Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

National Biography Award Talk & Podcast

National Biography Award Talk   –    2010

30 November 2010, Mitchell Library

Podcasts available:

Hilary McPhee, writer and former publisher, presents the 2010 National Biography Award lecture.

In recent years she has been living in Jordan and Italy writing a book and articles about the region. Here she discusses biography in both Australia and the Middle East.

Click to view the video

There was a time when some of us feared that literary biography and autobiography were endangered species, that they were being drowned out by the memoirs of 26 year old sportspersons whose lives, or so they seemed to me, had barely begun, but whose books sold in astonishingly large quantities. Publishers were convinced they were on to something and they were.  Celebrity publishing was born.

In the mid nineties, this National Biography Award was created, with the admirable intention of encouraging the highest standards of writing in a genre that was rapidly expanding. And looking at the list of past winners and the shortlists of the last few of years, one cannot but be struck by the range and the originality of the works that have been published since then.

Ideas for books don’t arise because an award exists, of course, and publishers don’t make publishing decisions in the hope of them – but awards like this are a crucial form of acknowledgement to everyone involved that there is some kind of best practice, a standard for research and writing that all the other myriad forms of life writing, the bio-pics and documentary making and collaborating across art forms, can learn from and utilize.

We in Australia seem addicted to them, but they are starting to pour forth everywhere in all kinds of media. President Obama has just appointed someone called a videographer to document life in the White House and his rather fine autobiographies will surely feed that process.

Jill Rowe’s splendid and wonderfully comprehensive biography of Stella Miles Franklin, on this years’ shortlist, is a reminder, if we need one, of the power of awards to map and eventually shape the culture – as I believe this one is already doing.

In an academic climate where writing time is at a premium, the message that historical and literary research work is significant can get very muted. Conveying to authors that such research is worth persevering with – often over many years, is worth doing.

The awards in recent years have celebrated a number of highly original works that have taken the form in directions it has never before been taken. I think especially of Evelyn Juers’ A House of Exile , Barry Hill’s Broken Song, Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Jacob Rosenberg’s ­East of Time, and this year’s winner, of course, Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark, A Life.

Australian writing from life has come a long way. Back in the days when I was a baby editor, books like these would never have happened.

I find it useful to remember the rather low base we’ve come from in this country.

In fact, we encouraged the writing of very few memoirs or autobiographies or substantial biographies until the 1980s. The odd diplomat and headmaster, politicians without spin doctors to plead their case, reminiscences of bush life, mainly by women, most very gentle, if not genteel, and Miles Franklin and Allan Marshall apart, none cut very deep into the culture.

We imported a lot of mainly British biographies and memoirs and published a few rather stodgy, conventionally written works in hardcovers for the library market – of iconic figures – explorers, heroes, aviators.

Those subjects who were still alive were published somewhat dutifully, or so it seemed to me. The old and the distinguished, almost all men, liked to set the chronology of their public lives and thoughts and deeds firmly within the history of their times – their voices were reserved, their revelations for public scrutiny suitably seemly. This befitted the hero’s journey into the dark. The books were perhaps a form of eulogy, epitaph and last judgment rolled into one. Maybe because they imagined themselves dead, they wanted no one to speak ill of them.

By the eighties, some publishers were trying to commission and suggest, but it wasn’t easy. The sorts of people that might have a book in them were the least inclined to write one. You were expected to do them the courtesy of waiting until they thought of it themselves, or risk the huffy response I’m far too young, I’m not finished yet.

So you waited, and usually something watery and disappointing was delivered too late.

I recall family members sometimes bringing in exercise books filled with the grandparents copperplate handwriting giving glimpses of extraordinary childhoods ‘up bush’, or in homes for wayward girls. There were packets of love-letters from young men who went to war, but almost inevitably most were fragments of memories that were fading fast. Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life was a spectacular exception, of course, and fortunate indeed to have found its way to a publishing house prepared to give it the skilled editing it needed.

Tonight, because I am in the Friends Room of the splendid Mitchell Library, talking to people who can be assumed to be interested in biographical writing, it seemed like a fine opportunity to talk a little about some of my time away from here when I was writing a complex biography.

Talking about the book at all is hemmed around by stop signs and no-go areas – most of them in my head, some of them the normal restraints of confidentiality and privacy, some of them might sound a little paranoid to you, like an episode from Spooks, but I was in a world of security concerns, where emails are vetted regularly, at least for keywords, where computer files sometimes seemed to come and go – and formal communications are always coded and oblique.

A few years ago, I was solicited for the task of writing a biography of a well known public figure in Amman – a man greatly respected all over the Arab world and in Europe. He is not at all well known in Australia, which is a pity because we could do with his insights, but it does make talking about the project slightly easier. I don’t need to name him but will try to ensure he gets a copy of this paper. He doesn’t ‘do’ emails, his staff do. And it’s a world of multiple agendas. (more…)


Cover of Wordlines

Cover of Wordlines

The published introduction can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat format here .


a selection of recent Australian writing

I returned to Australia not long ago after a three-year absence, much of it spent working and writing in the Middle East. This time the feeling of dislocation and disorientation lasted for months. I knew I’d brought it on myself, the price to be paid for staying away too long and becoming too engrossed in where I landed – in Amman where the azans from the mosque five times a day are almost drowned out by the roar of the planes flying into Iraq from a nearby airbase.

Australia feels a very long way off.

Perhaps it was At first I tried to keep tabs on what was happening in writing and publishing at home and writer friends occasionally emailed work-in-progress. I downloaded the Book Show and Late Night Live, The Australian’s Literary Review and copies of Meanjin arrived in my mailbox in the wall of the compound.  But my reading was more and more about the region I was in – its pluralism, the clotted history and layers of identity politics made worse by 9/11. The Crusades seen from the other side seemed less an implacable confrontation between Muslims and Christians and more a misreading of history, one still playing out.

There are few books published any more but the internet has taken their place. Story-telling sites and literary blogs are common, where writers critique each other’s work, and political satire manages to stay one step ahead of the government censors. Passionate conversations about books and writing still happen, as they always have, sometimes in surprising places. I love English literature, murmured a young man in an Amman hotel who was cutting my hair. He opened a drawer where a tattered copy of Middlemarch lay among the brushes and rollers.

The only Australian book I was ever asked about was Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love and then so often that I started to feel personally responsible for its distortions and errors. Khouri’s fake settings and her story of an honour killing in Jordan that didn’t happen was highly offensive. Women can and often do live modern lives, wearing the hijab and long coat perhaps only to visit their village. Repressive cultural practices still curtail the lives of many women but work is being done to support them. The members of the Women’s Commission, who quizzed me over lunch one day, were rightly outraged.

I expected to find it difficult to return but it was worse. All I could see was shocking affluence, food fetishism and the politics of spin.  I felt adrift in the wrong place and getting my bearings back was essential. So the reading I was asked to do for the 2009 Melbourne Prize and the suggestion by Julia Taylor that I compile some annual anthologies of recent writing for Five Mile Press came when I most needed it. Wordlines is a selection from that reading time, idiosyncratic and personal, my biases and enthusiasms on display.

I started by seeking writing that that was international, engaged, political – and was not expecting to find very much of it. It didn’t take long to realise I was quite wrong.

There is a good deal of writing here now that is international. Some of it is political and all of it is engaged. There are new writers, of course, and books of great force and substance. Nam Le has an astonishing ability to take us into the heads of people in extremis all over the world so we share their moral universe. Evelyn Juers has taken biographical writing to a new level. And I was fortunate to read two powerful new novels in draft: Anna Funder is writing about the group of German anarchists around Ernst Toller and their frustrated attempts to alert the world to the rise of Nazism; and Drusilla Modjeska’s untitled novel about identity and race is set among the bureaucracy and corruption and complexities of contemporary Papua New Guinea. And with the quivering antennae peculiar to recent returnees, I fancied I caught more than a glimpse of a distinctive combination of morality and sensibility in writers such as Joan London and Cate Kennedy, and many others, some of whom were quite new to me, in a range of voices and styles unique to this place.

Perhaps, where distance from the rest of the world is a fact of life, it carries its own freedoms and allows our own kind of plain speaking to emerge. Immigrant cultures have long celebrated story and testimony and now a kind of deep texture to our literature is emerging. This is writing a world away from the mid nineties when genre fiction – often with rather thin exotic settings – was all the go, and being ‘Australian’ was reduced to simplistic categories to fit criteria for funding and prizes. The low point was reached when Grand Days, Frank Moorhouse’s first great League of Nations novel, was deemed ‘not sufficiently Australian’ for the Miles Franklin. The following year a sentimental multiculturalism caused judges of the Vogel, the Australian Literary Society and the Miles Franklin, as well as an assortment of critics to fall for Helen Demidenko’s fake ethnicity and to celebrate her clumsy racism as transgressive. Nowadays writers are drilling down deeper for their material within a literary environment where the restraints of convention and scholarly orthodoxies sit more lightly than they do in older cultures.

Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile: the Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann is an extraordinary collective biography about well-known refugees from fascism in the 30s and 40s. Juers slips back and forth in a kind of shimmering pointillism across the fine line between fiction and fact, her imagination refracted through a huge range of sources and cast of characters.

Sophie Cunningham, in a moving extract from her forthcoming novel about Leonard Woolf, has developed her own sure-footed form of biographical fiction. Leonard is Virginia’s mooring, here trying to feed her with trembling hands during one of her breakdowns, Virginia resisting this intrusiveness…. Both of them are locked in a marriage neither fully comprehend but would never give up.

Many writers are inhabiting uneasy places, where certainties tremble. In the opening chapter of Joan London’s The Good Parents, eighteen-year-old Maya, away from home for the first time, is seduced by her employer, one Maynard Flynn, on a mattress on the floor of his seedy Melbourne office. Maya falls in love. He can’t believe his luck. Her parents are about to arrive.

Drusilla Modjeska’s ‘The Bliss of Arrival’, is work-in-progress from her new novel about three generations in postcolonial PNG.  Jericho attempts to persuade his beloved Bili to leave her legal work for an environmental NGO and return with him to England where he feels less dislocated as a hapkaus Õmie man brought down from the mountain as a child than he does in Port Morseby. We are both. We could move between Jericho says, but he knows if you look too long into a woman’s eyes, she’ll take your soul.

Cate Kennedy seems to me to be getting better and better. In her story, ‘Tender’, she has perfected the art of straight-talking, taking things down to their essentials, the husband at the sink, awkward, loving, full of dread, the mother stilling her fear of the black shadow on the breast scan by toiling away late at night to make a magical world in a cardboard box for a child to take to school.

Rod Jones and Carmel Bird’s new stories were written for this collection. Jones doesn’t miss a beat in his glimpse of a marriage at the end of its tether, the dining-room set up for guests they’ll never have. Husband and wife are locked in their separate terrors – his of a comet crashing into Jupiter which he watches on television, hers that she no longer loves him.

Carmel Bird’s comic imagination is always finely poised, acerbic and slightly sinister. ‘No Thro’ Road’ signposts a well-connected cul-de-sac where boats aren’t rocked and the men and women who had mingled with each other in tree huts and at parties long ago now watch their children and grandchildren mingle pleasantly in Paris.

Alex Miller’s latest novel Love Song is deceptively simple and rich with allegory. In this extract, a beautiful Tunisian living in Paris, despairing that her husband cannot give her a child, resorts to the ancient solution of choosing another man to impregnate her – a man who falls to his knees and weeps afterwards.  Years later, her story will be related by her husband to Ken, an aging writer, in order that it be known.

These are writers looking from the inside out, engaging with the rest of the world and reflecting on their own with more sophistication than even just a decade ago.  What can be written ‘about’ here has altered. The easy recourse to foreign settings and interesting encounters seems to have been transformed into a rich connectedness and lightly worn shifting identities.

Tom Cho’s outlandish fictions about slithering between labels and meanings, are hilarious and adroit. There’s a grandmother who answers to the name of Bruce, an Uncle Wang who morphs into having a bi-directional interface between his central nervous system and his old computer, and Tom  himself who wants his Chinese name changed from I will skip and pick clover from lush fields to Marlon Brando.

Abigail Ulman, Paul Mitchell, Amra Pajaric and Tom Cho are writers I hadn’t read before and am very glad I have. Each is distinctive and utterly grounded. Ulman’s assured ‘Chagall’s Wife’ first caught my eye in Meanjin – a gripping story about a male schoolteacher caught in the headlights of a fourteen year old girl’s knowledge of her sexual power. For Mitchell the colloquial and the local provide the story’s texture and meaning – about loneliness, set in the bleak surrounds of a service station on the Hume Highway, where the trucks power south to where the girls are. Pajalic’s The Good Daughter was awarded the people’s choice in the Melbourne Prize, a sharp portrait of the Bosnian Muslim community through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Sabiya, seen in this extract dressed modestly in her mother’s clothes in an attempt to placate her orthodox grandfather.

In some ways, the trajectory of this selection and perhaps of contemporary Australian writing at this time is the long looping thread that runs from Gerald Murnane to Nam Le, two writers who recently won last year’s Melbourne Prizes for Literature. Le’s remarkable story ‘Cartagena’ takes place in the barrios of Medellín inside the head of a hit man who has fourteen years and two months and killed fourteen people for certain, perhaps another two. He is now sent to kill a man he knows, an almost friend, a man who is different, who does not think only of himself, who alone talks about happiness and honour – even about politics – about a future unconnected to money. There is no way back, they know, only a fantasy of a safe place, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, where the sun comes up in a slow-motion explosion like in the movies… and where the girls are taller and whiter and have beautiful teeth and can talk about real things.

Murnane resists categories.  In prose pared to somewhere beneath the bone, he inhabits a universe entirely his own. ‘Australian’ is not the word for it even though a large part of the brilliance of this essay lies in it being centred in the small world of the 1940s – the Bendigo sleep-out, the altar boy chanting the Latin Nicene Creed for the rhythm which conjures in his mind’s eye images of horseracing, a rhythm which will lead inexorably to the man in this middle age teaching himself the Hungarian language in order to recite to members of the Hungarian community the great ‘Ode to the Hungarian Language’ by Gyorgy Faludy. This is entirely fitting, even pre-destined, reality becomes metaphor, ordinariness becomes extraordinary.

How words work, how the best of them encapsulate our time and our place and our sense of ourselves in that space is subjective and too slippery to try to pin down – but for me, fully imagined writing creates threads of thought, wordlines that hold us, connect us, and bring us home.

Seeds of Hope

Seeds of Hope - first page

Seeds of Hope - memoir by Hilary McPhee from Griffith Review Edition 24: Participation Society winter 2009

Download whole document as .pdf

When I first started going in and out of Jordan three years ago my well-honed multicultural sensibility was shocked by what I could only hear as virulent anti-semitism. Israeli and Jew and Zionist were terms of abuse used by all but the most cosmopolitan. But as mainstream Arab media and YouTube, ran footage night after night of Palestinian olive trees being uprooted by bulldozers protected by young Israeli soldiers, elderly Palestinians being attacked with sticks in their own fields and the proliferation of checkpoints and settlements, what I had first heard as anti-semitism began to sound to me more like rage and fear and hopelessness.
Nearly two-thirds of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, most displaced from Jerusalem and the West Bank or from southern Israel and herded into Gaza during many years of illegal occupation. Since 2003 they have been joined by more than half a million Iraqis. Jordan throughout its short history has provided a safe haven for dispossessed people, some still hoping to go home, empathising with, many closely related to, the people trapped in Gaza or those enduring daily deprivation and humiliation in the West Bank.
By their own admission, many Israelis do not look on Palestinians as human beings. The latest war on Gaza had more than 90 per cent popular support. Israeli surveys abound that identify increasing fear and loathing of Arabs in Israeli schools and suburbs and illegal settlements. In a society that likes to proclaim itself the only democracy in the Middle East, apartheid is impeccably documented.
Now more than four times longer than the Berlin Wall and twice its height in places, the Wall of Separation, the so-called ‘Separation fence’, made of solid concrete and barbed wire and electronically monitored, already snakes through more than 45 per cent of the West Bank. Despite the UN declaring its construction illegal when building began June 2002, nearly 12,000 dunums, or 12 million square metres, of agricultural land have been confiscated in its construction and more than 100,000 olive trees destroyed.
But Jordan and Israel are neighbours. Jerusalem is 72 kilometres from Amman. You can see Bethlehem and Jericho from Jordan’s Mount Nebo where Moses first saw the Promised Land. Some Jordanian and Israeli leaders work tirelessly towards understanding and cooperation. Amman does international conferences these days – interfaith, business and marketing – and Israelis are welcome and attend. The borders between Jordan and Israel have remained open since the peace process in1994 and young Israelis with the latest camping gear and new boots head for the glorious wadis around Petra and are sometimes billeted in villages. Farmers have been known to exchange views on crops on either side of the Jordan River despite the vastly disproportionate use of water for irrigation. Israeli efficiency and scholarship are admired.
Business propositions across the divide in recent years have seemed to some people more likely to succeed than peace talks, Shimon Peres and others claiming that ‘economy will defeat war’, but the problems of the poor remain intractable and signs of hope are infinitesimal. But in Amman, before the last outbreak of war in Gaza, a small community initiative, that seems to some people like the beginnings of a big idea, was starting to spread.


When I first told friends here last year that I was returning to Amman to spend some time with a community that had begun as a Palestinian refugee camp in 1948, some went rather quiet on me. We tend in this country, to harbour a fairly undifferentiated image of the Arab world: of ideologically inspired terrorism, AK47s, veiled women unable to speak for themselves, damaged children, angry victims of war and displacement, all hell-bent on revenge. And a visceral loathing of Islam, with its own echoes of anti-semitism, seems at risk of taking root here. My pleasure in the Prime Minister’s Apology to Indigenous Australians was spoilt shortly afterwards by the celebration in the Parliament of 60 years of Israel and Rudd’s inexplicable omission of the suffering of Palestinians and the failure of the UN to enforce its own resolutions. Only the courageous and well-informed MP Sussan Ley challenged this use of the Parliament. Australia’s one-sided gesture was widely reported throughout the Middle East.


When I next arrive in Amman and tell my Jordanian friends I am going to be based in a poor suburb called Jabal Nathif, many of them do not know where it is and none of them have been there. One or two remember a government survey a few years before that had found Jabal Nathif to be the most deprived neighbourhood in Amman with unemployment 50 per cent above the national average and access to tertiary education more than 50 percent below. I am warned that I am in for a shock and that no cab will venture in, that I’ll be assumed to be an Israeli or an American or both. I practise saying Ana min Australia.
Only seven minutes drive from Abdoun, a new suburb where the very rich live, the unmarked entrance to Jabal Nathif is opposite the two new showpieces of modern Amman, the grand King Hussein Cultural Centre and City Hall, up one of the steep and narrow streets that wind above old Downtown and the souq. There is the usual jumble of rubble, grey ramshackle houses, children playing in the road, skinny cats on rubbish heaps, plastic bags billowing – like poor settlements everywhere.
This one began life in 1948 as a camp for Palestinian refugees – settling then on what was private land which precluded UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) from providing assistance and gave the government a reason not to. After the Six Day War in 1967, when hundreds of thousands more Palestinians were displaced from the West Bank, the camp and others like it became permanent. Apart from a couple of terrible schools, there had been no services or official recognition for sixty years, not even a police station.
Today, a flash of green paint on a low wall marks a turn left into a street where sparkling yellow, green and blue buildings proclaim themselves as a library, a post office, a children’ s workshop and a meeting room for tertiary students. Greenery hangs over a pink wall where a bunch of bright-eyed children wait to show the way. We follow the murals down a long alley to a shady playground and crowded upstairs offices. This is Ruwwad, the new heart of Jabal Nathif.


The timing was right in 2005 when the process of confidence-building and consultation began here. Urgent solutions were being sought in Jordan and elsewhere for neglected areas made vulnerable to extremism and manipulation. In November that year, the Al-Qaeda suicide bombings at three international hotels aimed at Westerners killed 57 mainly local people.
Corporate philanthropy, any kind of philanthropy, was new to the Arab world when the Jordanian global transportation and logistics company, Aramex , selected Jabal Nathif as the community they wished to engage with. Repairing the run down primary school had been identified by the people of Jabal Natif as their first priority. Materials were donated, labour volunteered and, importantly, the process was documented and filmed. By February 2006, when the film was shown to thirty business people, some joined Aramex in forming a foundation. The idea that companies could have a role in encouraging impoverished communities to take responsibility for themselves and their children was quite new. Ruwwad is now funded by ten local and regional companies and individuals, the only Jordanian organisation to neither solicit nor accept donor funds which almost invariably have other people’s agendas and strings attached.
In much of the Arab world, the affluent are inclined to view the poor as stupid. Where petitions are still the norm, where wasta, knowing the right person, is everything, the poor’s perception of themselves as victims is endlessly reinforced. Occasional handouts and favours do happen – oranges in Ramadan, jobs and scholarships for the well-connected, visits from the Queen. The dozens of glossy magazines for middle-class women provide photo opportunities and gestures of generosity are well-publicized.
Impoverished people used to seeing themselves as victims in Jabal Nathif were quite unused to being consulted. Government agencies had always failed the area – and Ruwwad’s motives were at first queried. But today, where once people struggled to raise children in makeshift housing without services, there is a health centre and a clothing depot, a police station, a new employment agency, a nursery, a ceramics workshop, a computer centre – run by local people to suit what they perceive as their urgent needs.
Pivotal to it all is the Mousab Khorma Youth Empowerment Fund, created by Ruwwad in November 2005. Mousab Khorma, then Deputy Director of the Cairo Amman Bank, was one of those killed in the Al-Qaeda hotel bombings but the ramifications of his legacy of community activism already run deep. In less than three years, more than 350 young people have been awarded full or partial tertiary scholarships in a wide range of fields that they choose for themselves, encouraged by Ruwwad, to think big. One boy chose art history, another veterinary studies, many girls do engineering. All must contract to repay in kind with four hours a week of volunteer work in their community. Students choose from Jeeran, the neighbourhood programme, to repair and improve houses, to help the housebound, and Shababeek (Windows), the children’s programme, where they share their talents and pass on some of the skills acquired through study by mentoring younger children.
All volunteer work is expected to be well delivered with respect for the people being helped. Lateness is not tolerated. Nor are mothers’ intercessions on behalf of recalcitrant sons. Volunteers are formally assessed each semester as a condition of the continuation of their scholarships – a crucial component often lacking in programmes elsewhere. Here, a sense of entitlement is avoided and young people learn the satisfaction of reciprocity in their own community. Volunteers and staff told me again and again that this circle of interdependence was their most valuable lesson.


In the first year, Raghda Butros, founding director of Ruwwad, came across a boy leaning on the banister of the stairs leading up to the newly established children’s library, still the only place for children to spend time outside school and their crowded homes. The library attracted 150 kids a day even before the sign went up saying what the place was, and when it only had a few books on its shelves. The children came through word of mouth and so it seems did this little boy.
He could not speak well enough say his name or where he lived and he looked as if he had not been washed in quite some time. It was discovered that he was left to fend for himself all day in the street while his mother and father worked long hours and his siblings went to school. The other kids called him retarded and knew him as The Boy Who Pushed his Sister Down the Well. The story circulated that, as a young child, he had pushed his sister into a well – whether accidentally or in an act of sibling fury or whether it happened at all no one knew. But he became an outcast, said to be a stunted 19 year old not a normal-sized child.
Raghda took a shine to him and discovered his name was Suhaid, and that he had a disability that no one had bothered to identify. By the time I was told his story a few months ago, he was sitting in her office playing with a plastic puzzle. Suhaid spends time there whenever he can after coming back from a school for the mentally challenged, sponsored by one of Ruwwad’s many volunteers. It was not difficult to encourage him to open up, Raghda said. He’s a gregarious, lovable boy and his smile and energy has now made him somewhat of a celebrity in the very community that once shunned him. He takes choir classes at the Children’s Museum, Taekwondo classes at a local martial arts school and has attended theatre, musical and other performances which he re-enacts for Raghda and the other staff and community members with great enthusiasm and skill. His speech has improved remarkably and so has his demeanour. In many ways, his story encapsulates the philosophy of Ruwwad which focuses first on building authentic relationships with the community and then together resolving the challenges its members face.
Awad and Manal keep an eye on Suhaid too as they do on the rest of the community. They live in the house with the pink wall and grow vegetables in pots from seeds sent by Manal’s family who live in an agricultural district in the mountains. The house with its public room lined with rubber mattresses and cushions, is a place where people come to talk or rest and be served coffee and Manal’s almond cakes. Awad drives the old community van all over Jordan delivering people and goods. He has recently bought himself a computer and is now teaching the local children and some of their parents how to email. Manal coordinates Ruwwad’s Sharabeek programme where hundreds children from the community are helped and workshops are run by volunteers who have skills to share. One of the most popular is Bisatall-Reeh (Magic Carpet) where kids dream up places they want to visit and learn how to look them up in books and on the internet. I am asked, of course, about kangaroos and try to explain about the baran kteira, the many wild camels in Australia and struggle to describe Alice Spring’s Camel Cup. Then a young boy finds films of it on YouTube.


Ruwwad’s genius is that it is home grown. Instead of one size fits all, like so many aid-based projects, there is human interaction, skills exchange and the minimum of paperwork. Juggling the community’s priorities and extremely modest budget depends on the knowhow of local people. Families once crippled by drug dependency have been helped by the volunteer medical programme. Children who could not read now gravitate after school to the sparkling library with its blue tables and full bookshelves. A volunteer who describes himself as a poet teaches a complex spelling game he has invented to a group of boys.
More than 85 per cent of Ruwwad’s staff come from Jabal Nathif and everyone has a story to tell. Rabeea, a librarian and distinguished writer, established the Jabal Natif library three years ago. Local women now read stories here and help children select books. Telling children stories and reading to them is the most important work of all, Rabeea says, because it releases their imagination and helps them deal with difficulties and trauma. Libraries are safe places, without hierarchy, that create a spirit of impartiality, she insists.
Rabeea tells me about an impoverished municipal library with empty shelves she was trying to help a few years ago in a large northern city. One day the town was to be honoured by a visit from a member of the royal family who had asked to see the library. The day before the visit, the Ministry of Education delivered several truckloads of books so that the Prince, an intellectual and a reader, would not be embarrassed. Rabeea threatened to tell him, and the books were allowed to stay. Now she works to establish an outreach children’s library programme run by volunteers in villages where the schools often have no books.


The room at the top of the stairs is packed as it always is for Dardashaat, the chat room session, where young students share their quandaries and ideas each Saturday morning.
The girls sit together. They wear long-sleeved blouses, jeans and trainers, and white scarves cover their hair. The boys, who have made an effort to look cool, stand at the back. These are students, most of them, recipients of Mousab Khorma scholarships, from some of the poorest families in Jordan. Palestinians mainly, but these days Iraqis also displaced by war have moved into Jabal Natif, as have Egyptian labourers who queue each morning hoping to get work on Amman’s innumerable construction sites.

Only one boy and girl sit together, side by side rather self-consciously. ‘They would be punished if they did that outside,’ the translator whispers. She tells me the girl’s name means ‘revolution’. The group discussion a few weeks ago was about men and women respecting each other and being friends.
Ramadan has just ended and this Saturday morning the question put by one of the coordinators is ‘What happened to you in the last week that made you think again?’ First there is a few minutes silence and everyone is encouraged to close their eyes.

Then a young man, a sharp dresser, slick black hair, pointy shoes, a neck chain, takes the floor. He speaks with great feeling and breast beating. He has been crossed in love, the translator says in my ear. The girl promised to him three years ago has left him because his studies are going on too long and she wants to get married now and start a family. A widowed man in his fifties with money has approached her father who agreed that he was a better bet. The boy is distraught. Everyone listens intently: the girls with downcast eyes, the boys nudging each other and making comments. Then a young woman stands up and goes to the front and says firmly that the girl did the wrong thing, she should wait. A young husband with qualifications is worth waiting for. You are living in a dream, another woman contradicts her. If the girl can marry now she should. This boy will be two more years studying, then he’ll have to find work in another country, send money back home, to support his brothers and sisters, as well as a wife and children. What kind of a life is that?

The boys seem to think the young man was badly treated, the girl must be no good. She must have done something to encourage the offer. You’re well out of it, they tell him. Some of the girls disagree angrily. The last to speak is a boy in a blue T-shirt who sells roasted corn cobs on the streets of old Downtown day and night. An orphan, he lives in a hut nearby and is being taught to read by a student volunteer. He never misses a session, the translator tells me. You must stick to study, he tells the room, and trust that the right wife will come. Insh’allah. Everyone seems to agree.


The issues raised that morning range widely. The girls’ questions are mainly about friendship and fathers. One thinks her friends all want something from her. One realises her father can never change but she loves him and doesn’t want to defy him. The boys are more open. One weeps when he describes the death of his grandmother and how she had cared for him in Jabal Natif after his parents had died in the First Gulf War. This is a small community driven by loss and rage, who know each other’s stories and the calamities that have brought them here. Many have relatives in Gaza.
Often Dardashaat is about manners, about treating people with dignity, why modesty matters, and coping with change. Western values come up in Saturday sessions – which ones are good and which must be resisted. How parents and brothers can be helped to understand that a girl can be both virtuous and out in the world. There is a real sense in the room that the girls are strong. Later I am told by one of them: ‘All girls know how to be strong and brave. Boys have to be encouraged.’


Wounds run deep in this poor community as wave after wave of displaced and struggling people arrive here. But something else is happening that runs counter to the despair and poisonous ideologies that are fuelling extremism all over the region. The young participants in the Ruwaad programmes know they have been given a chance that they would not get elsewhere – and there is hope. Ruwwad’s programmes tackle victimisation head on. Attitudes and aspirations are being changed, opportunities created and the first steps towards creating a meritocracy have been taken in ways that seem to many to have every chance of lasting.
What has happened in just three years in Jabal Nathif is remarkable and inspiring. Just as the now widespread microcredit movement has begun to enable the poor in to improve their living conditions by their own efforts, Ruwwad seems to many people to be the start of another big idea that can counter ideology and extremism and start to soften identity politics by giving the people the hope they need. Recently, plans were taking shape for similar communities in other parts of the region: in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The hope now is they will not be on hold for long.