Story by Alexandra Legend Siegel // Photo by Lily Bahramipour
AMMAN, Jordan – In a dimly lit hookah café in downtown Amman, a group of young people lounge on the long, wooden benches. San Alsudi, a woman in her early 20s, puts the tobacco – called argila here – to her lips, inhales and blows out a stream of smoke. She says something in Arabic that makes the people around her laugh before she passes the hose.
Five years ago, a woman in a café like this would have been rare. Ten years ago, it would have been forbidden. Jafra, the lively spot that Alsudi and her friends are in, opened in 2006 as one of the first to welcome women.
“We treat women as we treat men,” said the owner, Ali Mashaykh (through a translator). “This is why [women] feel welcome.”
Alsudi and her friends say they feel comfortable in Jafra – which means “beautiful woman” in Arabic – because they can participate in the age-old practice of sharing these hot coals as they sit around a circle, without fear of disappointing their elders.
“Look around,” Alsudi said, leaning forward and grinning like a child with a secret. “Do you see any older generation? No. That means there’s nobody here to criticize us.”
The notion of women being able to go to cafes like these is a relatively modern idea. Older generations see it as taboo or abnormal because it is against tradition. But in a country with 70 percent of its population under the age of 30, the older traditions seem to hold increasingly less weight.
“For most of us here, our family doesn’t know we are here,” Alsudi said. “If they did, we would be in trouble.”
Hookah is a traditional social practice in the Arab world in which people gather around a large smoking instrument composed of several parts. There is a bowl where the aged, flavored tobacco is placed on a flat base for the hot coals, a shaft where the smoke goes through, a long hose to breathe in the smoke and a glass base with water in the bottom to help heat the tobacco.
Cafés all over the Middle East offer different flavors of hookah as western cafes might offer different kinds of pastries. The hookah pipe and coals serve as a centerpiece for people to sit around and tell stories, debate and gossip. Jordanians also smoke hookah at home with family and friends.
Hussein Saliem, manager of another argila café downtown called Umsiat Amman, said that Jordan has become a progressively more open culture in the past 10 years.
“This generation is becoming more open-mind,” he said, “Like with anything, step by step and little by little, things change.”
The opening of cafes such as Jafra five years ago and Umsiat Amman in 2009 has brought life back to downtown Amman, called Il-Balad, one of the oldest parts of the city. For years, downtown has been empty due to the construction of malls in the surrounding area, which stole away patrons. Both Mashaykh and Saliem agreed that the welcoming atmosphere for women helped to attract patrons to the area once again.
“Downtown used to be the life of this city but then people stopped coming,” Mashakyh said. “We thought, ‘If we could bring people back we could bring back the culture to where it started. This is a place where you can gather and talk.’”
Mashakyh said that people, especially women, used to stay at home and smoke, but now they are coming to cafes because it is a different experience. Makshakyh said women can now go out to many places in Jordan, with only a few exceptions.
“There is no single place in Jordan that doesn’t accept women. However, I would not like my wife to go somewhere that is full of all men,” he said. “We try to make it a family place, so a boyfriend and his girlfriend hugging or kissing would not be acceptable.”
In the Jordanian culture, it is seen as disrespectful for a man and woman who are not man and wife to openly display affection.
“Women being able to go to cafes is a very positive change. As long as you don’t do things that disrespect the religion and culture, it is a good thing,” said Enas Al Badi through a translator, a 30-year-old woman chatting and smoking with her friend Basema Muhammad al Zagatet, 30, in Umsiat Amman café.
Al Zagatet said that in the past, people were interpreting the teaching of Islam in a way that held women back.
“Now people are more aware and confident and understand the real teachings of Islam and how it should be practiced,” she said, also through a translator. “There has been a big change of women going out while respecting culture because there is no obvious reason not to be able to.”
Both Al Zagatet and Al Badi hope to see everywhere in Jordan become open to women socializing, especially for their future daughters and nieces.
“I believe we respected our fathers when they gave us freedom so I will do the same [for my daughters] because then they will respect me,” said Al Zagatet.
Together, both the growing acceptance of women in public social settings and the revitalization of downtown Amman serve as evidence to Jordan’s shift in mindset. The younger generations are not going against their parents, but rather rethinking what is both acceptable and normal in relation to their faith.
“As a culture, we Jordanian people want to keep our values but follow the real teachings of Islam,” said Al Zagatet. “We can give women more freedom while respecting the values of Islam. It’s about having a balance.”