Exiting violence artistically in Jordan: Garage Art as a Safe Space
This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fondation Maison des Sciences de I’Homme and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are the sole responsibility of the author.
For the last twenty years, Jordanian society has become increasingly affected by the repercussions of the State’s external affairs with neighboring countries. There was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Syrian crisis in 2011, the Arab Spring’s democratic challenges, and tensions with the Israeli and American governments resulting from Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” that included the formal recognition of Jerusalem as the exclusive capital of Israel in 2018. Indeed, these events translated into different challenges for the safety of society, some of which were manifested by spectacular forms of violence such as physical endangerment and loss of lives during the terrorist attacks on hotels in Amman in 2005. Yet, other forms of violence have a less visible impact on society, such as the gradual radicalization of youth through the jihadist movements, the discriminatory narrative against Arab refugees, and the intensification of some gender-based forms of violence such as child marriage (Young et al. 2014, Abu Zaid 2021).
The incrementation of such vulnerabilities makes Jordan a theater of ‘slow violence’, a violence “that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive” (Nixon 2011). These forms of violence evolve through time and in the life of society. Connected to a reality of diversity and to new societal challenges, Jordanian civil society is not isolated from the conflicts in neighboring States. These have repercussions on the process of meaning construction for individuals, a process of re-formation of self-identity and the identity of the Other. This evolution leads to a reality of “identity-based violence” (Wieviorka 2009) that reveals an urgent need for a culture of acceptance. The Jordanian social space comes to be seen as an incubator of slow violence but, at the same time, as a place for other spaces to promote a culture of diversity and tolerance in order to exit this violence. in recent years, some social spaces that were deemed to be safe for free speech – such as universities – witnessed cases of gender-based violence and tribal fights. The spaces of expression and knowledge production have become a vital means of exiting violence since 2015.
That year witnessed the mobilization of young art fans in Irbid (a northern city of the Kingdom) around a collective initiative that is also known as the MedeArts Association, legalized under the Jordanian Ministry of Culture. At first sight, the association seems to be merely a local collective whose objective is to produce cultural and artistic material with no connection to the reality of the context of this identity-based violence in the country. This observation can be verified by examining the mission of MedeArts before the implementation of Garage Art in the basement of a building in Irbid in 2019. Since 2015, the association has focused mainly on holding artistic events that take place in the street (such as The Daraj Festival, the Jalaton project which aims at preserving the Arab heritage, including the graffiti art form). It provided logistical and financial support to local artists in the same way as other national cultural structures in the capital Amman, such as the Haya cultural center, the al-Hussein cultural center, or other major cultural actions delivered by the Municipality of Amman.
However, the creation of Garage Art four years after the foundation of MedeArts reflects the association’s preoccupation and understanding of the role of art in exiting violence through the creation of safe spaces. As theorized by Western feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, the concept of ‘safe space’ aims at reconsidering the role of marginalized and vulnerable social categories in light of the violence they suffer from, bets on the implementation art and culture as a way to prevent hate speech and to address exclusion in society (Lewis et al. 2015). The concept of ‘Safe Space’ has attracted the local cultural activists in Irbid because it can offer a sustainable environment that can be safe, or safer than other places in society (Campbell et Manning 2018). The adaptation of the Western concept to the Jordanian context seems to build on the role of these spaces. They encourage “a certain license to speak and act freely, form collective strength, and generate strategies for resistance” (Kenney 2001). In fact, MedeArts‘s vision of the function of art in Jordan is to be thought of in light of the evolution of the culture of acceptance in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: “our heartfelt desire was to create a Safe Space for our artists and young people of the local community, since many of them suffer from intolerance and non-acceptance from their society, which is a big issue in our region today.” (MedeArts Association, MedeArts Website) A physical artistic space that is designed to include a performance and rehearsal area for artists, sitting areas, a café, and an art shop corner, becomes a major factor of safety for social actors. Therefore, the mission of MedeArts through Garage Art is not only to provide support to local artists, but also to provide a sustainable space in society in which to think and respond to violence.
According to Garage Art’s policy, the space offers protection and support for the freedom of speech of two specific social categories: women and members of the LGBTQ+ community (MedeArts Association, Art and People Narrative). To measure the impact of this safe space for social actors, one needs to consider the concept of safety from two perspectives: “safe from” and “safe for”(Lewis et al. 2015). According to this distinction, “safe from” means that the space can be a way to provide protection, while “safe to” insists more on the added value of safety for the individuals’ agency in expressing themselves freely. Garage Art’s objective is to provide both forms of safety. The added value of this space in guaranteeing free speech for victims of gender-based violence (GBV) is measurable when compared to the association’s earlier artistic activities and events organized before the creation of Garage Art. For instance, we can cite the Youth Theater project, launched by the association in December 2017, which took place in the Usama al-Mashini theater in Amman, a facility of the Ministry of Culture. This project allowed women and LGBTQ+ individuals to to tackle topics relating to gender-based violence as well as violence connected to other situations, such as physical disabilities, social inequality and injustice, and drug misuse. It was based on the theatrical storytelling genre that required many sessions of training by the association C:ntact. The story of R.R., a person identifying as a “transgender man living in northern Jordan” (Sammour et Sakran), is emblematic of the limits of the performance in an ephemeral theatrical setup for youth trainees. R.R. says: “It is true that my show is a special one and not open to all, for my own security” (Sammour et Sakran). This testimony shows that the theatrical space in which the play was hosted was a major challenge in narrating the personal experience to the public.
The self-imposed restrictions can be explained by the fact that the storytellers performed in a theater where the policies regarding public interaction with the GBV victims were not defined by MedeArts. Indeed, the dominant public perception of such narratives in Jordan reduces the possibility of control by MedeArts in terms of safety for such social actors. Despite the absence of any legal policies restricting the freedom of speech of LGBTQ+ individuals, the perception of such narratives is at stake, considering Jordan’s official practices. After arresting ten LGBTQ+ people for having held a party in East Amman in 2014, the Jordanian authorities banned Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band whose lead singer identifies as gay, from performing in Jordan in 2016 and 2017. They also blocked access to the online queer-inclusive magazine My.Kali that published, in its May/June 2016 issue, the real story of a religious man who embraced homosexuality (Mohavedi 2017). By blocking access to this magazine, the official stance taken by the Media Commission “was not the first time Jordanian authorities had stoked moral panic at the expense of LGBT people” (Mohavedi 2017). It is understandable, then, that for MedeArts it is not possible to address the official and social antagonism to the LGBTQ+ community without a policy that initially requires a proper safe space for the association and, specifically, a policy to regulate the relation between queer witnesses and the public.
The implementation of a safe space responds to this problem by defining a sustainable politics of social interaction between the victims of violence and the general public. With the acquisition of an urban garage, the permanent space enables a sustainable social interaction that differs from the ephemeral theatrical performance in the official theaters. This sustainability follows a mechanism of openness. The instauration of a culture of acceptance requires, somewhat paradoxically, that the victims of violence understand that safe spaces do not need to limit access to the general public, despite the potential risk of seeing their experiences and narratives rejected by others. If this method allows a normalization of interaction, it raises the question whether safety means that Garage Art has to be a social conflict-free space. Indeed, the space is open to the general public, but this openness is subordinate to a policy of control of the social interactions that implies a “constant monitoring of the visitors in the space” (MedeArts Association, Art and People Narrative). In addition, the space displays at the entrance a chart that mentions the values and ethics of the safe space: acceptance, respect of difference, repudiation of violence in all its forms (verbal, physical, emotional, and psychological), and respect of privacy (see photo). Therefore, the difficulty of conceiving safety resides in the definition of what are the acceptable limits of eventual conflicts of point of views and values of the space visitors.
Abu Zaid, Sarah, 2021. ‘Child Marriage on the Rise Again — Survey’. Jordan Times, 20 January 2021, https://jordantimes.com/news/local/child-marriage-rise-again-%E2%80%94-survey.
Campbell, Bradley, and Jason Manning, 2018. The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars. 1st ed. 2018 edition, Palgrave Macmillan.
Kenney, Rachel Moira, 2001. Mapping Gay L.A: The Intersection of Place and Politics. 1st edn, Temple University Press, U.S.
Lewis, Ruth, et al., 2015. ‘Safe Spaces’: Experiences of Feminist Women-Only Space’. Sociological Research Online, vol. 20, no 4, November 2015. ResearchGate, https://doi.org/10.5153/sro.3781.
MedeArts Association, Unpublished report. Art and People Narrative.
———. MedeArts Website. https://medearts.org/garage/. Accessed on 15 September 2021.
Mohavedi, MJ, 2017. ‘Gay-bashing in Jordan – by the government’. The New Arab, August 2017, https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/gay-bashing-jordan-government.
Nixon, Rob, 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.
Sammour, Mohammad, and Safi Sakran, Unpublished report. The City-Artists Network Association MedeArts Report (2015-2019).
Wieviorka, Michel, 2009. Violence: A New Approach. 1st edn, SAGE Publications Ltd,.
Young, William, et al. 2014, ‘Spillover of the Syrian Conflict into Jordan’. Spillover from the Conflict in Syria, RAND Corporation, p. 47‑56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/j.ctt1287mhx.13.
Ammar Kandeel is a postdoctoral researcher. His research covers the artistic and historical narratives of Palestinians and the current Jordanian scene of artistic safe spaces. Ammar was part of the fellowship program on exiting violence at Columbia Global Centers Amman (January-July 2022).