Category Archives: Jordan

Defining Democracy

Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach…” — Alexander de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America.

Published in Huffington Post

On a typical weekday, an ordinary woman from Hempstead, New York taught me an extraordinary lesson on the meaning of democracy. I sat in awe, staring at an elderly American woman with a colored knitted wool cap who could barely walk. She went up to the podium and demanded a playing slide be placed for children in her neighborhood. Of course, it wasn’t so much the request that left me speechless but the notetaking, the nodding, the necessity of being heard by decision-makers, representatives and citizens of that town, who acknowledged her request. For a moment, this old lady’s voice was heard.

It is true that the ‘culture’ of democracy is not always fully practiced in America. Evidence suggests music was played at ear-splitting levels to “humiliate, terrify, punish, disorient and deprive detainees of sleep” during interrogation. Moreover, Farmingville, Long Island was a scene of the highly publicized racist stabbing of 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero. However, there is a search for truth, discussion and debate–a ‘culture’ that promotes this. There can be no truth, or even a search for truth, without free discussion and related freedoms of inquiry of thought and opinion.

Although the word ‘reform’ is heard in countries like Jordan, a deep gap remains between what is said and what is seen. Despite being a small Middle Eastern country that continues to live up to its reputation as a mediator and a safe haven between its troubled neighbors, the ‘culture’ of democracy must include profound moments for ordinary citizens. Representation must be as memorable as the town hall meeting I attended.

The fifth Parliamentary elections will be held in Jordan this November. In the absence of true political reform and understanding of political choice and accountability, Jordanians may vote for a relative from their tribe, despite knowing little about a candidate’s policies or values. And for some voters, who are mostly apathetic, a small portable heater is all a candidate needs to win their vote. Policies are lost in a meal of rice, pine seeds and meat that triumph over a candidate’s vague policies or lack of coherent messages. Parliament does not represent the people if the people do not vote on values and public policies.

It is difficult to see signs of true reform in this year’s elections and I hope that Jordanians will look beyond the banners that dress the city. It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of choice. In fact, I have voted in nearly every election, so far. Nevertheless, I am wholeheartedly disenchanted with an elected Parliament that votes to put journalists on trial and a Parliament that cancels sessions because not enough elected officials bother to show up. The latest lassez-faire approach by Parliamentarians led to its own demise; the King dissolved it a few months ago. Since 2001, hundreds of temporary laws imposed by the government were implemented in Jordan. Some promoted economic liberalization and women’s rights that have benefited the country, while others such as the 2001 Public Gathering Law–if a permit is denied for a gathering, it cannot be appealed–have effected civil liberties. However, moderates admit that an elected Parliament would not have passed the progressive laws. The government in the past drafted liberal press and publication laws, yet the elected Parliament demanded the arrest of journalists based on so-called ‘press crimes’.

A democratic ‘culture’ creates an understanding of an individual’s rights while simultaneously recognizing the concept of citizenship. A former government official recalled a story of an elderly colleague who told him offhandedly, “I hope to become a minister and after a week they can fire me. I don’t care. I will always be known as a minister and people will always have to respect me.” He eventually became a minister. At an ‘Honor’ Killings conference held in November by a local research foundation, a Parliamentarian raised his hand to speak. He read off some notes. His voice becoming louder, angrier while ignoring the studies being presented, he finally dismissed the whole concept of a conference on ‘honor’ killings. As he was storming out, a member of Jordan’s forensic team stood up and said, ‘Don’t you want to listen to a reply to your comments? You just want to speak but not listen?’ The Parliamentarian walked out.

I am, in general, an optimistic person. Optimism is a much better choice. The Middle East, however, remains stagnant and stubborn, reckless and reclusive. And there is a fine line between optimism and denial: the difference between cleaning the dirt, and hiding it. Until we begin the fundamental process of creating a ‘culture’ of choice, ownership, leadership, critical thinking and creativity, we will continue hiding the dirt. In the absence of such cultural traits, I have come to conclude that work ethics cannot be acquired on the job. Democracy is an evolving culture. It begins at home–choosing activities, respecting other opinions, food preference. It evolves at school–creativity, critical thinking, analysis.

What is our political culture? I try hard to search for this ‘culture’ of democracy. It is scarce and sporadic like an unfinished work of art. It may be in a 140 character tweet with a #JO for Jordan, a literacy program for street children or in the excitement of a talented violinist. It is seldom seen in a big place here. Sometimes, I wonder if we will reach a point where the meaning of democracy is not only political but also cultural, intertwined in the decisions we seek and make in our relationships and activities. When we hear that democracy is a journey, I believe this is the journey of which they speak. Elections are not. They are the end results, and much is lost in between. When I look back at that winter day in New York, I realize it was a silent epiphany for me. For Americans in the room, it was politics as usual. It was already embedded in their daily life.

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Jordanian Orphanages, the Minister of Social Affairs and the Media

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Written by Daoud Kuttab*

7bir.com

Orphanages are notorious the world over for being a very sensitive place. Losing one or both parents is a shocking and highly emotional condition. Having the same young parentless children living away from the warmth of a natural home produces even more trauma and tends to make such children more vulnerable.

It is therefore highly troubling when one discovers adults and even fellow orphans physically and sexually abusing such defenceless children with very few deterrents. This was one of the findings that a pair of Jordanian investigative journalists working for months under the supervision of the ARIJ team discovered. The journalists’ two-page report appeared in the independent daily Al Ghad on December 25, 2009. Reports supervised by ARIJ are screened and approved by a competent lawyer before being presented for publication.

The troubling report was based on hours of interviews with 20 present or former residents in Jordan’s 27 homes (four of which are run by the government). It was also based on a survey of 50 persons who have gone through the system, sworn and signed testimonies from abused children, medical records and documentation corroborating these allegations. Many of the allegations including one case of death due to negligence, beatings, sexual harassments and rape took place in past years. And while the system has improved there is clearly much to be learned from the previous and some of the continuing problems facing these helpless children.

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Governance and Democracy

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By Nermeen Murad

The newly appointed Prime Minister Samir Rifai was quoted as saying that he will take the time necessary to make a decision on the makeup of his team. He was also quoted as saying that he is consulting select experts for the formulation of a strategy that would translate His Majesty King Abdullah’s clear requirements of this government.

Common citizens of Jordan, I believe, also have much to tell the new prime minister. Their perception of the current situation and their aspirations for the future, in my opinion, may be much more telling at this stage than the advice of technocrats, politicians and wannabes eager to secure a place in the much coveted Cabinet of tomorrow.

It is precisely because the opinion of citizens matters so much that prime ministers or presidents are usually elected or seek the support of a parliamentary majority to legitimize their representation and authorization to take on this seat of power.

In so many ways, elections give prime ministers a power of attorney from the people to act on their behalf and dispense with their wealth and property – and therefore their future – as they see fit.

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Great cartoon on bureacuracy

Take a look at Emad Hajjaj’s cartoon on   bureaucratic procedures:

(VERY rough translation: No, I don’t want to rob the bank, I just want my paycheck without signing 5 times in red ink then with blue ink, without my national ID and ID numbers, my name (mine, father, grandfather, great grandfather, etc), without standing in line for hours, without computer glitches, without authenticity, without stamps, just give me my pay check, give me my paycheck!)

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Arab investigative journalism conference this week

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AMMAN – More than 200 Arab journalists are convening in Amman on Friday to discuss ways of enforcing quality in-depth journalism under the motto, “From Arabs to Arabs”.

Supported by the expertise of veteran international journalism professors, reporters and editors from 12 Arab countries are participating in the three-day conference, organised by the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) network.

Among the keynote speakers are Charles Lewis, executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and founder of the Centre for Public Integrity in the US; South Africa’s Mondli Makhanya, chief editor of The Sunday Times; and former BBC “HardTalk” host Tim Sebastian.

The event will also feature presentations by 16 out of over 75 Arab journalists who have produced investigative reports through ARIJ on human rights, miscarriage of justice, sexual abuse and pollution, among other issues, in ARIJ’s eight countries of operation: Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain and Palestine.

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Jordan’s Rainbow Street Living

Somewhere Over On Rainbow

Published in Living Well Magazine

By Rana F. Sweis

November, 2009

Decades after it first opened, customers still flock to Awni supermarket on Rainbow Street in Jabal Amman. The shop owner, Mohammad Swenda, says for many years the neighborhood was quiet, his customers familiar, and every day was predictable. But, in the past few years, change arrived drastically for this relatively historic and calm part of the capital.  In 2005, the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) identified Jabal Amman as a “heritage attraction point.” The major transformation for Rainbow Street began with the JD2 million renovation of the 1,500 meter-long pathway. “Rainbow Street is a distinguished neighborhood that includes prominent historic homes,” says Fawzi Masad, deputy director of Public Works at the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM). “Due to the historical significance of the area, it was our duty to create a strategy in order to revive the neighborhood.” For some businesses in the area, the revival has generated more income. “We have had our ups and downs through the years, but we’ve been doing well lately,” says Median Al Jazerah, owner of Books@Cafe, who explains that when the café first opened on Omar Bin Al Khatab street in 1997, the narrow one-way road was dark and empty. “This place has become a haven because deep down, everyone yearns for their own history.”

Due to the area’s historical significance and identity, any permits submitted to GAM have to receive approval from the archeological division. “The important aspect we have to remember about Rainbow Street is it has always been diverse both socially and architecturally,” explains Firas Al Rabady, head of the archeological division committee at GAM. “At the end of the day, we cannot accept development that will only result in destroying the identity and soul of this place.”

Rainbow Street, named after the now demolished Rainbow Cinema, was one of the first settled areas in Amman. As the capital continues to expand, the avenue remains a connecting line between East and West Amman. Today several families sit down eating sandwiches on a newly built park with benches on the first circle. Young men gather with friends. After the sun sets, people sit in café’s, some prefer to sit on the sidewalks along Rainbow Street. Old Arabic music blares from inside an old café’, while a whiff of loud American hip-hop music can be heard from a car passing by. Along the road, young people on the left drink tea with mint in old shaped vintage glasses, others drink lattes and frappes they bought from a new café’ nearby. Cars zoom by, some honk while waiting for traffic to move; the sound of loud firecrackers startles some passersby.

For some residents, the development in the area, including the opening of several new cafés, restaurants, shops and an all-day Friday souk is presenting a host of problems they never faced before. Parking congests the area, visitors park their cars in front of homes – privacy has become a concern. Noises from pedestrians strolling by and honking cars leave some residents sleepless at night. “We are suffering because this has become a noisy neighborhood. People peek into our gardens and at some point in the day we cannot leave our homes because it takes us hours to return due to traffic,” explains Ghassan Talhouni, who has lived in this area for 56 years.

Two years ago, Al Jazerah says he was forced to resort to providing valet service for customers. Store owners are required to pay parking fees as a prerequisite for opening, even if there are no specific designated parking spots in front of their premises. Two parking lots, including one at the beginning of first circle, provide space for less than 60 cars. Both residents and visitors say there are simply not enough parking spots in comparison to the number of places springing up. “We have complained,” says Talhouni. “I am not against development, but when you want to create a strategy and decide to implement it, you present it as a whole package – including where people are going to park their cars.” Fawzi notes that GAM converted the only empty land in the locality into a parking lot. “There is simply no more empty land in the neighborhood that can be converted into space for cars,” he adds. “The goal of the renovated plan for Rainbow Street is to make it pedestrian-friendly, and the use of private cars is discouraged, while public transportation is promoted.”

A group of local residents with a common aim of making a difference established the Jabal Amman Resident Association (JARA) in 2004. They endeavor to conserve the identity of Jabal Amman and manage the souk every Friday during the summer. “Over the years, some old homes were sold, others were abandoned and so, we wanted to preserve these buildings, and at the same time bring life back to this neighborhood,” says Khader Qawas, board member and treasurer of JARA. Parking, he explains, is a general problem in Amman, but more specifically in Jabal Amman. The souk opened in 2005, and each year more tables have been added. “Today, almost 5,000 people visit the market on Fridays, and on some days it can reach up to 8,000, so, we have an obvious problem with traffic and parking.” This summer, JARA received permission to use several school parking lots in the area. “I admit even that is not enough, we are trying to ease the problem at this stage,” Qawas explains.

Talhouni says one of the solutions to traffic jams and parking is to transfer the souk to downtown where a long street would be closed for pedestrians, “There would be ample space for even more people to sell products, not to mention additional parking spaces,” he explains. “You will still be reviving the area because downtown is so close, but at the same time you solve a problem and give people from all over Jordan the opportunity to sell their items and showcase their talents.”

Andrea Atalla moved to Jabal Amman a year ago and lives parallel to Souk Jara. Like Talhouni, she would prefer that souk Jara be moved to a non-residential area. “The music is loud in the evening, we don’t invite any guests on Friday nights in the summer, the traffic jam is horrible, it’s too loud and we can’t sit in the garden.” Some residents, she says, have complained for years. “In the evening, what you basically get are hooligans who are not allowed to go into the souk and instead sit on my car, yell, make problems and wander aimlessly in the street.” Her husband grew up in this area and says she fears what lies ahead for Rainbow Street. “I know the neighborhood is being revived and is appealing to investors,” she explains. “However, it is doing so precisely because of its identity, character and simplicity and it’s a big fear for me that the place will lose its charm.”

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Impressive Amman Website

Read more about Amman’s story on this impressive new site:

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Artist pushing limits teaching in the Middle East

Henri Doner-Hedrick stands next to her painting “Blindfolded Arab,” which was created as part of a conference on artistic reaction to the crisis in the Gaza Strip. “My work represents all Arab leaders in the surrounding countries putting a ‘blind eye’ to what was happening while women, children and innocent people were being used as human shields,” Doner-Hedrick says. “They were waiting for Obama to be elected in hopes that the Americans would do something.”

“I went over there with a lot of fear, not knowing anything about the culture,” she says.

The longtime Lawrence-area artist, a 56-year-old journeywoman lecturer at area universities, finally landed a full-time position — teaching at the New York Institute of Technology campus in Amman, Jordan. She started a year ago this week.

After a year of frustrations, triumphs and plenty of education — both students’ and her own — Doner-Hedrick is headed back to the Middle East this week with a renewed sense of purpose both as an educator and an artist.

“I really found my place in life,” she says.

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For ‘Amreeka’ Director, Life As Inspiration For Art

Cherien Dabis

Writer and director Cherien Dabis drew upon her own childhood experiences as a first-generation Arab immigrant growing up in the Midwest for her feature film Amreeka. The film explores the journey of a single mom and her teenage son as they emigrate from the West Bank to America during the first Gulf War. Amreeka has garnered high praise from both critics and audiences alike.

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Israel, Jordan Find Accord in Finding New Water Supplies

Jordan loses perhaps half of its water supply to leakage and illegal wells

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Controversial Projects Include Network Linking the Dead Sea and the Red Sea

Washington Post:

Water is a major source of contention in the Middle East, whether it is tension over Egypt’s concerns about Sudan’s management of the southern Nile or disputes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over shortages in the occupied West Bank. The water shortage is severe enough to upend some of the region’s traditional dynamics. Jordan and Israel are often pressured by Western nations and international organizations to cooperate in the name of Arab-Israeli peace. Water is one area in which pressure is running in the other direction, with the two pushing quickly on the Red Sea-Dead Sea connection while outside observers urge restraint.

Jordan now views the connection as central to the long-term stability of its water supply. Upset over the years spent discussing the project without concrete action, the country in the spring announced plans to proceed on its own. Israel has since said it would join its neighbor in an initial phase, even as the World Bank and environmental groups foresee perhaps two more years for studies to be completed before deciding whether the project should be built at all.

Read the article in the Washington Post


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