The independence of Jordan was declared from the balcony of Amman municipality on 25 May 1946. Since then, the social responsibility of the city has hinged on sharing and engaging with the community and this has been, and continues to be, a main pillar of the work of the municipality. Whether we print a book, produce a play, support an artist or organize a seminar, we are contributing to the state of culture and, by definition, the state of development of the city and our country as a whole.
Amman’s learning city project, a collaborative initiative between the Arab Education Forum and Greater Amman Municipality that was launched in 2011, is called ‘Jeera: Amman Learning and Convivial City’. The project, which aims to promote informal and non-formal learning opportunities in local communities, is the first of its kind in the Arab world. The concepts of neighbourliness, hospitality and conviviality – concepts with a rich tradition in Arab culture – are central to Jeera’s efforts to provide the citizens of Amman with positive learning experiences beyond the structures of formal education. As part of the Jeera project, citizens visit learning initiatives in other communities. They are then encouraged to apply and adapt the ideas generated by these visits in their own local communities. The ultimate objectives are not just to promote lifelong learning at a community level throughout the city, but also to help promote integration and a sense of belonging in this multicultural city.
Combatting the marginalization of informal and nonformal learning and encouraging citizens to recognize that they all have valuable roles to play as both teachers and learners are therefore among the main tasks of the Jeera project.
Jordan has always been home to people from many different backgrounds. Since 1948, Jordan in general, and Amman in particular, have experienced an ongoing influx of refugees from neighbouring countries. During the 1991 Gulf War, over 300,000 Jordanian citizens were forced to return to Jordan from the Gulf countries and settled primarily in Amman. This was followed in later years by the arrival of large numbers of Iraqi refugees, followed by Lebanese refugees during the 2006 war, and more recently by Syrian refugees. These waves of immigration have seen the population of Amman double in fewer than twenty years. Resources such as water, gas and oil are in short supply in the city, and the economic situation is gradually deteriorating. Furthermore, there is a wide gap between rich and poor neighbourhoods in the city, and feelings of alienation and political apathy are widespread among Amman’s citizens.
The education system in Amman still follows the one introduced during the British Mandate in the 1920s and 1930s. Despite several reforms, a heavy emphasis on rote learning and a strict grading system mean that learners tend not to be encouraged to be creative, assume responsibility or develop a sense of agency over their learning. Furthermore, the increasing number of refugees in Amman is putting pressure on the city’s schools. As a result of overcrowding, quantity often takes precedence over quality as schools attempt to provide learners with as much information as possible rather than prompting them to explore.
Main issues to be tackled
Amman’s fundamental principle as a learning city is that knowledge and learning are among its citizens’ most important tools for combatting the problems such as scarce resources, inequality, alienation and apathy outlined above. Many people in Amman have not received a formal education, yet they possess valuable knowledge and skills. However, such knowledge and skills are not always fully appreciated in Amman society. While there is a huge demand for higher education, learning that takes place outside formal education tends to be undervalued. Combatting the marginalization of informal and non-formal learning and encouraging citizens to recognize that they all have valuable roles to play as both teachers and learners are therefore among the main tasks of the Jeera project.
Motives for becoming a learning city
As a city that has experienced a great deal of immigration, one of Amman’s main motives for becoming a learning city is to cultivate respect for the many different cultures that make up the city and to promote a sense of belonging among people from all backgrounds. The Jeera project aims to create a bond between the citizens of Amman and their local neighbourhoods and to help people to rediscover the joy and value of learning.
Learning city policies and strategies
The AEF’s understanding of learning considers people as builders of their own identities, of their society, of meaning and of knowledge.
Definition of a learning city
Amman does not have an official definition of ‘learning city’. However, the Arab Education Forum (AEF), one of the founders of the Jeera: Amman Learning and Convivial City project, recognizes the distinction between learning and education, and its contributions towards building a learning city in Amman place a firm emphasis on the former. The AEF stresses the fact that learning can take place outside formal education. Its understanding of learning considers people as builders of their own identities, of their society, of meaning and of knowledge. Learning ensures diversity and dialogue, which together constitute the basis for the growth and prosperity of individuals and societies.
As the project’s title indicates, the concept of conviviality also plays a key role in building a learning city in Amman. This is because conviviality has a very long tradition in Arab culture, and it has particular significance in Amman. Due to the city’s location in the heart of the Levant region and its history of high immigration, it is extremely important that Amman’s citizens are open, welcoming and hospitable to others. However, the tradition of conviviality is being eroded by globalization, urbanization and modern technology. Jeera is seeking to recapture this tradition by placing it at the centre of its learning city initiatives, which take place at the local community level (jeera is the Arabic for ‘neighbourhood’).
The project is particularly committed to harnessing the potential of Amman’s many beautiful libraries to function as hospitable learning spaces.
Conviviality involves generosity on one side and acceptance on the other. It is about giving and taking without expecting anything in return. In the context of learning, this means demonstrating generosity in sharing one’s knowledge, skills and personal experience, and accepting the experience and knowledge of others. Conviviality in the AEF’s philosophy is translated into the mujawara learning method, which involves learning by acting in a neighbourly way: sharing food, ideas, knowledge, experience and events, taking care of each other and spending time together. Mujawara used to be the main learning method in Jordan, where it was a means of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next before the formal school system was introduced. However, instead of combining the benefits of the two, the latter eradicated the former. This brought about the loss of rich learning resources and indigenous knowledge about important issues such as recycling, organic farming, and generally respecting nature and the environment. The Jeera: Amman Learning and Convivial City project aims to recover such indigenous knowledge and to restore to learning the deep-rooted values of hospitality and conviviality. It does this by providing opportunities to engage in learning experiences by visiting inspiring individuals, initiatives and organizations that generously open their doors to visitors. The project has found that such experiences leave a positive impact on both hosts and guests.
Vision and objectives
The vision behind building a learning city in Amman is to meet its citizens’ learning needs by expanding community partnerships and creating a pool of learning opportunities that all citizens contribute to and benefit from. The Jeera project aims to provide resources and spaces that enable citizens to share their knowledge and skills. Reciprocity, initiative, mutual understanding and shared responsibility are therefore among the project’s core values. The project is particularly committed to harnessing the potential of Amman’s many beautiful libraries to function as hospitable learning spaces.
At present, neither Jordan nor Amman have laws with a primary focus on supporting the development of a learning city or promoting lifelong learning at city level.
Governance and partnership
Jeera: Amman Learning and Convivial City is a joint initiative of the AEF, an NGO that aims to regenerate Arab culture by promoting learning in local communities, and Greater Amman Municipality (GAM). The GAM Department for Culture has been particularly supportive of the project from the start, providing learning spaces as well as transport to and from these venues.
Most of Jeera’s learning activities take place in GAM’s seventy-two libraries. The librarians thus play a very important role, as they create opportunities for learning in their libraries and help participants to plan their learning journeys. The National Libraries Association, an association for private and public libraries in Jordan, also supports Jeera.
The strategic partnership between the AEF and GAM has been the driving force behind Jeera. However, partnerships with many other organizations and individuals are also crucial to Amman’s success as a learning city. For example, the Arab Towns Organization (ATO), which is based in Kuwait, brings together more than 500 towns across the twenty-two Arab countries. In 2013, the ATO invited Jeera to present its experience to Arab mayors during the 16th General Assembly in Doha, Qatar. In 2015, the ATO established the Cultural Committee for Arab Cities in Amman. Inspired by Jeera, this committee turns cultural spaces into learning hubs.
Another NGO that has contributed to Jeera is Tammy for Youth Development, which conducts training workshops and development projects for young people. Ruwwad is part of a network of community centres in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt that implements community empowerment programmes in disadvantaged communities. Ahel is a social enterprise that provides training and coaching in order to empower communities to organize campaigns for change. Kitabi Kitabak encourages children to read, We Love Reading organizes community reading initiatives throughout Jordan, and Abjad is an online platform that promotes reading. Al Balad Theatre is a non-profit theatre in Amman, and Taghmees: Social Kitchen promotes community learning. The Jordanian Network of the Anna Lindh Foundation for the Dialogue Between Cultures, an inter-governmental institution that works to build trust and understanding among citizens across the Mediterranean, is one of Jeera’s donors. Tal’et tasweer brings professional and amateur photographers together for photography trips around Amman. This initiative not only enables photographers to share skills, but also to get to know Amman’s various neighbourhoods.
Provision of lifelong learning
Jeera activities include creating community-based learning opportunities by bringing people keen to learn things together with people who are willing to share their knowledge with others; turning used and abandoned spaces into functional learning spaces; and encouraging people to adapt learning experiences and to welcome learners and visitors to various areas of Ammani society.
Mobility is a key concept in the Jeera initiative, which arranges for Amman’s citizens to travel around the city discovering learning spaces in other neighbourhoods, taking part in learning events, meeting inspiring people and building networks. As such, Jeera provides learning experiences that are radically different from those offered within the formal education system. More than fifteen such trips were organized between February 2013 and February 2014, and more than ninety individuals and organizations took part during this period. Jeera aims to be sustainable and have a ‘contagious’ effect, in so far as participants are encouraged to take ideas from the initiatives they visit and adapt these ideas for learning spaces in their own neighbourhoods.
Example of innovation or good practice Ta’azeeleh (the ‘unlearning’ session)
The ta’azeeleh (‘unlearning’) session is at the centre of all Jeera visits to different neighbourhoods. Ta’azeeleh can be translated as ‘spring cleaning’, a time when everything in the house is removed from the cupboards and thoroughly dusted and cleaned. Spring cleaning also offers an opportunity to sort out possessions, mend what needs mending, throw away what is no longer useful and put everything back in order. The use of this term in a learning context implies that learners should not only think about what they want to learn, but also that they should let go of some older perceptions of learning that are no longer useful. One example might be the perception that learning ends when one completes formal education.
Main target groups
Ammani citizens who take part in the visits both as visitors and hosts.
The ta’azeeleh session begins by challenging participants’ preconceptions about the roles of teachers and learners, encouraging them to view these roles as much more fluid and interchangeable. Participants come to the realization that one does not need a formal qualification to share valuable skills or knowledge, and that learning is an ongoing process that can take place at any age. The session also encourages participants to redefine the concept of knowledge. Knowledge is not only information and skills developed during formal education; it can also take other forms, such as learning how to sew or how to be a farmer. Each ta’azeeleh session therefore asks all participants to identify what they wish to learn and what useful skills or knowledge they wish to share with others. This encourages them to recognize the value of all skills and knowledge, especially non-academic ones. Skills that are most in demand include cooking, farming, languages and IT.
Mobilization and utilization of resources
Amman’s learning city has not been officially funded by any entity and there has been no direct attempt to raise funds for it by any of the partner organizations. Instead, the Jeera project depends on the sharing of resources, in particular human resources. The AEF provides the volunteer coordinators and GAM provides learning spaces and transportation for the visits, but Jeera also relies on the efforts of a huge number of other volunteers.
Monitoring and evaluation
Due to the often quite informal and experimental nature of Jeera, official monitoring and evaluation mechanisms are not currently in place. Citizens are often inspired by ta’azeeleh sessions and visits to learning initiatives in other communities, and subsequently act on their own initiative to organize similar Jeera events. However, they sometimes do not inform the co-founders of these events or provide feedback. One of the challenges facing the project is therefore to improve communication between its co-founders and its participants.
Impacts and challenges
Jeera is an initiative built on the strengths and treasures that exist within the community.
Jeera started with a core group of ten people. The core team now consists of more than fifty people, and more than thirty organizations and initiatives are involved in developing Jeera learning opportunities in Amman. The Jeera culture of conviviality and learning is spreading, changing the attitudes of both citizens and the municipality towards the city.
It is difficult to gauge at this early point the actual measurable impact of this initiative. However, the Jeera team took part in an evaluation session in March 2014 to reflect on the past and envision the future impact of Jeera. At this session, participants were asked to envision Jeera three years from now and to reflect on what they expect (realistically), what they would like (moderate ambition) and what they would love (ideally) the initiative to achieve. ‘Realistic’ expectations focused largely on continuing and expanding current activities aimed at building connections between various organizations and communities. Participants said that they would like to see Jeera broaden its outreach. Some participants continued to focus on Jeera’s work within Amman, hoping that Jeera groups would be formed in neighbourhoods throughout Amman, and that the concept of Jeera would influence organizations and associations throughout the city. Others saw expansion to other Jordanian cities and governorates as a moderate ambition. Many participants would also like to see more variety in the type of activity organized by Jeera. The ultimate ambition of restoring or reclaiming the communal understanding and practice of Jeera and achieving a sense of sharing one’s home was widely shared. While the degree to which participants viewed this as possible varied, the hope that Jeera as a way of life would take root and spread – not only across Amman, but also across Jordan and indeed the entire Arab World – was articulated by participants.
Jeera is an innovative, grass-roots project that is the first of its kind in the Arab world. As such, it has largely developed by means of trial and error. Its nonhierarchical approach, which emphasizes participatory decision-making, is rather unfamiliar in Amman. This therefore met with some initial scepticism from participants and partners who were used to a more structured, top-down approach. Overcoming this scepticism has been one of the main challenges the project has faced, as was getting participants and partners to reach mutual understanding and agree on how the project should proceed.
A second major challenge has been a lack of resources. As noted above, the project has relied to date on the efforts of volunteers and the sharing of resources among partner organizations. However, in order to continue growing, Jeera requires additional funding for a full-time employee who will coordinate the volunteers, develop the database and promote the initiative in Amman.
A third challenge is that the potential offered by Amman’s libraries is not being fully harnessed. Efforts are currently underway to inform the city’s librarians about the Jeera project and encourage them to support it more fully.
Lessons learned and recommendations
Jeera is an initiative built on the strengths and treasures that exist within the community. On one hand this requires a flexible approach, but on the other hand some structure is essential to ensure that flexibility does not turn into volatility. The question of ‘ownership’ was crucial from the outset. Jeera stresses the importance of collective ownership between the AEF, the municipality, partner NGOS and all citizens involved in the initiative. As noted above, Jeera firmly rejects a hierarchical approach. Furthermore, as a grass-roots initiative, it was important to establish a strong partnership between the AEF and the municipality. It was also important to find the right balance between volunteers and staff. Finally, while Jeera was initially conceived as an online portal, the project has found that nothing can replace the sense of conviviality, hospitality and community that arises when residents come together in learning spaces throughout the city.
Chairwoman of the Board, The Arab Education Forum
Irqsusi, M., and Huleileh, S. 2014. The Full Report on Jeera: Amman Learning and Convivial City. Amman, The Arab Education Forum.
Lapp, S. 2014. A Three-hour Evaluation Meeting on Jeera and the Ensuing Report. Amman, The Arab Education Forum.