Vivian Ronay is a freelance photojournalist based in Washington, D.C.
When a photojournalist follows a story, particularly in a city not her own, she often travels within the bubble of a specialized topic of interest. And so it has happened with my many visits to Jordan in pursuit of the ongoing changes in the Bedul Bedouin's transitions to modern life in Petra. My visit in the spring of 2003 also brought me to Amman. There I attempted to explore life in a modern Arab city, particularly as it is experienced by professional women of various ages and walks of life.
I will profile the women according to approximate stages in their lives. What became apparent as I searched for professional women is that there are few average, middle-class families in Amman. This story took me to the upper classes of Amman's society, because that is where the professional women of all ages are situated.
Maysam Ibrahim Bisharat is a 19-year-old fine arts student at Reading University in England. She drove us to a horse club where she trains for riding competitions. Maysam comes from an affluent, educated Christian Arab family; her mother studied in Italy and her father in California. English is spoken at home. She writes poetry in English and showed me her self-published book of poems and drawings. Walking down the street in any Western city, she, like all the women I met, would fit in easily. Maysam is a stylish and beautiful young woman who started riding when she was seven. She has traveled with the Jordanian national team as well as on her own for competitions. She says she paints, plays the piano, and is a salsa dancer. She has been dancing for five years and considers her ability to be of professional standard.
Maysam told me how important it is to understand different cultures as well as "our own history." She mentioned how attached she was to "our king." Because Arabic poetry and literature are well known, she is contemplating changing her major from fine arts to creative writing and coming to the United States to study. She is also starting to write poetry in Arabic, which she says is much harder for her than in English.
A successful journalist
Mahasen al-Eman is the classic, cigarette-smoking newspaper editor from central casting. She has been a journalist for twenty-seven years and in 1994 was the first woman to become chief editor for the weekly Al Belad newspaper. Born in Jerusalem and educated in Pakistan, she is married to a retired Jordanian army officer. She has two daughters. Women in the Arab world keep their own last names, but Mahasen has taken her husband's name to honor his support for her professional life.
In the beginning of her career, she says, it was very difficult for her. There was a great deal of jealousy from her male colleagues. In the news business in the United States, American women were rising through the ranks and encountering similar difficulties. In the United States, however, women had the federal government's muscle and antidiscrimination laws in place. Perhaps the globalization of Western culture has made the path of women who have followed in Mahasen's footsteps ultimately easier.
In 1999 Mahasen left her position at the weekly and started the Arab Women's Media Center to help train Jordanian women for journalism careers. Her privately owned and operated center is located in central Amman and also has a Web site. She leads workshops all over Jordan because her effort is to educate young women for professional life. To pursue a journalistic career in Jordan one has to know computer skills, and therefore they are taught to women in her center.
She is working hard to foster democracy through the free press. She says that the government controls the press in Jordan. I asked Mahasen about access to the Internet, which is seemingly very open, and she explained that the elite do have free access; they are not a threat to the government. The rich, of course, own the media companies, and it is in their interest to maintain the status quo. "Our democracy is artificial," she comments. "Its superficialities are designed to make the Americans and English happy." Censorship governs radio, TV, and the print media. Mahasen believes the real threat to the government is in fact injustice.
In addition to her work in journalism and current efforts to educate women and foster democracy, Mahasen is attempting to do something about the significant problem of violence against women, particularly in family settings. She has created a simple booklet with drawings to clarify the issues and alternatives for men and women. This extra effort puts Mahasen into the extraordinary category of a true citizen of the world, and she received the first Knight Fellowship awarded to an Arab woman in 2002.
A commercial photographer
Jan Kassay is the preeminent commercial photographer in Jordan. She began her photography education in the United States in 1984, working toward an associate degree outside Washington, D.C. Her serious work began during a supervised study course doing fine art photography with a large-format camera. She won a competition at the Washington Art Directors Club (after no award had been given for two years for lack of quality) and began the commercial phase of her photography with a brochure for donors to the Kennedy Center.
Jan is a member of a preeminent Jordanian family with close ties to the royal palace. Her ancestors were Muslims in Russia who came to Jordan several generations ago after suffering religious persecution. Her mother was a painter who always was resentful that custom did not allow her to study art abroad. Jan was sent to boarding school in Jerusalem at the age of seven. This was quite customary for girls of upper-class families in Jordan. The Roman Catholic school was "very tough," but she learned French at a young age. When war started in 1967 she was shipped to England to continue her education at age seventeen. There she studied business, which has certainly aided her in her entrepreneurial career as a commercial photographer. She says she is "instinctively" well organized.
After school in England she joined the duty free shop franchise, training in Paris. Her first venture was creating greeting cards with Middle Eastern themes, which were sold by mail order. She went to Vienna as part of her job and met her former husband there. The marriage brought her to Washington in the 1980s. After her success in the Art Directors Club competition, she did some photography for the Ragusa chocolate company and created a calendar published by Thomason Grant.
When her marriage ended, Jan returned to Jordan with her children. She was now the sole support for all of them. All three boys have since gone on to excellent colleges in the United States, with one continuing his mother's interest in the arts by attending the Rhode Island School of Design. Jan knows that she has raised the standard of photography in Jordan and that she "has the biggest commercial accounts" in the country. She says that when companies ask her for her portfolio, she directs them to the advertising on billboards around Amman. She works primarily in large format, although she does some medium-format work. In the major luxury hotels, her artwork is on the walls in all the best suites. She buys her film--and gets film developed--in England, as do other photographers in Jordan.
I dropped in on Jan during a work session while she was shooting a model for a major cosmetics company. She was surrounded by a stylist, assistants, and the general hubbub and tension that envelop a major commercial shoot. She was the calm amid this whirlwind. I asked whether her business had been hit by the worldwide recession. Jan's answer was "What recession?" Her work ethic is typical of that of successful photographers in the West. She says her clients appreciate her dedication and commitment to top-level excellence: "I give it 100 percent."
It was hard to ask Jan about women's issues; for her, there has been no other way than to create the life she has now. She looks back in virtual disbelief at her former concerns with clothing and domestic arrangements. She takes time out for personal stress relief by going to the Dead Sea for relaxation and travels to the United States and elsewhere to visit with friends. She is living life to the fullest, with a high-pressure career and the success and recognition that come with it. My impression was that, although this was not in her original life plan, she could not be happier.
A well-known artist
The home of the artist Nawal Abdullah is famous in Amman. The living rooms and dining area are best described as European high-modern. A French interior design magazine has even featured her home in an article. The main room is open and airy. Her artwork covers many of the walls.
Nawal grew up in Amman but traveled, as her father was in diplomatic service. Her family went to England when she was thirteen, so she had a Western education and went to the Academie des Belle Artes. Despite this experience, when discussing the politics of the Middle East, she expressed many of the anti-American/anti-Israel views I heard during the first days of the U.S. war in Iraq, even arguing that the September 11 disaster was much more likely to have been planned and executed by Jews than Arabs.
Nawal believes there has been a "quiet revolution in Amman," saying there is now a greater acceptance of the arts in Jordanian life. She is married to an architect and so has found a partner who understands art and design. He is very honest in his assessment of art. "He is my balance," she says. Her family travels frequently, and she feels at home wherever she goes. Most important is her spirituality, because it has made her aware of the "meaning of the moment, the now, of being and of the meaning of aware."
Light plays a very important part in her life. Nawal's art is inspired by the "inner light, the force that gives you creativity. Without it," she says, "there is nothing." She experiments quite a bit; landscapes and portraits come out of memory rather than from sittings. "My art is an evolvement of my life," she says. "It reflects the environment, hardships, politics, joy, and sadness."
Nawal has found spirituality by creating her paintings, which have been influenced by de Kooning and Modigliani. She has had shows all over Europe and the Middle East. Regarding the status of women, she believes that if you are "liberated inside, nothing can stand in your way."
This seems to be a good description of all the women I interviewed in Amman. Indeed, they were very strong in their self-image. To varying degrees they were modest about their careers or the quality of their work; without exception, however, they were forceful about their determination to succeed and credited one or both of their parents for giving them the strength to begin their professions. Many also credited their husbands, something we rarely hear in the United States. Often these women spoke of their hardworking mothers, whose example made their own success possible.
A retired economic consultant
Taman el-Ghul is an economic consultant. She was born in a village near Jerusalem when the West Bank was still integral to Jordan's dominion. After high school in Amman, Taman got her M.A. at St. Andrew's in Scotland and started her career working in the Central Bank of Jordan doing research. She married a doctor and has had three children. This family life was only possible with the employment of domestic help, just as child care is handled in upper-middle-class families in the United States.
Taman moved on to the Ministry of Planning by taking a written exam and interviews, not through wasta (the Arabic term means "connections" or "pull," denoting the way much is done in the Arab economic and political culture). At the ministry she was in charge of European cooperation with the private sector, basically doing research on trade issues. She also worked with the United Nations in Vienna.
After a lifetime spent studying her country's economic strengths and opportunities, she believes most strongly in education. As she puts it: "Educated manpower is Jordan's oil." In Jordan, education is compulsory up to the tenth grade. The government invests significantly in the education of teachers, and parents have sacrificed health care to icrease educational opportunities for their children.
In 1997 Taman was appointed to the Ministry of Industry and Trade to lead Jordan's effort to join the World Trade Organization. "You have to do it," King Hussein told her. Taman was in charge of the entire project. All countries desiring to join the WTO must adhere to guidelines regarding government services and intellectual property. Taman was required to work with all government ministries as well as the private sector; she had to travel extensively, primarily to the United States. She explains that her job was extremely difficult and also required translating and explaining international laws for the Jordanian Parliament's consideration and approval. Her task was successful, and Jordan has become a model for other countries on how to meet this challenge. King Hussein presented her with a decoration for this effort.
Now women can be found doing every kind of job. Taman says that this progress in Jordan "is dear to my heart. For me, it was a fight; now there are more opportunities. Jordan is full of active women." Today, women encounter barriers to their advancement "only" at the most senior levels of professional life, but she claims that they still have to prove their competency more than men do. When men rose above her, she says, "I didn't let them put me off. You have to be persistent. Men can be very patronizing."
When she was young, her family permitted her to go to St. Andrew's because there was no university at the time in Jordan. She came from a village and although that environment generally doesn't lead to a professional life for women anywhere in the world, her father believed in education for her. Taman's brother did raise some objections but "I was stubborn enough to do it." She doesn't think she has really changed much since those early years.
In June 2000, Taman became minister of social development. This was a different line of work from her previous career. As she puts it, she "went from trade to aid." She dealt with needy people, not just poverty, throughout Jordan, confronting family issues such as broken homes and dealing with the needs of the disabled and elderly. She observes that "economic poverty is an evil thing." Based on her experience in the economic sector of the government, she worked to develop links with other ministries and NGOs to alleviate poverty. Social development rather than social welfare was her goal.
Taman retired in September 2002 and now accepts work as a private-sector consultant in economics. She says her husband has been a great support to her and that she couldn't have accomplished all that she has without his and their children's assistance.
Marie-Claire Marroum owns and manages the Kashmir and al Argeelah restaurant. She was born and raised in Amman. Marie-Claire says she was "just a housewife and volunteer with two children, now eighteen and twenty." Her ancestral family was Roman Catholic and lived in Jerusalem, a rare breed indeed now in Amman. (Most Christian Arabs are Eastern Orthodox.)
Her husband bought her a 60 percent interest in the restaurant almost as a joke in 1993. After the first Gulf War, though, it was their bread and butter. I ask how she had turned this restaurant into a successful enterprise, and she comments that it is "common sense and general experience." In 2001 she bought another 20 percent and since then has become sole owner. "It's been slavery," she admitted, because of the long hours and the supervision of the staff, accounts, and supplies.
She continues her charity work at the King Hussein Medical Center in the occupational therapy department and also acts as a liaison between sponsors and the center. Prior to managing the restaurant, she had a career as a translator. She wanted her sons to have the best education in Jordan, and her work paid for the most expensive private school.
Education is important in her family; her sister, for example, is a professor in the United States, with doctorates in theology and physics. Marie-Claire says successful work "is a beautiful thing--it changes one's whole personality." Perhaps the restaurant showed her the value of what she had been doing all along but hadn't identified as "success" without the monetary compensation.
All the issues that these Jordanian upper-class women have dealt with are typical of the concerns of every woman grappling with family, self- identity, workplace discrimination, and general feminine and feminist concerns. Once a woman has access to education and some monetary fluidity, self-expression through work becomes axiomatic. Freedom from domestic and other forms of violence is another part of the equation. Interestingly, the women I interviewed all spoke very forcefully about what they believed in: the work they were dedicated to and their own motivation for their lives and goals.
The only women who were modest in their self-description were the oldest and youngest. Taman el-Ghul, who played a central role in bringing Jordan into the WTO, was simple and quiet, describing her hard but very successful road on Jordan's behalf. She could rest on her well-deserved laurels. Maysam, on the other hand, a girl still in college, was firm but unassuming when talking about her life and achievements. Her view toward her future, however, was unlimited. I was impressed that the women's revolution, which has found its way to this corner of the world quite recently, continues to prove perhaps the most profound social transformation of the last century.…