In 2006, when molecular biologist Rana Dajani returned to Jordan after completing her PhD in Iowa, she noticed something about the children she encountered.
Growing up with her family in that country — and now as a mother — reading was considered a cherished pastime. When she was a child, Dajani’s parents would read aloud to her and her seven younger siblings, who all went on to devour books.
But although almost all of Jordan’s population can read (an estimated 95 percent as of 2015) many children weren’t reading outside of academic and religious contexts. They didn’t read for fun.
Research in the U.S. and U.K. has associated reading with longer lifespan, increased empathy and well-being, and reading fiction in particular has connections to increased processing skills, like creativity.
Over 100 Israeli and Palestinian women looked directly into one another’s eyes for the first time in their lives during Saskia Keeley’s workshops.
Keeley began hosting summer photography workshops for Israeli and Palestinian women in 2016 through a partnership with Roots, an Israeli-Palestinian initiative in the West Bank. She collected the photographic outcomes for an exhibition titled “Roots Non-Violence,” which is currently on display at UCLA’s Hillel until Dec. 20. She also will be delivering an artist talk, free and open to the public, to relay her workshop experience Tuesday. By offering a glimpse into the reality of Israeli and Palestinian womens’ perspectives on the world, the exhibition bears testimony to the ways the photographic medium can bridge gaps between women of both cultures, Keeley said.
“For many of these women, it was their first time ever meeting anyone from the other side,” she said. “I got to see very early on how the workshops were transformational for these women.”
“Suddenly, we find ourselves in the same room with each other and the walls are gone […] We have a chance, sometimes, to create a place of astonishing mutuality reminding each other how acceptable we are.” – Gregory Boyle
The women keep the cameras for the duration of the two-week workshop returning to their homes to fulfill photo assignments by capturing their environments, loved ones, and daily lives.
After the initial session, photos are reviewed in each gathering with a final compilation shared during the fourth class. The women diligently use the lens for the sheer pleasure of documenting their lives and what is close to their heart. That is an amazing opportunity to get insight into their worlds, their homes, their families. The photos that come out of their assignments are striking and often touchingly personal in their portrayal of loved ones in intimate settings. Through the sharing of personal images, what emerges more than anything else are the similarities in their shared humanity, in particular, the obvious love they all share for their kin.
This past summer I share this short tutorial with my group of women. In the slideshow, there is a beautiful photo taken last year by Naomi, an Israeli participant, of her husband and grandson during Havdalah. They stand facing one another, the grandson performs the ritual of lighting a candle and looking at the luminous flame in wonder while his grandfather blesses a glass of wine. The dimly-lit room with the candle as the only source of light, the composition, the colors are reminiscent of an old-masters painting.
I spent ten days documenting the NGO Taghyeer / We Love Reading initiative in Jordan. During my time on the ground, I met many hardworking and inspiring people from the We Love Reading community – from support staff and coordinators to women (and a few men) training to become reading ambassadors.
WLR ambassadors foster a love for reading in young children in indigenous communities and Syrian refugee camps across Jordan, with ambitions to spread across the Middle East and around the world.
Each and every one of my interactions was meaningful and poignant, a testimony to the great mission of We Love Reading. Here, I chronicle my two days in the Azraq Camp.
I believe in the power of the visual. In my work I seek opportunities and moments for connection that go beyond words and happen within a split second. I try to capture the realities I perceive with objectivity while maintaining the trust and dignity of those who come under my camera’s gaze. This is a surprisingly delicate balance. What I have experienced over and over is the achievement of a deep emotional connection and a sense of belonging, even though I am "an outsider." Some element of common humanity has allowed lasting bonds to develop every time.
The course was sponsored by Roots, an initiative led by a joint Palestinian and Israeli committee whose goal is to foster understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians. The four-day class was being given by world-class European photographer Saskia Keeley, in the Gush Etzion area, to local women, for free. By “local” I mean the Jewish Israelis of Gush Etzion and the Palestinian Arabs in the neighboring villages. Together.
Founded in 1997, it organizes women into self-help groups, known as SHGs, clusters and federations. The SHG members are sent to field-schools where they receive training in more effective planting, farming, and harvesting techniques, animal husbandry as well as hygiene and sanitation. They also learn negotiation skills with merchants, for example on how to buy seeds in bulk at a discount. The women then bring back this knowledge to their villages where they become community-resource persons and train the next group of women.
More important, the women of Ibtada are breaking down barriers and opening spaces for themselves and their daughters so they can live a life of dignity and opportunity.
The END Fund in collaboration with Amani Global Works are working together in the Congolese island of Idjwi to implement a public-health program designed to control and eradicate neglected tropical disease (NTD). This collaborative project aims for sustainability, community engagement, and wider adoption of good practices.