Meet Ahlam

Her name means “dreams” in Arabic, but the other women in Amman’s Gaza camp for Palestinian refugees are more likely to describe her life as a nightmare.

To be fair, it hasn’t always been that way. Ahlam got married in her early 20s, just in time by conservative camp standards. Like most girls in the refugee camp, she must have thought that marriage was going to be the glorious next stage in life. Perhaps she daydreamed of growing old with her husband, serving him tea and raising a large family together in the camp. Yes, they would be poor but she would be fulfilling her role as a woman, helping and respecting her husband. Surely, God would bless them.

Her name means “dreams” in Arabic, but the other women in Amman’s Gaza camp for Palestinian refugees are more likely to describe her life as a nightmare.

Over countless teas Ahlam and her friends, also young and married, probably shared wives tales of pregnancy tricks and tips, foods to eat to increase fertility, superstitions of blessings and curses; hours of conversation reflecting the cultural honour and pride of an Arab woman bringing forth new life. Ahlam knew she would be considered a “new bride” until she got pregnant, up to two years after her marriage. Getting pregnant would prove herself to her husband as worthy, a good wife, a healthy woman with bearing hips, one to be kept. A wife to, hopefully, not be left or added to. She could bring forth his namesake.

So that day she found out she was pregnant was a beautiful day indeed. The sun seemed to shine brighter, the sky was bluer, even the small agitations of the day — the loud, overcrowded streets and the rotting smell of the sewage draining down the street — seemed less offensive. She was a woman.

Getting pregnant would prove herself to her husband as worthy, a good wife, a healthy woman with bearing hips, one to be kept.

As weeks turned into months, her belly grew. Ahlam was nervous: Would she be okay? Did she know how to be a mother? Would it hurt? No, she told herself: this was her honour, her joy, and her duty as a woman to her husband. She would bring him a baby, God willing a boy, and give him the honour of passing along his family name. Her mother rubbed oils on her belly; force-feeding her herbs with her tea to insure the baby would be a boy. It must be, her mother said. Ahlam just rubbed her growing belly; although she was scared she was also excited to be entering this new season of life. It all seemed to be coming together like her dreams.

So when her husband announced that he had found work abroad, Ahlam was even more overjoyed. Work for camp residents, all lacking Jordanian citizenship or residency which are the necessary requirements for work of any kind, is few and scarce, seasonal at best. Getting a job abroad meant money to help their emerging family. Yes, the dreams were coming true. Ahlam kissed him goodbye as he left for the airport, leaving promises of money to be sent as soon as he received it.

Her mother rubbed oils on her belly; force-feeding her herbs with her tea to insure the baby would be a boy.

What Ahlam didn’t know was that her husband never planned to come back. She never saw him again after that afternoon. He boarded a plane and disappeared, leaving 22 year old Ahlam pregnant and alone, eventually giving birth to a beautiful baby boy. Her only phone number to her husband had been disconnected.

To Ahlam, the world suddenly became big and scary. A woman in the camp, she was limited by circumstance and culture in her ability to earn money. Legally still married, she couldn’t get remarried until her husband offered her a divorce. Her family had already said their goodbyes to her; she was now the property of her husband, for lack of a gentler description. They had spent her dowry and were far from financially able to take in Ahlam to provide for her and her new baby.

To Ahlam, the world suddenly became big and scary.

This was 12 years ago. Since then, Ahlam has been doing odd jobs to help raise her son, now a 7th grader. Along the way, she began to have problems with her eyes, having undergone six operations to date, none of which have proven successful. A perpetual victim to circumstance outside of her control — place of birth, abandonment, economic black holes — Ahlam has remained afloat because she has been determined to work hard, offering up all she has in hopes of generating money. She has to.

Like many other women in the camp, Ahlam works with embroidery, a traditional Palestinian handicraft. Her and others in her situation — with absent or jobless husbands — are getting connected to bazaars in Amman so that they can sell their work and generate a badly needed income.

Ahlam has remained afloat because she has been determined to work hard, offering up all she has in hopes of generating money.

Today, she was working with 10 women, sitting in a wet, questionable-dirt filled floor (It was pouring rain and the only room for them to work was the one with the bathroom, which began to leak into the room), hand weaving baskets and mirror frames to sell at a bazaar this Thursday. They were content: with reason to be, the work is beautiful. They complained about the brown water creeping onto their mats, but they were willing to sit in it.

Ahlam was making hand-embroidered wallets this morning. Buying one of the neatly decorated and colourful purses is a reminder that there is a power of a single individual to impact another’s life — for the good and for the bad. Those blessed to have money to place in the wallets are in a position of privilege with great responsibilities. For Ahlam, if it’s true that people’s names are prophecies upon them, her days will hopefully become more the daydreams of her name, than the nightmare of her position.

By Julia Wallin.

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6 thoughts on “Meet Ahlam

  1. and what does a “julia wallin” , clearly not from here, know what honor, respect and marital status means in the arab world?

    A lot! I like the way you write.. captivating for sure.. What camp was this in ?

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