Our professor then announced that the sheikh offered to hold a mock Tribal Court with students as participants. Jordan has three official court systems: Civil Court, Religious Court, and Military Court. In addition to this, there is the unofficial Tribal Court. While it is not a formally recognized justice system, it remains the main court system in many parts of Jordan. I was intrigued by the proposition of a mock Tribal Court, and next thing I knew my professor had selected me as one of two main participants in the enactment.,hjkhuf

This picture is of my study abroad group participating in a mock Tribal Court in the sheikh’s tent. The two students facing the sheikh played the role of my parents in the enactment and are asking that my assailant is brought to justice.

I was told to stand in the middle of the tent and pretend to be at the well drawing water. The other participant, a male student named Tom, was given secret instructions. He approached me while I was pretending to draw water and asked if I was willing to draw some water for him. I agreed, and he then proceeded to grab my wrist. He did it very gently, so at first I didn’t even realize that the crime had been committed. But I was then instructed to push his hand off. I then left the well and explained to my ‘tribe’ (my study abroad group) what exactly had happened. I explained that a man I did not know grabbed my wrist at the well. I was then asked to repeat my claim to the sheikh. My ‘parents’ (two students in my group) then went to the sheikh and told him that they wanted the man brought to justice. The sheikh then called upon the man who did it, and had him explain the events. Tom came forward and retold the scenario without denying it. The sheikh gave him directions on what to do to pay for his crime. Tom had to go to three different places: where the crime took place, the middle of my village, and my home. At these three places he had to say, “The honor of Jamie’s family is white,” fifteen times in order to guarantee that the extent of his offense was grabbing my wrist. Following this, Tom had to walk from the site of the crime to where I live, and each time he lifted a foot he owed my family one camel. The sheikh stated that Tom would probably have lifted his feet 25 times, so he owed my family 25 camels. A camel is worth about 100 Jordanian Dinar, so in total he owed my family 2,500 JD, which is equivalent to $3,526.

This finished the enactment. The sheikh explained that if Tom had denied the crime, his punishment would have been much more severe. Furthermore, what the sheikh thought was proper punishment could be vastly different from what other judges think is appropriate. There are no prescribed punishments for specific crimes; it is simply up to the judge to make a fair decision. Furthermore, in our scenario the judge was a sheikh but this isn’t always the case. He explained that people become judges by simply being a trusted person in their area. I could have gone to anyone and asked him to be the judge of my case even if that person had never judged a case before. If people think that he did a good job with my case, more people may go to him in the future. Overtime he will gain the reputation of being a judge.

Several things made this experience so memorable and interesting. First of all, this served as a reminder that this system of judgment is still very much utilized today. While it is not common in Amman or any of the bigger cities, this is a highly utilized justice system in the more rural areas of the country. Since it isn’t official, it is easy for me to think that it simply doesn’t exist anymore, which isn’t true. Furthermore, it was interesting to experience what was an appropriate punishment for wrist grabbing by their standards. While I would classify unwanted wrist grabbing as harassment, I did not expect the severity of the punishment. I think this demonstrates a major cultural difference between the United States and Jordan. Protection of a woman’s honor is culturally taken much more seriously. While I hardly noticed that the crime had taken place when Tom grabbed my wrist, the sheikh without hesitation thought that his action merited 2,500 JD. Lastly, it was very interesting being a participant because it was very clear to me how separated I was from the process once I reported the crime. I told my tribe about the incident, told the sheikh, and then my job in the enactment was finished. Tom spoke in front of my village and in my house in front of my family, but I was not present. I think this demonstrates the fact that his crime offended my family and my tribe just as much as it offended me. This was further seen through the words Tom had to repeat: “The honor of Jamie’s family is white.” In this case, my honor was synonymous with my family’s honor. This is strongly seen in Tribal Court, but also in Jordanian society. It is a much more collective culture than America, and it was fascinating to experience this first hand.

This opportunity to experience Tribal Court is one I will never forget. It put a lot of aspects of Bedouin culture into perspective that I didn’t entirely understand before. While Petra and Wadi Rum are sites that I will never forget, it was amazing to be able to truly first hand experience the culture of Bier Mathkour.

Photo and written by Jamie Love

Jamie is a Junior at the University of Kentucky studying International Studies. She is participating in a semester long program in Amman, Jordan through the UK Partner SIT.