MISSIONS OF PASSION
Books, art and food – this is how to make dreams come true and make a difference in Jordan
In Madaba, a small city south of the Jordanian capital of Amman, three people are following their dreams and helping others to do the same, proving that education doesn’t only happen in classrooms.
Through tenacity, passion, a keen eye for gaps in either knowledge or the market and a pinch of good luck, Ghaith Bahdousheh, Juhaina Rawahmed and Sarah Yassin have created unique and necessary spaces in the city of Madaba in Jordan.
I met the creators of a beautiful bookshop that hosts talks, concerts and art exhibitions; a roving art project that helps traumatised children express themselves; and a restaurant in harmony with nature.
Ghaith is a business graduate who left his job in 2015 to pursue his dream of opening a bookshop. A bookshop owner in Amman helped him understand the value of a book, after which he began to sell them on the streets of downtown Jabal al-Luweibdeh.
Using chairs and coffee tables borrowed from a restaurant owner, he displayed his books on the street. He called his business Books on the Road. But the restaurant went under, so he had to return the furniture.
Undaunted, Ghaith used his car, which he fondly calls Nancy, to display his books. “It was a totally different concept, and that’s how the magic started,” he says.
Ghaith became the talk of the town and gained a following. People began donating books. “An elderly lady watched me from her apartment balcony across the road and gave me 500 books. She spoke to her friends and more and more people started engaging with me.”
His network grew and soon Ghaith raised enough money to establish his bookshop with a partner in Madaba in 2016. He called it Kawon, which means universe. His idea was to create a gathering point, a place where people could connect and share in a reading culture.
Today the shop has a study area where students gather for quiet study time. Downstairs there are comfortable couches where both tourists and locals meet and enjoy freshly squeezed juices and locally made cakes and meals.
The olive trees in the garden provide another welcome space where you can use the Wi-Fi and meet the local cats. The bookshop has become an informal place of learning, and students from the universities in Madaba often meet there.
A fine art
Juhaina and a friend teach art in disadvantaged communities, work that came out of their shared distress at the fact that there was so little written in Arabic about art, particularly about prominent Jordanian artists.
To fill this knowledge gap, the two developed a website. But they wanted to do something on the ground too, so they started the art project, which is aimed at children and teens from 10 to 18 years old.
Once a week Juhaina and a team of volunteers introduce children to art and help them discover their hidden abilities. Some of the volunteers are students who commit to come on a Saturday morning for six weeks.
Juhaina has run workshops with Palestinian children. Palestine is often the focus of their work. Starting with the basics, the students soon master various skills. Music is often used to create an atmosphere, and Palestinian music remains a favourite.
The impact of their work is incredible, and the children get to deal with the trauma with which they live.
Juhaina and her friend’s project is entirely self-funded. They could do so much more with funding and hope to raise money in the future. Art materials are expensive, and getting to the villages without a car is another challenge.
Juhaina dreams of expanding her work. She speaks warmly of a former student, Shireen, who produced incredible work when she was introduced to the project. Shireen had an exhibition at Kawon Bookshop and was taken aback by the interest in her art.
Feeding the future
Just a short walk from the Kowan Bookshop is the incredible Carob House Restaurant. Sarah Yassin is the manager and chef.
“Carob House came to life from the strong urge to reconcile with nature and go back to basics: farming the land and growing our own food,” Sarah says. “We wanted to reconnect with our roots and revive our ancestors’ wisdom in cultivating tasty, nutritious food in harmony with nature.”
Described as a farm-to-table restaurant, community kitchen, café and cultural space, Carob House is unique in the region. Sarah is proud of what has been achieved.
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“At Carob, we’ve embarked on a mission to innovate a green model of local food production, and build a community of environmentally conscious farmers and consumers who come together to celebrate nourishing foods.”
Sarah took us to the restaurant’s farm a few kilometres out of town. Here we met an innovative Egyptian-born farmer who has mastered various kinds of organic farming. I also met a Dutch person who was one of many who have volunteered on the farm, learning organic farming skills.
The restaurateur sees what they are doing as a holistic grassroots initiative aimed at reimagining the way food is produced and consumed in Jordan. She works with children to create new menus and believes that nutritious food should be widely available in the community.
Her dishes are unmistakable, with a menu that highlights a unique cultural experience and showcases the diverse ingredients and flavours of the region. Lamb, chicken, vegetables, fruits, fresh herbs, qashta, jams and amazing preserves are all sourced from local farmers. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.