After three months of immersion in a foreign culture , my mind has stopped playing the “spot the differences!” game that was so common during my first several weeks here. Simply accepting the way of life in Jordan has made adapting exponentially easier, however, sometimes it is interesting to compare how something as common as clothing is perceived differently between the two cultures. This week, CIEE gave us the opportunity to visit Widad Kawaer’s private collection of Middle Eastern traditional dress and textiles. This historically significant display was juxtaposed with a documentary we watched in my “Alternative Perspectives” class entitled “The Factory” by Al-Jazeera that investigates the importance of the Mahalla textile factory uprising to the revolution in Egypt.
To the average American family, clothing is viewed as a drain on the bank account, necessary to appease their adolescent daughters who need the same latest fashions as their friends in order to uniquely express their individuality. Of course, traditional Native American dress and the fashion design community are two obvious exceptions, but the typical closet in suburbia represents nothing other than American consumerism. The reality in the Middle East, or at least in Jordan, could not be more opposite than this. While Amman is the most urban area in Jordan, it has the most “avant-garde” style. With this said, wardrobes of the the majority of women on the UJ campus are still primarily influenced by Islam and the belief that women should be modest. The most popular style is a long, floor length coat that reveals nothing about the shape of the body. The shape of this garment is easily traced back to the traditional clothing of the nineteenth century that was popular throughout the Middle East.
I had the opportunity to see and try on several of these culturally-rich garments during our visit to “Aunt” Widad’s collection. One interesting fact about the clothing is that hand-embroidery was praised above all other forms of decoration. Each piece would take 3 to 12 months to finish with the culminating piece being the bridal dress which the bride herself works on throughout her life. The headdresses were also elaborate, featuring about 100 real Ottoman coins sewn onto it and then given to the bride by the husband as a gift representing her personal bank account.
Due to the mass exodus of Palestinians from Palestine over the past half-century, many Jordanian-Palestinians have started clinging to the remnants of their heritage. Widad said her interest in collecting began this way and has evolved into a small museum of Middle Eastern culture documenting its collective identity.
This emphasis on craftsmanship and tribal traditions was made more impressive after watching the documentary about Mahalla. One of Egypt’s most important exports is cotton and the textiles made from it. The Mahalla factory has something like 300,000 spindles working at a given time and the factory itself resembles a college campus with housing and services for the employees. Many workers in the documentary described their experience at Mahalla as a “way of life” rather than a job. The uprising of factory workers arose over wages and acted as a precursor to the massive Egyptian Revolution that overthrew Mubarak. Theoretically, the uprising could have occurred at any other factory, but the fact that it was at a textile factory of importance to the nation’s economy, made all the difference. This modernization of clothing and the shift from clothing-as-identity- to clothing-as-profit marks the Middle East’s growing participation in globalization through means other than solely oil.
This weekend my friends and I are attending another cultural event in the form of a concert! CIEE has given us free tickets to see Maryam Saleh. Also, on Saturday, we are attending a community service trip to fix up an elementary school in rural Amman. As the next month involves quite a bit of traveling (we booked our tickets to Tel Aviv/Istanbul for orthodox Easter break and to Dubai at the end of the program!), we want to get as much out of Amman as possible!