Why “Wasta” When Nepotism & Corruption are Equally Rife in the West?

15 June, 2021
Photo of The Diplomats' Quarter north of Ramallah by Bassam Almohor.

Pho­to of The Diplo­mats’ Quar­ter north of Ramal­lah by Bas­sam Almohor.

Trib­al Arab cul­ture did­n’t invent nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion, but it did devel­op a com­plex sys­tem of wasta. As Aseel Zim­mo writes in the Arab Law Quar­ter­ly, in a paper titled “Wasta in Jor­dan: A Dis­tinct Fea­ture of (and Benefit for) Mid­dle East­ern Society”:

Wasta means both the well-con­nect­ed, per­son­al inter­me­di­ary-inter­ven­er and the process of inter-medi­a­tion-inter­ven­tion…Wasta lit­er­al­ly means the mid­dle and is asso­ci­at­ed with the verb yatawas­sat, to steer par­ties toward a mid­dle point or com­pro­mise. Wasta refers to both the act and the per­son who medi­ates or inter­cedes. Wasta has been an insti­tu­tion­al part of Jor­dan­ian soci­ety since its cre­ation. Its trib­al ori­gins cen­tred on an inter­me­di­ary role that is asso­ci­at­ed with pre­ven­tion of retal­i­a­tion in inter-per­son­al or inter-group conflict.

How­ev­er, while wasta may have orig­i­nal­ly involved medi­a­tion and con­flict-res­o­lu­tion, it has evolved into a malig­nant Hydra in many coun­tries the world over — what no wasta? no con­nec­tions? Then you don’t have the clout to get what you want. 

Wasta via its ex-war­lords has cer­tain­ly been cost­ly for Lebanon, as nov­el­ist Samir El-Youssef observes in Lebanon’s Wasta Has Con­tributed to the Coun­try’s Col­lapse, where he recalls ado­les­cent chal­lenges and more recent expe­ri­ence in which wasta was a neces­si­ty (see also Lebanese Oppose Cor­rup­tion with a Game of Wasta by Vic­to­ria Schnei­der). After sur­viv­ing an Egypt­ian prison and obtain­ing asy­lum in the Unit­ed States, writer Ahmed Naji con­tem­plates wasta and stand­ing in line in I Love Wasta and Hate Stand­ing in Line, but I am Poor (trans­la­tion by Rana Asfour). And Mid­dle East his­to­ri­an Lawrence Joffe looks at how the al-Assad and Makhlouf fam­i­lies have mas­tered the art of con­trol and cor­rup­tion in a coun­try dec­i­mat­ed by a decade of war, in Syr­i­a’s Rul­ing Elite — A Mas­ter Class in Wasta.

Lest we delude our­selves into think­ing that wasta-lev­el cor­rup­tion is exclu­sive to the Arab world, con­tribut­ing edi­tor Mis­cha Ger­a­coulis dis­cov­ers the film Push and explores the incred­i­ble greed and inequity of the spec­u­la­tive hous­ing mar­ket, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the US and UK, in Wasta on Steroids: Spec­u­la­tive Finance & the Hous­ing Mar­ket. She estab­lish­es that “dark build­ings” and tax avoidance/tax eva­sion are uni­ver­sal phe­nom­e­na which exac­er­bate home­less­ness, deny­ing to mil­lions what the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights says is a human right: hav­ing a home.

Two con­tri­bu­tions cri­tique wasta out­comes in Pales­tine, when author and attor­ney Raja She­hadeh recounts the leg­end of a ritzy Ramal­lah neigh­bor­hood, designed for heroes of the PA, in The Diplo­mats’ Quar­ter: Wasta of the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty. And Beth­le­hem chef Fadi Kat­tan recalls the dis­as­ter of wasta lead­ing up to Christ­mas Eve at Faw­da restau­rant, in Wasta Tawla, or how the Wasta­far­i­ans Fared at Faw­da.

Our cor­re­spon­dent in Tunis, Emna Mizouni, reports on the vac­ci­na­tion cri­sis exac­er­bat­ed by wasta, in In Tunisia, Wasta Kills When It Comes to Covid-19.

TMR 10 rounds out with two well-told accounts — nov­el­ist and film­mak­er Tariq Mehmood weaves a tale of wasta, women and booze in Rawalpin­di, in Pak­istani Bureau­crats & The Booze Per­mit, while C.S. Lay­la, the Amer­i­can daugh­ter of a Jor­dan­ian pro­fes­sor, remem­bers life and wasta in the old coun­try, in Vit­a­min W: The Pow­er of Wasta Squared.

We invite you to read, com­ment on and share these con­tri­bu­tions, in the search for a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion plagu­ing soci­eties east and west.

—Jordan Elgrably, editor

Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.


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