In 2007, after I learned that the government of Jordan had declared a poverty pocket in the community known as Ghor Al Mazra’a (Jordan Valley) in the governorate of Al Karak, I founded something called the Zikra Initiative, an ‘exchange tourism’ program through which city-based people can immerse themselves in the uniqueness of a rural area through workshops led by locals.
I already knew about the Ghor Al Mazra’a community, especially their struggles. Their history is marked by discrimination due to their dark skin colour, and their village is beset by insufficient household income and a lack of investment or job opportunities. As a consequence of this, the people have been stereotyped as poor, lazy and inadequate. I wondered how I could make a difference.
Start by Connecting People
As I write this today, it seems like we have come so far since then, and yet there is still so much to be done. Not long ago, I felt this more strongly than usual as I looked out at a group of young urban professionals enjoying a Zikra Initiative exchange tourism trip.
I saw the importance of creating a space for enjoyable experiences that allow all involved to contribute. I saw how proud the people of Ghor Al Mazra’a felt while teaching the CEO of an investment company how to make coasters and ornaments out of plastic bags, weave baskets from banana leaves and prepare a rosary from olive seeds. I watched the amazement of a lawyer from Amman when he learned that shrak bread (traditional bread) is made simply from wheat, water and salt. I smiled when others watched as others discovered that kohol (Arabian eyeliner) is easily made by burning in a covered metal container several pieces of white cloth that have been immersed in olive oil. During this process, the black smoke sticks to the cover, which, after having been set aside for approximately an hour, results in the kohol that is used as a beauty product.
At the end of that trip, which included a delicious dish of gallayet bandora – a traditional tomato-based stew – a young professional from Amman to me “I used to pass this area on my way to Aqaba by car and I used to wonder what the people and the kids would say if they saw me not wearing hijab, how they would treat me. But today I felt how friendly they are and how it felt like home. I had a lovely chat with one of the ladies teaching me how to make kuffieh tassels; we talked about our families and life. I discovered how simple life is here and how complicated our life is in Amman.”
How ironic it is when you consider the other perspective, as shared by Umm Ahmad, a local from Ghor Al Mazra’a. She told me “We could never have never imagined that people from Amman would come down here and sit with us and learn from our traditions. We never thought that we had something valuable for people. It really gave us a sense of belonging and it motivated us.” She concluded with “They are rich financially, but I am rich in my traditional skills.”
Discovering What We Have
I decided to launch the Zikra Initiative (zikra is Arabic for ‘memory’) to reach out to the estranged Ghor Al Mazra’a community through a traditional charity drive. I collected clothes and household items from the residents of Amman, Jordan’s capital, and I delivered them to the Ghor Al Mazra’a community.
Working through this process was not uplifting; rather, it felt demeaning. One party was a giver and the other a receiver. There was an uneven and unfair balance of power. As I distributed the items, however, I realised that I had found my first treasure: Looking around, I saw the Ghor Al Mazra’a community’s rich culture and lifestyle. As a city dweller, I was the one who felt ‘poor’ in my knowledge and practice of my own cultural traditions.
Believing that riches and poverty come in many forms, I therefore decided to capitalise on the positive aspects of the local community, as well as those found in the capital. I had to look for what people have, not what they lacked.
With this in mind, I created the Zikra Initiative’s ‘exchange tourism‘ model as a tool that does many things. It eliminates the giver-receiver dynamic and replaces it with an equal and fair relationship. It breaks different stereotypes we may have about one another, allowing rural communities to develop pride in their cultures and preserve their unique identities and traditions from extinction. It helps urban communities learn about their cultural heritage and bridge the divide between marginalised rural communities and the ‘rich’ but insulated urban population. It creates a niche for marginalised rural communities and helps lift them out of ‘poverty’ without relying on unsustainable financial aid; instead, it generates funds, which are invested in the development of marginalised rural areas.
Through the exchange-tourism program, Zikra organises trips to Ghor Al Mazra’a or other rural areas where visitors from the city experience the richness of the area by learning traditional skills through workshops conducted by the local community. They might learn to make shrak (traditional bread) or kohol (Arabian eyeliner), cook a traditional lunch, weave baskets out of banana tree bark, pick tomatoes, fabricate ornaments from recycled material, etc.
In exchange, participants pay the local equivalent of approximately US$35 to help generate income that can then be channeled into a micro-loan or a university scholarship for a local family.
Giving Culture a Voice
The Zikra Initiative also invests heavily in cultural development by advocating self-expression, creativity and innovation. Zikra therefore conducts creative workshops and competitions with the goal of stimulating culture in the region. Partnering with non-profits, business initiatives and individuals, the Zikra Initiative holds a variety of workshops covering things like handicrafts, recycling, theatre, filmmaking, photography and the arts. Zikra also conducts music and poetry competitions to promote the arts and highlight the community’s artistic ability.
Jordanians and foreigners lead these workshops in exchange for discovering the beauty and lifestyle of Ghor Al Mazra’a. The Ghor Al Mazra’a community is therefore able to discover new forms of employment or at least the means to generate income, as well as new methods of self-expression.
These are skills through which the the local community is able to reassess its status and initiate creative solutions to address their challenges. In our competitive society, innovation and creativity – the marks of a progressive society – allow outstanding individuals to shine. That, ultimately, is what the Zikra Initiative believes in: the power of all outstanding individuals.