Version classiqueVersion mobile


Jean Hannoyer
Seteney Shami

Sixième partie. Politiques urbaines

Land Conflicts, Property Rights and Urbanization East of Amman1

Conflits sur les terrains, droits de propriété et urbanisation à l’Est de Amman

Omar M. Razzaz


Ces deux dernières décennies, les terres de Yajouz (zone longeant l’axe Amman-Ruseifa-Zarqa) ont été le théâtre d’une vive contestation entre le gouvernement jordanien, la tribu des Bani Hasan et de nouveaux occupants. Yajouz est aujourd’hui une zone urbaine périphérique dénoncée comme illégale par le gouvernement. Trois facteurs principaux ont conduit à cette situation : Le premier est la nature contestée des revendications à la terre. Le second est la diversité des mécanismes de contrôle et de régulation de l’espace social et géographique, permettant au marché foncier de Yajouz de se développer comme champ social quasi-autonome. Le troisième renvoie au processus d’ajustement mutuel entre les organismes d’État et la société locale qui aboutit à assurer des droits fonciers aux occupants tout en permettant le fonctionnement de la loi. L’argument développé montre que le marché des terres à Yajouz ne traduit pas un phénomène traditionnel pouvant conduire à des pratiques modernes mais bien un phénomène moderne qui donne forme au fonctionnement quotidien de la loi en même temps qu’il est transformé par celui-ci.

Texte intégral

  • 1 An early version of this paper appeared in Law and Society Review, 28 (1) 1994.


1A visitor to Amman cannot help but notice the distinction in the urban fabric and milieu between the western and eastern parts of the city (or, more accurately, the north-western part and the rest of the city). West Amman is where upper-income residential neighbourhoods, hotels, embassies, banks, private clubs and restaurants have located. The eastern parts of Amman are where moderate and lower income neighbourhoods, refugee camps, small industries, and informal market places have located. While this distinction is not clear cut, it is nonetheless manifested in the urban fabric as well as in the consciousness of the residents of the city. It is not a coincidence that residents of Amman perceive of, and categorize, the city in terms of west and east and not, for example, in terms of north and south.

2Historically, growth in the western parts has been expansive but orderly: vast areas of land have been converted from rural to urban use, and paved roads and services were often delivered even before development took place. In contrast, growth in the eastern parts has been concentrated and disorderly: mostly occurring spontaneously out of overcrowded refugee camps into adjacent areas, with roads and services following much later.

3One might argue that the distinction between east and west Amman can be solely attributed to the two waves of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967. As such these were historical incidents that had their permanent imprint on the city fabric. Although such an argument has obvious merit, it does not address the question of why refugees were located overwhelmingly in the eastern parts of the city in the first place. Nor does such an argument address the distinct growth patterns that continue to characterize the western and eastern suburbs of Amman.

  • 1 Some of the land along the corridor falls within the tribal domain of the D’aja.
  • 2 See, for example, section on Jordan in US AID 1991, Regularizing the Informal Land Development Proc (...)

4In this paper, and through focusing on the urbanization pattern along the eastern Amman-Ruseifa-Zarqa corridor, I explore the effects of land tenure conflicts and the ambiguity of property rights on patterns of urban settlement. I utilize a legal pluralism framework to examine a specific site along the corridor, that of Yajouz, a peripheral urban settlement deemed illegal by the government. Yajouz falls within the historical tribal domain of the Bani Hasan1, one of the largest tribes in Jordan, but is registered as “state property”. Over the years, the ownership of land has been contested between the state, Bani Hasan members, and incoming settlers from surrounding areas. Policy makers and analysts have often portrayed disputes over land between the state and tribes in Jordan as resulting from the superimposition of “modern” concepts of private and public ownership on “traditional” land tenure systems2. This paper questions such statements by examining the narratives and claims made by the Bani Hasan as well as their actions to address newly arising opportunities, interests and grievances.

  • 3 Such factors include climatic and rainfall distinction between the western and eastern parts; the s (...)

5The implications of this study are: i) to place the issue of land tenure and property rights among the potential factors considered by analysts as having contributed to the distinct patterns of urbanization in Amman and its suburbs3; ii) to show how conflicting claims to land continue to shape political, social, legal and market relationships along the Amman-Ruseifa-Zarqa corridor; and iii) to suggest a cumulative process through which use and control of land are determined.

6In the following sections, the paper will first examine the theoretical debate on popular settlements and the law. Second, an analytical framework through which to approach the case of Yajouz will be proposed. The case of Yajouz will form the third part of the paper, focusing on the interaction between various state organs and Yajouz residents. Finally, the conclusion will focus on the analytical relevance of the Yajouz case to the debate on the relationship between governmental and non-governmental legal systems.


Popular Settlements and the Law

  • 4 See Karst, 1973; Doebele, 1977; Santos, 1977; Conn, [1968]; Perdomo, 1982; Sobreira, 1986; Azuela, (...)

7A growing number of studies are focusing on the relationship (or lack of it) between governmental law and popular settlements4. Various analysts, however, have differed in their assessment of the meaning and function of law in these settlements. Hardoy and Satterthwaite, for example, describe Third World cities as divided into “legal” and “illegal” parts with a “gap” separating the two (Hardoy and Satterthwaite, 1989:6). As a result of this separation, “most poor people have little faith in laws. Many may know little or nothing about existing laws” (Ibid.: 32).

8Although the poor may know little about the letter of the law, they are often conscious of its function. Several studies seem to provide such evidence. Treating squatter settlements in Mexico, Azuela emphasizes the connections, instead of the gap, between squatters and the law:

9“Despite the fact that low income settlements are in some way illegal, or rather because of this, law becomes a real issue which influences the strategies of the social agents involved, thus shaping social relations and, in some cases, the very structure of urban space” (Azuela, 1987: 523).

10But recognizing that squatters are conscious of the law does not mean that they conform to it, nor does it mean, that the law determines their actions. Indeed, several studies have found that while law does matter, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for establishing settlements and gaining security of tenure (see, for example, Angel, 1983; Doebele, 1978). Doebele, argues that “while tenure is generally considered a legal category, it is, just as fundamentally, a matter of the state of mind of the persons concerned” (Doebele, 1978: 111). Recent studies suggest that settlers’ “state of mind” or expectations regarding their security of tenure are constituted through a process encompassing plural sources of regulating and controlling space. In his analysis of the legal context of Brazilian favelas, Santos argues:

11“We are thus in the presence of interclass legal pluralism... In this instance class conflict is characterized by mutual avoidance (latent confrontation) and adaptation.... Both legal systems are based on respect for the substantive principle of private property...[the unofficial legal system] achieves its informality, subtlety, and flexibility through selective borrowing from the official legal system. Thus although they occupy different positions along a continuum of formalism, they can be said to share the same legal ideology and to be culturally homogeneous” (Santos 1977: 89).

12In a later article, Santos captures the “porosity” of plural legal orders:

13“We live in a time of porous legality or legal porosity of multiple networks of legal orders forcing us to constant transitions and trespassing” (Santos 1987: 298).

14Increasingly, therefore, analysts are observing the connections rather than the “gap” between the regulation of popular settlements and the law. As I will show in the next section, however, these connections do not imply an all encompassing and omnipresent law, but a law that operates within a plurality of ordering mechanisms.

An Analytical Framework

15The dynamic and plural process in Yajouz is best captured through the concept of semi-autonomous social fields (SASF) (Moore, 1978), comprising a network of social relations that

16“can generate rules and customs and symbols internally, but also vulnerable to rules and decisions and other forces emanating from the larger world by which it is surrounded. The semi-autonomous social field has rule making capacities, and the means to induce or coerce compliance; but it is simultaneously set in a larger social matrix which can, and does, affect and invade it, sometimes at the invitation of persons inside it, sometimes at its own instance” (Moore, 1978: 50).

17Social fields are semi-autonomous not only because they are affected by forces of “the larger social matrix”, but also because they can mobilize such forces in their interest:

18“[P]eople arrange their immediate situations... by exploiting the indeterminacies in the situation... or by reinterpreting or redefining the rules or relationships. They use whatever areas there are of inconsistency, contradiction, conflict, ambiguity, or open areas that are normatively indeterminate to achieve immediate situational ends” (Moore, 1978: 50)

19Three aspects of Yajouz make it a special breed of SASF. First, Yajouz as a social field brings together buyers and sellers of land who have no long-standing multiplex relations and no long history of transactions. Indeed, Yajouz is a social field in the making, drawing on existing rule making and enforcement mechanisms of surrounding social fields, but also developing distinct rules, inducement mechanisms, and dispute processing fora to address risks and opportunities that had not existed before. This aspect of Yajouz allows the examining of the formation of a social field, how rules and mechanisms are created, maintained, and modified.

20Second, the Yajouz social field is constituted through a problematic relation with governmental law and state enforcement mechanisms. Its rules, regulations, and enforcement mechanisms challenge the domain of government regulation and authority. Its operations are seen by public officials as “illegal”. Furthermore, its normative content challenges official narratives of justice, law and order, and lends legitimacy to residents’ actions through narratives about the supremacy of non-compliance to “unjust” governmental law and action. This aspect of Yajouz calls for a better understanding of group non-compliance with governmental law, and how it is justified and perpetuated.

21Third, the Yajouz social field’s raison d’être is the establishment of a land market: securing the control, transfer, and development of land legally owned by the state but claimed by residents. Unlike illegal markets that are hard to detect because of the elusiveness of buyers, sellers, and the commodity itself (such as illicit drugs and foreign currency), illegal land markets are much more exposed: illegally subdivided and sold land can be easily detected and buyers (more accurately users) can be easily identified. The openness of the process brings into question the nature and the limits of law enforcement and the efficacy of various forms of government intervention.

22The Yajouz land market invokes three theoretical issues rarely treated in tandem: the control of contested resources; group non-compliance with governmental laws and regulations; and the creation, maintenance, and modification of a SASF. A resource over which property rights are not clearly defined could become contested once the resource appreciates in value (Feeny, 1988; Barzel, 1989). To control effectively a resource contested by other groups, a group would need institutional arrangements which are capable of appropriating, using, and exchanging the resource or its products within the group itself (Ostrom, 1990), as well as circumscribing similar attempts by other contending groups. When the resource being contested is publicly owned or regulated through governmental law, non-compliance could become a central and defining feature of the institutional arrangements of the contesting group.

  • 5 Castells defines an urban social movement as: “a collective conscious action aimed at the transform (...)

23Neither protest nor deviance are sufficient conditions for non-compliance. Groups organizing to protest a certain law, a governmental action or policy can be said to be part of a social movement5. They aim to apply enough pressure such that the state would introduce, change, or retain elements of governance. That is, an effective protest movement is one that induces the state policy and action to change (or not change) in some desirable way. A “non-compliant” social field, however, is capable not only of protesting governmental rules and regulations, but is also capable of providing relief for members from these rules and regulations. Similarly, non-compliance cannot be reduced to deviance. A driver exceeding the speed limit on the highway and “getting away with it”, while deviating from the law, is not necessarily taking part in an attempt to preempt or replace the law or its enforcement. The distinction is clearly captured by Migdal:

24“ not simply personal deviance or criminality or corruption; rather, it is an indication of a more fundamental conflict over which organizations in society, the state or others, should make these rules” (Migdal, 1988: 31).

25In other words, a non-compliant group is distinct in its ability to generate rules contradicting and preempting some governmental laws, while still complementing and upholding others. Indeed, it is a non-compliant semi-autonomous social field.

26I will show in the following sections how Yajouz, as a non-compliant SASF, has developed to address the contestation of land, and to respond to several risks and opportunities facing tribal members and seekers of affordable housing. The particular arrangements, rules, and enforcement mechanisms developed and/or invoked, however, are partly determined through a mutual adjustment and readjustment process in which the various state organs as well as Yajouz residents are engaged.


  • 6 Yajouz is not the official name of the site but the name of the main artery that passes through the (...)

27Yajouz6 is located within the northern limits of the town of Ruseifa, a medium size town to the north-east of Amman, the capital, and south-west of Zarqa, the second largest city in Jordan. A major artery crosses Yajouz, connecting it directly to both Amman and Zarqa (see Map 1).

28The roots of struggle over land in Yajouz can be traced to the colonial era (1921-46). The British, keen on creating a modern agricultural tax base, started actively dismantling the traditional tribal land tenure system (mushâ‘), and replacing it by a private freehold system with clearly defined individual land titles. This individually based land tenure system, it was hoped, would increase security, improve agricultural productivity, and therefore, generate tax revenue for the newly created government (which was then fully subsidized by the British).

Map 1
Greater Amman, Rusaifa and Yajouz (Study Area)

Map 1Greater Amman, Rusaifa and Yajouz (Study Area)

Source: Greater Amman Comprehensive Development Plan, 1990.

29Thus, the focus of the British, and later the Jordanian government was on agricultural land. The most fertile areas in the country were given priority for settlement of rights and registration of title. As for semi-desert and desert land, the British were less interested in dismantling the mushâ‘ tenure system. Most of these areas were registered as State Land, with the common understanding that tribes claiming these areas as their domain could inhabit it, use it for herding or scant cultivation, and even register it formally and obtain individual land titles if they cultivated it for three consecutive years. Many tribal groups refused to register their lands fearing excessive fees and taxation.

30Yajouz, then, a desolate semi-desert land within the domain of the Bani Hasan tribe (one of the largest tribes in Jordan) remained registered as State Land and used by tribal members with little or no conflict over its legal status. This was to change, however, in the late 1960’s, as proximity to urban centres rather than agricultural productivity became the principal attribute of land.

Market Conditions

31The late sixties and early seventies brought significant socio-economic changes to the country. The exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians after the 1967 war with Israel and the oil boom of 1973, transformed the country from a weak agricultural economy to a booming service economy.

32The result of this boom was rapid urban growth, accompanied by increased social stratification and spatial segregation. Areas in the west of the Amman Municipality were inaccessible and beyond the means of lower and middle income groups as about 90 % of the areas annexed by the Municipality were zoned as upper income residential plots. Access to housing or land for lower income groups became more difficult than ever before. A study conducted in 1979 found that about 40 % of the population of Amman lived at densities of 4-5 persons per room and that it was very common to find 10 people living in one room (Ministry of Planning, 1986). Such cases were concentrated in the eastern parts of Amman, mainly in Palestinian refugee camps. This overcrowding in the eastern parts, combined with rising standards of living among families of migrants in the Gulf, translated into a pent-up demand for affordable residential land. Yajouz, with its strategic location to major employment centres in Amman and Zarqa, became a prime target for settlement by middle and lower income groups seeking affordable land.

Conflicting Claims to Resources: Seeds of Community Self-Help

33The traditional holders of land in Yajouz, the Bani Hasan, were eager to capitalize on the boom by formally registering the land, subdividing it into residential plots, obtaining individual titles, and selling to migrants returning from the Gulf or households escaping the overcrowded and exorbitant urban areas. Members of the tribe applied to the Lands and Survey Department to initiate what they thought would be a routine process of land registration. To their surprise, they were turned down. The lack of political clout of the Bani Hasan in the government, as well as the desire among several public officials to maintain control over the area, rendered their attempts to officially own the land in Yajouz (as well as in other areas) fruitless.

34The Bani Hasan, however, were not about to concede their perceived rights to the land. Using Hirschman’s terminology, the Bani Hasan had used both “voice” and “loyalty” unsuccessfully, and at least some of them were about to try “exit” for a change. I documented isolated cases taking place in the early seventies of Bani Hasan members illegally subdividing small plots of land along the Yajouz road and selling them to new settlers priced out of the formal housing market in near-by cities.

35At the time, no public service or infrastructure existed in Yajouz. Yajouz’s ambiguous legal situation, in addition to its sparse population, were enough to dissuade water and electricity agencies from offering their services to the area. Lack of water, electricity, public transportation, and schools were among the major deterrents to locating in Yajouz. By 1977, however, several tribal members purchased private electric generators, and started selling electricity to neighbouring houses. As for water, private water tank trucks started reaching houses through gravel and dirt roads cleared by residents. Neighbourhoods close to water mains were able to hook up illegally and obtain piped water.

36Despite its inadequacy, this limited level of services provided residents with their basic needs and allowed them to survive in Yajouz. In doing so, it gave them the means to establish their lives in Yajouz, and as we will see later, the minimum autonomy needed for asserting their possession of the land. Thus, what had started as a routine and legal attempt to register land, developed into self-help action by some members of the Bani Hasan that ranged from the subdivision and sale of what is legally public land to the provision of basic services in the area. A non-compliant SASF, bringing together and regulating the relationship between the Bani Hasan members and newcomers, was in the making.


37The early eighties saw heightened tensions between the central government and the Bani Hasan tribe. With land prices rising sharply, neither the Bani Hasan nor the government were willing to back off and concede their claims to the area. It had also become clear to government officials that mere warnings and threats were not about to bring the Yajouz land market to a halt. Drastic action was required.

Establishing CPSP

  • 7 Board of Ministers Resolution No. 463, November 16,
  • 8 The Governor’s office, the Municipality, the Department of Lands and Survey, the Security Service a (...)

38To put an end to further settlement on state land, the Board of Ministers, in a 1980 meeting7, established the Committee for Protecting State Property (CPSP) which was charged with “protecting state owned land and maintaining law and order on those lands”. It was composed of representatives of several state agencies8 with an enforcement arm represented by a field patrol and bulldozer under the command of a police officer. One of the committee’s first objectives was to fence off and prevent building on certain parcels within Yajouz which were designated for certain public uses. This put the patrol, however, in direct confrontation with members of the Bani Hasan. In 1983, the Prime Minister of Jordan made several public statements to the effect that the Bani Hasan’s “abuse” and “usurpation” of state property would not be tolerated. When Bani Hasan members continued to sell land in the area, he gave orders to the armed security forces in July 1983, to fence some already inhabited areas, and evict the Bani Hasan settlers and demolish their houses. The reverberations of the campaign came as a shock to the government: members of Bani Hasan took arms to prevent the armed security forces from demolishing their homes. There were reports of security agents shot, and military vehicles burned. Dozens of Bani Hasan men were rounded up and imprisoned. Riots broke out in front of the prison by fellow tribal members. More arrests were made.

39To mend the rift, the Prime Minister resigned, a new one was appointed, and a member of the Bani Hasan was appointed as the Minister of Youth as a reward for his constructive efforts in resolving the conflict. However, the conflict was not fully resolved: the new government made it clear that despite its attempts at reconciliation, it was not about to concede the issue of state control over the disputed land. Similarly, the Bani Hasan members refused to relinquish their claims to gain formal rights to the land.

40Soon after, the CPSP patrol was back roaming the area, with clear instructions to demolish any structure under construction. The criterium for demolition was the roof: if the roof was already installed, the structure was to be left intact, but if the structure was still unroofed, it was to be demolished. Enforcement was quite effective for several months: demolition, fines, and detention were systematically carried out. By 1984, the land market and construction activity in Yajouz came to a standstill (see Fig. 1, 2, 3). Potential buyers became increasingly cautious, and very few land owners dared to build.

41By modifying its strategy from sanctioning the Bani Hasan tribe (the supply side of the Yajouz market) to sanctioning individual builders of houses (the demand side of the market), the state managed to shift the locus of the conflict to the weaker element in Yajouz: the loosely knit, politically and economically vulnerable newcomers. It was also successful, though indirectly, at curtailing the illegal land market, thus asserting its control.

42As can be seen from the figures, however, the lull in the market was not long lived. Starting in 1985, housing starts, land transactions, and land prices were all on the rise again. The complex process of market recovery in Yajouz can be seen as the outcome of a series of adjustments and readjustments in response to new needs, opportunities, and uncertainties. These adjustments became possible through the maturation of procedures, networks, and organizational arrangements among tribal members and new settlers in Yajouz. As a non-compliant SASF, they were afforded partial and gradual relief from actions by the CPSP, at least until the state, in turn, encountered these adjustments by its own series of modified rules, regulations, and CPSP enforcement practices. In the next section, I will examine the relational property contracts and arrangements in Yajouz that have made possible the creation, development, and adaptation of a non-compliant social field.


Contractual Relations

43In the process of establishing an illegal land market in Yajouz, not only have community roles had to develop to address new needs, risks, and opportunities, but land sales contracts had to acquire a new role and meaning. Over time, the land sales contract (hujja) has acquired new meanings, new functions, and new conditions that had never been part of the “traditional” hujja.

  • 9 However, a hujja (proof) is a legally adequate means of transferring ownership in areas where right (...)

44Historically, a land sales contract, or a hujja, was the only document required for land transaction between buyers and sellers in the region. The Ottoman reforms (tanzîmdât), however, and later on, British laws required that a title deed (sanad) be obtained along with the sale contract (hujja). Today, the use of hujja for land transaction without transferring the title and obtaining a title deed (sanad) is deemed illegal in Jordan9. In Yajouz, however, the hujja continues to be used as the only document for transferring the possession of the land.

45While formal sales contracts in Jordan represent discrete transactions, the hujja in Yajouz has increasingly become an on-going relational contract. A tribal member explained:

46“We do not think of a hujja as a regular sales contract. It is more like a marriage contract, binding both the buyer and seller for good. I am expected to intervene whenever there is any dispute over the ownership of any piece of land that I had sold... In some cases I am called upon to re-establish the boundaries, in others I am called upon to identify the person who bought the land and paid me for it... If I stop performing this role, I would be reneging my commitment in the hujja, and people will have no trust in me, I wouldn’t be able to sell”.

  • 10 Examining the terms of contract in hujja-s dating between 1970 and 1988,I found that none of the hu (...)

47Thus, the tribal seller is a lifetime guarantor of the buyers’ possession of the land. This is, almost always, explicitly mentioned in hujja-s: “the seller is responsible for the protection of the buyer against the intrusion of tribal members and adjacent neighbours”. Modifications of this provision, however, started appearing differently after 1977: “with the exception of the state” was added to the provision, absolving the seller from protecting the buyer against demolition or appropriation of land by the state. By the mid-eighties, almost all hujja-s examined, included this distinction10. This change came at a time when the state had stepped-up its policing of the area in an attempt to prevent further expansion of settlements.

  • 11 Santos, op. cit., p. 51. In his brilliant study of a squatter settlement in Rio de Janeiro, Santos (...)

48Thus, the hujja, in its content and function, has not been a “continuation” of a traditional or customary practice. Rather, it has evolved to address changing conditions and to reflect realistic obligations between contracting parties. In its form, the hujja has increasingly resembled official sale contracts: two witnesses are required to sign the hujja along with the buyer and seller. Increasingly, standardized hujja “forms” in which specific information can be included (such as names, dates, location, etc.) are sold in the market. In some cases, a hujja is handwritten on paper with the state emblem on top, with the wording and arrangement of text resembling official contracts. Sometimes official stamps that are used as fees for administrative documents are added to the hujja. All these elements: the standard form, the state logo, and the stamps provide an aura of officialdom to the ratification process. The inclusion of such symbols in the ratification process “is aimed at investing transactions with a load of normativity which will increase the security of contractual relationships...”11 (Santos 1977: 51). The hujja asserts the legitimacy of land transactions in Yajouz in more than one way. First, it spells out in a functional way the mutual obligations of the buyer and seller, and serves as a reference for future disputes. Second, by using the traditional term for land sale contract hujja instead of the generic legal term ‘aqd, the contracting parties invoke the historical legitimacy of this form of contract, while at the same time appealing for official recognition by endowing the hujja with the symbols of legitimacy of the modern contract.

  • 12 For an in-depth examination of dispute processing, disputing fora, and the involvement of the state (...)

49In content, the only “traditional” aspect of the hujja is the term itself. The hujja is essentially a “modern” response to new needs, opportunities, and risks posed by the market and the conflict with the state. As I will show in the next section, however, the Yajouz community is not “self-contained” within its own institutional arrangements but can selectively appeal to and invoke rules and enforcement mechanisms from a wider context12.

50Indeed, the presence of state coercive power not only influences power relations between state organs and Yajouz residents, but also influences power relations among residents themselves. In an interview with one of the new buyers in the area, I asked him why he thought the tribal seller was going to fulfil his obligations made in the hujja. The buyer said:

51“The last thing tribesmen want to have, is for me to go complaining to the governor or the police. They know that the authorities are looking for excuses to clamp down on them”.

  • 13 The most common problem during the early stages was that of tribal members repeatedly selling the s (...)

52There is no doubt that this is true. Every visit I made to the governor’s office or the Department of Lands and Survey, I was confronted with a barrage of anecdotes proving that the tribes in the area are involved in all sorts of cheating, fraud, and usurpation of state land. Such a campaign to undermine the tribes’ control over land provided a real deterrent to land sellers from cheating13. In fact, it seems to have contributed to an “offensive” of good will in which tribal members and families compete to prove their worthiness as dependable parties. This suggests that external coercive power that is triggered by local complaints can unintendedly serve to strengthen local obligations and arrangements.

Threatening to Resort to Courts

53Going to court over property is largely a last resort used when all else fails. “Litigation over property is not very common in Yajouz”, a lawyer said, “but it is on the rise”. A series of Supreme Court decisions during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s have helped enhance the legal positions of buyers vis-a-vis sellers in these settlements (Razzaz, 1991). These shifts in the legal status of the buyer, in addition to the increased awareness of the legal options available, seem to have significantly influenced the outcome of disputes processed outside courts. As one settler put it:

54“Previously, when a seller was stubborn and refused to negotiate, he would say pejoratively: sue me in court why don’t you. Now he would have to think twice before saying that”.

55Thus, it is not only through litigation, but through the threat of litigation, and the relative power of disputants, that the outcomes of some disputes are determined.

56The above examples of invoking state coercive power and courts suggest that it is not the degree of autonomy that necessarily defines the success of a social field at regulating its own affairs. Rather, it is the degree to which actors within the social field can invoke both internal and external rules and enforcement mechanisms to keep internal rule-breakers in check. That is, semi-autonomy is not necessarily a vulnerability that a social field has to put up with, but potentially a “ticket” to utilize institutional arrangements of the government and other SASF.

57As a non-compliant SASF, many of the arrangements in Yajouz are constituted by and adjusted to governmental law and enforcement. The follow-ing section is an attempt to capture the dynamic process of mutual adjustment between Yajouz actors and state organs.


Manipulating Legal Ambiguity and Evading Enforcement

  • 14 This criterium was not in strict compliance with any modern Jordanian law, which calls for evicting (...)

58As mentioned above, the government’s policy of “preventing new expansion” was translated into an active strategy of demolishing dwellings still under construction and leaving intact those that were finished. The criterium for a “finished” house was the roof: if a permanent roof was not yet installed, the structure would be demolished and vice-versa14.

  • 15 Within two days, builders would excavate and pour concrete foundations, columns, beams, build the s (...)

59This “roof” criterium prompted settlers to adjust their building technology to cut down on the time it takes to install the roof. By using wooden scaffolding to hold the concrete roof, the construction period was cut from about two weeks to two days (Razzaz, 1991)15. This adjustment in the building technology was vital given that the patrol was off-duty Thursday afternoons and Fridays, the official weekend in Jordan. These days gradually turned into the busiest workdays in Yajouz.

60Another aspect of the building process was the use of permanent construction materials (cement blocks, concrete structures) rather than cheap temporary materials (contrary to what one might expect in a settlement lacking secure tenure). This was done despite the high risk of demolition by the CPSP. As it turned out, building quality also had to do with demolition guidelines used by the patrol: makeshift structures were demolished regardless of the roof criterium. As a result, settlers have learned that building with durable materials, while involving the risk of demolition and loss of investment, entailed significantly better chances at evading reprisals by the CPSP patrol.

61As for vacant land, settlers managed to assert their possession through symbolic or partial development: some settlers built small unfinished rooms. Although these rooms often stood bare and uninhabited, they testified to the holders’ claim to the land. Other settlers purchased larger-than-needed plots, fenced them, and built their dwellings on part of the plots, leaving the rest as a backyard with the intent of future subdivision.

62Understanding the loopholes and ambiguities in regulations, and the limits to enforcement of these regulations is one thing, disseminating this information among future builders and adjusting construction practices and methods is another. The latter requires the use of community networks to disseminate information about enforcement as well as strategies for circumventing such enforcement. Such information travelled within kin groups and neighbours, but also across groups after mosque prayers, during social events, and in local markets and tea and coffee houses.

63Just as settlers, however, were able to adjust and arrange their practices and utilize their networks to respond to intervention by state organs, state organs were also able to readjust their own forms of intervention. In the following sections, I will trace this dialectical process of adjustment, undermining adjustment, and readjustment by state organs.

Readjustment in Mechanisms of Enforcement

64In 1987, and faced by the continued proliferation of dwellings in Yajouz, the governor allowed the patrol more discretion in carrying out demolition, imprisonment, and fines even if roofs had been installed. The patrol started appearing occasionally on weekends. Many of the buildings newly roofed were demolished.

  • 16 Usurpation of state land is punishable by jail, fine or both; by immediate eviction “without consid (...)

65Settlers knew that the pattern of enforcement was far from uniform. Rather, it was often capricious or cyclical. As enforcement increased, building activity slowed down and vice-versa. But why, one might ask, was the patrol incapable of absolute and sustained enforcement, although harsh sanctions are provided for by the law?16 The answer lies partly in understanding the limits of law enforcement: full implementation of the law would be politically unfeasible, threatening confrontations similar to those of 1983. But beyond the political constraints, there were practical constraints to full enforcement.

  • 17 Survey of Yajouz, Summer, 1989.

66Not only was the contested land vast in area (100,000 dunums – 25,000 acres – including Yajouz and other areas), but the number of construction sites, especially during the summer was overwhelming for a single patrol. Furthermore, the patrol’s access to the bulldozer was limited, for the latter belonged to the municipality and was frequently needed for public work. Furthermore, there was a clear discrepancy between the proportion of settlers who were subjected to demolition and the proportion of those who were detained (41 percent and 7 percent respectively)17. This, I was told, was due to the limited capacity of the judicial and enforcement system to process these cases. The patrol member said that when the police station or the Public Property Court got flooded with offenders, they instructed the patrol officer not to arrest additional ones.

67By all accounts, the patrol’s efforts to enforce state property rights were far from consistent. Sometimes they seemed capricious and arbitrary, at other times cyclical. While the scale of violations discussed above made full enforcement untenable, lack of official consensus over the nature and extent of enforcement introduced yet more volatility in enforcement. Under such conditions, the portrayal of the state as a monolithic entity with clear and internally consistent agenda cannot be farther from reality. Both bureaucrats and community members in Yajouz seemed to well understand the plurality and inconsistency of state agenda, and they behaved accordingly.

68The idea that non-compliance can simply be checked through “tougher enforcement” ignores the difference between group non-compliance and isolated violations of law. Enforcement of laws and regulations faces a set of dynamic institutional arrangements capable of modifying and adjusting rules and practices and subverting enforcement attempts. This is not to say that no measure of enforcement can possibly bring non-compliance under control – an overwhelming use of coercive force probably would. The use of overwhelming force, however, itself could delegitimize governments and the rule of law, especially when non-compliance is seen as a legitimate expression. More common, however, are dynamic scenarios of enforcement and non-compliance going through lapse and relapse.

Attempts to Legalize Yajouz: The Breakdown of Long Term Plans

  • 18 Badal mithl literally means “equivalent,” and generally refers to the market value of land. Payment (...)
  • 19 This permit is issued by the municipality once a building is inspected and is found to meet the bui (...)

69In the early 1980’s, and in recognition of the vast areas of de facto settlements in Yajouz, a governmental committee developed a plan consisting of a series of consecutive steps culminating in provision of metered water and electricity and the regularization of Yajouz. The planned sequence was as follows: the Department of Lands and Survey would demarcate plots; settlers would pay a portion of the market price (badal mithl)18 for the land and obtain legal title; the municipality would inspect the buildings and issue “occupancy permits” (izn ishghâl)19; and finally, service agencies would provide water and electricity. Each of the steps in the plan was predicated on the one preceding it.

70During the implementation stage, however, the plan stalled: there was little progress by the Department of Lands and Survey over time; few settlers were paying to obtain titles (less than 5 % by 1989); the municipality could not issue “occupancy permits” to settlers who did not yet legally own their plots; and service agencies could not connect water or electricity to settlers.

71With the breakdown of the process, water and electricity agencies were pushing for connecting settlers without waiting for an “occupancy permit”. The Electricity Company (which is parastatal) connected some areas where settlers were willing to pay full costs of installation. The Water Department (a public agency) complained that settlers were illegally connecting to the water main anyway and they might as well be charged.

72In 1986, the Ruseifa municipality, as a way to get the process moving, started issuing Yajouz settlers a “pre-permit”: a document issued after inspecting a structure and verifying that it is not located in the path of a planned street and that it is structurally stable. While the “occupancy permit” required that settlers obtain a legal title to the land, the “pre-permit” did not.

  • 20 The Electricity Company (a parastatal agency) was offered land by a tribal member to locate its gen (...)

73This administrative fiction of issuing a “pre-permit” rather than an occupancy permit enabled the Water and Electricity Departments to start providing hook-ups to dwellings willing to pay connection fees20. And while municipality employees insisted that the pre-permit was not an alternative for the “occupancy permit,” the latter was of little value to settlers once services were delivered.

74By the early 1990’s, almost all dwellings in Yajouz had obtained the “pre-permit” along with piped water, electricity, and municipal services. Less than 10 percent, however, had paid the dues for the land or obtained a legal title. Yajouz representatives are actively lobbying to have their lands registered to them free of charge. There is increasing evidence that this will be the likely outcome.


75The roots of the Yajouz land conflict can be traced back to the British mandate period during which much pastoral land within tribal domains was registered as state land. The conflict, however, did not surface until the 1970’s when a sharp increase in urban land value brought to the surface the various interests and conflicting claims to land. Members of the Bani Hasan tribe claimed that the land had been historically part of its tribal domain and wanted to cash in on the real estate boom. Lower and middle income urban groups sought the land for its location and affordability (because of its clouded title). The state legally owned the land, but the tradeoff between use of coercive power and legitimacy prevented state officials from acting definitively to enforce state rights. This relative impasse heralded a struggle for the control of the land that has lingered for almost two decades. Although unique in many ways, the Yajouz case suggests some insights that might be instrumental in other contexts.

76Residential land transactions started in Yajouz in the early 1970’s as isolated incidents, responding to individual needs and market opportunities. Had land been registered to tribal members at the time, in all likelihood Yajouz would have been just another middle income suburb with little to distinguish its real estate market or physical layout. In the absence of state recognition of tribal rights to the land, and in the face of pent up demand for affordable land, illegal land sales increased. Some of the newcomers and tribal members assumed new roles in providing the necessary information, assurance, and dispute prevention and containment mechanisms. Land sales contracts, hujja-s, were modified to address current needs and uncertainties. Thus, while actors drew upon existing norms, social networks, and rule making and enforcement mechanisms, they had to modify some, reinterpret others, and create new arrangements that addressed specific needs and opportunities. In other words, Yajouz was a semi-autono-mous social field in the making.

77Indeed, Yajouz came into existence in response to, more than anything else, contemporary threats of dispossession, opportunities for profit, and basic needs for housing. While the particular rules and practices developed partly in response to market dynamics and the needs of land buyers and sellers, they also were constituted through interaction with state organs enforcing laws and regulations. This aspect makes non-compliance a defining attribute of the institutional arrangements of Yajouz. Non-compliance, as I apply the concept here, cannot be reduced to deviance from governmental laws and regulations. While deviance implies a particular mode of behaviour in violation of the hegemonic legal order, non-compliance signifies the organizational capacity of a SASF to provide a degree of relief to members in the face of coercive power and intervention by state organs.

78Unlike isolated acts of individual deviance, non-compliant SASFs tend to be more resilient due to their capacity to adjust. As a result, enforcement becomes only partially a matter of quantity, and more a matter of catching up and readjusting of enforcement strategies. A close examination of the dynamics of enforcement in this case reveals not a “consistent” enforcement policy, but rather a constantly changing policy responding to changes on the ground, but also to the mosaic of agenda within enforcement ranks and legislative and executive organs. The resulting process is one of mutual adjustment in practices on both sides.

79The Yajouz case suggests that the process of mutual adjustment is not limited to the realm of daily practices and strategies, but also extends to the content of governmental law itself. Pointing to the dynamic nature of customary law, Unger argued that:

80“There is a point at which deviations from the rule remake the rule itself. Thus, every act leads a double life: it constitutes conformity or disobedience to custom at the same time that it becomes part of the social process by which custom is defined” (Unger, 1976: 49).

81While Unger was referring to customary law and not codified law, the Yajouz case suggests that it is even true for governmental law if the latter is understood in terms of its social interpretation and function. The eventual recognition by state officials of de facto control of land in Yajouz, and steps taken to legitimize such control were in flagrant contradiction with the written law, “usurpation of public land shall be ejected and investment removed at usurper’s expense”. The process of mutual adjustment has, therefore, contributed to the formation as well as the transformation of both the social field and governmental law.

82Finally, examining the process of mutual adjustment in contexts such as that of Yajouz is important for dispelling a common misconception – conflicts between communities (such as Yajouz) and the state conceived in terms of tradition giving way to modernity. Instead, mutual adjustment allows us to approach Yajouz as essentially a “modern” response to an equally “modern” phenomenon: the nation-state actively seeking to control the allocation of resources in society by bestowing legitimacy on certain social claims while rendering others illegitimate.

Directions for Future Research on Urbanization in the Amman Region

83While this study is not of Amman proper, it reveals processes of urbanization that might not be unlike those that have occurred in some of the eastern parts of Amman. After all, and unlike the western parts of Amman, ambiguous land rights in the eastern parts of Amman are very common: they include shares in non-parcelled land, hujja-s, claims of oral promises made earlier by Emir Abdallah to refugees, and outright squatting on private and public land. This study suggests that such ambiguity in land tenure could have been a catalyst for processes determining where lower income groups located and how they developed land.

84Several areas of research remain to be addressed for a better understanding of the distinct patterns of urbanization in east and west Amman. One area of research has to do with the circumstances associated with the decisions to locate the official refugee camps of Hussein, Wahdat, Hittin (Shneller), as well as unofficial refugee sites such as Joffeh, Rimmam, Nuzha, Wadi Haddadah, Nadhif, etc. How were the location decisions made? Who owned these lands? How valuable were these lands compared to other locations? How were these lands utilized before settlement? Based on experience from other parts of the world, it is more likely for refugees and immigrants to settle less valuable rather than more valuable land – they are more likely to settle steep slopes; uncultivated land; neglected public land; or private land with ambiguous ownership or multiple owners.

85Another area of research is land registration and titling during the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s in the Amman region to identify any possible distinctions between what is today known as east and west Amman. Finally, an examination of land prices in various parts of the city and how they changed over time (through time series analysis of land price data) could provide insight into the urbanization of the city. Such an approach would identify the impact that various historical events had on land values in eastern and western parts of the city, and hence, the attraction of the various socio-economic groups to these parts of the city.

Fig. 1
Housing Starts in Yajouz

Fig. 1Housing Starts in Yajouz

Source: Survey of Yajouz, Summer 1982 (Razzaz, 1991).

The Trend in Land Transaction in Yajouz Compared to the National Level

Fig.2The Trend in Land Transaction in Yajouz Compared to the National Level

Source: Department of Lands and Surveys, Annual Reports. Survey of Yajouz, Summer, 1989 (Razzaz, 1991).

The Trend in Land Prices in Yajouz Compared to the National Level

Fig.3The Trend in Land Prices in Yajouz Compared to the National Level

Source: Department of Lands and Surveys, Annual Reports. Survey of Yajouz, Summer, 1989 (Razzaz, 1991).



ANGEL, S. et al. (eds.) 1983, Land for Housing the Poor, Singapore: Select Books.

AZUELA, A. 1987, “Low Income Settlements and the Law in Mexico City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 11(4): 522-542.

BARZEL, Yoram 1989, Economic Analysis of Property Rights, New York:

Cambridge University Press.

BENDA-BECKMANN, F.V. 1985, “Some Comparative Generalizations. About the Differential Use of State and Folk Institutions of Dispute Settlement,” in A. Allott and G.R. Woodman (eds.), People’s Law and State Law, Cinnaminson: Foris.

—, 1988, “Comment on Merry,” Law and Society Review, 22 (5): 897-901.

BLACK, Donald J. 1976, The Behaviour of Law. London: Academic Press, Inc.

BURMAN, S.B. and HARRELL-BOND, B.E. (eds.) The Imposition of Law, New York: Academic Press.

CASTELLS, M. 1988, “Squatters and the State in Latin America,” in J. Gugler (ed.) The Urbanization of the Third World, New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

—, 1983, The City and the Grassroots, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

COLLIER, D. 1976, Squatters and Oligarchs: Authoritarian Rule and Policy Change in Peru, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

CONN, S. [1968], The Squatters’ Rights of Favelados, unpublished manuscript.

COTTO, L. 1989, Land Invasion and State Responses in Puerto Rico: 1968-1976, Ph. D. Dissertation, Rutgers State University.

DOEBELE, W. 1978, “Selected Issues in Urban Tenure,” Urban Land Policies: Issues and Opportunities, 1, World Bank, Washington D.C.

—, 1977, “The Private Market and Low Income Urbanization: the “Pirate” Subdivisions of Bogota”, American Journal of Comparative Law, 25: 531-564.

FASS, S.M. 1990, Land Tenure and Informal Housing Processes in Haiti, paper presented at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, Austin, Texas.

FEENY, David 1988, “The Development of Property Rights in Land: A Comparative Study,” in Robert H. Bates (ed.) Toward a Political Economy of Development: A Rational Choice Perspective, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 272-299.

GRIFFITHS, J. 1986, “What is Legal Pluralism?” Journal of Legal Pluralism, 24(1 )-55.

HARDOY, J. and SATTERTHWAITE, D. 1987, “The Legal and the Illegal City” in L. Rodwin (ed.) Shelter, Settlement, and Development, Boston: Allen & Unwin.

HIRSCHMAN, A.O. 1971, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

HOLSTON, James 1991, “The Misrule of Law: Land and Usurpation in Brazil”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 33(4): 695-725.

HOOKER, M.B. 1975, Legal Pluralism: An Introduction to Colonial and Neo-Colonial Laws, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

KARST, K.L. et al. 1973, The Evolution of Law in the Barrios of Caracas, Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.

MERRY, S.E 1988, “Legal Pluralism”, Law and Society Review, 22(5): 869-896.

MIGDAL, Joel S. 1988, Strong Societies and Weak State: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

MINISTRY OF PLANNING, 1986, National Housing Strategy, Amman.

MOORE, S.F. 1978, Law as Process: An Anthropological Approach, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

OSTROM, Elinor 1990, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions of Collective Action, New York: Cambridge University Press.

PERDOMO, R.P. and NIKKEN, P. 1982, “The Law and Home Ownership in the Barrios of Caracas”, in A. Gilbert and J. Hardoy (eds.) Urbanization in Contemporary Latin America, New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

POSPISIL, L. 1971, Anthropology of Law, London: Harper and Row.

RAZZAZ, O.M. 1991, Law, Urban Land Tenure, and Property Disputes in Contested Settlements: The Case of Jordan, Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University.

RUFFINI, J.L. 1978, “Disputing Over Livestock in Sardinia”, in L. Nader and H. Todd, (eds.) The Disputing Process: Law in Ten Societies, New York: Columbia University Press.

SANTOS, B.D. 1987, “Law: a Map of Misreading: Toward a Postmodern Conception of Law”, Journal of Law and Society, 14(3): 279-302.

—, 1977, “The Law of the Oppressed: the Constructions and Reproduction of Legality in Pasagrada, Journal of Law and Society, 12: 5-126.

UNGER, Roberto Mangabeira 1976, Law in Modern Society: Toward a Criticism of Social Theory, New York: The Free Press.

WILLIAMSON, Oliver E. 1985, The Economic Institutions of Capitalism, New York: The Free Press.

ZIADEH, F.I. 1979, Property Law in the Arab World, London: Graham and Trotman Limited.


1 Some of the land along the corridor falls within the tribal domain of the D’aja.

2 See, for example, section on Jordan in US AID 1991, Regularizing the Informal Land Development Process, vol. II. For a good discussion of parallel arguments made in the Latin American context, see J. Perlman, The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro, University of California Press, 1976.

3 Such factors include climatic and rainfall distinction between the western and eastern parts; the settlement of refugee camps after 1948 in the eastern parts; the expansion of these camps and establishment of new camps after 1967; the brief period of PLO control over these areas and the following clashes of 1970; and the oil boom in the region and its ramifications in terms of real estate investment and consumption patterns.

4 See Karst, 1973; Doebele, 1977; Santos, 1977; Conn, [1968]; Perdomo, 1982; Sobreira, 1986; Azuela, 1987; Fass, 1989; Hoffman, 1990.

5 Castells defines an urban social movement as: “a collective conscious action aimed at the transformation of the institutionalized urban meaning against the logic, interest, and values of the dominant class” (Castells, 1983: 305)

6 Yajouz is not the official name of the site but the name of the main artery that passes through the site. The site is officially referred to as utl ez-Zarqa war-Ruseifa, or the uncultivated land of Zarqa and Ruseifa (two adjacent towns).

7 Board of Ministers Resolution No. 463, November 16,

8 The Governor’s office, the Municipality, the Department of Lands and Survey, the Security Service and the Police Department.

9 However, a hujja (proof) is a legally adequate means of transferring ownership in areas where rights to land have not been settled and registered by the Lands and Survey Department. In contrast, for land that has been settled, land transactions require the registration of the transaction at the Land Registry Department and obtaining a title deed. Yajouz is registered as state property. Therefore, the hujja is null from a legal point of view.

10 Examining the terms of contract in hujja-s dating between 1970 and 1988,I found that none of the hujja-s written before 1977 had a provision for the case of state intervention, be it demolition, fines, eviction, or appropriation. The first hujja-s I examined with an explicit provision absolving the seller from any responsibility towards the buyer in case of state intervention was dated in 1977. About sixty percent of hujja-s dated between 1977 and 1983 had an explicit provision absolving the seller from responsibility in case of state intervention. And almost all hujja-s dated after 1983 had an explicit provision absolving the seller from responsibility in case of state intervention. In all, I reviewed ninety-three hujja-s.

11 Santos, op. cit., p. 51. In his brilliant study of a squatter settlement in Rio de Janeiro, Santos examines the role of the typed document, witness, stamps, etc. Describing the role of the typed document, he states that “[t]he keyboard of the typewriter extracts from the white paper a legal fetish in much the same way that the chisel extracts a statue from stone.”

12 For an in-depth examination of dispute processing, disputing fora, and the involvement of the state in processing private disputes in Yajouz, see Razzaz, 1991.

13 The most common problem during the early stages was that of tribal members repeatedly selling the same plot of land to more than one person.

14 This criterium was not in strict compliance with any modern Jordanian law, which calls for evicting usurpers of public land and returning the property to its original physical condition at the usurper’s expense (see, for example, Law no. 14, 1961, article 6). However, the Ottoman laws (al-majallah), which are mostly predicated on sharî‘a, recognize prescriptive rights: those rights are based on the ability to possess and demonstrate revivication ihiâ’) of land. While cultivation, permanent construction, renting or collecting rent have traditionally been considered as methods of reviving land, putting up a tent or a temporary shelter has not.

15 Within two days, builders would excavate and pour concrete foundations, columns, beams, build the scaffolding to hold the roof, pour the concrete roof, and build the outer concrete walls.

16 Usurpation of state land is punishable by jail, fine or both; by immediate eviction “without consideration to any claims of possession” by the usurper; and by returning the property to its original physical condition at the usurper’s expense. Law no. 14, article 5, 1961 (see also amendments).

17 Survey of Yajouz, Summer, 1989.

18 Badal mithl literally means “equivalent,” and generally refers to the market value of land. Payments usually range from 50 to 100 percent of the market value.

19 This permit is issued by the municipality once a building is inspected and is found to meet the building and zoning regulations. Buildings in Yajouz, lacking legal tenure, did not qualify for such permits.

20 The Electricity Company (a parastatal agency) was offered land by a tribal member to locate its generator. A hujja was written, and a structure to house the generator was built. Later that year, the Committee for Protecting State Property fined the Electricity Company for “usurpation” of state land (in a letter of protest by the company addressed to the CPSP and the Lands and Survey Department).

Notes de fin

1 An early version of this paper appeared in Law and Society Review, 28 (1) 1994.


Department of Urban Planning Massachusetts Institute of Technology

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 1996

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search