Jordan is known for having the friendliest people in the Middle East. I attest to the fact that not only are they the friendliest, but also the most thoughtful.
A day hasn’t passed since arriving in Jordan that I haven’t been blessed with the generous hospitality of Jordan’s people. Yesterday Amira, Zorheh and her two grand daughters and I were invited to eat dinner in Majedah’s home in Hussein Camp. Majedah makes the best stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever had. The leaves are from the grape vines that grow outside her kitchen window.
Years ago, when I was a passenger in a car on a country road in Switzerland, I saw a man sitting on a fence near the roadway. The “scene,” a solitary man surrounded by vast pastures and snow capped mountains, lasted for a split second. I remember thinking, “This moment says everything about my life up to this point and Switzerland, and I’m sure I won’t remember it.” Here it is, years later, and the man on the fence is the first thing I think of when I hear the word Switzerland, as well as “the person I was up to that point.” I’ve had numerous forgettable fleeting “scenarios” during my time in Jordan. These mental snapshots encapsulate my experience here more than any travel log, documentary film or photographs I’ve posted.
One of these peripheral’s is my neighbor’s yard. For the first two weeks in my apartment, I drank my morning coffee while gazing out my living room window at the Old Citadel perched on the adjacent mountain. One morning I glanced down at the patch of dirt beneath my window, my neighbor’s yard. My morning routine slowly switched from gazing at the citadel to studying the barren patch beneath my window. I started noticing miniscule changes in the patch from one morning to the next. The dirt had been scooted from one area to another, miraculously overnight, and the rocks were gathered together in small mounds. Last week a rivulet appeared in the dirt forming a small trench from one ratty small tree to a larger ratty tree.
One morning I noticed a plastic bag filled with rocks sitting on the mound of trash in the trash bin across from my apartment.
One evening I glanced out my living room window and saw the source of these miraculous changes. My neighbor, the king of landscaping, was slowly and meticulously turning dust into gold.
After the recent snow, the matron of the apartment next to me was sunning herself and her olives on our front porch. After being offered a chair we discussed the process of making olives, without using words. After sampling olives from each tray, I ultimately chose the highly salted ones as my favorites. They were delicious. I thanked her and said goodbye before heading up to Paris Circle. Upon returning home that evening I found a cup of highly salted olives sitting in front of my front door.
my olive neighbor
An example of the personalized thoughtfulness of the people in Jordan is the baked potato I ordered at Potato and Salad in Paris Circle.
While waiting for my carry-out potato I sat with the owner of the business, Wael Mehyar, and another man seated at the table. After being offered a cup of coffee we commenced talking about the exceptional friendliness of the people in Jordan. At some point during our conversation I expressed my concern about the trash pick up in Jordan. I was visualizing my trash bin overflowing with plastic bags full of rocks. Unbeknownst to me, trash and the disposal of trash is a very hot topic here. I was informed that the other man at the table was Munqeth Meyar, President of Friends of the Earth Middle East. Last year he spent three days with President Obama in Washington D.C. discussing water and environmental issues in the Middle East. http://www.foeme.org. Munqeth is a storehouse of information. I came to find out that Japan has fifty-seven types of recyclables, including separate bins for brown and blue glass containers, among many other pertinent bits of recyclable information, before being handed my carry out box.
Upon opening the box, lo and behold, what did I see? My name written in sour cream on top of the melted cheese. If that isn’t personalized thoughtful service, I don’t know what is!
Since moving into my apartment, I’ve been working on the Seven Women’s House Keys canvas daily, about 10-12 hours per day. My concern throughout the creation of this canvas has been not having enough time to complete it before the exhibition date, January 8th.
Hanan has visited weekly and usually brings one of her daughters with her. Her daughter Haneen is a nurse in the military. On one of her days off from work, Haneen came with Hanan to sew beads on the canvas. Prior to coming to Jordan, I spent the previous year designing, painting and sewing the border of the canvas. The border includes the names of all of the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan written in Arabic–a total of 246 camps. Haneen randomly selected a section of the border to bead. After about an hour of beading Haneen exclaimed with surprise: “I just realized, I am beading the name of my camp!” I replied, “This is definitely a sign that you are in the right place at the right time!”
Haneen and Hanan
Haneen’s “sign” that she’s in the right place, and similar “signs” that others have told me in relation to this project, help me to remember my reason for being here: to create a canvas that incorporates embroidery from various Palestinian villages. The purpose of the completed canvas is to visually integrate fragments of Palestinian heritage (symbolized by the embroidery patterns) and their direct relationship to the ownership of land and homes in Palestine.
One evening Dayala, Hanan’s neice, came over to bead. While we were beading we talked about the fact that many Palestinians in Jordan still have the deeds to their homes and land in Palestine. I decided it would be a good idea to incorporate a copy of a deed printed on cotton into the canvas. Dayala volunteered to copy her father’s deed on cotton. She reappeared the following week with the deed on cotton. The only problem was that the deed was printed as a decal on fabric, which caused a sheen to the fabric. Hanan sanded the decal but, even with sanding, the fabric retained a sheen and was incongruent with the embroidery appliqués on the canvas.
Dayala al-Khalidi and Suzanne
Dayala and Suzanne
Many Palestinians were forced from their homes in the middle of the night and left with only the key to their front door. They were told they could return to their homes in a week or two. Many of the older women living in Jordan still wear their house key on a chain around their neck underneath their clothing.
I chose to come to Jordan because there are millions of dispossessed Palestinians here, many of whom were born here. I’ve found that the younger generation (35 years old or younger) are not educated about their history and unaware of the current events in Palestine. Association with Palestinian identity in Jordan means exclusion from government jobs, equating to an exclusion from economic advancement. In general, advancement requires establishing Jordanian identity, primarily through marriage (children acquire their father’s last name, the wife keeps her maiden name). It is a very complicated issue, but suffice it to say, the younger generation’s lack of interest in their “lot in life” is disconcerting. Palestine is so close, yet so far away. The lights of Palestine are visible from the coast of the Dead Sea, a two hour drive from Amman.
My original intent was to meet with seven Palestinian women on a regular basis and have them assist in creating the canvas.
Not long after arriving in Jordan, I was referred by a friend to a man who–I was told–had ties with embroiderers in Amman. I met only twice with the group of women this man selected, in my apartment. I disbanded this group after being informed he was mismanaging the funds and the project. I removed the work the women did on the canvas and started again from scratch.
I then established a new group of women with the help of Hanan Khalidi, the artist I met immediately after arriving in Jordan. I included one woman from the original group, Majedah (see earlier post), and five women embroiderers recommended by Hanan. My time for working on the canvas was shortened by over a month, therefore, the role of the women embroiderers changed from actual work on the canvas to meeting twice for a salon at which time they beaded and embroidered sections of the canvas and shared their ‘stories” of how they ended up in Jordan.
7 Women’s Salon
Their “stories” have been my inspiration while working on this canvas. The pillars of the salon participants have been Hanan (with occasional visits from her female family members), Majedah and myself.
The biggest contributor to the canvas has been Hanan. She donated her collection of yokes of women’s dresses that she and her sisters embroidered over the years to use as appliqués on the canvas. Without Hanan’s artistic and embroidery contributions the canvas could not exist.
Hanan spent numerous hours building up the impasto on her painting of Jerusalem, the central image on the canvas, and crocheting around it.
Jerusalem, center crochet
Hanan showed up weekly with additional contemporary embroidery appliqués that she created inbetween our meetings (the olive branches, the central diamond shape on the pitcher and some other embroidery). She usually arrived with her daughter Amira and at least one other daughter to assist with sewing seed beads on the names of the Palestinian refugee camps written around the border.
Amira and I usually spent our salon time working together on details and transactions (phone calls) pertaining to the exhibition and scheduling meetings.
Hanan demonstrated the way to create Palestinian embroidery, by transferring a cross hatch pattern on paper to fabric, the stitching technique and removal of the threads.
Majedah also participated in our group meetings. Majedah’s family home is in Gaza and she contributed several appliqués representative of Gaza and the yards of embroidered trim for the border of the canvas.
Majedah and Hanan sewing and cutting
Graph for olive leaf
Horse and leaf
Majedah with trim
Majedah and trim
Majedah also provided an abundance of historical and technical information related to Palestinian embroidery.
During my last meeting with Majedah, Hanan and her two daughters Rasha and Amira, we labeled the sections of embroidery appliqués with the names of their respective village.
We also played around, wearing the wedding hat:
At one point, when the canvas was nearly completed, the man whom I had originally employed to find the women embroiderers threatened to sue for stealing intellectual property and actually made claims that the project was his idea. His claims were beyond ridiculous and would never hold up in court, but to avoid further association I tore off the two appliqués that were originally purchased (with my money) to be used on the canvas. After the appliqués were removed, the composition of the canvas needed to be changed, which was at first disconcerting. I personally learned through this experience that our calamity is our providence. To tie the composition together I needed large areas of embroidered appliqués. Soon after I first arrived in Amman, I purchased a truly beautiful hand-embroidered Palestinian dress with red and black threads. I was looking forward to wearing it to the upcoming Fulbright Thanksgiving dinner but, alas, I cut it up to use on the canvas. Now the canvas, through my eyes, finally says what i want it to. The central painting of Jerusalem is surrounded by appliqués from the dress that speak to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and minarets.
The energy and intellect of many people contributed to the creation of the canvas: their stories about Palestine, their knowledge and first hand experience, and their thoughts while sewing, all contributed to a gorgeous, historic collection of embroidery that captures the beauty and memories of life in Palestine.
The following are photos of the continually changing canvas:
Majedah gave me a gorgeous booklet with insert pages of illustrations of the different embroidered dresses from various areas in Palestine. The booklet contains copies of illustrations created in the 1930’s. The booklet was re-produced in the 1990’s by the National Jordan Fine Art Gallery. Enjoy!
As I mentioned previously, the villages in Palestine have specific embroidery designs and stitches associated with them. The embroidery process is not simply sewing on fabric. A grid (drawn on paper marked with little “x’s” for each of the stitches is transferred to a white net-like fabric. The embroidery occurs on the net fabric. After the design is completed, the white threads are removed (see the example of Hanan’s triangular embroidery located beneath her painting of Jerusalem). [Click on images to enlarge]:
For the painting Seven Women’s House Keys, shapes are cut out of the embroidered yolks of women’s dresses and appliquéd (sewn) onto the canvas:
The last elements applied to the canvas are the sewn-on glass and brass beads. Creating a frame around the entire composition are the names of the Palestinian refugee camps, which are written in Arabic and beaded:
We still have months of work to do, sewing and beading. Yet, it is slowly (but surely) coming together! …What do you think?
The primary artist with whom I’m working on the 7 Women’s House Keys salon artwork is Hanan Al-Khalidi. Hanan is an elementary school art teacher in Zarca. She is married and has three lovely daughters in their early twenties. I hired one of Hanan’s daughters, Amira (“Princess,” in Arabic) as my secretary. I recently changed Amira’s title from secretary to Embroidery Salon and Art Exhibition Manager. Without Amira, communication would be at a standstill. As I mentioned previously, Amira was awarded a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and is fluent in Arabic, English, Korean and Japanese. She is also a highly proficient organizer.
Without Hanan the embroidery art salon would have fizzled into nothing…
My intent with the art salon was to pay the professional women embroiderers an amount that more than compensated them for their work. I severed ties with the original person I hired to help organize the art salon after being informed that he was taking a commission (of over half) out of the amount the women were being paid.
During the two art salon sessions I held in my apartment, prior to learning about the “commissions,” one of the attendees, Majedah Abd Al-Kader, and I became friends. The work Majedah did on the canvas exemplified her exceptional design and embroidery skills. Majedah owns her own shop, Grand Mother’s Dress, and has been embroidering professionally for eighteen years.
Hanan, Amira and Majedah have visited often to work on the canvas. Majedah’s sister will be working on the canvas and Hanan retained the embroidery services of two women teachers at her school. I am the seventh woman working on the Seven Women’s House Keys canvas. Thanks to Hanan and Majedah, the canvas will be completed by the scheduled exhibition date, December 18. [click on any image to enlarge or read descriptions]:
Amira, Hanan and Majedah
working on the canvas
Hanan and Majedah working
Hanan and Majedah working on the canvas
Hanan and Majedah
Two people who have been very supportive of all of my efforts are Raheem (photographer Abed Al Raheem Al Arjan, see earlier post entitled: “Getting down to art business”) and artist Mohammad Abu Zraiq (see earlier post entitled: “Tribal Identities”).
It is impossible to be in Jordan and not have some fun and unusual experiences every day. Interspersed with the daily events that I have mentioned in my previous blogs, are the following fun experiences [click on images for explanations or to enlarge]:
Something about the Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett reminds me of Amman…
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes tv series, 1984
I can imagine Sherlock descending dark stairways at night and disappearing into unobtrusive, barely visible doorways. Possibly my association of this tv show with Amman is in the intrigue and mystery of the age-old stairwells, walkways and buildings. They seem to capture and “possess” the energy of the people who frequented them.
[Click on images to enlarge]:
near the steps to Downtown
downward view off front porch
Steps to Paris Circle
Steps to Jadal Knowledge Culture center
Shortly after arriving in Amman I was informed that, “In Jordan, individuals are family-identified: the tribal affiliation takes precedence over an individual’s identity. Individuals are expected to support and pursue the common good of the group. It matters to whom and to what you affiliate yourself. These affiliations bring responsibilities as well as advantages.”
Although I have no familial connections in Jordan, I do have a tribal identity that I am very grateful for. My tribe is other artists, whether in Jordan or anywhere in the world. The life experiences of the artists I’ve met in Jordan are as intriguing as their art. When I return home I may do a work of art on each of them.
The artist and well-known writer who escorted us to Abu Hay’s studio was Mohammad Abu Zraiq. After visiting with Abu Hay we went to Mohammad Abu Zraiq’s studio in his home.
Mohammad Abu Zraiq has ten published books in Arabic about the arts and is also a poet. Two of his books are used in higher education as Fine Arts textbooks throughout the middle east: Graphic Art (for Foundation art students) and an art history text entitled: Art from the Beginning of Painting to Now. His other books include: Dialectic about Art, Tawfiq Alsaid: His Life and Art, Shamoun, and About 21 Artists in Jordan. He is one of the most respected art writers in the middle east.
His paintings are a visual documentation of his journey through this life. His father was killed in the 1948 occupation of Palestine when he was six months old. The following painting is of his mother carrying him in her shawl, with her belongings bundled on her head, when she left their home in Gaza to go to Jericho:
Mohammad Abu Zraiq, a self taught artist, has been a teacher for many of the contemporary artists in Jordan. As a child he painted murals on the interior walls of his home using mud mixed with found pigments: washing blue (detergent) and toilet cleaner for cobalt, mud for white, beet juice for red and turmeric for yellow.
At eighteen years old he walked from Jericho to Amman, eventually settling in Hetteen refugee camp near Zarca (population 90,000). During his years in the refugee camp he made great contributions to the education of the children including establishing a library. After retiring from teaching with UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in the camp he moved to Amman in 2001.
His life experiences, similar to many Palestinians in Jordan, have been filled with hardship and deprivation but, in spite of this, his love for people and life shines through his art, his memories and in his very presence.
The stairs leading downward to Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara’s studio get progressively smaller. The reduction of size is disconcerting. I have had recurring dreams about steps for years and I’m finally living the dreams. In my dreams the steps are stone, they differ in height and fade off into nowhere at great heights. The stones on Abdul Hay’s steps are worn to a shine with concave curves in the center. The steps resemble the marble on the Pieta where millions of people have touched the top of the foot of the figure of Jesus. Many of the steps in Jordan look similar. They are a physical record of the passage of millions of lives and history.
Anyone who is eighty years old, in poor health and blind in one eye, like Abdul Hay, and climbs these steps deserves a huge medal of courage. I was honestly ready to retrace my tracks at one point, but thank goodness I was too discombobulated to turn around on the narrow step. On the way down the stairs, we (Ahmad, Tamimi and I) were intercepted by a well known-artist, Mohammad Abuzraiq, who escorted us to Abdul Hay’s studio.
Abdul Hay greeted us at the door of his studio, invited us inside and served us coffee.
The first question he asked me was, “Do you like Jordan?” After replying that I like Jordan a lot he asked why. I replied, “I like the people. They are wonderful and so welcoming.” He then said, “Yes, people. Heaven can’t be heaven without people. Who would want to die if people aren’t in heaven?” Abul Hay’s reply sums up my beliefs in a nutshell. People made it possible for me to come to Jordan and people are the reason I’m in Jordan, more specifically: the Palestinian people.
Abdul Hay is the “star” of all the artists I’ve met in my lifetime. Throughout all of his years of working consistently on his art he has never once compromised his ideas. This is probably the only reason many people outside of Jordan and a few places in the middle east aren’t aware of his art. His art meticulously documents the military occupation of Palestine, and the traditional and cultural history of Palestine.
After viewing his three-dimensional paintings he told me he’s been very sick for the past two years, unable to work and has lost his sight in one eye. He creates the three dimensional impasto reliefs for his paintings by smashing up tree roots in a palm-sized wooden bowl with a wooden stick that looks like a knot in a root.
I noticed one of his paintings is about Rachel Corrie – a documentation of her death by military bulldozer and a commemoration of her contributions to Palestinian human rights. Abdul Hay told me he contacted Rachel’s parents a couple of years ago and told them he wants to give them the painting. He said they told him they would come to Jordan to pick up the painting and he is waiting for her parents to arrive. The painting is wrapped in plastic, ready to go. If any readers know Rachel’s parents please let them know Abdul Hay is still waiting for their arrival.
The following photos are of Abdul Hay in his studio displaying his three-dimensional painting about a woman who’s husband was killed by soldiers. After the death of her husband, she is pushed out of her house by soldiers and her son can no longer get milk from her breast. Without food and a home the son reaches for a rifle (really a stone) in an attempt to get his house back (represented by the key):
The days and nights have converged into each other since moving into my apartment a month ago. Tonight is the first night I’ve been home at dinner time, 9 PM, and the first time I prepared a real dinner.
During Ahmad Canaan’s visit, I met one of Jordan’s most notable and historically important Palestinian artist’s: Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara. Meeting Abdul Hay and viewing his art was a truly deepening and uplifting experience – culturally, historically, aesthetically, intellectually and spiritually. Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara deserves special recognition, so I will save him for a future blog. The following is a photo of the stairwell leading to his apartment, and another of the view from his entryway:
My Palestinian artist friend, Ahmad Canaan – with whom I worked on artistic endeavors twenty years ago in Palestine and the United States – recently left after visiting me for five days. The purpose of his visit was to be a liaison for finding the Palestinian women embroiderers for my art salon, to introduce me to established male artists from whom I will select seven to include their work in the art salon exhibition, and to help secure a gallery space for this exhibition in January.
Securing an exhibition at a top notch gallery within a four month time frame is not an easily reached goal – here or anywhere else! Gallery exhibitions are normally scheduled one to two years in advance. Before Ahmad’s departure today – miracle of miracles – these goals were accomplished!
Shortly after Ahmad’s arrival he introduced me to a photographer, Abed Al Raheem Al Arjan, who has volunteered to contribute in major ways to securing excellent press coverage and opportunities for the exhibition.
Raheem has personal relationships with everyone in the art world in Jordan, including the press and media throughout the Arab world, and is dedicated to establishing formats for the exhibition of contemporary art. He is also a laudable professional photographer.
Raheem drove Ahmad and I to Madaba, 20 miles SW of Amman, via the scenic route. We passed through the outskirts of Amman and small villages. On the way we stopped at Hisban, where Raheem’s father and grandfather lived and raised sheep. On the top of the hill is an old castle in disrepair. Luckily, I was able to snap a few photos before my twenty-five year old pocket camera was relegated to the trash.
Sheep in Hisban
Sheep watching men
And men watching sheep
View from Castle, Hisbon Valley
View from castle
0ld Palace ruins
We then proceeded to Madaba, a major tourist and Pilgrimage destination, known for it’s Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics. It houses the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist, and the oldest existing mosaic map of Palestine…
…and numerous other mosaic floors. Madaba is affectionately referred to as “mosaic city.” [Click on photos to enlarge]:
Mosaic floor, Madaba
Mosaic floor, Madaba
Mosaic floor, Madaba
Raheem currently has an exhibition of his photography (and his private art collection) in a Contemporary Art Gallery he established in the Historic Museum in Madaba.
Raheem, entrance to Historic Museum, Madaba
Raheem, photographs for Historic Museum displays
Raheem in Historic Museum Contemporary Art Gallery
After viewing Raheem’s exhibition and the historic museum collection we had coffee, smoked sheesha and had dinner at the newly-constructed restaurant next to the museum: Rakwet Cafe. The restaurant owner, Azziz, also has a restaurant in Paris Circle (I posted photos of his restaurant on my blog previously – the photos of the gorgeous tiles and ceilings) and another restaurant in Downtown Amman.
The two owners of the Rakwet Cafe, Azziz and his partner, were being interviewed by Jordan Television while we were smoking sheesha and drinking Turkish coffee. Jordan television also interviewed Raheem.
After the filming concluded, we smoked more sheesha and Raheem showed my Family Ties-Occupation Art book, which I had self-published, to Azziz. Azziz expressed interest in publishing my book because, “It shows that all Americans don’t think the same.” He requested to keep the book for a few days and he and his partner generously graced us with a delicious dinner.