In Jordan, I spent a lot of time with men. Not only did my immediate company consist of men (our driver and host were both men and I had Dan by my side), but many of our in-home social and cultural experiences were dominated by them, too. Tea and coffee in Bedouin tents was served by and among men, dinners in homes — outside of some interactions with the women of the house – were largely a male affair.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy spending time with men and learning about their world, but I also look forward to sharing time with women so that I may get a glimpse into their lives and appreciate their work.
And so I did in Jordan. And for me, three stories stood out. The women I met and their pride as individuals, as mothers, and as breadwinners left an impression on me.
You’ll find two snapshots below. We'll leave the third snapshot to its own piece, a second part in the series.
Um Ahmed: The Best Cup of Joe in Aqaba
As we set out on the road each morning in Jordan, our day would begin with a search for a roadside coffee shop. The goal: one part fix of caffeine, another greater part fix of ordinary Jordanian life.
Most coffee shops featured a guy with dual gas burners set up to make some of the hottest coffee in the world. However, on our way out of Aqaba toward the great desert of Wadi Araba is where we found Um Ahmed. (Literally Mother of Ahmed – it is common to refer to a woman as the mother of her eldest son).
Um Ahmed’s coffee stand was not only the smallest we’d visited, but it was also the first one we’d seen run by a woman.
As Um Ahmed lit the burner and spooned in the right proportions of coffee grounds, sugar and water, she made her pride clear: “To make good coffee you need to know how to use the heat properly to get the right strength and consistency.” She learned her trade from her father, and without any hesitation she shared her joy in a trade she’d perfected: “On Fridays [the beginning of the weekend in Jordan], there are lines of people down the street waiting for my coffee.”
Originally from Syria, Um Ahmed used to run her coffee stand by the beach, but increased competition forced her to move elsewhere. Nowadays, she works mornings and afternoons on the edge of town in front of Aqaba Grand Style Shopping Center to support her family, a group of growing young boys.
While I remember Um Ahmed’s coffee being quite good – not too bitter, not too sweet – it’s her exuberance and spirit which still make me smile.
Nature and Women, Conservation and Courage
As a woman in the corner of the workshop pounded out the contours of a decorative copper leaf, another woman in her early thirties with wide, bright eyes greeted us at the workshop entrance. She looked at me straight and offered in soft English, “You are welcome.”
Having worked in the workshop at the RSCN (Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature) Dana Biosphere for almost ten years, Raedah had executed dual transitions: one from single woman to bride to mother, and another from courageous new hire trainee to group workshop leader.
Why courageous? As Raedah demonstrated the different tools and machinery (some to flatten metal, others to shape it), we learned a little about how she carved her own path.
Raedah’s story is one of overcoming societal norms. Not so long ago, it wasn’t so acceptable in the local culture for a woman to work outside the home. So when a women’s workshop at the nature reserve opened up, only a very few brave women, Raedah included, signed up.
They set the example. Now the project employs twenty-five women – working, accruing health benefits for their families, and paying into the public pension system. A waiting list of even more are hoping to join them.
Sometimes, it takes a few brave souls to help carve a path for others.
To learn more about the workshops and to see the types of products made at Jordan’s nature reserves, check out Wild Jordan, the business development side of RSCN. In addition to making products for gift shops, many of the workshops fill commercial orders for anything from organic herbal tea to gift packaging made from recycled paper.
If you find yourself at one of Jordan’s nature reserves, ask about the women’s workshops. You’ll see for yourself how women of different ages and backgrounds have come together under this umbrella organization to learn new skills and help provide for their families and themselves.
Next up in this series: Zikra Initiative, a surprising visit to the once forgotten women of the Dead Sea.