On the possibility of a Rainbow

 ‘The Rainbow in Jordan is a microcosm of our issues in the region.’
Lioness was speaking to me in a shisha café-restaurant in the upscale Amman neighbourhood of Jebel Lwebdeh. She was telling me the story of the Rainbow Gathering of Spring 2016, the first gathering of such nature to take place in Jordan. ‘Rainbows Gatherings’, created in the 70s, are, as described in the movement’s unofficial guides, ‘non-festivals’ which are ’non-organized’ by ‘non-members’ of the ‘Rainbow Family of Living Light’ in order to escape urban capitalist society (‘Babylon’) and experience of peace and love in nature.

Despite its universalist values, hippy-ism does not exist in a vacuum, but in socio-political contexts. In Western countries, hippies have attained some form of acceptability for their gatherings, in the form of licenses and even property ownership. In Jordan, other than highly institutionalized festivals – the Manna Gathering goes at 50 Jordanian Dinar (about £56) per night – there is simply no space for spontaneous unauthorized gathering. One cannot simply gather anywhere; this is also true in pseudo-democracies of the West, where we have witnessed police brutality against politically motivated and socially justifiable occupy movements. On the other hand, sometimes forced dispersal itself is justifiable: this is the case in Rainbow gatherings in the the U.S where non-members refused to cooperate with the Forest Service and the native communities whose land they temporarily occupy.

Yet there is a difference in scale to the possibility of a Rainbow in pseudo-democracies vs. pseudo-pseudo-democracies. The story of the Rainbow of 2016 in the pseudo-pseudo-democracy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a case in point.

The idea to hold the Rainbow in Jordan began at a gathering in Sinai (which could be a whole article in itself). Seated in a ‘consensus circle’, a group of men proposed to expand the Middle East Rainbow by hosting the next gathering in Jordan. Lioness immediately rejected the idea: it was too soon for the country to host a hippy gathering, and since camping without a tour guide is illegal, access to private property was a must. In the following circle, which Lioness was unable to attend, consensus was met, and the date for the next Rainbow was set. None of the men who had made that decision would go on to attend the Rainbow in Jordan.

In what Lioness called it the ‘intricate system of organised anarchy’, the Rainbow is supposed to take place in four phases: scouting, seeding, gathering, and cleaning. Scouting, which consists of looking for the ideal safe spot for the Rainbow Family to spend twenty-eight days, is meant to be done by a group of locals. In this case, the only volunteer was an Israeli who spoke no Arabic, named Turtle. Turtle alerted the Facebook Rainbow group that she had found the best looking and least sketchy spot on publicly owned land, and where, most importantly, they had the least chance of getting caught. This land happened to be right on the Jordanian/Israeli border (note: Israel occupied this border in 1967 for about a year, a period the villagers there don’t really like to talk about). Two people, one Swiss and one French, performed the ‘seeding’ (preparation) of the area, and the sacred fire was activated. A group of Jordanians, Syrians, Israelis and Europeans arrived at the area to stay together and bond from New Moon to New Moon.

Needless to say, things did not go exactly to plan.

The location was beyond gorgeous: purple turquoise mountains, enormous dragonflies, caterpillar-scorpions (Lioness swore she saw one), and not a village in sight. Yet from the start, Lioness knew something was wrong: the ground was covered in bullet shells. She was approached by Donkey-Rider, the Bedouin whom the Rainbow employed to bring them vegetables (I was told this is completely in accordance with Rainbow principles). He alerted her the area was dangerous and they needed to leave. It was a human trafficking zone.

The group contained a Syrian refugee (a contemporary dancer) without a passport. Lioness knew that he especially, if not everyone, was in danger, and they needed to leave. She brought up her concerns in the first food circle. Yet White-Wise-Man, a Swiss banker who abandoned his capitalistic way of life in order to pursue peace, love, freedom, happiness, disagreed. 
‘We are divinely guided. It is not a coincidence we are all here.’
This is where the Lioness snapped.
‘Yes, I get you, brother. You are Swiss with a Swiss passport: you can live in this different reality. We have Israelis, we have Syrian refugees, who need to get out.’
It took three days to reach consensus: they decided to ask the authorities if they were allowed to stay in the area. Wise-Man protested:
‘This is going back on our footsteps. This had to be done during the scouting phase. This is not the Rainbow flow.’

They never had the chance to go to authorities anyway, for in the middle of the night, the smugglers finally showed – a group of 10 men, wearing black jackets with a design of the crown (the symbol for anything under royal patronage in Jordan), carrying rifles. They started harassing the crowd, accusing them of digging for gold, and demanding they bring them their passports and the Syrian refugee. Lioness woke White-Wise-Man up:

‘See? This is what happens in Jordan. We’re not in Switzerland!’
Wise-Man didn’t blink an eye:
‘Yup. Same thing happened to me in Spain. I’m not scared. You need to learn to live without fear.’

However noble Wise-Man’s philosophy was, it was definitely time to go. While the smugglers were asleep, the Rainbow family collected all their belongings and headed out across the desert – to get a ride to the next safe place in their Bedouin employee’s truck. Yoga-Girl, an Israeli, called the experience traumatic:
 ‘I was so scared… guys with guns… I felt like a refugee, we had to carry all our stuff in the desert for hours… I was crying.’

After her proxy refugee experience, Yoga-Girl checked into a hotel in Petra with Lion-Cub, a dreadlocked Syrian masseuse, where they allegedly were followed by the Jordanian secret police (the mukhabarat) for staying in the same hotel room together. ‘Love conquers all’ they told me, showing me the Facebook photo of the two of them holding their passports and hugging. ‘We’re all one happy Rainbow family, no matter our nationalities’. When Yoga-Girl told me of a profoundly hurtful incident: back in Amman, she was thrown out of a waffle-house upon telling the Palestinian-Jordanian waiter she was Israeli.  I couldn’t contain a laugh, though she was too permanently stoned to notice. ‘Why did he judge me because of my nationality?’ On the side, Lion-Cub whispered to me he really wished Yoga-Girl would stop telling people in Amman she was Israeli. ‘It would be so much easier if she just said she was French.’

Meanwhile, the Rainbow Family set up camp in an area near Petra,  but a Bedouin came to alert them the Tourist Police was on the look-out – after all, they were illegally camping in a nature reserve (the Rainbow has been frequently criticized for its disregard to its environmental impact in Europe and the US). They decided to stay anyway, until a ranger came and told them Israelis were not allowed In Jordan without a tourist guide, and they really had to get out. Finding hospitality in the campsite of their Bedouin helper, they had to figure out where to go next. The Bedouin who had offered them the area for three nights had told them their stay would be short; he had a council of three-hundred people, whose livelihood depended on paying camp-site customers. Furthermore, his association with the Rainbow Family was also hurting his image with the tribe, who saw them as Devil-Worshippers. The Family sat him down in their circle and tried to move him by explaining their philosophy. It didn’t work.

For some, all the moving and planning made the Rainbow stronger. According to Lioness, unity in struggle brought them closer. Yet the struggle was not entirely equal, due to possession of different passports. This is where we come to Rainbow-Prisoner. After Petra, the Rainbow Family moved on to Shobak, in considerably lesser numbers. Apparently, many Israelis had been arriving, scoping the situation, and crossing back to safety the next day. The Europeans had gone to Amman to go drinking with their new Jordanian friends. Rainbow-Prisoner, realised too late that he the only Jordanian, surrounded by a group of topless Israeli girls in a food circle.

‘We were just partying in Shobak, singing about happiness and togetherness, when the owner of the property showed up with the police! When they found out I had a Jordanian passport: they put me in jail for being an illegal tour guide!’

Rainbow-Prisoner was arrested and had to sign a document declaring he would not engage in contact with any foreigners, or pay a 10,000 JD fine. 
In the end, the Family met up in a hidden wadi near the northern city of Salt. And the Rainbow did happen, for one week. And it was a beautiful happening, where race, gender, nationality, and political situations didn’t matter.
                                                                ***
The tale of the Jordanian Rainbow is interesting on many levels: citizenship and individual freedoms, agency of spatial mobility, the struggle between universal values and deep-rooted, justifiable anger. It would be fairly absurd to imagine anyone in New York having to sign a document in which they promise to not speak to any ‘foreigners’. ‘Foreigner’ is not a distinct category of person, on a social/inter-relational level (yes, it is on legal levels). In Jordan on the other hand, there are frequent accounts of the police busting a party, telling non-Arabs to go home and arresting all the Arabs. Jordanians found in possession of marijuana get arrested and are banned from leaving the country, while their foreign buddies may have to leave Jordan, but remain with their general freedom of mobility.

Odd was the position of the Israeli at a festival in Jordan. Yes, peace, yes, we should not judge others due to their misfortune of having been born in an apartheid country (and I may be saying this just because I was born in the U.S.), but still: it’s weird. There was always something quite on edge about their presence — not just because of their misfortune of having that nationality, but because they kept bringing… awkward things up. Like a white guy showing up at an all-black party in Queens and making unnecessary racist jokes and saying ‘why you guys so politically correct?’. This all-too-common kind of social encounter was at the extreme at the Rainbow, where, in the food circle, an Israeli brought up feeling bad for having killed people while he was performing his obligatory military service. Or, also in the food circle, when Yoga-Girl cried because a Palestinian-Jordanian rapper was brandishing a knife:

‘There was this Palestinian guy with a keffiyeh wrapped around him, holding a knife, making jokes about killing Israelis in the peace circle. I started crying. I’m pro-Palestinian and wear the keffiyeh in Israel, but when I see a guy with it around his head, it’s programmed in my brain that he’s going to kill me.’

The rapper apparently found the whole affair hilarious: ‘We were out camping. Of course I had a knife. What made her so scared? Just because I’m Palestinian?’

Also of note was why the Jordanian intelligence apparatus would ever be interested in the activities of a bunch of dirty hippies. Granted, a group of Arabs and Israelis in the middle of the desert, dancing naked around a fire chanting about the Sun may seem slightly odd, but one really must be naïve to see this as a security threat (….or genius! Just kidding). The paranoia of the mukhabarat was slightly mirrored in the words of Rainbow-Prisoner who, in loss of faith in the possibility of a true Rainbow on Jordanian soil, affirmed:

‘I felt connected with some Israelis, but to be honest, I always had a suspicion in the back of my mind. History repeats itself, you know. In the 1920s, the Zionists brought Jews to Palestine saying they were agricultural experts, blablabla, you know, man. Then they started killing people! I don’t want them to come to Jordan and start doing this! Start with the Rainbow, and take control. You never know.’

The words of Rainbow-Prisoner may be in complete conflict with the Rainbow’s values of universal peace and sharing, but he does have a point. Hippy settler colonialism is a real thing. From settling land on Aboriginal land in Australia, Native-American land in the United States, declaring to be ‘in the same boat’ as those marginalized populations on whom they frequently depend for food and shelter, the most recently blatant example of hippy settler colonialism was of white guys in dreadlocks and with acoustic guitars ‘occupying’ Standing Rock by treating the protest as a Burning Man. In ways, the encounter between the Rainbow Family and the Bedouins was emblematic of ‘rural bohemianism’, the fantasy that counterculture values created in an urban setting originate in a timeless rural space in which bohemians find identification with the native rural inhabitants. Yet amongst the Bedouins of Petra, the Rainbow Family found that the capitalistic rules of ‘Babylon’ still held true.

Can Jordan one day have a Rainbow Gathering without it being a truly stressful affair? The question may boil down to: can individuals resist the system by creating a heterotopia without reproducing the structures of power?

The freedom to enjoy festival ‘counter’-culture did not spring up in Europe and America out of the blue. In a sense, White-Wise-Man was right: hippies have and still do face police brutality even in regions of privilege, for the very fact that they are marginals, albeit, privileged voluntary marginals. There is an entire history of hippies going from vagabonding to owning property and participating within the capitalistic system in order to live their communal lifestyle without. The heterotopia thus does not necessarily have to reproduce a system of inequality, but it must reach a compromise with this system in order to exist: counter-culture must accept culture, and culture must accept counter-culture. This is how certain hippy communes and festivals are possible in Europe and America; the ones that do not accept this compromise are the ones that face state coercive violence. 

In many ways, the human traffickers, the mukhabarat and police force, the Bedouin land owners, and the nature reserve ranger’s responses to the hippy outsider group was natural. In others, it was quite an overreaction to just a couple dozen people hanging out naked in the desert and praying to Mother Nature. It may be emblematic of what sociologist Asef Bayat calls the ‘fear of fun’ in the Middle East, enforced both by Islamists and conservative secularists in order to preserve power. ‘Fun’ is a category contained by state power much in the same way as sexuality; Foucault could have written a History of Fun delineating its creation through its repression much in the same way as in History of Sexuality. Jordan has many other problems on its mind, but it sure would bring a breath of relief to the class of people who are just dying for some fun. In a place where people view free speech as a luxury, and those outsiders who choose to defy family values, especially females and LGBT+, are taking a huge gamble with their security and suffer a justifiably voluntary marginalization, it’s almost fair enough. Some may see it as the universalization of hipsterism, but the possibility of a Rainbow could also mean the possibility of fun in a place sometimes unfairly, sometimes fairly, labelled the ‘most boring country in the Middle East’. In any case, cynically speaking, by allowing the Rainbow, the state would simultaneously give hippies an outlet for their heterotopia while containing it. It all depends on whether their fear of revolt is greater than their fear of fun.

Maïra Al-Manzali


This text was reposted from Mangal Media.