By Pauline Sullivan
Pauline Sullivan, Associate Professor of Human Sciences at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee, was a participant in the 2020 CAORC-ACOR Faculty Development Seminar to Jordan. In this essay, she discusses how innovative approaches to traditional handicrafts are helping sustain Jordan’s rural communities. Photos courtesy the author unless otherwise noted.
My long-time interest in Jordanian handicraft products and sustainable development motivated me to apply to the CAORC-ACOR Faculty Development Seminar to Jordan. In reading about ACOR and its USAID-funded initiative, the Sustainable Cultural Heritage through Engagement of Local Communities Project (SCHEP), I learned about the importance of providing employment, training, and learning opportunities to local communities through cultural preservation. Indeed, as was shown throughout our seminar, archaeology and cultural preservation can be important resources for economic development and improving the well being of communities. It was through this lens that I processed my seminar experience in Jordan, especially by focusing on the intersection of material culture, tourism, and entrepreneurship in developing sustainable economic opportunities.
Material goods provide a means of communicating culture among different locations through the collective efforts of designers, producers, advertisers, and consumers (McCracken 1986). Cultural categories related to design often include flora, fauna, and elements from natural and spiritual landscapes. Traditional handicrafts, such as weaving, embroidery, handmade glass, and mosaics, are important in the Jordanian tourism economy, as they have come to represent the cultural traditions of local people. Traditional embroidered women’s dresses are a good example. Some women have even become entrepreneurs selling traditional designs.
During the seminar, we made a visit to Tiraz, the traditional Arab dress museum of Mrs. Widad Kawar. The museum is a colorful celebration of textiles, design, and culture. There were displays of embroidered dresses from different periods and a variety of places in Jordan, Palestine, and elsewhere in the region. Each garment had unique stitches and designs that were refined over generations. After the visit, Mrs. Kawar invited us into her home. It was a privilege to meet her. She also served us lovely treats. Most of all, Mrs. Kawar told us the story of how she started her collection, which reflected her emotional and cognitive bonds to the places and traditions associated with each piece. Mrs. Kawar’s description of her personalized experiences created an immense sense of authenticity.
Tourism has an important role in Jordan’s economy but, as many have noted, tourism has to be balanced with the need to sustain and preserve heritage. Sustainable tourism is mindful of its local stakeholders. It strives to preserve site authenticity as well as intangible aspects of heritage, especially local knowledge and crafts.
An excellent example of sustainable tourism is found around the archaeological site of Umm el-Jimal, a well-preserved Late Roman and Early Islamic town found in northern Jordan. Upon arrival, our group was met with an endless array of ancient buildings and streets that created an overwhelming sense of awe. Sitting on a rock, looking at the remains, I reflected on the poetry of Rumi:“If I sit in my own place of patience, what I need flows to me.” This experience was transformative, as I tried to image the lives of Umm el-Jimal’s inhabitants centuries ago.
We learned about Umm el-Jimal’s homes, places of worship, and its inn for travelers. Remnants of the ancient town could be found everywhere, from mosaic floors to broken pottery to the waterways used by the inhabitants. In addition, we observed that the site is still used as a lived space by local residents in the course of their daily lives, uniting people and their surroundings.
Umm el-Jimal is also notable for local enterprises that have developed around the site. Adjacent to the archaeological site we found a craft shop run by the Umm el-Jimal Women’s Cooperative. The artisans carve locally available black basalt into sellable artwork, including both larger decorative pieces as well as jewelry, all in simple yet elegant designs. The Cooperative is also branching out to provide other tourism services. For example, our group was able to enjoy a traditional meal in the home of one of the Cooperative’s members, complete with welcoming coffee and conversation in the salon and then a massive meal of mouthwatering local dishes held in the family’s dining room.
What impressed me most was the business model used by the Umm el-Jimal Women’s Cooperative, which utilizes local materials and resources to create a competitive advantage in Jordan’s tourism sector. These female entrepreneurs recognize that tourists increasingly seek out creative experiences rooted in authentic interactions, with people, products, services, and the environment.
Within sustainable development, entrepreneurship is an important strategy for addressing problems of poverty, inequality, and safety in emerging countries (Bansal, Garg, and Sharma 2019). One dimension of entrepreneurship is creative destruction, in which old, less relevant things are replaced with new ones in innovative ways (Divan 2016).
Green Creations, which has benefited from USAID SCHEP support to the community-based tourism startup Aqabawi, is a women’s social entrepreneurship project, located in Jordan’s southern port city of Aqaba, that creates jewelry (like the earrings shown below) out of recycled materials such as newspaper, glass, and aluminum cans. The organization is an exceptional example of innovative creative destruction because of the materials the artists work with and the techniques they use to make their products. And, like Umm el-Jimal, the success of Green Creations is a result of community and organizational support. Their marketing materials state that they are “a Jordanian artisan group merging community development with environmental awareness” that also provides “skills and training in a family atmosphere for local women.”
The faculty development seminar to Jordan exposed me to new thoughts and practices related to sustainable development, especially the important role that archaeology and heritage can plan in supporting local economies. In visiting with these emerging local organizations, I especially learned about human resilience and the importance of community.
Bansal, S., Garg, I., & Sharma, G. D. (2019). Social entrepreneurship as a path for social change and driver of sustainable development: A systematic review and research agenda. Sustainability, 11(4), 1091.
Divan, D. (2016). Entrepreneurs Drive Creative Destruction [Entrepreneur Viewpoint]. IEEE Power Electronics Magazine, 3(3), 38-39.
McCracken, G. (1986). Culture and consumption: A theoretical account of the structure and movement of the cultural meaning of consumer goods. Journal of consumer research, 13(1), 71-84.
CAORC’s 2020 faculty development seminar to Jordan was organized with the American Center of Oriental Research and supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. For an excellent overview of the seminar, read ACOR Development and Communications Officer Jacqueline Salzinger's article, "'Jordan: Sustainability at the Margins' | Looking Back at the 2020 ACOR-CAORC Faculty Development Seminar" on the ACOR website.
Learn more about CAORC Faculty Development Seminars.
About the Author
Pauline Sullivan is Associate Professor of Human Sciences at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was among 12 faculty participants in the seminar “Jordan: Sustainability at the Margins,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held January 2–17, 2020, in Amman and at sites throughout Jordan.