State, Society and Land in Jordan

Article excerpt

State, Society and Land in Jordan, by Michael R. Fishbach. Leiden, Boston and Koln: Brill, 2000. xvii + 212 pages. Bibl to p. 225. Index to p. 236. Illus. n.p.

One problem for anyone writing about the Fertile Crescent after World War I is to explain how the new territorial states drawn by Britain and France came to have meaning for those within them. The state, in the abstract sense of a governing structure, was not new to the region, which had been subject to increasing degrees of Ottoman law, taxation, administration, and sometimes coercion in the latter half of the 19th century. But, under Ottoman rule in the late 19th century, interests and loyalties had tended to be focused locally or on the far horizon of Istanbul. The post-World War I territorial states, which brought administrative and political control much closer than Istanbul, but which yet did not correspond to any one local identity or shared interest, were more likely to inspire confusion than loyalty. They occupied the middle distance: not as far away or as grand or as legitimate as the 400-year-old Ottoman Empire, not as nearby or as comprehensible or as comfy as village, town, or tribe.

Michael Fischbach, Professor of History at Randolph Macon College, posits that the program of land registration initiated by the new state of Transjordan, later Jordan, was the most important mechanism that turned it from an arbitrary abstraction into a territorial reality. Since the country's economic base during the Mandate Period was in land and what it could produce, any governmental activity related to land affected the livelihoods of most inhabitants. The overwhelmingly rural population saw little manifestation of state activity but the itinerant land assessor and the taxman.

Private landowning did not lead to greater productivity or increased taxes as envisioned by the British. Rather, it led to erosion (as communal erosion control measures were no longer kept up), plot fragmentation (owing to inheritance laws), and indebtedness. Assessment thus had contrary effects on the established class of small holders. It was envisioned as a mechanism to secure title to this class, but it made holding onto title difficult. The unforeseen problems of land registration forced the government to be even more active in the control and administration of land. Mortgage procedures were regulated and subjected to oversight, some debts were cancelled, bank foreclosures were reduced, and legal interest rates were set. Thus, through land registration, the state inadvertently created a new role for itself: insofar as privatization set in motion a process of land alienation, the government had further to step in to protect small cultivators. The creation and ongoing protection of privately held agricultural land not only rendered the state meaningful to much of the agricultural population, but also helps to explain why the least prepossessing of all the mandated Arab states has been the most politically stable. …