Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

5 signs the Middle East is changing

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
April 2, 2013 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
Young Jordanians take to the dance floor in an Amman nightclub as a new generation embraces secular ways.
Young Jordanians take to the dance floor in an Amman nightclub as a new generation embraces secular ways.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: The Middle East shows signs of change new to a frequent visitor to the region
  • She says Amman, Jordan, club scene with tango, salsa shows yen for modern, secular world
  • She says governments chafe at new use of political humor, and U.S. less an object of awe
  • Ghitis: Israel seen less as root of region's troubles, and even kings say they want democracy

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

Amman, Jordan (CNN) -- Forget your preconceptions. Erase your stereotypes -- or at least set them aside for a moment. The Middle East, this ancient land battered by powerful forces and mystical passions, is full of surprises.

I have traveled in and out of various countries in the Middle East over the course of decades. All too often and in too many places, aspects of life made it seem as if the clock became stuck in a different time. No longer. Here are five signs the Middle East is changing in ways you may not have expected:

1. Instead of politics and religion, try tango and salsa: It's true; politics and religion remain at the core of much that goes on here. And it is also true that Jordan has stood near the front of Arab modernity in many respects. Still, you might be surprised to find that for many, the passion for tango and salsa weigh more than ideology and sectarianism. After the sun sets over Amman, Jordan's capital, local nightclubs become thick with smoke and crowded with hip, fashionable, often apolitical young Arabs.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Harout Kiprian, 32, an Iraqi exile, is one of a large group that has become a fixture of the Amman nightlife. These clubbers greet each other with kisses on each cheek and take to the floor as skillfully as any of their counterparts in Latin America. They twirl and swing their partners to the rhythm of the music and to romantic Spanish lyrics that are probably as mysterious to them as Arabic to the songs' Latin American composers.

There is tango night at the Landmark, overlooking Amman's glinting skyline, and nightly salsa at Trader Vic's, with a live band on contract directly from Cuba. Kiprian, who casually calls himself a "Salsero," says he has no interest in politics and goes out dancing "minimum twice a week." His friends say it's much more often.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The nightclub scene, with loud music, swaying hips and lively interaction between men and women, is ostensibly apolitical, but no one would mistake it for anything but a sign of a yearning for a modern, worldly, even secular Middle East.

2. Humor has become a powerful weapon, and it is terrifying the pious and the mighty. Since the start of the Arab uprisings, the Muslim Brotherhood has won almost every major election in the region while progressive liberals have looked incapable of mounting a credible campaign.

Now, however, modernizers have discovered a new tactic: If you can't beat them, laugh at them. Satirists and comedians, with immense reach because of the Internet, are making fun of Islamist politicians, particularly in Egypt, sometimes just by quoting their own words and replaying their fiery sermons before amused young audiences. The government is clearly nervous and scrambling for a response, accusing comedians of denigrating Islam and insulting the president. But it's hard to defeat someone who is laughing at you, pointing out your hypocrisy.

Authorities are going after comedians, in the case of Egypt, dancing around its stated respect for free expression. And comedians are becoming more popular with every arrest warrant.

Egypt's Jon Stewart answers joke by joke
Mideast: What they think of Obama
Protesters perform 'Harlem Shake'
Arab Spring and press freedom

Bassem Youssef, arrested and released on bail a few days ago, is known to many as the Egyptian Jon Stewart. He has more than 1.2 million Twitter followers and is famous across the region. His television show has tens of millions of viewers, and his videos are watched on YouTube by millions more, who laugh at the powerful, the pretentious and the holier-than-thou. His humor goes after everyone, including liberals.

But his biggest success has been in wiping away the aura of sanctity, the claim of divine wisdom that had enveloped religious authorities. When his "sin meter" explodes, measuring a government attempt to justify economic policies on religious grounds, when he hugs and caresses a pillow with a picture of President Mohamed Morsy, he undermines Islamists more effectively than any liberal ideologue. That's why prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for him (he's out on bail). It's why satirists have been imprisoned in Iran. It's why the ultra-religious have prevented comics from performing in Tunisia. It's why one recent satirical piece on a Middle East politics and culture site declares that Egypt has decided to eradicate humor.

3. When an American president shows up, it's not that big a deal. President Barack Obama came to Amman, and most people paid little attention. There were no throngs in the streets as the motorcade zoomed across town. People in rooftop restaurants gazed out curiously, but no one would accuse the American president of bringing life to a standstill in this city. The United States is no longer seen here with the awe -- negative or positive -- that it once inspired. Conspiracy theorists accuse Washington of installing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or of starting the war in Syria. Others complain that it's not doing enough to stop the Syrian slaughter, and many accuse it of being too friendly with Israel. But to anyone who has visited the Arab world over the years, it is clear the obsessive thinking about America is, at the moment, a thing of the past.

4. Fewer people buy the theory that it's all about Israel. When it comes to Israel, there is widespread and intense animosity. And yet in conversations with people here, and even in the views expressed by an Arab columnist, the old theory that all the Middle East's problems originate with the Jewish state has little currency. It was an old tactic of the dictators: to blame it all on Israel while fanning the flames of resentment.

But two years after Tahrir Square -- after the toppling of tyrants, amid raging civil wars and worsening economic crises -- people largely dismiss the idea that establishing a state for Palestinians, while desirable, or even removing Israel altogether, would repair the region's economies, improve the status of women and religious minorities, or end fighting between Shiites and Sunnis. When Islamist parties called for a Million Man March against Israel in Amman, about 300 people showed up.

5. Even kings say they want democracy: The Arab Spring did not flower quite as fragrantly as people had hoped, and that has reduced the pressure for change in places such as Jordan. But demands for reform continue. Among those calling for more democracy, of all people, are nonelected rulers, such as Jordan's King Abdullah II. Not everyone believes his pledges to democratize, but at least on the surface, the opposition and the king agree that Jordan should move toward a constitutional monarchy. Morocco's king has ushered in some reform, as have, to a lesser extent, other Arab monarchs.

The Middle East is not the same. Protests have become routine. Change is in the air, but the stereotypes and preconceptions don't do it justice -- just ask the salseros in Amman's nightclubs.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT