A Sisterhood in Jordan
An intimate portrait of five sisters as they overcome an unexpected tragedy.
There is a large family in Jordan, typical in many ways yet extraordinarily rich in others. Like many families they meddle, they bicker, they even shout at times but never crack their foundation of love and support. Five sisters, two brothers and loving parents make up this Muslim family with a dynamic sisterhood sitting at its core. The sisters—Sura, Ghofran, Duha, Saja and Farah rely heavily on each other with full and interconnected lives. Situated in a region filled with strife, they remain poignantly aware of their political surroundings yet somewhat untouched.
Their early childhood years were spent in the southern port city of Aqaba, Jordan. Abu Muhammed and Umm Muhammed were married in 1978 and moved to the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba for his work in 1982. Over the coming years, the Qatawneh household grew and they enjoyed trips to the beach and visits to the ancient sites of Jordan. In 1994, a pull to be closer to their extended family brought the Qatawnehs back to the small village of Mazar.
As the siblings neared adulthood, the capital city of Amman offered greater opportunities and drew many members of the family away from the village of Mazar. Each one continually forging an individual path with Sura working at the Islamic International Arab Bank, Ghofran teaching English, Duha starting a Masters in Psychology, Saja serving in the Royal Jordanian Medical Services, and Farah aiming to be an English translator.
In time, the Quatawneh family swelled to include Sura’s husband, Turki, and Ghofran’s husband, Ahmed. Ghofran married first and has lived in the same apartment in Amman for many years with her husband, Ahmed, and their four children.
When the apartment across the hall from their home became available, four Qatawneh siblings; Muhammed, Saja, Farah, and Ahmed, opted to rent the adjacent apartment. Ghofran’s children bounce between the two apartments, finding willing audiences for dance performances, closets for playing dress up, shared meals and a communal atmosphere of parenting. Costs continue to rise in the city so everyone contributes as they can, jointly covering life’s expenses.
In Islam, the Sabbath day falls on a Friday so the weekend hustle starts on Thursday afternoons when the four sisters, two brothers, one husband and four children living in Amman caravan the hour and a half to Mazar. Nearly every Thursday they coordinate work schedules, shuffle bags and car seats and grab a quick snack before rushing out the door in an effort to beat the evening traffic. Once free from the Amman gridlock, the King’s Highway provides a multi-lane expressway leading south to the village of Mazar.
The family home in Mazar sits behind a high, concrete wall with a white lattice iron gate, distanced from the Sahaba Mosque and the main street by a broad field of olive trees. The influx of family on the weekend means the two rooms outfitted with a large king sized bed often happily accommodate four to five sisters and three to five children. Friday mornings start slowly with the strong aroma of dark coffee coaxing everyone from their slumber. Laughter and chatter permeate the house as everyone recounts the events of the previous week.
Mira sits on her Aunti Saja’s lap as the family heads down to Mazar on a Thursday evening. Their nieces and nephews are showered with love and attention in this family. June, 2016
Sura and Duha head to visit friends during a weekend in Mazar. The small towns in Southern Jordan are made up of tight knit communities and hospitality reigns supreme for Arabs. Afternoon visits can often extend for hours with rounds of coffee, tea, fruit, and other goodies.
The view from the Islamic International Arab bank office in Karak, the nearest city to Mazar. Sura will spend some time here in her new role and Duha works at the Ministry of Education in Karak. Karak has one of the largest Christian communities in Jordan, with Christians making up roughly a quarter of the population in the city.
Mannequins line the walls with various options for the jilbabs. Many stores in the city center of Amman display various Islamic fashions—dishdashes, abayas, jilbabs and hijabs. “It isn’t okay for anyone to see my hair because its forbidden in our religion. I abide by this not only because its required, but because I’m convinced. I try to convince myself to put on the jilbāb or have more hijab-like clothing. But it’ll happen, step-by-step.” Saja explains and notes sisters, Sura and Ghofran choose to exclusively wear jilbabs.
An array of toothbrushes sit in each Qatawneh bathroom as the family members travel often to be together. Weekends are spent here, in the Qatawneh family home in Mazar, allowing for communal care of the children and shared Sabbath day meals.
Saja attempts to console Wakar, Ghofran’s youngest son, just after completing her afternoon prayers.
On January 7, 2016, the pattern of their lives was unexpectedly dismantled.
Sisters in Solace
On a chilling day in January 2016, Sura ’s husband, Turki, suffered fatal wounds when an assailant entered his family-owned fruit store and opened fire. Racing through the small towns dotting the desert landscape of Southern Jordan, the cream colored concrete buildings blurred as they sped to the hospital in the city of Karak. By the time Duha and their father joined them at the hospital, Turki had been confirmed dead and Sura’s immediate grief pharmaceutically eased. Mira and the other children had already been whisked away by Ghofran as word spread of the incident and wailing mourners flocked to the hospital. The motives behind the shooting remain unknown and the killer awaits trial in police custody.
The loss of this beloved man shook the entire community, rendering Sura utterly devastated and reliant on the support of her four sisters, two brothers, parents and in-laws. “I am now in the Iddah (Islamic waiting period for widows), during which I have to remain in my marital home. But since my son is still young and there is no mahram (unmarriageable male relative) to stay in the house with me, I have to stay with my family for four months and ten days,” Sura explained. Sura moved in with her parents and Duha, the third eldest sister living at home while continuing her studies and working for the Ministry of Education in Karak.
“My sisters were…like a balsam. They took care of my daughter. Each one of them fed me, brought me food, did things for me, prepared my clothes for me. They went to my house because it was hard for me to do so,” said Sura. Looking to minimize any further trauma for her children, Sura asked her mother to join her in Amman to look after her daughter during a month long training for a new job and relied on her in-laws to care for her 11 month old son.
A common underpinning of devotion to family and religion created a connective tissue that supported the Qatawnehs in a time of need and now propels them to carry on with their lives.
Repairing the fabric of a Family
In the wake of his death, the Qatawneh family struggled to make sense of the loss and recompose their lives. “Time will heal the wound, but Turki’s death wasn’t just a sad piece of information. It was a crucial period, steps taken together that made us all mature, made us grow in how we think and in our faith. It transgressed everything,” explained Ghofran.
Throughout 2016 a cloud of grief hung over the family with melancholy reminders of Turki present at every turn—his son’s first birthday, Saturday morning breakfast where he often appeared with mounds of fruit from his family store, and most acutely in the lead up to and during the Holy month of Ramadan. “I’ve begun questioning whether it’ll be possible for us to ever be happy again. I feel like he left, taking happiness and joy with him. When we celebrate anything, we’ll all be feeling an unbearable pain,” explained the fourth sister, Saja.With the passing of Turki, both brothers have assumed an even larger role in their sisters’ lives. Third and youngest in the line of siblings, Muhammed and Ahmed act as key pillars in this united family. Ahmed brings levity and a quick wit to a household dominated by female perspectives. As the eldest son, Muhammed carries many of the responsibilities in the family and is seen by his sisters as the mature, confident and caring one. “After his death, I would’ve been in a much worse mental state if I was in the dorms. So thank God, I’m with my family, with my siblings,” explained Saja.
A GLIMPSE OF CELEBRATION
In May, the third sister, Duha, graduated from nearby Mutah University and marked the first semblance of celebration for the Qatawneh family. The family hosted her female colleagues for a traditional meal of Mansaf, a dish served nationwide to celebrate memorable events such as this.
On the Saturday morning following the graduation, Abu Muhammed returned from the market carrying bags brimming with vegetables and bricks of jameed, a dried, tart yogurt and the key ingredient in Mansaf. Furniture legs screeched across the floors, being moved in sync with swift, efficient cleaning strokes. The family members darted about as they rotated chopping vegetables, setting out platters and watching the children. Muhammed and their father, Abu Muhammed, prepared a fire and large pot for the Mansaf in a covered outdoor area. A vacuum roared in the living room competing with party prep chatter and the backdrop of Arabic television.
As the guests began to arrive, the frenzy in the kitchen heightened while Duha graciously ushered the women into the living room. The scene resembled a restaurant with one sister politely offering refreshments to the visitors while the others raced behind closed doors to assemble platters of food. Trays full of sodas were passed to the growing number of guests. The men stooped over the billowing smoke from the boiling goat meat and milky colored rice, routinely taste testing in search of perfection.
Large mounds of Mansaf with the requisite goat head were proudly presented to the guests as the men quietly vacated the house enabling the all female visitors to comfortably discard their hijabs and enjoy a few hours of lively banter. Fortunately, the children found quiet entertainment in the new coloring books distributed just prior to the arrival time of the guests.
While this day brought some optimism back into their home in Mazar, moments of discomfort lingered and everyone kept a close eye on the eldest sister, Sura. “Even though we believe that death is a natural right — what is difficult isn’t just the loss, but the departure of joy from the home of one of the closest and dearest people to us all,” said Ghofran.
RESURGENCE OF JOY DURING RAMADAN
Crescent moons and twinkling lights strung over the street posts and shop windows announced the religious holiday of Ramadan when observers fast from sunrise to sunset. The smell of Umm Muhammed’s freshly baked maamoul, a holiday shortbread cookie, filled the Amman apartment yet a dull ache could be felt as they prepared to face this year’s Ramadan minus one. On the third night, those in Amman which included everyone but their father and Duha, opted for a change of scenery and ventured downtown for their Iftar, the meal breaking the day’s fast. The streets buzzed with activity as everyone scrambled to purchase last minute items and scurry home before the prayer rang out signaling sunset and releasing hands to reach for dates, water, and lentil soup.
A levity carried smiles from face to face as the evening unfolded. A feast of roasted chicken, lamb, hummus and more covered the table surface and a chorus of voices questioning if everyone had had enough to eat played on repeat. “Alhamdullilah” signaled satiation for each member as they stood to wash their hands and slipped into a separate room designated for prayer.
During Ramadan the city stays alive late into the night and following the meal the family strolled the streets—visiting the King Hussein Mosque, buying fresh juices and ice cream, and generally enjoying each others company through the shop-lined streets of downtown. Life continued on, slowly regaining moments of joy during the holy month.
They often move as a unit, acting as confidants and council in every matter, yet strong individual ideas and personalities exist among these five Muslim women. Even while recovering from the chicken pox, Farah, the youngest sister, demonstrates a confidence built from observing the paths carved by her siblings. Their lives steeped in ambition and dignity, the sisters support and motivate each other.
When asked about the pressures of marriage and career, Ghofran explained, “I respect how my family thinks because they are different from many people who believe that after a certain age, the girl needs to get married. My family doesn’t think like this at all. Despite the fact that one of my three unmarried sisters is over 30 years old, they don’t pressure her.” Duha expanded on the Qatawneh view of marriage saying, “they mainly try to impart to us that the person has to be good. It’s not just you who’s going to marry him, he’ll be dealing with the entire family.”
This notion of family first and son-in-laws being fully encompassed by the family rang true as the Qatawneh family swelled to include Sura’s husband, Turki, and Ghofran’s husband, Ahmed. Ghofran married first and has lived in the same apartment in Amman for many years with her husband, Ahmed, and their four children.
THURSDAY EVENING RITUAL IN MAZAR
Following a late dinner in Mazar, everyone gathered in the living room, comfortably sprawled on the large, U-shaped couch lining the walls. The children rushed in and out with newly acquired balloons while the sisters alternated their attention between their phones and the ongoing debate over tomorrow’s lunch menu. Abu Muhammed remarked on the latest reports streaming in from Jordan TV news. Rounding out a typical Thursday evening in the Qatawneh household, Uhm Muhammed placed a platter of fruit on the table and coyly found an opportunity to slip in a comment about her hopes for her eldest son’s marriage as she slid onto the couch next to him. Sura and Farah rolled their eyes, while Muhammed shrugged off the comment as he reached for the remote to scan for movie options. The atmosphere was comfortably chaotic, familial and warm. For now, this close-knit family relaxed into the start of a weekend and embraces the future with an even stronger connection to each other and deeper reliance on their faith.
About this Project
A decade of connection and trust
Hours upon hours as a guest were spent trying to learn Arabic, navigate how to appropriately decline the tenth cup of tea, or dispel the common suspicions surrounding an American Peace Corps volunteer in a small town in Jordan. During my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I found meaningful commonalities and a special relationship with a woman named Sura Qatawneh, eventually becoming the sixth sister in the Qatawneh family.
A trust and mutual respect allows us to openly discuss both perceived and actual cultural differences. Honest discussions then and now continue to illustrate just how much popular culture and politics influence cross cultural views—generating narratives that underpin our thoughts about other societies. On both sides of our conversations, differences bump into preconceived notions of US or Middle Eastern societies, creating a constant comparison of what we believe to what we encounter.
Over ten years has passed since being enveloped into this family and I cherish the honest and thoughtful nature of our evolving relationship. It is with great appreciation and fondness that I act as a conduit between this dynamic family and the readers. Thank you to every member of the Qatawneh family for bestowing your trust during this time of hardship and to Ohio University for supporting this project and reunion. A special note of appreciation to Named Graduate Fellowship and Student Enhancement Award that assisted this project.
A version of this project was produced in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Arts from the School of Visual Communication in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.
Copyright © 2017 Melissa Riggs
Photographer, Designer, Writer: Melissa HH Riggs
Master’s Project Committee: Stan Alost, Josh Birnbaum & Julie Elman
Translation & transcription: Michelle Balon