A Capoeira wedding in the heart of the Middle East by Jane Hosking

Wedding guests dancing Arabian Dabke

Wedding guests dancing Arabian Dabke

I’ve now lived in Jordan long enough to know that you can find almost anything in this country and that so many things here break from the stereotype of a conservative Arab society. But probably my favourite experience of this so far has been Samer and Jana’s wedding.

The bright light of the car headlights lit the winding road ahead of us as we drove through the dark to the Scandinavian Forest that sat at the top of a large hill, just North-West of Amman. Apparently a Swedish King had inaugurated the land, which is how it got its name.

Being quite familiar with the desert plains, dry grassy hills, and rocky valleys of Jordan I expected that the name “Scandinavian Forest” was just a colourful title rather than a description of what we were to find there. So I was surprised when we arrived and found ourselves standing amidst a slightly scraggly, yet enchanting forest of pine trees.

The reception area was a simple, large concrete circle that lay in a clearing beneath a tall pine with a messy string of fairy lights hanging in its branches. Lamps made of brown paper bags and candles were placed around the concrete circle, which was surrounded by tables and chairs to seat the arriving guests.

When we gazed out from the mountain, beyond the pine trees that circled the clearing, we could see the outskirts of Amman, which was a sea of multicoloured lights like tiny campfires burning in the distance. All these surroundings made it feel like we were in a fairy woodland party, rather than in the heart of the Middle East.

After arriving, I stood awkwardly for a few minutes, looking for my friends who had not yet arrived and preparing myself for the boring small talk you might expect at a wedding. But it wasn’t long before my friends came and I discovered that this wasn’t going to be a pretentious wedding with small talk and frequent glances at our watches.

Samer and Jana have their first 'dance' after the ceremony

Samer and Jana have their first 'dance' after the ceremony

Nothing about Samer and Jana is conventional, in all the best ways. And naturally their wedding was different from any other I had been to in my life. As the proceedings commenced, Samer and Jana stepped into the circle where their marriage contract was read aloud by close friends and family—in line with Islamic legality, yet written to suit them as a couple and their liberal beliefs. Jana is from Germany so this was a cross-cultural wedding. This meant there was a mix of guests present, some wearing conservative Islamic attire, while others wore short dresses. Whether liberal or conservative it didn’t matter. All were welcome and accepted.

Both bride and groom wore crisp, white linen shirts and loose fitted trousers. Samer wore a colourful patterned skullcap and had since changed out of the long traditional skirt that he had been wearing earlier in the evening. His mother had laughed to me about how he had been wearing a skirt while Jana wore trousers. But it wasn’t convention that had made Samer change his outfit—quite the opposite in fact. Instead of dancing a waltz as you may expect at a traditional western wedding, the pair prepared to fight Capoeira.

All guests gathered around the circle and watched on as the couple danced and fought, lunging and suspending themselves on their hands, kicking the air and moving together in harmony to the rhythm. Their Capoeira friends stood by, singing and playing traditional Capoeira instruments.

For those unfamiliar with Capoeira, it is a martial art that hails from Brazil where in the 16th Century, West African slaves combined dancing and fighting to disguise their training to rebel and escape their Portuguese colonist masters. Many Capoeira fighters used the art to break free and form rebellion groups known as Quilombos, outside of colonial control. If only those early inventors of Capoeira could see how far their influence had spread—even to the top of this mountain in the Scandinavian Forest in Jordan.   

Samer and Jana had first met at Capoeira training, so there was no better way to celebrate their wedding than fighting together. But after the Capoeira, there were more dances to come, and more traditions to be shared. Arabian Dabke dancing was next.

The beat of the drum echoed through the trees as a long line of people holding hands were led around the dance floor by a blonde Jordanian wearing a white shirt and bow tie. He had a full but neatly kept beard and short styled hair that was slightly puffed up—not unlike the hipsters of the West. Joining in, I tried to keep up with the dance steps. In a circular motion the line stepped and rocked, two and fro—back-forward-forward-back—the pattern of steps changing from time to time along with the dramatic beat and Arabian tunes. Each song was like a celebration chant or war cry of deep undulating voices.

Shortly after the Arabian music fell silent it was time for the Beatles to shake up the dance floor. We gathered in circles with our friends, throwing ourselves around and moving to the very different beat from before. “Baby you can drive my car. Yes I'm gonna be a star. Baby you can drive my car. And maybe I love you.” We shouted the lyrics of the songs as we danced and laughed.

And finally, the evening wouldn’t have been complete without Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. As the song blared from the speakers, we stood with our arms around each other, swaying and singing at the top of our voices: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality…”

Samer and Jana’s wedding was, in many ways, more like a dream than reality. It was a time of fun and celebration, where we were completely free to be who we were. That night will always stay with me as a reminder of the many times Jordan has surprised me and shattered my preconceived ideas of how I had expected the Middle East to be.

At war with ISIS: Jordan's response to the killing of their pilot by Jane Hosking

The march in downtown Amman following the killing of pilot al-Kasasbeh, February 2015

The march in downtown Amman following the killing of pilot al-Kasasbeh, February 2015

Following the brutal killing of Jordanian pilot al-Kasasbeh more people in the Kingdom are against the militant group than ever. But a fear of a threat from within remains.

It didn’t feel like we were at war before. But in the days after the shocking video was released by Islamic State militants (ISIS), showing Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh being burned to death in a cage after he was captured while on bombing raids in Syria, things have changed here in Amman.

As my taxi driver drove me to work the morning after the news, he was listening to the radio about al-Kasasbeh. When we stopped at the traffic lights he held his head in his hands, visibly disturbed by what had happened.

On the following Friday I went with some friends to a market in downtown Amman. The call to prayer from all the mosques was echoing across the valley, but it seemed different this time; more like a cry of mourning. The prayer was followed by the sermons, resonating from the loud speakers of the mosques’ minarets. The Imams sounded more fervent than ever. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but the air felt heavy with sorrow.

We’d heard that there was a march on at the central mosque in downtown so we decided to go and have a look. Hundreds of people were gathered, many wearing their red and white checkered keffiehs and holding posters of al-Kasasbeh. Shops lining the road also displayed his picture and banners were strung up depicting nationalistic statements and pictures of the King alongside the Jordanian flag.

The crowd were standing on the road, listening to a man who stood on a platform shouting into a microphone. There were people there from all aspects of Jordanian society: young and old; rich and poor; Muslim and Christian

While the dust has now settled since the march in downtown, people in Jordan are still angry, upset and shocked by what ISIS did to al-Kasasbeh. When asked about his death, most say that what ISIS did was not human.

While there have been many cases of violence committed by ISIS before this, the burning of Al-Kasasbeh really hit Jordanians hard and opened their eyes to the extent of the militant group’s brutality. Al-Kasasbeh was not only someone that Jordanians could relate to—a young man who looked like their brother, their son or their colleague at work—but he also belonged to a powerful tribe in the Kingdom.

Prior to his death there was talk of ISIS sympathisers in Jordan and reports that thousands of Jordanians had already joined their ranks in Syria and Iraq. But where there was ignorance or sympathy before, it has now been largely replaced by a widespread hostility for the group.

Despite this increase in opposition to ISIS it is likely that there are many people who are angry at the government for its involvement in the international coalition against the militant group. They say that this is not Jordan’s war. However, it is those that continue to silently support ISIS that are of greatest concern to the monarchy. How many there are is hard to say.

In the days after the march, fighter jets could be seen flying over Amman, returning from bombing ISIS targets across the border. Even though we’ve always been so close to the conflict—just a few hours drive away from where people are killing and dying—it all seemed so distant before.

The question on Jordanian minds now is whether ISIS is lying in wait, preparing to bring the battle to Amman. With it’s strong military and international allies, Jordan does not fear an external attack, but it does fear one from the invisible supporters within.

Snow in Jordan at night in pictures by Jane Hosking

While the snow in Jordan means a bit of fun for those of us living in houses, it means misery for others.

People are often surprised to hear that it snows in the Middle East. Isn’t it the land of hot sunny deserts? Well yes, it is in the summer, but as I am currently discovering, the winters here are extremely cold and it not only snows in Amman but sometimes there's even blizzards.

Without proper heating in our apartment, we have spent the last few days huddled in the kitchen, baking cakes to keep warm, and watching movies on our couch that we squeezed in from the lounge room. It's difficult to go outside, I can’t seem to keep my socks dry when I do, and our pipes froze up yesterday, meaning there was no water to even brush our teeth.

But for us, despite these small concerns, the snow has mostly brought fun, with snow fights, snowmen and late night strolls to marvel at our transformed neighbourhood with its white-dusted palms. Yet throughout these days I can’t help thinking how the people living in refugee camps here in Jordan and other parts of the Middle East are coping.

There have already been accounts of children in the camps dying from the weather. As cold as it may be for me, I don’t live in a tent. I have a means of keeping warm and as much food as I need. Those who have fled their homes due to the conflict in Syria are not so fortunate.

While I was out taking the below photos in my neighbourhood I saw a lonely, shivering cat following me. As I lowered myself to pat her she jumped into my lap. The cats in Amman are rarely this friendly, but the cold had made her desperate. We’ve given her a place to stay for the night, but how many people are out there with nowhere warm to go? And how many more winters will there be with refugees suffering in tents while they wait to return to Syria?

The snow in my neighbourhood in Amman:

The snow experience for Syrian refugees (photos below via Twitter: @PeterMillett1 and @nickcafod):