Posts filed under ‘Jordan’

Ruwwad

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Razan picked us up at our small hotel, and as we drove past the KFC’s, McDonalds, gleaming new office/shopping plazas, and continuous construction of West Amman, she told us that she had worked for GE when she graduated from the university. Two years into the job, a friend asked her for a ride to Ruwwad to tutor that day. Curious, Razan went inside and began reading to some of the children. She promised to return the next day, and soon was a regular volunteer. Months later she had left GE to become Program Coordinator at Ruwwad.

Ruwwad is located in Jabal Nathif in East Amman, across an invisible boundary between the eastern and western part of the city that seems to divide very different worlds. The area has been populated mostly by Palestinian refugees since 1948. The people who live here are very poor, but since the place was never designated as an UNRWA facility, they get no help from UN funds. Until Ruwwad provided the space, the Jordanian government provided neither a health clinic nor even a post office. The government has just recently promised to create a police station. The schools were unimpressive, in sum, Jabal Nathif was a very “under-served” area. Ruwwad has done more than offer services. It has allowed the local children to think about opportunities that they could not have even imagined two years ago.

Ruwwad was Raghda Butros’ dream. When we met her in 2003 she was a Humphrey Fellow at the University of North Carolina, in transition between jobs. After she returned to Amman, she decided she could actually carry out her project. Of the many things I admire about this woman, one is her ability to do things that I would find unlikely at best, and probably impossible.

When we first saw the Ruwwad site in the summer of 2006, there was little but a shell of a building and Raghda’s dreams to fill it. Now, Razan was taking us through three stories filled with children, volunteers, staff, and a flood of remarkable ideas they seem able to implement almost as soon as they arise. Raghda explained that the staff had decided to move its offices out of that initial colorful structure, leaving the first building to the programs and the children who had, by that time, moved into every inch of it. They found that the children followed them into their offices in a neighboring building-–Raghda’s has not only the desk, books, and computer one would expect in an NGO director’s space, but also puzzles, books, and bean-bag chairs for the children who drop by to hang out while she is working.

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Ruwwad opens into a library full of children’s books. (They could always use more…) It is brightly painted, and furnished, like most everyplace else in Ruwwad, by the refurbished castoffs that the volunteers and staff collect, clean, repair, and decorate with great imagination. (The kids even designed the ngo logo.) After an existence of less than two years, Ruwwad’s two buildings today offer a computer lab, a library, courses, a preschool, a furniture-refurbishing shop, and a large meeting space.

The programs that fill the place, though, are the most exciting. “Windows” offers local kids an opportunity to do art, usually available only to Amman’s wealthier children. Adults attend literacy classes in Arabic and English classes offered by volunteers. The large conference room on the top floor is the setting for monthly discussions about topics chosen by local high-school and college-age students, conversations often taboo and unbroached at home or in school.

These older students are often recipients of Ruwwad’s scholarships. Each scholarship student, in addition to attending community college or university, is required to volunteer for the organization. These volunteers provide the labor needed to improve local homes and to build new ones (with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter).

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Rami was with us as we toured the facility. At 17 and in 11th grade, he has made a gradual transition from a local ringleader to one of Ruwwad’s big neighborhood supporters. His friends have followed him, providing a huge support to volunteer efforts to rebuild the community. He came along as we went to a neighbor’s house for sweet, minty tea. Our host has four daughters and three sons. The youngest child, Sarah, is four months old.; the oldest is in her 20s. We met three daughters, including one about to take her exams to get into the university. The family’s house used to consist of one room, an entryway beside a small, walled-off toilet, and a moldy kitchen. After Ruwwad’s volunteers moved the toilet onto the patio and installed a shower, they recreated the entryway into a second room, essentially doubling the usable size of the house. And they treated the mold and repainted the kitchen. Our host, now in her 30s (she married at 17) seemed quite delighted–and delightful. After tea, she urged us to stay for coffee and lunch; when we declined, she insisted that we return another time.

Still less than two years old, Ruwwad now employs 23 people. The programs seem both remarkably innovative and very comprehensive. I keep deleting the words here, because I seem unable to convey the complexity of the program that Raghda and her staff have created. I am used to writing in a linear way, but the varied parts of Ruwwad’s program seem so connected to other parts, it would be more comprehensible with a diagram than a paragraph. I’ll try to give a sense of it. Their varied activities enrich the lives of residents physically (improving living quarters, providing job skills through volunteering, and finding funding for urgent medical situations); academically (offering scholarships, tutoring, literacy programs, English lessons, and encouraging reading); socially (providing volunteer opportunities, creating community cohesion, offering youth a space and resources to talk about important issues); and emotionally (improving living conditions, creating community, responding to urgent local needs). All who benefit are expected to give back through volunteering, which, of course, provides more resources to the Jabal Ndif community. Why didn’t we all think of this decades ago?

The Ruwwad web site does a much better job describing this remarkable place.

November 29, 2007 at 3:51 pm 1 comment

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

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Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

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On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

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No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

Aqaba

We toured Aqaba our second and last night. Malik, our long-time friend, had invited his cousin along. Basma is a human rights attorney in Jordan who has been insisting on prison reform and women’s rights through both her activism and the cases she has chosen to take pro bono. The four of us had dinner, then drove to what Malik called the “suq,” which looks like a downtown main street. Aqaba has been declared a tax free zone, making everything there cheaper than elsewhere in Jordan.

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People were out in large numbers, buying gifts and the necessities for Eid, the three-day celebration that ends Ramadan and will begin either tonight or tomorrow night when someone sees the new moon that indicates the start of the new month, al-Hijja (month of the haj).

Malik’s best friend Arif met us downtown and took us to Aqaba’s brand new mall on the outskirts of town, mysteriously named “Aqaba City Center.” Basma was trying to find information on new digital cameras, and we were along for the ride. (We also found a supermarket with vanilla extract and baking powder, two things unavailable anywhere in Aleppo.)  While downtown was jammed and jumping, the mall was very quiet.

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I asked to look at the Crusader-era fortress that Faysal’s forces had struggled so hard to liberate, according to the movie at least. It is quite small. A plaza has been built on the water nearby to celebrate the “Great Revolt,” and a huge, special Great Revolt Flag waves over it. A nearby nightclub was playing local music quite loudly, and the plaza was full of people.

All five of us went to the Royal Dive Club, formerly a private facililty of the Royal Family, which they handed over for others’ use. From the pier that juts into the Gulf of Aqaba, an arc of lights indicates Jordan’s Aqaba, Israel’s Eilat, Egypt’s Taba, and just beyond the last green neon, Saudi Arabia’s Tabuq (5 km away). Arif told me that there were efforts to create an infrastructure to coordinate the needs of the four countries’ ports. (He also told us that local people are ambivalent when the US Navy makes its annual appearance at the Saudi port for joint exercises; though they disapprove and dislike American policy in the region, the annual event is great for Jordan’s struggling travel industry. Why is Jordan’s travel industry struggling? I asked. It’s because people think all the countries here are Iraq, he said. They don’t realize that we are very stable; people aren’t traveling to the region at all.

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The lights of Israel’s Eilat, just across the Gulf of Aqaba, from Jordan’s Aqaba.

The remarkable proximity of the four countries was startling, even after spending years looking at Middle East maps.  The lights of Eilat seemed visible everywhere; in the daylight, the mountains of Egypt seemed very close.   Back on the beach, the Diving Club’s big tent with couches, tables, and large pillows provides a comfortable place to sit while drinking coffee or wine, and listening to whatever the DJ plays. (You can ask him for your favorite music, Malik told William, but he will play his own anyway.) Over coffee, we talked about the causes of continuing regional conflict, and the ways to begin solving them, and the need for more academic, citizen, and journalist exchanges.

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We said goodbye to Arif, and the next morning to Muhammad Sea and the staff, and had a nearly-uneventful trip back to Amman (until the car began making dreadful scraping noises.  It is in the shop now.) 

October 13, 2007 at 2:09 pm Leave a comment

Petra

I understand now why Petra is included in the recent list of the 7 Wonders of the World.

Back up the road to Amman for almost 100 kilometers, we got a better look at the mountains, the goats, the donkeys, the intermittent bedouin tents, and the occasional camel-crossing warning sign. The road past Wadi Musa (where some say the biblical Moses brought water from the rock) is quite beautiful, passing through a number of small villages and two huge international hotels before descending, descending down to the visitors station of Petra. This is a national monument that the Jordanian government is clearly interested in both preserving and promoting. Admission is a bit pricy for foreigners ($30 each; Jordanians pay about $1.50).

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The upper plaza is open to the sun, which was still very hot in mid-October. The walking path descends for a while before entering the Siq, a canyon paved by the Nabateans and the Romans after them, whose high walls provide shade and cool. This was the place where the Nabateans processed during religious ceremonies, and it is indeed awe-inspiring. The cliff faces on both sides rise sharply in many colors simultaneously. An open pipe carved into the rock at waist-level all along the Siq provided water to the Napatean capital.

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The narrow Siq ends abruptly directly in front of what appears to be a fabulous classical building. But it wasn’t built, it was carved, carved into the stone faces. The Nabateans were spectacular carvers, and Petra displays an amazing intersection between a spectacular natural rock formation and a creative and skilled human effort. The carved building facades are quite beautiful. In some, the combination of the swirling stone coloring and the carvings made them look like something Dr. Seuss might have consulted on. We didn’t walk all the way to the Temple, but did see a number of tombs and a Nabatean ampitheater that the Romans expanded. We tried to imaging what it might have been like living in this city, what people might have eaten, how they would have used the spaces.

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The Nabateans were a tribe from Arabia, whose empire stretched from Damascus south to the center of Arabia and lasted from the second century BC through the second century AD. Petra, the capital city, remained important well after the empire was assimilated by the Romans in 106 AD . A pre-Islamic Arab tribe whose writing seems to have prefigured early Arabic script, the Nabateans are an important symbol of the kind of identity the Kingdom of Jordan emphasizes.

The city is spread along a valley and up into the hillside, houses, tombs, and public buildings all carved into the stone. Vendors offer coffee, tea, soda, and souvenirs at various places within the monument. One young man from the neighboring town approached us, his arms full of necklaces, speaking English. Malik explained that he belongs to a local tribe that thrives on the tourist industry, each member knowing how to speak many languages. As we admired his wares, he talked to Malik. Their business is local, he explained. They make their jewelry from local stone, camel bone, and camel teeth. The government was thinking about allowing big firms to take over the souvenir trade in Petra, he told Malik. Why don’t they just provide support to the local craftspeople instead?

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We were tired, and decided to hire another young man with a horse carriage to take us back up, up to the entrance. The horse seemed very tired. At one point he handed Malik the reins, instructing him how to drive, then left briefly to talk with someone. When we got to the Roman road, he took them back–we understand why Romans had big wheels. (We didn’t!)

Suddenly, a rider galloped past us, quite a feat inside the Siq! He called to our driver, who gave up the reins and ran after him. Seems they were both trying to get to a horse that had run off. Our driver disappeared. Malik, and then William, drove the slowest horse at Petra. We must have looked quite cute, as people from a large busloads of Israeli tourists kept stopping to photograph us. I think it was our speed–our horse was apparently used to drawing an Amish-style cart and moved at that rate.

As we approached the end of the road, we began wondering what we would do with this horse, whose driver was nowhere to be seen. He appeared at the last moment, took the payment, and introduced himself as “Dr. Love.”

October 13, 2007 at 1:13 pm 1 comment

Muhammad Sea

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The road from Amman to Aqaba is rocky desert, beige, and tedious until a few kilometers south of Ma’an, when it seems the tall scraggy mountains converge on the car from both sides of the road. Actually, it resembled closely the desert out the windows on the road from Damascus to Jordan the day before. It was late afternoon on Tuesday by the time we left Amman. Aqaba is Jordan’s not only Jordan’s only port, but also the country’s only access to the sea, and the road between Amman and Aqaba is filled with trucks. At sunset, we passed trucks parked along the side of the highway for nearly a kilometer, their drivers breaking the fast. One group had gathered together on stools on the shoulder, cooking from a camping stove on the truck.

The darkness prevented our seeing much beyond the immediate roadside from Ma’an to Aqaba, and we went immediately to Malik’s favorite restaurant. It was 10:00 when we arrived at Dune Beach Village to celebrate William’s birthday. Dune Beach Village is a collection of small cottages with terrific views of the Gulf of Aqaba. The owners had been displaced from their previous sites when large multinational hotel chains began building on the prime seaside property in town. People like Muhammad Sea moved further outside of town, and have created a comfortable alternative to elite hotels. When I asked Muhammad how he had become interested in diving, he told me his story.

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William and Muhammad Sea

Muhammad Sea grew up in a family bedouin in Wadi Rum. He couldn’t seem to get the answers right in his three years in school; when he refused to return because the teachers kept hitting him for his errors, his parents let him stay home, help with the other children, and learn to tend the camels. Soon after his father died, he went for a month to stay with his sister, who had married a member of their tribe living in Aqaba. Muhammad was quite taken with the sea and the city, and urged his mother to move. Muhammad tried his hand at fishing, but didn’t like being under someone else’s (the captain’s) orders. He did learn to swim.

He explained that he was looking for something he could do in his country, to encourage people to appreciate Jordan and all it had to offer. He went to Egypt to learn to dive, and when he returned, Muhammad set up Aqaba’s first dive expeditions. I found the story of bedouin-camel-herder-to-scuba-dive-instructor so unlikely I asked Malik if he just made up these stories to amuse tourists. Malik reassured me that Muhammad’s story was true. Muhammad added, “I grew up between mountains and stones, not between McDonalds and Pizza Hut.”

Within a short time, Muhammad was taking trips overseas with new friends. One Australian girl he befriended took him to Amman for a visa so he could visit her country. At that time, he said, he had never seen Amman and did not know where Australia. He is now well-traveled (his favorite places in the world are the Sinai Desert and Damascus), and talk of his first visit to Amman sent him off on another story.

Back in the 1960s, Muhammad’s father came home one day and reported seeing strangers visiting near their place at Wadi Rum. As was the custom, his father slaughtered some sheep and goats and his mother began preparing bread and food. (Muhammad explained that men take care of the killing of animals and the coffee-making, and women make bread and rice and everything else needed for the meals.) After dinner, the strangers took part in a local ritual of setting the heads of the animals some distance away for target-shooting competition. When it was Muhammad’s father’s turn, he refused, saying he couldn’t shoot their kind of guns. They suggested he get his own, which he did, and got the best shot. As the strangers were leaving, King Hussein invited him to the palace in Amman for a visit. (The other two guests turned out to be Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, in Wadi Rum to shoot scenes for Lawrence of Arabia). Muhammad’s father explained to the King that he never traveled without his knife and gun, so Hussein wrote and signed a letter asking people to permit him to come to the palace wearing his weapons.

Muhammad explained how his father had to show the letter to the bus driver, the hotel manager, the Amman taxi driver, and the royal guards in order to be permitted to continue at each step. He did finally get to see the King, who was pleased to see him again and gave him 300 Jordanian dinars with instructions to buy provisions and distribute them among the bedouin of Wadi Rum.

jordanmap.pngFrom Wikipedia

October 11, 2007 at 1:54 pm Leave a comment


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