In Amman, Remaking Lives with Repurposed Wood

How one shop is changing perceptions about women with disabilities

By / April 2015

When I first met Rania, she was sandpapering a wooden camel. She wore a slate blue hijab snug under her chin. Only when she stood to retrieve more figurines from a cardboard box did I notice the braces on her legs. Rania, who had polio as a child, works at Desert Rose Holy Land Designs, a gift shop on a narrow street lined with mechanics, blacksmiths and stone masons deep in Amman’s industrial district. In the workshop there, Rania and her coworkers fashion wooden products from recycled olive branches.

Desert Rose was founded in 2001 by a woman named Lynn Smith. Her goal was to equip the underprivileged in the Jordanian community with skills to help them support their families. “Once they learn a skill, become wage earners and begin contributing to the family’s welfare,” she adds, “they earn the respect of their relatives and tribes.” Over the years Desert Rose has gained similar respect and a reputation for successfully training and employing the hearing-impaired, physically disabled, and disadvantaged.

The idea for such a venture began when Smith was an English teacher in Amman. She befriended a young lady who had ten siblings and needed a way to earn income for her family, plus have enough left over to attend university. About that time, Smith met a man who was making and selling wooden camels.

Photograph by Danny Wright

Smith taught her friend from school how to sew saddle bags for the camels. Soon the whole family was sewing to send her to college. Thousands of camels and saddle bags later, Smith started Desert Rose. Three former employees have gone on to earn university degrees. Along the way, Smith has also provided training in literacy, child development, sign language, nutrition, and health care.

Rania’s battle with polio began when she was only 18 months old, leaving her unable to walk. Her parents could not afford a wheelchair. As a child, she used to crawl across the floor to keep up with her six siblings. It took eight surgeries and months of physical therapy, but ultimately Rania was able to move about with the aid of braces and crutches. She says many families would hide their disabled children because of shame, but her parents did the best they could to treat her like a normal person.

Rania never attended public school. Her family lived too far outside of Amman to take her to a special school for the disabled. Finally, at the age of 17, she learned to read and write through a program sponsored by the Al Hussein Society for Rehabilitation.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) there are nearly 200,000 disabled citizens living in Jordan. Slowly, the social stigma surrounding disability is weakening. But there are still those who do not see people with Rania’s condition as normal, maybe not even fully human. “People here are uncomfortable with us,” she explained. “If they would just help us, get to know us, they wouldn’t feel that way.”

In some ways, Rania is much more than normal. As a child, she benefitted from activities sponsored by the Jordan Union for Handicapped Sports. She became an avid weightlifter and excelled at wheelchair basketball. Although barely five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, Rania once bench-pressed over 260 pounds. In 1996, she even earned a spot on Jordan’s Olympic wheelchair basketball team but she chose not to go to the Atlanta games. Engaged to be married, she didn’t want to leave her fiancé.

Rania, now 39 years old, is married with two children. Like the hardy olive tree which has adapted to Jordan’s dry climate and rocky soil, she has learned to live with disability. Against the odds, she is part of the 22% of Jordanian women who have found employment in the private sector. She dreams, as any other mother, to send her children to college.

Rania’s workspace at Desert Rose is fragrant with the smell of fresh-cut wood. Natural light from tall windows lights a constellation of sawdust. Not far from Rania’s workstation, a glass encased store exhibits the finished products. Camels ranging in size from three inches to a foot tall line the top shelves next to statuettes of lions, bears, birds, fish, donkeys and cows. There are picture frames, letter openers, bowls and kitchen utensils stacked and squeezed into every nook and cranny of the room.

Supplies are not a problem for Desert Rose. Jordan has nearly 12 million olive trees, meaning plenty of branches available for repurposing after the fall harvest and pruning season. Desert Rose orders several cords of it at a time. The low-cost olive wood requires months of drying and will split or crack if not completely cured. Even then, it is impossible to know if a branch is usable. When cut open, they are sometimes riven or hollow on the inside.

Smith says many people view olive wood as too difficult to work with, only good for the burn pile. But Smith admires the wood’s look and maturation. Yellowish brown and accented by dark, wavy grains, its color deepens with age.

In some ways, that’s how she sees Rania and the other women of Desert Rose. Like the olive branches they shape and plane into works of art, the women are being transformed, even as they transform the lives of their families and challenge the way this traditional society perceives women with physical disabilities.

 

Danny Wright, a writer based in Amman, is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler. For more information about Desert Rose Holy Land Designs, visit their website: www.holylanddesigns.com.

 

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