Jordanian women: Curators of Memory

  From a 1999 Reference Booklet Jordanian Women: Past and Present
Published by the Princess Basma Women's Resource Center

Even though the traditional image of Arab women is one of subservience and domestic existence, beneath this surface is a very strong-willed character who has managed to be a decision-maker even if behind the scenes. Looking at women today and in the past 100 years the most striking description that comes to mind is of women as curators of memory. Perhaps not only in Jordan, but in any society, memory and stories is the safety net that holds society together, and ensures that wherever there is development it is safeguarded by the fabric of relationships, values, and memories woven by women wherever they are in their community.

Exploring the world of women in Jordan is tricky: it is not one, nor can it be condensed in one location. Many different worlds compose the social spectrum and hence women's lives. We chose three different worlds represented by three women. Meeting them was like having doors opening, going down stairs or up stairs to discover a whole new world… it is hard to expect what lies behind that door, just like it is difficult to know what lurks within each one of us. We tried to enter into the lives of these three women whose work has inspired us in many ways. We wanted to know how they became what they are, what were the turning points in their lives which led them to take the decisions that they did and make the life commitment that they chose. It is a quest to find out at what point in a woman's life is her route outlined? Where does she start if she is to reach impressive heights?

Collecting Memories

Walking down the stairs leading to the basement of Widad Kawar's home, you are immediately struck by the number of beautiful paintings and Arab heritage artifacts hanging on the walls or set beautifully in a corner. A Japanese volunteer is helping her prepare for an exhibition of Palestinian and Jordanian traditional costumes to be held in Japan next year, and the task is, to say the least, colossal. Looking through the rooms with piles of beautifully embroidered dresses, silver jewelry, and artifacts I can't help but exclaim: how can you figure out what to send out to an exhibition?? She brushes away my question with a smile and asks us for what we would like to drink. Our first question was, "how did you start on such a painstaking endeavor?" I didn't start out wanting to own a collection; it was a number of circumstances along my life that sent me in this direction. When I was young growing up in Bethlehem I remember that our city was a central market place for the neighboring villages, and village women would come every Saturday and I would go to the market with my mother and wonder at the beautiful dresses they were wearing.

They would sell their food products and buy threads and fabrics and then walk back to their village. Soon there started in Bethlehem an embroidery and weaving business with Bethlehem women embroidering to sell the village women. This was in the late 40s.
When I had to go to school my mother insisted on sending me to boarding school in Ramallah, the Quaker Friends School where I spent 7 years. Ramallah was also a traditional market center. I remember women embroidering even in the bakery as they were waiting for their food to be baked. On my graduation from school I received two embroidered dresses as a graduation present and they were the first in my collection.
I later went to college for one year and when I returned in 49 - 50 everything had changed. The people I knew from the villages were thrown out of their homeland to make place for Jewish settlements and the establishment of Israel. They were dispossessed of their homes and life and were living in refugee camps now. I felt the threat of this beautiful culture being lost, so I started to collect what they were selling to survive (even though at that time they weren't selling a lot). After 1967 I started collecting like crazy because the refugees started selling that way and foreigners were buying the dresses and cutting them up to make into chair covers or cushions.
I came to Amman after I got married and to me at the time the society was very "closed" compared to that in Beirut where I had been studying for the past five years. So I drowned myself in my family and this life-time project of mine. I realized then that it is not just about collecting dresses, there are head-wear, jewelry, etc… I also started meeting with specialists from all over the world and as I helped them with their research I learnt a lot. It was at that point that I started collecting documentation and life stories as well from women and writing them up in my copybook.
For example, I learnt that before 1948 life skills were handed to girls from their mothers and mentor-women as they started training on embroidery, at the early age of 11 or 12. Girls were initiated into womanhood throughstory-telling and embroidery.Women would sit together in the afternoon, embroider, and talk about everything from cookery to politics to sex. When girls were allowed into this circle they became women.

Stories are what make us, and if these stories are lost, eventually we as a society will be lost too. There is a big gap nowadays between mothers and children because stories are not exchanged. Mothers in this region went silent after 1948 and 1967, and no more stories were related. A schism resulted and the gap continues to grow.

To find out anything about the time before 48 all you need to ask is about the wedding, and the woman then can start telling you everything about her life. For the wedding a woman would prepare a "jhaz" which would consist of a variety of embroidered dresses (mostly embroidered by her) and they would be the dresses for life. Economy and life were centered around the wedding. Even the poor woman would make beautiful embroidered dresses; it was not a sign of wealth by necessity.

We talked a bit about my upcoming wedding and wedding dress, and Widad agreed to help me design the dress based on traditional dresses. "But will your mother-in-law accept? She asked… "you must take good care of your mother in law," she advised me, "you've taken away her son, that's not easy to accept." How many mothers have given this advice to their daughters for years, and how many today would give this advice??? I wonder…Creating Memories
Rania Kamahwi grows out of memory to create a new culture. She is creating a space as a woman in a much more conservative place than the surrounding countries by breaking the new ground for classical and contemporary dance in Jordan. She has established two dance schools for children in Amman; the first at the Haya cultural center and the second at the Performing Arts Center (Noor al Hussein Foundation) which aims to "utilize culture and the performing arts in promoting educational and social issues". Kamhawi is deputy director of PAC in charge of dance assisted by two teachers, one Jordanian and the other Russian.Rania studied in the UK, decided to escape to a warmer place so she moved to live and work in Portugal between 1985 & 87. She could have stayed in Portugal and she could have gone to Canada but she decided to come back to Jordan in 1988.

Do I regret coming back to Jordan? Yes and No. Sometimes the lack of competition makes me feel that I live in an island. But if I stayed abroad I would have been only teaching talented children the techniques of dancing, whereas here in Jordan I also have the opportunity to be part of the development of a dance movement that will give children and youth the opportunity to explore what dance has to offer, not only aesthetically but as a means to tackle social issues concerning their life, freely and creatively.
What we do here is more than teach the techniques of dance. Yes we want them to become good dancers but we also enhance their personalities, boost their confidence, and we help them become better communicators in a society that is not very tolerant of women nor of dance.
Dance for me in this context is about cultural sensitivity, discipline, and creating a breakthrough in people's perceptions of the body. My journey, and therefore that of my students, has been a journey of exploring our rich culture and heritage. In addition to training and performing in classical dance, I try to add to folklore dance more technique to improve the quality and standard of performance. For example, in choreographing a piece to Um Kulthoum's "Inta Omri", I rediscovered the complex rhythms and beauty of classical Arabic music, language, and poetry. In utilizing contemporary dance to that piece I felt that it revived the music and the words in the ears and hearts of the younger generation who were able to identify with it more in its new context.
My role here extends beyond being a dance teacher for over 130 girls and boys. I am their role model and mentor; many come to me for advice and confidence. Their love and trust is a relationship that I cherish and respect.

We all have our unique life and circumstances, where and when is the course of our life decided? Is it by class, or family or friends? Is it one right decision or one wrong decision which sets the wheels in motion? Can it ever be turned back?

Shaping memories

Maha El khatib, director of the Jordan River Foundation, a prominent Jordanian NGO sponsored by Queen Rania al Abdulla, was delighted at the prospect of being connected to two creative artists like Rania and Widad.For a woman who started her life in the government (ministry of planning) and moved through a private sector consulting firm into heading the public sector reform, I thought she was a very good folk dancer… where did that come from?

I learnt dabkeh at school. The dream of my life was to be part of a dance group. My dad said:"Listen, a dance group, I don't think that suits me. You can dance at home, with your brothers, but that's it." The only public dance group at the time was Alia dabkeh group, and people had the impression that if girls dance with men and travel abroad then they must be disreputable. This is how they kill art in this country.

But how did you manage to enter the public sector with such force?

I was one of three people (two other young men) privileged in that when we graduated we were empowered through the government system, only because Reema Khalaf was there. We graduated in the same year and went to work in the ministry of Planning which was, and still is, a non-typical government ministry, so the opportunities for exposure for young MA graduates like ourselves was great. We had many good coincidences: Reema Khalaf was our director, and she is someone who has a rich experience combined with an ethical system that allows her to develop those around her, she doesn't climb on people's backs, on the contrary. The second coincidence was that we were working with her in the research and planning department in the ministry of planning at a time when there were two major IMF and World Bank projects developed and she was in charge. We were given exposure and training. But most of all she empowered us by having confidence in us. When someone who has such a great experience trusts you and gives you credit for your work it is incredible. It gives you confidence and responsibility. This is important at the beginning of our professional path. The model is very important when you are building your character, either you lose your confidence or you catch it. Unfortunately there are few models and opportunities are very selective and not accessible to everyone.
You see this is not a democratic story. Reema khalaf made a choice to work with the three of us, others were totally alienated. There is a screening system from the beginning which allows for the development of very few people and the rest remain undeveloped and are not given opportunities. Now that I am managing some 400 people I see what Reema saw at the time: some people just "sparkle" around you, and I think they will grow by themselves, they have internal drive. If you can expand this circle I think that you can be a more democratic leader. This is what I'm trying to do. For this you need a lot of patience.

Tell us about your wedding and Jhaz?

I hate to remember my wedding. I didn't feel I had a wedding; it was for my father and Sari's father. It was a big wedding and nothing related to my character. I didn't have a Jhaz, I refused, why, I asked, do you think I don't have any clothes? I was sick at the time too, and didn't feel anything. I saw my wedding on video and I hated it.

Most of us get trapped in the "dailyness" of our lives, we tend to leave our passion behind or we become victims of worries and inner fears, unable to make the jump and take the risk.

But with these three women, this does not seem to be the case. Looking back at the time we spent with them, and their words, we are left with the impressions of Passion and patience, a role model that inspired them and gave them direction when they needed it, and a family that was not a distraction but rather opened up opportunities for them to explore their potential to its full limit. All three are not only inspiring "teachers" but also great 'learners". They each had different options at a certain point in time, different paths, and each one took the most difficult one and decided to follow through despite the hardships.

My dream is for my children to help me start a foundation and establish a museum to ensure the continuity of my work; I don't want this heritage to remain here with me, nor to be lost after I'm gone. (Widad Kawar)

My dad was my role model. He encouraged me to return to Amman because he was convinced that I could do an impact in Jordan. (Rania Kamhawi)

The presence of a model doesn't necessarily mean that things will happen spontaneously. You need a model and an opportunity, and neither one are present in our life democratically. (Maha El Khatib) Serene Huleileh - Rana Safadi

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