STEPPING TO THE HORIZON
STEPPING TO THE HORIZON
Stories from a Cooperative of Jordanian Women
STORY BY: JESS MCGLOTHLIN
We’d hiked nearly eight miles before lunch, winding up and down hillsides and along craggy cliffs whose paths were worn by millennia of goat hooves and dusty, sandaled shoes. Under the harsh midday sun we sipped syrupy cups of hot, fragrant mint tea, finding solace in the slight breeze floating past an outcropping of hot limestone overlooking the valley beneath. The morning’s miles behind us — and more to come in the afternoon — we now found ourselves enjoying the hospitality of a unique team: the industrious women of the Women Cooperative Society, housed in a series of rustic stone buildings in the small Jordanian village of Iraq al-Amir.
As we stop for a lunch ofmusakhan, a fragrant holiday rice, chicken and bread dish seasoned with onions, sumac, allspice, saffron and fried pine nuts, I watch the herd of resident cats chase each other around boards of handmade paper drying in the fading afternoon sun. My gaze drifts up to the craggy hills bracketing the skyline. Less than half a mile away lies the ruins of Qasr Iraq al-Amir, built in 164 BC, and the oldest standing building in Jordan. Earlier we’d walked along the massive limestone blocks, standing in the ruins of an ancient castle built more than two millennia ago. History came to life underneath my feet, and it was easy to imagine the same hillsides we looked upon — home to olives, grapes, pomegranates, apricots, figs, and the occasional natural spring — being surveyed by Herkanus more than two thousand years ago when he decided to build his castle in this lush, strategic region.
The late King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan once said,
“With faith, honor and courage anything is possible.”
In a country surrounded by chaos and war, its own economy brimming with instability, it’s a concept that rings true. One merely has to walk through villages in the Jordanian countryside, swarmed by grinning, friendly children and be politely invited in to share a cup of syrupy mint tea as a respite from the afternoon heat, to understand Jordanians’ conviction that truly, anything is possible. Here faith, honor and courage are not merely flashy words on a motivational poster or a Pinterest image, but daily tenets that govern outlook and decisions.
For the women of the Women Cooperative Society, the sentiment rings true more now than ever. Jordan is struggling. Struggling to accommodate a rising unemployment rate — currently between 35 and 40 percent, with every one in two jobs going to Syrian refugees. Struggling to house and provide for waves of those very same incoming refugees. At the moment, more than 150,000 refugees live in two large camps near the capital city of Amman, while tens of thousands more live in tents, apartments and even caves throughout the countryside. More arrive every day. While driving through Amman, it’s not uncommon to see a makeshift tent pitched next to a road, perhaps tucked under the shade of an old oak tree, often hosting two or more families as they seek to create a life — some form of life after war.
The struggles are visceral; hard, in-your-face daily battles that make our incorrect coffee orders and slow internet struggles seem rather petty. Here, life is boiled down to the bare basics: shelter, food and family. A means to provide. In a country bracketed by war — and, by all accounts, quite possibly more wars to come — Jordan remains a beacon of hope for those in the region. “Jordan has borders with many countries that are unstable. We are not. Jordan is the oasis of stability in the Middle East,” shares Zahir, my guide who leads me through the countryside. By day two, he’s quick to warm to political discussions, and as the miles pass beneath the truck tires, he explains the struggles this country is facing. Underneath the talk of policy and politics, an undercurrent of hope is clear. Someday, he hopes, someday tourism will return in full force to Jordan, bringing with it foreign money and the hopes for a revitalized country.
That same night, I stand on the porch of my little forest cabin just past 4AM, listening to the nearby village’s call to prayer echo through the hills and watching the sky northward. There, a mere 22 miles away, lies Syria. Hiking across a ridge earlier in the day, I’d stopped and simply watched the northward sky, recalling recent news headlines of bombings and missiles and war. Remembering a journalist friend who had been killed several years ago somewhere, somewhere under that northern sky. Less than 12 miles to the west is the West Bank, bringing its own set of strife and recent headlines. Under the shadow of the night sky, I wonder if missiles were fired — as they were the night before — if I could see it from here. It’s hard not to think over the recent conflicts and the centuries of wars and battles these lands have seen.
In past years, the society has employed as many as 41 women at a time, generating an average annual profit of 4,000 Jordanian dinar (JD; roughly $7,047 USD). In 2001, the Handicrafts Village was established, designed to help conserve the region’s environment and preserve its unique architectural heritage. With this expansion, additional training on finance and administration, marketing, donor relations and product design was provided by the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation, before complete control was once more turned over to the local community cooperative. This training, coupled with the handicraft skills taught in the day-to-day making of the handicrafts, provides valuable training to the girls and women and increases the chances they will be able to find additional work in the months and years to come.
In a country where more than one-third of all women have no job — and no hope of employment — there is a power to be found in the ability to support oneself and one’s family. Unemployment rates in the village are exceptionally high, and with no government offices in the vicinity the ability to earn a wage means the ability to survive. And while many of the founding members of the society are at an age to retire, many of them choose to stay on and help train the younger generation — one that needs all the mentoring and direction it can have in these challenging times.
One young girl, who looked to be about 13-14 years of age, was slowly and scrupulously spinning pottery in a corner of one of the workshops. Her eyes grew wide when I held the camera up with a smile, asking if I could take her picture. She quickly shook her head and went back to work, studiously ignoring my presence until I left. Later on, one of the older ladies shared that she was a refugee from Syria, and was leery of any strangers, but slowly settling into her new life, and quick to learn the skills they were happy to teach.
The center is accomplishing what so many in society like to talk about yet never actually act upon — providing women and girls with the skill sets, confidence and ability to make a living, to provide for themselves and their families, and to help preserve their heritage. The confidence in the ladies who have been in the program for a while is marked — the easy willingness to make eye contact, engage in conversation (via a translator) and interact is impressive proof of the power the society provides those who spend their days working under the worn roofs.
But as instability in the region continues, so do the struggles for those who rely upon tourism. Many Westerners are hesitant to travel in Jordan — we’re constantly bombarded by headlines of failed political accords, missile attacks, roadside bombs and terrorist activity. Despite the hard facts that Jordan is among the safest regional countries for foreigners to visit, fear reigns and people remain at home. (Of note, I felt far more safe wandering village streets in Jordan than I have in many countries teeming with American tourists.) But the headlines persist and, in reality, most Westerners will never venture beyond our continent.
This lack of tourism has resulted in a decline of visitors to the center, impacting the society’s budget significantly and resulting in a deficit. At one point, rent and wages were not paid for more than a year — significant when many of these women rely on the income to feed themselves and their families… the trickle-down effect is significant.
But where there is a problem, the women seem to find answers. They sought out newfound marketing knowledge, promoting their products to regional buyers who could place bulk orders. The efforts resulted in several large orders — two from Royal Jordanian Airlines in the total amount of JD26,000 ($36,645 USD, a staggering amount for the cooperative), another large order from the InterContinental Hotel, and several other large bids. As Amina, one of the leading ladies, noted: it’s a balance. “The society is somehow a hidden treasure that I’m trying to get into while sharing information and providing help,” she shared through a translator.
One of these bulk orders was in the process of being fulfilled when I visited — one hijāb-clad woman churning out pottery cups on the urn, another managing the kiln, one more meticulously painting them in a brilliant cerulean and another marking inventory on a crusty-paged notepad. This is business, and the women take their business very seriously.
Some places are so visceral, so real, they stay with you for a long time after. Often it’s not the most grandiose landscapes, nor the towering cities that linger in our memory, but random little moments and the feelings that overrun our senses. The realization that something in us, something in the way we think, has been changed forever. There is no going back; the world is not the black and white we once assumed, but instead a thousand different shades of gray.
Sitting under the blessed shade of the society’s central patio, belligerent cats scrabbling for the last bits of chicken at my feet, King Hussein’s quote came to mind. The women are indeed taking each day step, by step, by step. Challenge by challenge. Finding a way to think to the future while preserving the traditions and heritage of the past. Perhaps that is what best sums up Jordan: a country rooted in the past, doggedly finding a way to look to the horizon — and to reach what lies there.