Sunday, October 5, 2008

Portrait #53: The Kitchen Counter

Something I'm encountering a lot here, which in fact seems to be a component of almost every single centre, association or project focusing on Jordanian women, is kitchens. They're called matbakh intaji, which would directly translate as a 'productive kitchen'. A matbakh intaji is essentially a small business venture that serves multiple purposes: on-the-job training, education in a household skill, business experience, and a safe place for women to work without coming into contact with men. That last element is especially precious. A guaranteed women-only environment means that many women who would otherwise be unable to work can now join productive society.

I spent two afternoons last week in one such kitchen. Unfortunately, this was during the last week of Ramadan, so tasting the produce of the productive kitchen was out of the question. But it looked and smelled gorgeous.

This kitchen had a staff of about ten. Six girls or so were the core employees, present the entire time, while others came and went as their duties required. They all wore a uniform of headscarves, jeans and ratty t-shirts.

This particular productive kitchen has a regular order from a hotel for a given number of pastries: kibbes (meat balls pastries), sbanekh (spinach pastries), and I'm not sure what else. So during much of the day, women sit or stand around a huge marble counter in the middle of the room, rolling out dough, stuffing pastry pockets, and shaping bite-sized this or that. It's rather repetitive work.

But consider the following: we all know the best conversation happens in the kitchen + women love to talk + half a dozen women are working together for hours each day on somewhat brain-numbing work = lots and lots of good conversation happening around that kitchen counter...

We got to hear the life story of several employees of the kitchen. The one thing they all had in common is the reasons they work in this specific kitchen: (a) it is close to their house and (b) it is a women's only environment. They loved receiving us as guests, and were happy to tell us their stories. Once we got past the basic facts of life - age, studies, siblings, etc. - we started talking philosophy. They gave us a thorough summary of the problems facing women in Jordan, and plenty examples of each problem. They told us of their life dreams, and two girls even admitted to being secret writers. But they refused to show me their journals.

One of the directors of the kitchen is fluent in English, and she has promised to start giving them English lessons after Ramadan. So they will produce with their hands and absorb with their heads. And they begged us to come visit again after Ramadan so that they can feed us.

Then one of the girls, a young energetic lady who jokes about everything and is a natural leader, started telling us her tragic love story. She told of a man who had fallen in love with her years ago when he saw her walking to school. For four years he tried to approach her, and for four years she stayed away like a good girl should. Eventually, though, he won her over and finally he went to her family to ask for her hand in marriage, when--

An older woman dressed in black, with the air of someone who is used to being obeyed and respected, walked into the kitchen. The best conversation happens around the kitchen counter, but not anyone can sit around the kitchen counter. By entering the room, this woman, who is a teacher and a neighbour, squashed in a second the stories and the jokes.

Oh, the kitchen, where the girls, the uneducated, the poor are the elites. While the educated, older women, and the men, become little more than a nuisance.

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