AMMAN // Thick clouds of shisha smoke may obscure the faces, but the conversation among patrons at Jafra Cafe in Amman's gritty downtown area is more distinct and candid than ever.
The social unrest in the region has ignited debate over subjects previously discussed only in the seclusion of private homes. Here in this bohemian bastion for chain-smoking intellectuals, artists and professionals, the zeitgeist has found both men and women openly discussing Jordan's long-simmering issues and traditions.
The Jafra has long been a venue for poetry readings, musical performances and art exhibitions, a magnet for those hungry for intellectual and cultural debate. The cafe's clientele, drawn from many segments of Jordanian society, rarely criticised too loudly, however. Neither did its high-profile list of performers, including such poets such as Ali Isbir, who goes by the moniker Adonis, and the Palestinian nationalist Izz Eddein Manasreh. Because among the performers and artists and audience there was always the perception that the country's powerful security apparatus could be leaning over one's shoulder or eavesdropping.
Now, though, the local epithet "the walls have ears" - a warning for those who would question authority, at least publicly - seems to have given way to something more closely resembling free speech.
"There is more democracy now. You can talk now in Jordan, and in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya," said Ayman Khanfar, 30, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin who was lounging in Jafra recently, on holiday from his work in Abu Dhabi as a mechanical engineer. He was sitting with his cousins Khaled, 25, and Abdulwahab, 21, smoking, sipping tea and coffee and musing over events in the region.
"Even when my Jordanian friends and I speak when we're in the UAE, we would look to see who's around us when we talk about Abdullah," he said of Jordan's monarch.
With wider tolerance for more freedom of speech, in certain parts of the kingdom conversation has become tinged with an amplified concern about stability. The Khanfar cousins huddled around a small wooden table cited sectarian tensions in Jordan, particularly among their fellow Palestinians, the country's native population of tribesmen and other local ethnic groups.
"We had the Black September in 1970, and we've put this behind us after great difficulty," said Khaled, referring to the crushing of a Palestinian uprising that year. Khaled was wearing the kaffiyeh around his neck, its black-and-white colours indicating his Palestinian origin.
"We hope there will be no more conflict between us. I mean, we're friends. We marry each other."
This divide has always been a latent, if at times troubling, one for this country of 6.4 million, uncomfortably wedged between the Israel-Palestinian conflict to its west and Iraq's manifold troubles to the east. Palestinians are considered a majority and dominate the private sector, yet they are under-represented in government. A tangible concern is that Jordan's Palestinians could bear the brunt of violence if nationwide protests continue.
Already, the Khanfar cousins said, Palestinians are being blamed for the protests that erupted across the country. "They are saying this is being motivated by the Palestinians," Khaled said. "It's the tribes who are saying this."
That sort of sentiment could explain the recent outpouring of support for the king. Anti-government demonstrations have thinned out, but those in favour of the monarchy have recently picked up steam. One Palestinian refugee camp in Madaba, a city about 30-minute drive south of the capital, held pro-monarchy rallies this week and newspapers have been filled with ads professing their loyalty to the king.
The king is increasingly being portrayed as the only national figure who can keep the Palestinians and Jordanians from clashing. This comes amid demands for a reduction of his powers.
His support in the Jafra Cafe is unbending, even if it is not driven by popularity. "He's not Jordanian. He's not Palestinian. He's Hashemite," said Ayman Khanfar.