Category Archives: “My” Published Articles

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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Expose’: Prison Reform in Jordan. Is it Possible?


Published in Living Well Magazine. June 2009.

Despite negative perceptions about Jordan’s penitentiary system, officials say they want all prisons in Jordan to eventually become centers for vocational training and rehabilitation. Is change possible?

By Rana F. Sweis

When Um Dia’a speaks, her eyes squint and her voice is barely audible. Upon recalling the story that landed her in Jordan’s Juweideh Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, she regurgitates it quickly. “It is a story of theft that turned deadly,” she announces. “Poverty and debt pushed my brother and I to steal from a farm, but things went wrong and my brother killed a man.” Um Dia’a and her brother, also in prison, confessed to murdering a farm owner in Madaba.

Today, Um Dia’a spends her days in confinement – knitting, attending lectures, learning to bake pastries, and watching television. Though their first aim is to take away freedoms enjoyed within society, prisons are looking to new ways of development. Juweideh prison for women underwent renovation in 2000 to see it turn into a correctional and rehabilitation center (CRC) aimed at reforming character through exercise, work, training, and social care. “Change and reform continue to take place because we feel there is a need for it,” says Khaled AlMajali, director of CRC Training and Development. “We are not apart from the Public Security Directorate, but at the same time we are not only focusing on law enforcement, but rather on training individuals whose mentality is more aligned with rehabilitating.”

The white stone building of Juweideh’s CRC for women looks more like a two-story apartment building with a balcony and small rectangular-shaped windows. Guards stand inside and outside a large black gate. Cellular phones are not permitted. The parking lot is empty with only an ambulance on standby, while from a distance, a guard leaning on his rifle can be seen from the high-rise compound of Juweideh prison for men, which hosts almost 1,300 persons. Accommodating up to 450 inmates, the CRC for women  boasts 14 rooms, 450 beds, and 300 security officers. At present, the total number of prisoners held in Jordan is 7,834, of which 235 are women, this according to a May 7, 2009 daily report distributed by the Administration of the CRC.
“My main concern is to provide the best possible services to the women here and make sure they are safe,” explains Fatima Al Badarein, director of Juweideh CRC for women. “We think the reform that is taking place is a good step forward but much more needs to be done,” says Nisreen Zerikat, an advocate at the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) in Jordan. “Yes, there are activities that are being provided like baking and sewing, but we need to really focus on the rehabilitation process in the sense of psychological care, and to help individuals integrate back into society once they are out.” Prison is a part of any society and the way prisoners do time may also affect their lives after incarceration. “The truth is, nothing compensates for freedom, but while they are here we try to offer good services and protection,” says Al Badarein.

Finding a way to integrate back into society after being in a CRC or prison facility remains an obstacle for these men and women in Jordan, especially since some even face internment by their own families and society at large. “The perception of prisoners among Jordanians is they are deviant, criminals, and dangerous,” says Musa Sheitwi, a sociologist and director of the Jordan Center for Social Research. “It is even more so for women, and the stigma against them is greater,” he adds. “The perception is that she has done wrong morally and accepting her in society is very difficult.”

For many institutions and ministries, including the Ministry of Social Development (MoSD) who work on rehabilitation and reintegration into society, it remains a new and challenging concept. It is usually difficult for prisoners to become reacquainted with freedom, and at least a quarter of those who are released will commit an act that will lead them back to the prison or center. “Around 25 to 30 percent of those who are released from prison will return,” says AlMajali. “That is why we need to work on all fronts to make sure that they don’t commit a crime again.”

The most popular activity these days at the Juweideh CRC for women is learning how to make and bake desserts, which Um Dia’a participates in. “Prior to coming to the center, I didn’t know how to make anything,” says Um Dia’a, wearing a navy blue robe over her jeans. “I was illiterate, but now I am learning how to read.” She also admits to feeling anxious about returning to her poverty-ridden neighborhood and providing her five children with food and shelter. “At the CRC, there are many services,” she explains. “I want to be free, but I would be lying to you if I said I was not nervous about my future.”

Security and government officials all agree that if Jordanian society does not begin to change their attitude towards prisoners, giving them a second chance, their efforts will not completely succeed. “In cooperation with the Police Security Directorate we are trying to change the concept of prison as being a place solely for punishment to one that rehabilitates,” says Mohammad Khasawneh, secretary general of the MoSD. “On our part, we are accepting that concept more rapidly than the average Jordanian citizen, who perhaps still struggles to recognize that a prison can actually be a place for rehabilitation.”

The burden to step up the training process (including providing teachers and doctors) seems to be placed mainly on government agencies and the Police Security Directorate. “We do a lot of training, and we are trying our best to do our part, but there needs to be more effort on the part of civil society,” says AlMajali. A recent study conducted by the Higher Council for Science and Technology revealed that Jordan suffers from a shortage in mental health services, and finding mental health professionals who are willing to work with prisoners is even more difficult, admits Hatem Al-Azraai, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health. “It is a nationwide problem, but we are working on encouraging more Jordanians to specialize in this field and we are offering residency programs twice a year,” he points out.

When Um Dia’a talks about feeling guilty about participating in a crime, she also mentions her five children and begins to cry. “I rarely see my children,” she complains, having been at the center for five months now. “It’s not easy for my mother to come here, as she is an old lady and is the only one taking care of my children.” Things are progressing though; the MoSD opened a nursery inside the facility for women only recently, with Khasawneh remarking that, “After examining cases inside the prison, the idea of opening a nursery became something that we needed to do. By depriving the mother from her children, we would be depriving the child from healthy development, and in the end, the children are not to blame for their mother’s wrong-doing.”

Currently, five social workers take care of infants at the nursery, along with five security officers assigned with them as a precaution. There are women requesting to be reunited with their infants, and the only psychologist assigned to the CRC will assess whether they are mentally stable to be with their children. Indeed, sometimes children under three years old may find themselves in prison or CRC with a parent, especially when there are no extended family members to help. And, although some have lauded the creation of the nursery in Juweideh’s CRC, for others it raises concern. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) advises that infants should be accommodated with their mothers where possible, although, the environment is a totally unnatural one for a child. “The truth is even if it’s a rehabilitation center, it is not an environment for an infant or a child to be in,” says Yazan Abdo, an expert in development and education. “I would prefer to see the child or infant in an adjacent or nearby place where the mothers would spend time with them, but it would not be at the CRC.”

Worldwide, the goal of the first modern prisons was to enforce strict regulations, confinement, and forced and deliberate labor. It was not until the late 19th Century that rehabilitation through education and vocational training became the standard goal of prisons. Muwaqar 1, a prison in Jordan for men, was turned into a CRC only two years ago. The implementation of programs such as The Twinning Project at this facility, which includes the implementation of human rights principles and international standards, may determine the direction of reform elsewhere, with one of the main articles in this project including developing classification for prisoners. “Right now classification is implemented according to the crime,” proclaims AlMajali. “This is incorrect because not all who are convicted of theft or murder should be together,” he adds. “The personality of the prisoner, his integration into the center or prison, and overall behavior should be the determining factors.”

At the police training and development center on the outskirts of Amman, women in uniforms were attending a several day workshop on human rights and safeguarding prisoners. Not far from this training room, another workshop is taking place for higher-ranking male officers; Krista Schipper, a prison director in Austria and Irene Kock, a lead prosecutor at the Ministry of Justice in Austria, discuss short and long-term goals with them. They exchange ideas on procedures to release prisoners earlier, a change in the visit system, as well as infrastructure. Large flip-chart notes hang in front of the room, filled with answers and suggestions by the Jordanian high-ranking officers. In a parking lot outside the training center, police officers dressed in blue uniforms, helmets, and carrying clear shields with black rims, move in unison from left to right.

Back in the female training workshop, Abdullat is demonstrating the new technique of handcuffing from the front instead of the back of the body due to health reasons; the women are enthusiastic to learn the procedure. “Watch each step and tell your colleague if she is doing something wrong,” explains Abdullat. “Look at the angle she is standing – did she insert her finger between the handcuffs and the prisoner’s wrist to make sure there is enough blood circulation?” The women, mostly in their twenties and thirties nod enthusiastically. Suddenly the officer holding the handcuffs realizes she is standing too close to the woman she is handcuffing, causing her harm if the prisoner should become violent. “This is my first time at this,” she says looking at the other women sitting. “This is all new – I need more time and I will get it right.” The other officers encourage her to repeat the process from the beginning, and she succeeds the second time around. “Every time there is change, there is struggle and resistance,” says AlMajali. “Otherwise it is not really change.”

May 7, 2009

Facility Holding Most Prisoners (Sawqa)     2059 Individuals

Correctional and Rehabilitation Centers and Prisons (Total)    12 Facilities

Total  Men:  7834   Women: 235

Source: Jordan Correctional and Rehabilitation Centers (Administration)

NOTE: 6 months after this article was published incidents of police violence towards citizens including those detained at police stations seem to have increased. More specifically 3 incidents, 2 of them leading to death have been reported. This is a letter to the editor published in the Jordan Times.

November 18, 2009

Cause for Concern

The recently publicised cases of alleged abuse by Public Security Directorate (PSD) personnel are indeed a cause for serious concern. Notwithstanding the results of the investigations and associated legal processes currently under way, an in-depth and professionally conducted analysis of the inner workings of the PSD is needed to correctly pinpoint the causes of such alleged behaviour and recommend the necessary remedies to stop their reoccurrence.

The first major modernisation and reform programme at PSD started in the mid-1980s. The programme was initiated and driven by a forward thinking PSD director and his team who quickly and correctly realised that the three main tracks of the programme (manpower, equipment and regulatory) are totally integrated, complementary and their development should go hand in hand.

They also concluded that by delaying reforms in one track for any reason would have a detrimental effect on the remaining tracks.

The programme proceeded in full force as planned until the late 1980s or early 1990s, when two major obstacles crossed its path. One was internal (our own financial crisis of 1988) and the other external (the first Gulf war of 1990). Both obstacles had a severe and negative impact on the programme. Funding came to a standstill and focus shifted from internal law and order issues to external or regional ones, and remained so for quite a few years.

Once the general financial situation started to stabilise, the equipment-related track of the programme was restarted, but the other two lagged behind. This created a sizeable gap between the modern operational systems and equipment currently deployed at PSD, and the development in the training, psychological, basic human rights and legal background of PSD personnel assigned to interact with citizens and use such systems and equipment on daily basis.

Fresh reform efforts are now required on the manpower and regulatory tracks in order to bring them up to speed.

Maybe a qualified civilian will be considered for appointment as the next director of PSD in order to lead such an effort when the time for change arrives.
Vatche Dakessian,

18 November 2009

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American Military Interventions In Post 9/11 World

My second HuffPost contribution:

A year after the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, former President Bush’s national security strategy was clear: US interests triumph all else and international institutions would not hinder military actions deemed necessary. Therefore, when contemplating humanitarian interventions, the US would weigh the potential benefits–in terms of foreign lives saved–against the likely costs to the United States. Even if US strategic interests intertwine with internationally accepted humanitarian criteria for humanitarian interventions, it may have consequential effects on the notion of the ‘responsibility to protect.’

Throughout the 1990s, experiences such as Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor among others built a momentum towards the idea that governments had a “responsibility to protect” people suffering in complex humanitarian emergencies. However, according to experts like Thomas Weiss, author of ‘Military-Civilian Interactions’, the September 11th attacks and subsequent US led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, led to two world organizations: “The United Nations, global in members; and the United States, global in reach and power.”

The primary purpose in a humanitarian intervention must be ‘right intention’–to halt or avert human suffering, despite other motives intervening states may have. But the debate after September 11th, shifted to the right to intervene-to protect the intervening country’s people from a threat seen to be originating from another country. The debate shifted to self-defense. Samantha Power, author of ‘A Problem From Hell’, writes that since the September 11th attacks, the “U.S. government is likely to view genocide prevention as an undertaking it cannot afford as it sets out to better protect Americans.”

Security Council resolutions have authorized the use of armed forces led by US-led coalitions, rather than under the command of the UN. In a humanitarian intervention, the intervening states have the responsibility to rebuild. Since September 11th, none of the US interventions taken were primarily called humanitarian interventions, despite clear complex humanitarian emergencies. But Weiss points out the US led invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, turned primarily humanitarian. In 2002, a planned operation against Iraq began to surface. The Bush administration called on the UN to enforce its resolutions on Iraq or risk ‘irrelevance’. But military intervention without a UN mandate raises questions over a country’s motives and capabilities to rebuild in the post-conflict period. The implication of such a reality has also posed a dilemma for the notion of ‘neutrality’ once forces are deployed on the ground and raises concern among independent aid agencies.

Read it all…

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HuffPost: Worrying for America


This is my first published blog entry in the Huffington Post.

February 11, 2009

Recently I met with Majed, an elderly Arabic schoolteacher in Amman, Jordan. Not long ago, he taught me Arabic, and we still meet occasionally to talk about the media in Jordan. He lives in a small clay mud brick house in Amman and has 10 children. He asked me about my recent trip to the US. To my surprise, I found myself telling Majid that the confident, energetic America I had come to know during my college years in the States was almost unrecognizable. I told him that America is facing challenges–people are losing their homes, losing their jobs and millions can no longer afford health insurance. They elected a new President, I told him, to try to help them. As I spoke to the schoolteacher, President Obama’s themes of hope and change rung in my head. Images flashed through my mind of the thousands of young and old Americans lining the streets of Chicago hoping to be part of history. Majid shook his head in disbelief and said: “I will pray for them.”

During my trip to the U.S. in November, I was conscious of an uncomfortable role-reversal. In the past, I had become used to being accosted by Americans who want to talk to me about creating job opportunities for frustrated, unemployed Arabs. This time, American friends worried about losing their jobs turned to me for comfort.

I saw thousands of Americans lining the streets to attend what was ludicrously termed a “job fair” in New York. Bill, a college friend, told me job fairs are the new soup kitchens. Instead of speaking of the future, we ended up reminiscing about the ‘roaring’ 90’s. Today, Bill works at Citibank. I read that 50,000 Citibank employees will be laid off in the next few months. Everyday, I hope that Bill doesn’t lose his job.

I saw many homeless and scarred Gulf War vets sleeping on the crowded and cold corner of Columbus circle in Manhattan. I found myself comforting a store clerk at my favorite retail store because she had heard rumors that her store was closing down. The next day, I stopped to acknowledge a lonely flautist and a grungy guitarist in the subway. The open guitar case inviting donations sitting in front of him was empty. I assured an American friend, who left Jordan to study law in New York, that a new US administration will bring a sense of optimism. Then we found ourselves staring at the front page of the business section with a photo depicting young lawyers packing their bags and heading to Dubai.

At the neighborhood drug store, another American told me about his struggle to finish film school and his diminishing hope that images will make a difference in this world. The Fletcher family, who graciously invited me for Thanksgiving dinner in Long Island, gathered to gaze at a computer screen. The images were of palm-tree shaped hotels and an indoor ski resort in Dubai. Their enthusiasm reminded me of photos I saw of Disney World when I was a child in Jordan and, later when I was older, my impressions of Las Vegas.

On my visit to New York, I awakened every morning and promised the newspaper seller I would continue buying the print version of his newspaper. It hardly eased his worries as the newspaper industry continues to suffer unparalleled layoffs and diminishing revenue. I returned to an unexpected continuing boom in Jordan–a Middle Eastern country with scarce natural resources that is currently the second largest recipient of US aid in the world per capita next to Israel.

While American newspapers file for bankruptcy, a single Jordanian news website has already hit the million mark, surpassing both print and broadcast media in the country. As the American franchise restaurant Bennigan’s filed for bankruptcy this summer, Jordanian families exuberantly packed the newly built Bennigan’s in Amman. The restaurant remains open. And when Americans were Googling the address of their favorite neighborhood Starbucks to see if it was closing down, I was surprised to see three newly Starbucks springing in my Amman neighborhood.

On my last day in New York, a French-Jewish woman decided to tell me the story of her journey from France to New York before selling me a suitcase. “I work day and night here so my son can go to university,” she told me. “I don’t sleep often.” An Arab-American cab driver mentioned that in America at least he did not have to worry about access to hot and cold water or heating. “I am sure Americans will not starve. That is good, no?” Our conversation reminded me of a story I read on the debate brewing over the use of the SAT for college admissions. Only a few weeks later, I read that many young Americans will not even afford to go to college.

When I was called to speak on a panel regarding the Middle East at CUNY, a former CBS veteran correspondent told me she had traveled across the US but was convinced the best Sushi she has ever tasted was at a jazz bar in the Middle East.

I returned to Jordan a few weeks ago, and immediately noticed that local hip-hop concerts and standup comedy shows were selling out in Amman. The Mayor created the first ever standup comedy festival in the Middle East, showcasing up-and-coming comedic talent and encouraging more Jordanians to get involved in comedy. A representative from my graduate school and I met over lunch in Amman and wondered how the university might strengthen and support international alumni activities and programs. Could USAID in Jordan fund it? Then we looked at each other and laughed: American foreign aid would be returning to an American university.

If you’d like to leave any comments including your two cents on the state of the economy in Jordan or in the US, please feel free to do so in the Huffington Post under comments.


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Ending It All: Suicide in Jordan


Living Well Magazine, Jordan
Suicide in Jordan3





By Rana F. Sweis

Published in Living Well Magazine

February 2009

AMMAN-Mohammad Abdul-Nabi, 23, was found hung in his home by his 14-year-old brother. The young farmer was rushed to the hospital but was pronounced dead upon arrival. He decided to end his life because of a second failed marriage, explain his relatives. His story, like others similar to it, is shrouded in mystery and recorded only in snippets. And just like their short interrupted lives, information regarding suicide victims’ acts and their aftermath is scarce in Jordan. Like so many families who prefer to deny or forget the past, a person who knows a person tells a story of pain. 

 “When it comes to suicide cases in Jordan, we only get a glimpse, like a car whooshing by,” says Fayez Al-Fayez, Editor in Chief of Arabiya magazine and a popular social columnist. “We end up never knowing the reasons, we end up never knowing the whole story and no one wants to talk about it either.” Every year, one million people worldwide die by suicide, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics. Moreover, in the past 45 years suicide rates increased by 60 percent and is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 years. These figures do not include attempted suicide, which are up to 20 times more frequent than suicide.

WHO statistics reveal that suicide in Jordan and in the region remain low, but in-depth research remains inadequate. “Statistically suicide is not considered an epidemic problem in Jordan,” explains Hani Jahshan, a Forensic Pathologist. There are 35 to 40 cases of suicide in Jordan every year, and the age range is between 20-25, according to the National Center for Forensic Medicine. However, attempted suicide cases are not recorded, says Jahshan. “Research is lacking in this field, especially in terms of attempted suicide.” Emergency services in hospitals are not keeping records of suicide attempts, adds Jahshan.

Sultan, 39, stole a knife from a shop in Amman and stabbed himself in the stomach. Witnesses say the man was “desperate”. He did not die. He was taken to hospital where reports suggest he is in ‘critical’ condition. Just a few hours before he stabbed himself, family members saved Sultan. They found him wearing a noose around his neck. Suicide is ultimately an individual and often a private act. Biological, genetic, psychological, social and cultural factors may impact the risk of suicide in an individual. Domestic violence, for example, can trigger a suicide attempt. “Psychological abuse can take on different forms including humiliation, threats of divorce, blackmailing and physical abuse,” explains Walid Sarhan, a psychiatrist. “The psychological consequences will include anxiety, frustration, low self-esteem and suicidal attempts.” Other risk factors can include serious mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, childhood abuse, loss of a loved one and unemployment. “There is a lack of awareness about suicide,” admits Mohammad Khateeb, Police Security Department Spokesperson. “The truth is we still live in a tribal and conservative society that would rather not speak of suicide, which is forbidden in religion and brings shame to the family.” 

Another short news piece on suicide was published in Ammonews, a popular electronic news website. A 20-year-old woman jumped from the top of the fifth circle tunnel, according to traffic police and witnesses. The woman whose ‘love affair’ failed recently, prompted her to attempt suicide, reports suggest. She was still alive when she was rushed to hospital and an investigation took place.

Individual cases of suicide in Jordan that were published in the media—overwhelmingly in electronic media–illustrate that shame, economic hardship, examination failure, unrequited love, family’s objection to a marriage and other family disputes were the greatest risk factors. One of the only in-depth documents that shed light on suicide in Jordan is a 2001 dissertation entitled, A Sociological View of Suicide in Jordan written by Ismeel Aqili, a former graduate student at the University of Jordan. Based on cases he examined from 1982-1999, his study reveals more males than females commit suicide but more females attempt suicide. University graduates between the ages of 18 to 37 were more likely to commit suicide in Jordan. Most of the individuals who committed suicide in this age range were unemployed.

Police were able to convince a 17-year-old from jumping off a telecommunication building in Zarqa, reported Ammon. The young man found out he failed the Tawjahi exam. Witnesses and friends said the young man was afraid he would be punished severely by his family for failing the exam. “At the end of the day, I worry about our youth because I don’t believe they want to commit suicide. It is often a cry for help” says Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, Senator and Secretary General of the National Council for Family Affairs. “If they fail the Tawjahi [high school exam] for example, they may fear the family’s reaction.”

 People at risk of suicide can be treated. Oftentimes, it is due to the inability to cope as a result of an event or series of events that the person finds overwhelmingly traumatic or distressing. Psychotherapy and continued contact with a health provider can decrease the risk of suicide. Programs that address risk and protective measures are effective. Moreover, suicide has a profound effect on family, friends, and those associated with the victim. “I reported on a story of a mentally ill woman whose husband eventually divorced her,” explains Al-Fayez. One day her parents and daughter found her on the roof of their house, says Al-Fayez. She poured gasoline on herself very calmly and she lit herself on fire. She didn’t die. The victim was rushed to the hospital and died two days later. “What I saw is the effect it had on the family, the devastation,” he adds. “The siblings and her daughter were devastated.” While those who are under the age of 18 and attempt suicide have access to rehabilitation programs from the Family Protection Department, those who are over 18 have no institutional support, according to Khateeb. 

In Jordanian society, there is a great deal of social and religious stigma surrounding mental illness. Islam views suicide as a sin. The prohibition of suicide has also been recorded: “He who commits suicide by throttling shall keep on throttling himself in the Hell-fire, and he who commits suicide by stabbing himself, he shall keep stabbing himself in the Hell-fire.” In the sixth century, suicide became a Christian religious sin and secular crime. In 533, those who committed suicide while accused of a crime were denied a Christian burial.

Talking about feelings surrounding suicide promotes understanding and can greatly reduce the immediate distress of a suicidal person. “Is suicide a really big problem in Jordan? Are the numbers alarming? The answer is no,” says Khateeb, “However, I understand the concern among individuals and members of society at large regarding individuals who attempt suicide, where can they turn to for help?”

People who feel suicidal may fear expressing themselves, and may be reluctant to reach out for help. “The stigma of psychiatric illnesses is still very prevalent,” explains Sarhan. “A women, for example, who dares to consult with a psychiatrist could face the threat of divorce and deprivation from her children, although it is not legal, but women believe that.”

People often deal with stressful or traumatic events and experiences reasonably well, but sometimes an accumulation of such events, over an extended period, can push normal coping strategies to the limit.  Jahshan, like many others working with victims of violence and abuse, says that Jordan continues to lack skilled professionals in this field. “Those who provide counseling to victims of violence and abuse should consider cases of attempted suicide and provide them services as well,” says Abu Ghazaleh. “At the end of the day everyone has a role to play including all sectors of civil society.”

Jordan could go a long way by reducing the suicide rate by discussing ways to decrease suicidal tendencies. Providing protection programs is important. Shedding light on the issue can even prevent suicide cases. “Protection programs begin in our schools. There needs to be awareness campaigns, group therapy and individual counseling in schools,” says Abu Ghazaleh. “I believe there should be a more clear strategy on how to tackle this issue from different angles and address it in schools,” explains Abu Ghazaleh.

When forensic experts, doctors and members of various organizations wanted to begin combating family violence in Jordan, they turned to the media. In 2004, two forensic doctors presented statistics showing a dramatic increase in the number of abused children. “If this issue is not covered enough by the media, the children will not know there are people who are here to help them, and places they can turn to for help,” said Rabab al Qubaj, a specialist in the Jordan River Foundation. During that time, journalists present at the workshop asked members of organizations and others to play a role in giving them easier access to information. The journalists also pointed out hidden fears, about raising such taboo and sensitive issues, fearing repercussions.

Today, electronic media news websites such as Ammon ( and Saraya ( have taken a lead in shedding light on suicide in Jordan. Although suicide news segments in both news agencies are not covered in-depth, they do report individual cases. Ammon publishes statistics on the number of suicide cases per year in Jordan. They examine the reasons for each case, although there is little follow-up on the cases. Print and broadcast media in Jordan lags behind in both reporting and shedding light on suicide in Jordan. “Electronic media in Jordan is lifting the lid on many issues like suicide, and domestic violence,” explains Rana Sabbagh, a journalist and media expert.

In February 2004, the first ever conference on child abuse in the Middle East took place in Amman. Representatives from across the world, local government and NGO’s took part. Dozens of media outlets from the Arab world were present. During the conference Jahshan attributed the increase in the number of reported child abuse cases in Jordan to the increased coverage of the issue in the local press.

This successful and ongoing campaign to combat child abuse in Jordan can also be implemented to debunk misconceptions and reduce suicide rates in Jordan. “The more we deny as a society that there are cases of suicide in Jordan, the more we’ll have to look within and say, how could we not help these individuals from killing themselves?” says Al-Fayez. “That is shameful.”

Fact Box

By Age


Age Group


Under 18












By Gender










By Nationality






Non-Jordanian (Arab)






Method of Suicide










Falling from Heights












Total Suicides



Source: Jordan Police Security Department


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On John Updike

A very well-written op-ed on John Updike and the number of authors we have recently lost.

IT has been a hard year or so for writers. The world seems to grow emptier and emptier, depletion without replenishment, and now with the passing of John Updike at the age of 76, death has taken perhaps its biggest prize.

Literature, of course, is not a contest. Still, that Stockholm did not ultimately embrace Mr. Updike — a Nobel, why not? — seems too bad, as it probably would have meant a lot to him, and to us as well to have his erudition and hard work and enthusiastic witnessing of postwar America honored on such a stage. The news that he died in a hospice not far from his house, and the new ordinariness of this current manner of death, made me wonder what he would have noticed and written about it —“I’m sure it will be discovered he was taking notes,” a friend said, hopefully — for he was gifted at describing everything.

Read more about John Updike and his poem Requiem.

You can also read my book review regarding his recent novel The Terrorist.

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Video: Pres-Elect Obama: The Middle East Response


On this edition of Independent Sources we talk with an Iraqi and Jordanian journalist about how people in their countries are reacting to the Obama victory. We look at the challenges facing African-American newspapers, and we profile Claire Chen, an award-winning journalist for the Chinese-language daily World Journal.



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Which politics for Arab poetry?

From the Archives

By Rana F. Sweis


The Daily Star, 12/18/03


The key to understanding the hearts and minds of Arabs is through shiir, or poetry, their greatest art. The Iraq war and its aftermath fueled mixed emotions in the Arab world ­ resignation, reflection, rage ­that are now being articulated in verse. “No people in the world manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs,” wrote historian Philip Hitti in his History of the Arabs. Poetic expression has been admired and exalted by caliphs, clerics and revolutionaries and has always been at the heart of Arab politics. Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest classical poet, was also a political rebel: “The horses, the nights and the desert know me/As well as the sword, the spear, the pen and the paper,” he wrote. He was slain near Baghdad in 965.

Throughout decades of conflict and stagnation, Arab poets have retained their influence. Indeed, today in the Arab world more poetry is published than prose. “Poetry is the art and beauty of our language,” says Othman Hassan, the Jordanian author of Kibbrayaa al-Sifa (Description of Pride), a recent collection of verse. Moreover, since most Arab poetry is written in classical Arabic and understood by all literate Arabs, it transcends dialects and regionalisms. “Say an Iraqi writes a classical poem. You would never recognize that he’s an Iraqi or Moroccan or Egyptian,” says Saleh Niazi, an Iraqi poet. What unites all, he adds, are “common mental images.”

 Mohammed al-Thaher, cultural editor of the second-largest daily in Jordan, Ad-Dustour, calls the Iraq war a “shock” that will stir Arab emotions. But transforming these feelings into verse will take some time, he predicts. “Poetry always comes after an event; we may see a long period of time pass before we can realize what happened, especially in the case of Iraq.” But the hunger for poetry to describe the war can be felt already. Khalil al-Sawahri, a columnist for Ad-Dustour, has written an article entitled Poetry and War, in which he challenges the Arab literary community to respond quickly to the Iraq conflict: “What are Arab poets doing to make their voices heard?”

Despite this call, some are sidestepping politics, for example Iraqi singer Kazim al-Saher, who came to music through poetry. He argues: “Poetry is the language that speaks our feelings … It’s the kingdom we enter whenever we feel desperate.” Yet others will read what they want into specific poetry or songs. At a recent concert in Amman, for example, young men carried a banner that read, “Kazim is the voice of all Arabs.” Saher’s best-received song that night was ‘Baghdad, Don’t Grieve’, a generalized lament for his home city, where he expressed the hope that Iraq would prosper again.

But while Saher’s lyrics point away from political specifics, other poets speak directly about the turmoil in their land ­ and in their souls. Their poetry describes the sound of tanks, soldiers searching homes, Arab hands tied with nylon cords and children in raggedy clothes.

Indeed, even the most romantic Arabs have turned the political turmoil in the Middle East into verse. The late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, perhaps the most influential of modern Arab poets and an early defender of women’s rights, wrote, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war: “Ah my country! You have transformed me/From a poet of love and yearning/To a poet writing with a knife.”

His fellow Syrian, Adonis, who now lives in France, published a poem last April, after US forces entered Iraq, entitled ‘Homage to Baghdad’. He began by urging his readers to “Listen to the words of the invaders: ‘With the blessing of Heaven/We are leading a preventive war/We will bring the water of life/From the rivers Hudson and Thames/And make it flow into the Tigris and Euphrates.’” Then he described events as they happened: “A war against water and trees/Against birds and the faces of children/The fire of cluster bombs spurts from their hands.”

He asked, in conclusion: “Are we to believe, oh invaders, that an invasion can bring prophetic missiles? That civilization is only born in nuclear waste?” These and similar passages reflect a wider phenomenon of how Arabs feel adrift. Their political leaders have failed, and their poets have found no consistent or effective voice. Meanwhile, America, the new hegemon in the Middle East, is seen as a combination of power, wealth and temptation, a mix of goodwill and bad faith. No American seems able to speak persuasively, let alone poetically, to the Arab soul. And so, today, those who are mostly hostile to American influence are reciting the battle of poetry.

However, the last words have yet to be written, says Mohammed Tommaleh, a novelist and social columnist for Jordan’s Arab al-Yawm newspaper: “Baghdad fell, Saddam fell, but poetry will continue to be written”

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The Palin Factor

This is an article I wrote a month ago, published in Living Well magazine when Palin became a factor. I hope I’ll have a better quality copy up on this blog soon. 

By Rana F. Sweis


AMMAN// In the beginning, his story captivated the world. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s sense of idealism prevailed in America. His father was raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats. He went to school in a tin-roof shack. While studying in the US, he met Obama’s mother, a white woman from Kansas.

Then came a surprise: Sarah Palin. She was a mother of five, Governor of Alaska and a woman. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee’s choice of Palin for Vice President changed the dynamics of the 2008 Presidential campaign. American elections this year never fail to surprise—or excite voters and viewers alike.

Obama ran on the slogan for change. John McCain ran on the experience ticket. During the summer months, polls showed change triumphed experience. The McCain camp heeded to the more popular message and Palin was chosen. It’s up to Obama’s campaign to turn things around in his favor. Obama has been under pressure from his Democratic Party to attack McCain, who has taken a lead in the polls in September.

Today Americans are pondering the meaning of change: is it the type of change that will improve Washington or worsen it? Is it the type of change that will lead America towards more non-interventionism–a policy of nonparticipation in foreign political relations–or inclusion and credibility on the world stage? Indeed, the first casualty of US actions against Iraq and Afghanistan has been eroding domestic confidence and support for humanitarian intervention.

There are those that say policy will triumph the politics of identity. Let us not forget 1984. Walter Mondale chose New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. They were up against Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan. The majority of American women voted for Reagan, despite the fact that she was a mom and had three children. The focus groups indicated that she intimidated women at the time. But what focus groups are showing today is that women are attracted to Palin. In July, McCain led Obama among White women by 44 to 39, according to a NEWSWEEK poll. Now his lead is 53 to 37. One in three White women says she is more likely to vote for McCain since Palin was chosen as his running mate. Some Democratic women are threatening to defect to the Republican Party—just because Palin is a woman. However, contradictions are abundant: Palin advocates abstinence yet her unmarried 17-year old daughter is pregnant. McCain criticizes Obama for his lack of political experience, yet Palin has never met a foreign head of state. Palin proclaims she is a reformer yet when Palin was inaugurated as governor in Alaska, she surrounded herself with people she has known since grade school and friends.

Both Obama and McCain are competing for working-class white women, a group that could have a great impact in States that will likely decide the election. In September, Obama held events that included themes such as, “Women for the Change We Need,” in order to connect with women. I recently received an e-mail from a woman in New York who has created a blog called, Older White Women for Obama. In it she writes:

I began this post because I am disgusted with the GOP [Republicans] claiming that older white women support McCain and his pretty-face-empty-head sidekick, Palin. All of my friends are for Obama; even my mother’s friends, a generation older, are for Obama. We are all disgusted by the GOP’s destruction of the American economy and credibility in the world.


Older white women speak out!

Nevertheless, Obama will continue to face the elephant in the room- race. Some people have accused him of being too liberal, too young and too exotic. According to TIME, one of every four who voted for Hillary Clinton as their choice of the Democratic Presidential nominee actually admitted to pollsters that race was a factor in their vote. Even in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio the figure was one in ten. Certainly, his running mate, Biden, has not received nearly the same media attention as Palin.

The Media Impact

Many people agree traditional political campaigns have been changing the course of US elections, as we know them. Political advertising, e-mails, bogs and ‘embedded’ campaign reporters (such as the ones who traveled with Obama on his visit to the Middle East and Europe) have proved to be a determining factor in the fate of this election. Words like presentation, image, character and background have become determining factors when electing a president.

Interest groups, corporations including corporate advocacy advertising spend a vast amount of money to sway public opinion and influence the legislative and policy decisions. Over the years, negative campaigning, most notably negative advertising, is considered by many as misleading. Since television time is money, the time slot given for political advertising seems inadequate to raise important issues.

Therefore, political advertising relies on emotional images like soldiers in combat, images of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Television seems to no longer be used a means to deliver a message, but rather as a form of attacking a person running for office. Studies show that even if longer segments were presented on television, where political issues—education, healthcare, and foreign policy—were discussed in a more in-depth manner, Americans tend not to watch it. Another factor that technology and negative campaigning has contributed to is the polarization of the American people. Campaign managers and the media tend to simplify issues. This has led to Americans feeling that they must adhere to one Party or another (Republican or Democrat). The most effective technique of challenging this is for the public to be informed enough to realize, scrutinize, and act.

This race is not over. The US is a divided nation facing economic challenges—a rise in unemployment, home foreclosures and two wars. Indeed, the winner of this election will take it all, including the myriad of challenges and quagmires. 

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Jordanians Weigh in On Obama’s Candidacy

Here’s a feature I wrote regading Jordanian opinion and Obama. 

It was featured in

Current Article

Oct 9, 2008 | 

Written By: Rana F. Sweis

7iberDotCom — On a bustling street in downtown Amman, Farah Al Sayyad, 24, stares at a magazine showing American democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama walking up a flight of stairs while gazing at the sky.

“For me it’s not about if he will be good or great,” she says. “It’s about not doing something negative to us, like waging another war in the region.”

Suddenly her friend Eman Buraile, 23, turns around. “Wake up, Farah!” she interrupts. “I don’t really know who Obama is, but they are all the same.”

Some middle-class Jordanians say they do not know Obama well enough to judge his character or intentions. Yet, when they watch television or read translated texts of his speeches, they have no problem envisioning him in a character role.

Read the rest of this article…

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