Modern Jordanian History with Ghassan Gammoh ‘10
Since his arrival at King’s in 2014, Ghassan Gammoh ‘10 has taught various courses on the Middle East within the Department of History and Social Studies. However, during the 2017-18 academic year, Gammoh, a native Jordanian, noticed the absence of a class focusing specifically on Jordan and its history, and ultimately began to write curriculum. Finally, this year, Gammoh offered and taught an innovative new course called Modern Jordanian History.
“When I was a student at King’s, I was always taught in my history classes to look for the missing voices and perspectives. I think this course comes from that idea,” says Gammoh, a member of King’s very first graduating class. “We are not confident in our own history and we need to know the history of our people and our region so that we can represent ourselves accurately and know how others view Jordan.”
Open to upperclassmen, the course begins with an overview of ancient Jordan (from ~8500 BC) and concludes with an examination of His Majesty King Abdullah II’s reign and a final capstone project. The course takes a critical look at the 20th century and the deep, wide-ranging changes that Jordan and the Levant witnessed during that period. Significant topics and events include the Great Arab Revolt, the First Arab-Israeli War, the Six-Day War, the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace and the Arab Spring.
Natasha Al-Bakri ’19, a student in the class, had studied Jordanian history at her previous schools, but never found her courses fulfilling or challenging. “They didn’t provide a deep intellectual understanding of the past of this country,” she says. “It always felt like there was something missing. I wanted to find the missing puzzle piece through this course.”
Sayf Abdeen ’19 notes that, as a Jordanian, “understanding more about Jordan’s history in the 20th and 21st century is integral.” After taking the Grade 10 Middle Eastern history class, he wanted to “dig very deep” into the recent history of the region and the country.
The course provides students, who are a mix of Jordanians and Americans, with the opportunity to wrestle with profound questions that span political science, history, economics, gender studies and identity politics. What does it mean to be Jordanian and how did the concept of citizenship evolve during the 20th century? How does Jordan’s ancient history play a role in national identity today? What role has religion played in the formation of Jordan? How can Jordanian culture be defined?
As an American studying at King’s, Katharina Maltzahn ’21 saw the class as a perfect opportunity to learn about Jordan. She particularly enjoys the personal relevance of Jordanian history for other students in the class. “I love hearing the perspectives of my classmates, most of whom are Jordanian, and hearing the stories they share of their ancestors who lived in the time frame that we are studying.”
Beyond the personal pertinence of the material, one distinguishing feature of the class is its bilingualism: it makes use of both Arabic and English. Though classroom discussion is conducted in English, Gammoh makes extensive use of Arabic primary sources, translating for students as necessary. Occasionally, students are allowed to write assignments in Arabic if they want to.
In addition, speakers who visit the class often discourse with students in Arabic. Students in the class who speak little Arabic support this arrangement. “Even my American students are saying, ‘Let them speak in Arabic! We want the most authentic experience!’” says Gammoh.
Guest lectures and classroom visits are a central component of the course. Among the guest speakers this year were renowned archaeologist Dr. Moawiyah Ibrahim and Dr. Baker Al-Majali, a historian and consultant to the Royal Hashemite Court. During his visit, Al-Majali discussed the political ramifications of the Great Arab Revolt in depth and displayed archival photographs from the 1910s.
Students not only enjoy hearing from such speakers but also take advantage of the chance to clarify points from classroom discussions. “We often use this opportunity to ask them questions that have remained unanswered throughout the unit,” says Al-Bakri. Elaborating on the value of such visits, Al-Bakri says that “they make the connection between the course and our everyday life more real.”
After reaching out to the Royal Court archivist, Gammoh gained access to all sorts of unique resources, including the signed Um Qais Conference paper of 1920, photographs of the Arab Legion from the 1930s and 1940s, and letters between the Hashemite leaders and the United Nations. They also were able to read articles from the Al-Qibla, the mouthpiece of the Great Arab Revolt, and gain insight into different aspects of the Revolt in the 1910s. For the students, the use of these sources brings a unique level of flexibility and sense of ownership to the class.
“The plans continuously shift in alignment with the students’ interests, or newfound sources that shed light on a little known aspect of Jordanian history,” says Abdeen. “It’s energizing and enthralling to feel like the student is also part of creating the course.”
In addition to hosting speakers, students go on field trips throughout the year to sites of historical significance. On one excursion, students visited the Royal Hashemite Court, including Raghadan Palace and the Flag Square, as well as the Museum of Parliamentary Life and the Museum of King Abdullah I.
The trip gave Bader Al-Majali ’20 the opportunity to “step into the minds of the Hashemites and look around,” he says. Faisal Hidayah ’20 enjoyed viewing the athletic trophies in King Abdullah I’s glass cabinets. He elaborates, “they demonstrated to me that the Hashemites did not only appreciate political entities but also respected athletic and social movements and organizations within the country.”
Through all of the Harkness discussions, research projects, guest lectures and field trips, the aim of the course is to enable students to create their own understanding of Jordanian identity grounded in modern historical, social and political developments. Gammoh’s specific goal in creating the class revolves around situating Jordan in the world.
“It’s not just Jordanian history – it’s Jordanian history in the global context,” he says. “So, I’m preparing them to acknowledge other perspectives on issues that Jordan has faced – and also being able to synthesize those and come up with a valid argument.”
As for Bakri, she wants to understand “our strengths and weaknesses and the reasons why we became what we are today. I wanted to understand the past and write the future with my efforts.”