Aysha, 25, stands at the front of a small, brightly lit room in Jabal Al Weibdeh, one of Amman’s oldest neighborhoods. The fluorescent light is somehow tempered by the apartment’s soft and eclectic furniture—a clumsy circle of wooden chairs and faded couches. Although it is filled with people, the room is silent, waiting for Aysha to begin to speak.
“Tell your governments, the only kingdom my generation will bow to is the one between our temples,” she chants, her voice swelling in the tiny space, as the sound of snapping fingers cuts through the air. “For it is the most compassionate authority we have ever known.”
A small group of spoken word poets have gathered on a sleepy Saturday evening in Jordan, a nation known primarily for its relative peace—relative compared to the rest of its geopolitical neighborhood. While Jordan has remained largely untouched by the metamorphosing revolution that shook most of the Middle East during the Arab Spring, the same cannot be said of its arts scene.
Since 2012, a growing slam poetry initiative has been brewing in Amman. The poetry scene is mostly young and female. Many of the girls are queer. Tonight, the crowd is made up almost entirely of Jordanian women, and one by one they take the stage.
Tala, 20, speaks of a university crush, of awkwardly wanting to rest her head on his shoulder. “Did you feel the same way? This longing for un-accidental contact?” she asks.
Many themes are universal, describing ordinary feelings in the lives of the young women, like the insecurities of budding romance. Still, some words stand out as stark reminders of the reality of life in the Middle East: Damascus, the mukhabarat (secret police), revolution.
Aysha, born and raised in Jordan and educated in America, holds two national collegiate titles in slam poetry. She is at the helm of Amman’s spoken word scene, working with young poets and organizing events that draw crowds of up to 200 people. In Jordan, this small group of women who regularly perform poems falls outside the norm.
“There is an idea in this society that a woman is someone that you have to shelter,” Aysha says. “People aren’t used to seeing a woman get on stage and talk. It’s shocking.”
A hallmark of spoken word poetry is its unfiltered honesty, which can be difficult in a place like Jordan, where public and private space is very distinct. In Arab culture, it is best not to talk about personal struggles to people who are not your family, let alone a roomful of strangers.
“Here, a lot of people see it as you are making a fool out of yourself sharing that much information,” Aysha says. “Someone told a poet that there’s a saying in Islam that, if you were burdened by difficult circumstance, be silent about it.”
The youngest poet, 15-year-old Shahd, says that her parents had initially worried about their teenage daughter getting involved in slam poetry.
“My family had a hard time accepting that I was going to say the things I wanted to say, in the way I wanted to say it,” she says with a smile. “But I represent a generation that is coming [up] in very powerful ways.”
Her mother sits proudly, gazing at her youngest daughter. She has since come around: “I love that Shahd is writing, and I love that she expressing herself in a way that’s true,” she said.
Still, there are threats beyond the cultural stigma. In Jordan, it can be dangerous to speak too brazenly and negatively about politics and the government. Stories of artists getting tortured by the mukhabarat are commonplace in Jordan’s monarchy.
“Words are powerful tools, they can get you in trouble from places you’ve never heard of or from people you’ve never met,” Shahd says. “And they spread like fire in a community where every social circle is encircled with another social circle.”
Aya, a 20-year-old law student, has not let fear stop her from speaking. “In a place where women are not given rights as much as men are, spoken word gives women an opportunity to express themselves with aggression,” she says. Then, laughing, she adds, “but maybe it’s just a coincidence that all of our writers are female.”
The legacy of modern slam poetry stems from the Harlem Renaissance; it has traditionally served as a voice for the marginalized who need to speak a little louder in order to be heard. In the Amman scene, the tie between social justice and spoken word is just as present.
“I’m interested in this idea of Arab youth and the turmoil that they are going through," Aysha says. “It’s very tiring and exhausting when you try to ask for your rights and in return you get a dictatorship.”
In Jordan, frustration among young people has peaked, as youth unemployment, at 30 percent, is nearly double the national average. While the education gap is shrinking and more girls than ever are getting a college education, eight out of ten of Jordanian women still do not participate in the labor force.
Although Jordanian spoken word poetry is still in its infancy, it is already beginning to reflect a desire to change the status quo. For young women faced with cultural and economic barriers, this can be incredibly empowering, even therapeutic.
“It helped me get peace with myself and piece myself back together, and that’s something I can’t put into words,” Shahd says, the aloof confidence she displays on stage melting away.
“It has a healing effect on you, and a lot of people do it for this reason,” Aysha says. “It’s like, I’ve had this voice inside me the entire time, and no one told me to use it?”
As tonight’s poetry reading draws to a close, Aysha speaks her own manifesto of youth. The emotion is raw, but no one looks away as her piece crescendos.
“It was my friends who hugged their canvases and wept for brothers killed in the doom of Arab revolution, and guilted over the fire exit of their breath,” she raps, her words echo within the narrow walls.
“But I still have my dictators falling, as the Arab Spring fireworks into a festive autumn. So for all I care me and my friends are the sunrise.”