Bakeries lie at the center of communal life in Jordan’s cities and towns. They mark daily rhythms and movements in countless neighborhoods. The subsidized bread they dispense is crucial to the subsistence of many of the country’s inhabitants. Yet bread’s importance is not only a product of its strictly nutritional properties. It is valued not only as a source of calories or a strategic foodstuff linked to daily consumption but as a cultural and political symbol. Loaves are frequently waved at Friday protests. Empty bags are placed next to, rather than inside, garbage containers. When a piece of bread hits the ground it is picked up, pressed to the forehead and kissed. In brief, khubz ‘arabī (Arabic—or pita—bread) holds a symbolic value that is not easily quantified. It is frequently associated with dignity, survival and sustenance. During the most recent food policy debate (2013–2015), one prominent Jordanian journalist referred to the bread subsidy that ensures the foodstuff’s availability as “the last red line” in the social pact between the government and the citizenry.
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Today, Jordan is one of the largest per capita spenders on food subsidies in the world. The vast majority of this sum is expended on khubz ‘arabī. Residents of the country are estimated to consume nearly ten million loaves a day, averaging around 90 kilograms of bread per person annually. The subsidy has been a mainstay of the Hashemite regime’s welfare provisions since the early 1970s. Although the Jordanian government has at various points subsidized a host of basic foodstuffs (frozen poultry, rice, cooking oil) and other household items (tea, coffee, cigarettes, heating oil, water), the vast majority of these undertakings have been scaled back, if not completely eliminated. Despite cutbacks to these and other social expenditures during the last 25 years, the bread subsidy has not been changed. In 2014, the government spent approximately 265 million dinars ($374.25 million) to maintain the price of 16 qirsh ($0.23) per kilogram. Why has this policy survived more than two decades of austerity and free market reform? How do the meanings with which this foodstuff has been imbued contribute to this outcome? What is subsidized bread’s “place” in the country’s social contract?
Over the last six months, I was fortunate enough to receive an ACOR-CAORC pre-doctoral fellowship to continue addressing these questions. Crucially, time as a fellow allowed me to build upon research I first began during a Fulbright grant in 2013–2014. I spent much of my time in the country observing and working in three different bakeries. These bakeries were in very different socio-economic milieus, and the time spent baking, conversing, and witnessing their role in the urban fabric was intensely fulfilling. Although untraditional in my field (comparative politics), I believe this ethnographic approach to the study of bread helped me better apprehend the foodstuff’s importance: how its availability has become closely linked to a perceived right to subsistence, why its provision is frequently described as a sacrosanct responsibility of the government.
Undoubtedly, the bread subsidy is and will remain subject to fluctuations in the global wheat market and sensitive fiscal considerations. But to analyze food policy solely through recourse to these easily quantifiable factors misses a key part of the story. Consistency in prices, the psychological comfort of feeding one’s family, escaping the specter of starvation—their import is inaccessible without access to meanings that only human actors can provide. Where international financial institutions and neoliberal technocrats see an inefficient universal subsidy distorting natural market signals, Jordanian citizens see a welfare program linked to social values and hard-earned rights, one crucial to their daily subsistence. Systems of social provision are always embedded in cultural and political contexts that shape their development. They are not easily studied by way of a dataset or from the comfort of an armchair.
Written by José Ciro Martínez, ACOR-CAORC Pre-Doctoral Fellow for 2015–2016 and Ph.D. Candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. All photographs in this article were provided by and are the copyright of the author.