Saturday, May 19, 2007


The members of the IWF are impressive in many ways. Sometimes I feel out-of-my-depth as a guest of women with such experience and accomplishment. Perhaps even more remarkable than the level of their worldly achievement, however, is the support they give one another. Beyond networking, there are circles of friendship and affection, even across barriers of geography and culture. (I would add language, except that everyone speaks English.) Given what I have sometimes observed over the years at my husband's law firm, where women are not always supportive of one another, I find the atmosphere at the IWF Conference extraordinary, lovely.

Therefore, it seems to me all the more revealing that the one talent, by and large, these women have not mastered is the art of listening. Of course, this is a broad generalization, one which I am presuming to apply to a group of whose membership I have met only a few; nevertheless, much of the IWF performance during the question-and-answer sessions would seem to support my view. As my two previous blogs have shown, too often an IWF-er takes the mike and, rather than ask a question of the panel, states her own opinion, and states it as if the guest speakers have not just offered us a wealth of new information and possibility from the depth of their knowledge and/or personal experience of Islam and the Middle East.

This platforming, as I call it, says a lot about Americans and other westerners. Although there is a general acknowledgement that we are here in Jordan to learn, that vow is hard to keep. "We know best." It would seem that it is hard for women of the western world to sustain the thought that perhaps we do not.

Because we peer through the viewfinder of our own culture, when we travel we move like snails, carrying with us houses full of assumptions and views. We travel, however widely, protected by an invisible shell of presumptions we don't realize surround us. Of course, this is true of everyone, not just Americans and (certainly) Europeans. It is hard to stop and reflect: what am I looking at? what am I really seeing? Nevertheless, I expected more inquiring minds among the IWF. I am dismayed by the lack of humility--indeed the underlying arrogance. Good listening is a rare gift, but one I had thought to find frequently among the successful women at the conference. (Interestingly, the one good listener I have met is Fernanda, a radio and television personality described to me by her friend Paula as "the Oprah Winfrey of Mexico.") The lack of a spirit of inquiry is all the more appalling because few of the women have read any of the books about Islam and the Middle East on the conference reading list.

These underlying attitudes, and the platforming they provoke, lend the session-side of the conference its final note. Our last panel, because they are last, because they speak during lunch, are given cursory attention. In fact, the ballroom slowly empties as the session unfolds. The lunchers who leave miss at least two intriguing and revealing scenes. The first moment of particular interest is the response of the Jordanian panelists (Marjorie Adams of the Jordan Business Alliance and Reem Badran, CEO of the Kuwaiti Jordanian Holding Company) and the moderator Suhair Al-Ali, a Jordanian government minister, to a question about the one million Iraqi refugees now in Jordan. All three women carefully refer to "our Iraqi visitors." There is only one slip of the tongue--repeating the questioner's word refugee--and that is quickly corrected. Since I had read on the internet several U.N. and Human Rights Watch reports about Iraqis in Jordan, I know that Jordan has been refusing to acknowledge the Iraqis' refugee status. To do so would mean complying with U.N. standards on rights and services that must be given to refugees.

The other interesting moment is a question from a Jordanian IWF-er to the third panelist, Patrick Renauld, EU ambassador to Jordan, about the possibility for a free trade agreement, like the one Jordan has with the U.S., between Jordan and the European Union. The Jordanian woman uses Jordanian textiles as an example. With Gallic hauteur, Mr. Renauld replies, "we are not ready to agree with [to import] bad products." Whoa! French toile de jouy is fine--but as a justification for rudeness? Once again, the Jordanians take it on the chin.

And then the final note: an American IWF-er rises to speak about the Most Important Thing of All, preserving the planet. She mentions the dust storms of a few days ago and lectures the Jordanian panelists about keeping nature in mind. Once again, our hostesses reply politely to western effrontery and ignorance. If the American IWF-er had been reading the local newspaper the last few days, she would have learned: the Khamsini phenomenon, named from the Arabic word for fifty, brings dusty weather to the eastern Mediterranean every year; an Arab environmental conference is taking place in Amman at the same time as the IWF conference; the Jordanian forestry department has begun a five-year plan to plant 6 million trees; Jordan is taking the lead in restoring the marshlands in Iraq that Saddam Hussein destroyed years before. Indeed, if the American IWF-er had not assumed that, as a westerner, she was out in front on green issues, she might have done some inquiring first and learned that Jordan is one of the lowest carbon emitters among nations.

Despite this embarrassing moment, and the other instances of platforming, there have been intelligent questions during the conference, too--particularly from the Canadians. I don't know why it is that the women from Toronto shine--that almost alone they are direct, succinct, and curious--but they are. (Suddenly, Toronto seems like a cool city that I would like to visit.) After the first session yesterday, I complimented a young Canadian IWF-er I had briefly met before. "Good question! Articulate! To the point!" Her companion laughed and said, "we are Jam-AI-cans! In Jamaica, we have a word for it. Spoke-ified! And that's what she is," the Toronto lawyer, originally from Jamaica, said, hugging her colleague, "spoke-ified!"