Vitamin W: The Power of Wasta Squared

14 June, 2021
Sunset in Amman, Jordan (photo Getty Images).

Sun­set in Amman, Jor­dan (pho­to Get­ty Images).

In which the Amer­i­can daugh­ter of a Jor­dan­ian pro­fes­sor remem­bers life and wasta in the old country.

C.S. Layla

We are on the way to my favorite place in the world, careen­ing along in Baba’s blood red two-door con­vert­ed rac­ing car. It’s an Opel Man­ta from 1983 with a black sun­roof, its cur­rent iter­a­tion an hon­or­able evo­lu­tion from its pre­vi­ous bright yel­low and black stripes, which had lent it the look of a floored bum­ble bee and which Baba had­n’t mind­ed when he bought it because he is col­or blind. The air is dry and grit­ty in Amman and I can taste the sand on my tongue. Anoth­er car cuts Baba off and he curs­es so mel­liflu­ous­ly that I’m burst­ing with admiration. 

The Opel used to have AC, along with heat­ing and a radio, but when Baba left the car in his vil­lage and went to vis­it Amer­i­ca, it got stripped of those lux­u­ries and we nev­er replaced them. Baba claims this used to be one of King Hus­sein’s cars, which is plau­si­ble because the King is an avid col­lec­tor, but my mom nev­er can con­firm if this is actu­al­ly true. As I remem­ber it, gas is still lead­ed and smog hov­ers around the palm trees. 

Although we are in a big city, goats leave drop­pings in their wake along the side of the road, stop­ping traf­fic for shits and gig­gles. I’m wear­ing my favorite all-pur­ple ensem­ble, fea­tur­ing a skirt lay­ered over tights and a long-sleeved sweater with fuzzy fly­ing bears. Baba is dressed in smart casu­al and thick black sun­glass­es, his hen­naed hair combed back and gleam­ing, his mus­tache bristling with impor­tance. The pock­et of his shirt holds a red pen con­stant­ly at the ready for grad­ing his stu­dents’ black and blue uni­ver­si­ty papers.

He is in a good mood, whistling cheer­ful­ly on the way to the man­a’eesh shop in Bayad­er Wadi Al-Seer. Baba nev­er has free time and this trip will thrilling­ly lead to impos­si­bly hot ovens (that I can’t remem­ber the name of) which turn cheese, meat, spinach and zaatar pas­tries into bub­bling pies of per­fec­tion. My favorite is the salty white cheese boat with small black nigel­la seeds dot­ting its sur­face. This is the stuff of heav­ens and once we leave Jor­dan, I will think about them obses­sive­ly; the crav­ing will nev­er be satisfied. 

Baba's Opel Manta.

Baba’s Opel Manta.

Work­ers rou­tine­ly line the street wait­ing for their lunch, jostling and chat­ting with a cig­a­rette in one hand and a pip­ing hot minia­ture black Alg­haz­a­leen Cey­lon tea in the oth­er, ensconced in a glass con­tain­ing just as much white sug­ar as actu­al tea. Or, maybe a qah­wa made by boil­ing down cof­fee repeat­ed­ly and adding car­damom and even saf­fron if you’re feel­ing fan­cy (but not in this case because it’s com­ing from lit­tle ven­dors on the roadside).

Baba and I strug­gle to com­mu­ni­cate, with 50 years and a gen­der between us, but food is our com­mon lan­guage. We both have pot­bel­lies, although my ver­sion is dubbed baby fat. We are wear­ing seat belts, unlike the major­i­ty of oth­ers on the road, but I glance down uneasi­ly at the car floor, which my mom jokes is so rick­ety and low to the ground that you can see the road pass­ing by under­neath. I am too young to under­stand sar­casm, so I clutch my seat for reas­sur­ance. Baba takes impec­ca­ble care of this car and each one that will fol­low it, but he is also capa­ble of dri­ving a piece of machin­ery until the work he is doing to keep it run­ning is dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the work it is doing to get him places. Rid­ing the del­i­cate bal­ance of elder­ly car care is his expertise.

Baba’s dri­ving is wild by Amer­i­can stan­dards and tame by Jor­dan­ian. In actu­al­i­ty, my Amer­i­can mom has more fun on the hap­haz­ard Jor­dan­ian roads, whose names fre­quent­ly change depend­ing on who’s on the throne and usu­al­ly don’t both­er with updat­ed sig­nage any­way. All of this is irrel­e­vant to her because she has not mas­tered the art of read­ing Arabic.

“Mom, how do you not get confused?” 

“Are you kid­ding? I love dri­ving here, it’s like a real-life video game,” she grins. 

On the way to the shop, Baba and I are pulled over by a cop for some rea­son, which is sur­pris­ing because stop signs and oth­er attempts at traf­fic con­trol are usu­al­ly mere sug­ges­tions. The cop is young and in full mil­i­tary gear, with a machine gun slung over his shoul­der (which may or may not have been com­mon at the time) and a jaun­ty cap. 

“Assala­mu alaikum.” 

“Alaikum assalam.”

He and Baba begin their assess­ment, bestow­ing peace on one anoth­er, greet­ing and singing, par­ry­ing and teas­ing. When he hears Baba’s name he exclaims, “A [REDACTED]? A Dok­tore?! Dok­tore [REDACTED]?!?” 

A thou­sand illus­tri­ous thanks to God and apolo­gies are exchanged, future gen­er­a­tions blessed, car­pets of ros­es thrown. They are in their ele­ment, play­ing out a script as old as time. The cop quick­ly waves us on our mer­ry way with a “ma assalameh,” one final olive branch, and Baba coax­es the car into gear look­ing like a cat who swal­lowed a canary. Our tribe is promi­nent in Jor­dan, and at that time a mem­ber was a gen­er­al in the army, so our name recog­ni­tion is at its peak. This is called wasta. 

* * *

Raised in the desert by a Bedouin woman, Baba was unaware she was­n’t his moth­er until he was around six years old. We aren’t sure of the year he was born, so ages and dates are approx­i­mate. Once he learned the truth, he was returned to his birth par­ents, who had been unable to care for him pre­vi­ous­ly. Their fam­i­ly was semi-nomadic by this time, begin­ning to be pinned down by bor­ders, and often set­tled in Roman ruins that dot­ted the desert land­scape. Baba nev­er tru­ly felt that he belonged, and his search for answers began ear­ly in the form of a dri­ve for com­plet­ing his edu­ca­tion. His father had been a suc­cess­ful trad­er but was forced to turn to agri­cul­ture with the cre­ation of Israel and was met with a dif­fi­cult pro­fes­sion and pover­ty. Baba always said his ear­li­est mem­o­ry of his own Baba was light­ing his now use­less Pales­tin­ian cur­ren­cy on fire. 

Through a series of logis­ti­cal acro­bat­ics involv­ing, as he tells it, a lot of desert trekking, don­key rides, mock­ing hye­nas, squat­ting in aban­doned build­ings, and help­ful nuns, Baba pro­gressed in his school­ing until he was giv­en a schol­ar­ship to attend the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Beirut for his bach­e­lor’s and mas­ter’s and even­tu­al­ly a PhD in the Unit­ed States. In return, he would pay off the debt by work­ing in civ­il ser­vice in Jordan. 

Between degrees he had a myr­i­ad of jobs includ­ing work­ing at the brand-new Jor­dan­ian radio and TV sta­tions, for the UN, at the air­port, and in cus­toms. As he gained expe­ri­ence, he some­how adopt­ed the kind of Amer­i­can accent which can’t be pin­point­ed to any par­tic­u­lar region, and at the same time became immersed in the pan-Arab move­ment, hop­ing for a freer and more egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety, which is gen­er­al­ly the oppo­site of what the States had planned for the region. At first, he imag­ined a mod­ern­iz­ing move­ment, but over time as he hit one dead end after anoth­er in his home coun­try, he felt unable to make a difference. 

As a pro­fes­sor at a Jor­dan­ian uni­ver­si­ty, there came the oppor­tu­ni­ty to co-author a book with an Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor, explain­ing the his­to­ry of wasta and high­light­ing the extent of its hold and sub­se­quent cor­rup­tion. Baba believed it would broad­ly be about its func­tion in the Mid­dle East, not the detailed indict­ment of cor­rup­tion in every facet of Jor­dan­ian soci­ety that it came to be. This would result in many tri­als, per­haps most mem­o­rably the appear­ance of a dead cat in his office. For these rea­sons and many more, all copies of the book dis­ap­peared from our house. 

Before the book had dis­ap­peared and the first time I noticed it as a kid, I don’t remem­ber how old I was, but I do remem­ber that the hard­cov­er was an aggres­sive red, like Baba’s old race car. The title is [REDACTED]. His name is in black along with a co-author and the ded­i­ca­tion reads: “To six women who know and love the Mid­dle East, or who will grow to do so,then my moth­er’s name, my own, and four oth­ers in the co-author’s fam­i­ly.  The copy­right is from when I was a year old. Although I am already an avid read­er, the book looks bor­ing to my child-eyes and I snap it shut.

In 2012, I returned to the old coun­try for the first time since we left. Right away, my sur­name was rec­og­nized. I felt pan­icked, know­ing I could­n’t live up to the wasta poten­tial and could nev­er fill Baba’s shoes, for fac­tors that were out of my con­trol, like being a woman. 

In the lan­guage study pro­gram I joined in Jor­dan, sev­er­al of my Amer­i­can col­leagues knew about Baba’s book and had ref­er­enced it in their work, mak­ing me feel fool­ish for not hav­ing read it. 

In Jor­dan, I took on the mis­sion of renew­ing my pass­port, which intim­i­dat­ed me because of the intri­ca­cies of the lan­guage and the male-dom­i­nat­ed offices. Iron­i­cal­ly, I achieved what would have been a drawn-out process quick­ly thanks to the help of a friend of a friend who was a wily, lik­able lawyer. Bald­ing and in a grey suit with a Marl­boro pack­et stick­ing out of the breast pock­et, he con­vinced the offi­cial that he was in fact my cousin and could serve as wit­ness to my iden­ti­ty. It was­n’t clear to me why he need­ed to be my cousin to achieve this, but I did­n’t ask any ques­tions. When I returned to the lan­guage cen­ter where I was study­ing, pass­port tri­umphant­ly in hand, I was ashamed by my brava­do when the pass­port-less Pales­tin­ian pro­fes­sor and I made eye con­tact. In this way, I re-estab­lished my Jor­dan­ian iden­ti­ty through my own murky wasta. 

Our tribe is large and promi­nent in Jor­dan. The fact that in between my first and last name on my Jor­dan­ian pass­port is the name of my father, his father, and his grand­fa­ther hints at the impor­tance of the patri­ar­chal line in Arab cul­ture. In addi­tion, Baba’s sta­tus as a pro­fes­sor ele­vat­ed his wasta to near myth­i­cal sta­tus in my child-eyes. His book details that “each of these domains [obtain­ing a job, impor­ta­tion of goods, pass­ports and licens­es…] is cov­ered by for­mal rules, but wasta involve­ment expands the range of pos­si­ble outcomes.” 

I love “expands the range of pos­si­ble out­comes. This reminds me of Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can author Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much, where she writes that “…every price, role and bor­der can and must be nego­ti­at­ed.” Exis­tence in these cli­mates, along with the rules that gov­ern it, is elastic.

My mom want­ed a copy of Baba’s book for pos­ter­i­ty, and because it’s out of print, she paid a hand­some sum to have one shipped. She nev­er took it out of the box until I real­ized she had it and asked, and then she smug­gled it over to me like we were mak­ing a drug deal so that Baba would­n’t see it. 

For some rea­son, the cov­er on this edi­tion is pure white; it is angel­ic, inno­cent, the aggres­sion of the red replaced com­plete­ly, although the bold black title stands out even more now. I can’t ever recall see­ing anoth­er pure white book cov­er, and this one has nev­er been opened. In coro­na quar­an­tine, I thumb through it, won­der­ing if my love for the Mid­dle East has grown to suit the dedication. 

On the first page I read: “wasa­ta, or wasta, means the mid­dle, and is asso­ci­at­ed with the verb yatawas­sat, to steer con­flict­ing par­ties toward a mid­dle point, or com­pro­mise.” I real­ize that to my blond, blue-eyed moth­er and myself, the only child their union pro­duced, Baba was lit­er­al­ly our mid­dle­man to the world out­side our small fourth-floor apart­ment, under­lin­ing my hyphen­at­ed exis­tence. In Jor­dan­ian soci­ety, my moth­er and I were both odd­i­ties, and Baba was our iden­ti­ty capital. 

In Eng­lish, wasta is loose­ly trans­lat­ed as nepo­tism, and I learned that this comes from the Latin root for nephew, which is nephos. What would the word be if the Latin root for niece were used instead, which is nep­ti? Nep­tism? Would such a sys­tem even exist in a matri­archy? Or how about in a world that moves away from the gen­der bina­ry; what pow­er struc­ture would be cre­at­ed then? 

When Baba’s book was pub­lished, the authors believed that “the mod­ern wasta is more of a politi­cian than a trib­al chief, in that he is per­ceived not to hon­or his word all the time.” They felt that wasta had shift­ed from a help­ful form of trib­al nego­ti­a­tion to entrenched nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion brought on by urban­iza­tion and cen­tral­iza­tion, and that it should be mit­i­gat­ed. These obser­va­tions came even before the esca­lat­ing upheaval the Mid­dle East faced through­out the sub­se­quent decades. Read­ing this work is heart­break­ing when seen through that lens, in how many unknow­able dis­as­ters await­ed the region and in how com­plete­ly Baba’s ide­al­is­tic vision of the future of his coun­try would be lost. 

My moth­er clear­ly remem­bers sit­ting in anoth­er lov­ing­ly used ancient clunk­er in the dri­ve­way of their log cab­in, where Baba told her that they had want­ed to pub­lish the sto­ries with dif­fer­ent names, allud­ing to rather than point­ing fin­gers, but the pub­lish­er would­n’t go for it. 

“Why would he have risked pub­lish­ing this?” I asked her.

“As he became more edu­cat­ed, trav­eled out­side of his devel­op­ing nation and gained more life expe­ri­ence, he felt that the only way to improve his coun­try was through tough love, by shin­ing a light on the truth of his expe­ri­ences and advo­cat­ing for trans­paren­cy,” she war­i­ly replied.

In that car he told her, “You know, this will ruin me.” And in many ways, it has. When he hit 60 and got his pen­sion, he left the uni­ver­si­ty and his coun­try and nev­er went back. Although he still reg­u­lar­ly intro­duces him­self as being from Jor­dan, Baba has­n’t returned in 16 years. 

The thing about wasta is that it’s loca­tion-based. In the Amer­i­can Bible-belt, Baba’s name recog­ni­tion dis­ap­peared. Worse, my par­ents had­n’t applied for his Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship until after 9/11. My mem­o­ries shift from him stand­ing in his pow­er to him stand­ing in line at Trad­er Joe’s (a very big deal when it first opened up here). He’s wait­ing for a sam­ple of who-knows-what because there is noth­ing Arabs love more than tast­ing food before buy­ing, which they do by pluck­ing fruit freely from stalls in the Mid­dle East but which is not social­ly con­doned here unless it comes in the form of tiny plas­tic cups. 

Baba makes it to the counter, with a thou­sand fruits and veg­gies in his cart, and the employ­ee looks him over. “Where are you from?”

“Jor­dan,” Baba bright­ly responds.

“Well, we don’t serve your kind over here.” 

When I hear about it lat­er, I’m furi­ous not only that it hap­pened but also that the racist, xeno­pho­bic white guy chose such a cliché response. My trau­ma-rid­den Baba did­n’t make a scene because at the time he still was­n’t a cit­i­zen. How do you weigh who belongs in which space? This is some­thing I ask myself every day. 

Although Baba no longer has his tribe to draw on, as my mom always says, “you can take a man out of the desert, but you can’t take the desert out of the man.” He still knows a guy who knows a guy, which came in handy in 2016 when the back door of my par­en­t’s van was bashed in and they enlist­ed a local Arab to fish through the scrap heap until he found an exact replace­ment. My mom then gave an air con­di­tion­er to a white guy with a South­ern drawl in exchange for haul­ing the old door away. 

Much of Baba’s book is based on per­son­al expe­ri­ences, because “wasta is a com­pli­cat­ed, para­dox­i­cal con­cept that is bet­ter described by sto­ries than cir­cum­scribed by an arbi­trary def­i­n­i­tion.” These num­bers seem to per­fect­ly encap­su­late the nature of the issue in this ref­er­ence to “a 2000 sur­vey among Jor­da­ni­ans. Eighty-six per­cent agreed that it is a form of cor­rup­tion and 87% thought it should be elim­i­nat­ed. At the same time, though, 90% said they expect­ed to use wasta at least ‘some­times’ in the future and 42% thought their need for it was like­ly to increase, while only 13% thought their need would decrease.” 

My trip to Jor­dan in 2012 was near­ly 10 years after we had moved away, and now almost anoth­er decade has passed, so my own rela­tion­ship to the coun­try and how wasta func­tions there is frozen in time. As I read through Baba’s book, I became curi­ous and Googled the word look­ing for more mod­ern references.

I found a whole host of amaz­ing­ly bizarre iter­a­tions, like the Urban Dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion as “con­nec­tions and to a less­er extent, street cred,” that a Wasta is also a White Ras­ta as in a white per­son imi­tat­ing aspects of the reli­gion with­out hold­ing the beliefs, that a sub­ver­sive board game called Wasta exists in Lebanon, and that this mug is avail­able which says, “don’t use wasta, be the wasta.” Accord­ing to The Tur­ban Times: The Mid­dle East As You Don’t Know It, wasta is even referred to as “Vit­a­min W” because of how vital it is to survival. 

Fas­ci­nat­ing­ly, I found a town called Wasta on the Cheyenne Riv­er in South Dako­ta, com­plete with a Wasta Hotel, cur­rent­ly on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places, and a Wasta Post Office. The town’s pop­u­la­tion was 130 as of 2019 and the name comes from the Lako­ta word “wašté” mean­ing “good,” which is just too per­fect a juxtaposition.

When my par­ents decid­ed to pur­chase a used Toy­ota Cam­ry from the deal­er­ship, Baba hag­gled the price down so low that they were bor­der-line los­ing mon­ey on the sale. Still, the price was­n’t where he want­ed it, and Baba became fix­at­ed on get­ting anoth­er $75 off. He set­tled in the bewil­dered man­ager’s office with an awk­ward mug of tea, trans­fer­ring the cus­tom across an ocean and con­ti­nent, park­ing him­self as solid­ly as the cars around him. Raised poor with­out any form of trans­porta­tion save a don­key or the occa­sion­al camel, Baba knows the true val­ue of both a car and a dol­lar. Once he got his inevitable bar­gain my par­ents and I drove out of the deal­er­ship togeth­er, leav­ing the dazed man­ag­er behind. 

Above all and no mat­ter who he is talk­ing to, Baba is for­mi­da­ble. He will nev­er lose his fine­ly honed nego­ti­a­tion skills, his sin­gle-mind­ed deter­mi­na­tion, or his mustache. 

As I reflect on the expe­ri­ence of final­ly read­ing Baba’s work, I real­ize that this for­mal text has unin­ten­tion­al­ly had the per­son­al effect of tying me back to his expe­ri­ences, explain­ing his life with­in a sys­tem that he felt he failed to change. It even details the his­to­ry of our tribe, a group which he, and I by proxy, now have no con­tact with. Baba does­n’t even know I’ve read it.