Category Archives: Jordan Photos

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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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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Israel, Jordan Find Accord in Finding New Water Supplies

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

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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My Photos of Jordan (Random)

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Creative Jordanian Website

One of the more creative websites around in the Arab world.

Enjoy browsing:

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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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Examining Teachers Attitudes in Jordanian Schools

Ragheb and Thamer Masarweh (Photo by Hassan Tamimi)


This is another example that we  have a long way to go when it comes to reform in Jordan’s education system. Not long ago, I wrote another blog post about education in Jordan. 

This is an article published in today’s Jordan Times. It demonstrates two things: First  there are very talented individuals in Jordan and the second is the failure on the part of some educators to encourage and inspire students in Jordan…Reform is not only in the books…

Ragheb and Thamer Masarweh from the village of Jadaa in Karak, who worked for 10 years to prove a theory on prime numbers, are currently honing their English language skills at the British Council in Amman before heading to the UK to do their master’s in statistics and mathematics.

Numbers have long fascinated the two brothers.

When 24-year-old Thamer was 14-years-old, his favourite subject was mathematics and he used to excel in the subject and score the highest marks in class. 

However, the two brothers said they received little support from their community or at school.

“Our teachers were not supportive and used to tell us not to attempt things greater than our abilities,” Thamer noted, adding that “unfortunately, lecturers at university said the same thing, which frustrated us”.


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The Chicken and the Basketball Board in Amman


The Chicken that Crossed the Road (R.Sweis)

The Basketball Board that Makes it Impossible to Play Basketball. (R.Sweis)


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Photos of Jordanians Protesting

Photos of a peaceful protest in Amman to end the bloodshed in Gaza. The protest included mostly young university students representing different political ideologies. A week later, protests in Amman and elsewhere in the country turned somewhat violent and the number of people protesting increased dramatically. 


Young Jordanians ProtestingProtest in Amman
Protestors made angry speeches and called for an end to the Gaza bloodshed.


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