Exchanging ideas and experiences: a public space called Ta3leeleh

Author ········· Ali Suleiman
Published ······ Online, Nov 2014
Section ·······  Culture

A “taleeleh” is a traditional Arab social event where tribes sit down and openly share their concerns, ideas, and issues related to the community. The sitting brings together young and old men, and it serves both as a communal mechanism and an educative tool teaching children communication, negotiation, and listening skills. The night starts with a discussion and ends with poetry, dance, and song. In 2009, Rawan Zeine launched Ta3leeleh with hopes of creating an open and safe space for expression in the community. Made up of 15 volunteers in three teams in Amman, Salt, and the Ghor, the organisation is dedicated to giving an opportunity for people to share their ideas and experiences. I sat down with Rawan to find out more on Ta3leeleh and her thoughts on open space for dialogue in Jordan.

AS | What is Ta3leeleh?

RZ | It is a creative open space for people to come and express themselves and learn from one another. We do it once a month in three different municipalities: Amman, Salt, and the Ghor. It’s a place to get a sense of value, self, and agency. We bring eight to ten people from all walks of life to share their ideas, interests, observations, and experiences in eight minutes. They can share [this] in any form they want, be it traditional such as presentations, speeches, storytelling, or arts communication such as theatre, art, or dance. This is done in front of a live and supportive audience, so we’re careful about creating a safe space. It’s also for the audience to learn and discover.

AS | How do you go about creating this safe space?

RZ | One [way] is the [manner in which] we bring the audience. There are no banners or posters, nor any public advertisements [for] the event. You can only know about a ta3leeleh if you follow our Facebook page or someone invites you. In that sense, the way we make it known that a ta3leeleh is happening is very personal.

The space itself not always in our control, but we make it a point to walk around and tell audience members who are talkative to be quiet. If the audience is big, we give a speech on what the role of the audience is, setting up norms such as no smoking, and the audience can set how we want to behave as a group.

Another way we do it is through the setup. We keep it natural, so the locations are not flashy like in TEDx, NewThink, or other places in Jordan. The informal space makes it more comfortable for the sharers. We don’t put the sharers on a stage, but rather on the same level as the audience. We do that very intentionally, mainly for a sense of equality; when you stand within the group you are one of the group.

Usually when we know a sensitive topic is coming up, we ask the audience to respect it beforehand. One time there was a Kendo Japanese group, and they have this “kiyay!” burst of energy where they scream. Every time they screamed, the audience laughed. The Ta3leeleh team immediately addressed this after the presenters finished, [by] reminding the audience members it is natural to laugh at something new and unexpected, but to also consider the emotions of the presenter. So Ta3leeleh is also space for the audience to learn how to be positive audience members. It’s not only about the sharers, quite the opposite: everyone there is a participant – whether they are presenting or attending…

Recently we’re thinking about opening it up to the audience for discussion, but with that you can’t guarantee a safe space for the sharer.

AS | At the last Ta3leeleh I attended, I noticed there was no discussion from the audience’s side...

RZ | Well if someone [from the audience] wants to have an open discussion within the eight minutes, they could. They’re entitled to [disagree] with what the sharer is saying, they are responsible to a certain extent. [There may be times when] I feel the need to step in, [like] if the [sharer is] being rude with the audience. You never know, it’s not necessarily that the audience is rude, but this hasn't happened yet.

The other reason is to develop our listening skills as audience members. I feel that usually when you hear someone speaking you come up with thoughts and arguments and that’s all you hold on to, not listening to anything else until it’s your turn to speak. So even though we eliminate that option off the table, you are more than welcome to speak to them [sharers] afterwards one-on-one. And there are other initiatives for discussion happening in Amman that you can go to.

AS | I feel that this platform is a great way of breaking class divisions, in some way. For example, the fact that you do it in different parts of Jordan is crucial, because here you can have a farmer or someone from the Ghor share their ideas and concerns to a Ammani.

RZ | There is definitely an aspect of bridging communities together based on sharing interests. But what’s fascinating is not giving access to communities that wouldn’t generally have access to one another [geographically], but there are also communities that generally don’t have a space [to make their] voice [heard]. For example, people with disabilities or foreign workers such as Egyptians or Sri Lankans.

There’s also [another] aspect: age. In the Ghor, it means a lot to the women [to participate], especially the younger generation – the Ghor is more diverse in terms of its audience. In Salt you have teenagers, such as a rapper who is rapping in front of sheikhs! Asking the participants why they wanted to share, they say: “I was a tenth grader and got to stand in front of adults and tell them what I think about the English language. How often do I get to have a voice among the elderly?” So it’s also a cross-generational bridge as I have discovered.

AS | Was the sheikh cool with listening to rap?

RZ | To him it was okay. Maybe [he would've preferred] to have something more Salti, but he never came up and complained. That’s why it’s important not to have space specifically for dialogue. Something I noticed about Ta3leeleh in the Ghor is when you get eight minutes, it’s an open canvas to fill it in any way you want. The stuff they come up with is very cool.

AS | Speaking of filling the canvas, you cover various topics. Are there any topics that you have to censor, or just avoid?

RZ | Not really. Our rule is you can say whatever you want, just be respectful. And really there is already a form of self-censorship here. People know where to draw the line.

AS | What happens after a taleeleh? Immediately after the event, the air is electrified, as was the case last time and people are talking to each other. But that can die down, so is there anything you do or you may be doing in keeping up that momentum and motivate people?

RZ | People do ask what happens after the people share, and they think of Ta3leeleh as a place for head-hunters and the develop[ment of] ideas, which is valid, but at the end our goal isn’t that. After each taleeleh we get people’s names, we edit the videos and upload them on YouTube and on our website. So it becomes accessible for all and for the person to use it in any way they want. For example, there are three individuals who went onto Star Academy and one who went to Arab Talent. We would never say that we helped them or pushed them, nor do we take credit. We just gave them a space to practice publicly. Our end goal is community building. I want the person to come back and say “I want to share with you again. I want to bring my friends to share.” That’s how we want to follow up with them.

The part we want to develop is following up in social media. That’s something we aspire to in the near future. All these people sharing poetry or theatre, why don’t we bring people together to talk about their experiences sharing with one another? So that’s our upcoming project: how can we build a network or a stronger network among people who share? For example, in some taleelehs where sharers meet, they find out that one person is rapping and another making a film. So it’s “Hey, why don’t you make the music for my film?” Or one person in the audience hears someone talking about a book they translated. They’ll call up Ta3leeleh and ask for the name of the person because they need a translator. This is [happening] slowly, we just need to be more intentional in creating this [exchange].

AS | We were previously talking about tangible indicators of success, or lack of perhaps. But I think these are pretty good.

RZ | This one time we asked the audience members to say one thing they are thankful for or that they appreciate about Ta3leeleh. This one girl said “I’ve wanted to come to Ta3leeleh since forever, but I’ve had exams and my university is in Irbid. I said that’s it I have to go. Tomorrow I have exams but I have to go. And I’m so thankful that I came and for the opportunity you gave me.” I don’t know how you would define that in terms of social development or movement building or indicators. But it’s something that’s going on here that’s worthwhile.

AS | How is the project funded?

RZ | The Spanish Embassy Cultural Office gave us money in the very beginning so we were able to buy a sound system from there and other basic assets. Then Her Majesty Queen Rania came to Ta3leeleh and she was kind enough to give us a large stipend. But the way Ta3leeleh works is that it's a very low budget event. We build partnerships with local communities, and they give us free space and cover some of our costs. Since we own a lot of the assets, it decreases the cost; a taleeleh in Amman costs only 25 JD. In Salt it’s the same thing, but it’ll cost a bit more to cover transit costs for people to come from Amman.

AS | In getting people to Ghor, what’s the audience size there?

RZ | Ghor's [audience size] is usually 30-40 people. Amman you get up to 100 - once we had 120. I like small audiences.

AS | And so when in the Ghor, where it’s considered to be more conservative, do you also have women presenting? What can you say about the difference then between the three locations?

RZ | Actually the Ghor has the largest number of women presenting. Salt is our biggest challenge. We can barely get them [women] to the audience, let alone to share, which is mainly due to Salt being more conservative. Ghor has younger people. We bring in eight or nine year olds, or teenage girls reading poetry. I love the Ghor in a way [that] it’s very authentic and natural. They talk about things that matter to them, lots of poetry and theatre. We [also] bring in members of parliament, community leaders, and youth [that have] start[ed] their own initiatives in their local community. The Ghor is usually very cool.

AS | So what are you doing to overcome this challenge of bringing girls out to the events in Salt?

RZ | We’re planning to hold it earlier. Instead of 18.00, we’ll do it at 16.00. [This will enable us to] not only have them join us as audience members or sharers, but to also have more girls on the team. We only have one girl on the team there. There’s no transit which is also an issue. It’s not that they never share or come, it’s just more challenging.

AS | You spoke about many of the challenges you face already, but can you share a specific one?

RZ | We want to expand to all municipalities…which is a challenge in terms time and money. No one gets paid on the team.

AS | Well that’s a dedicated team!

RZ | An important thing about Ta3leeleh is about where change actually comes from, and I discovered that it’s where there is most consistency. That’s the team. So the change that Ta3leeleh is making is by developing skills of the team; each of us takes a leadership role in terms of building capacity, coaching each other, [and] having ownership of the project by everyone. Each has their own story as to why they do this. At the end of the day, it’s the team that’s playing a big role in the change, because they are the change.

AS | So can we say by developing these skills of the team, they can apply it in their own initiatives or projects in society, not just at Ta3leeleh?

RZ | Definitely. If I can say one thing that’s different than most other initiatives or projects in Jordan is that our biggest accomplishment isn’t that we’ve had over a thousand people sharing or 10,000 audience attendees, or the 5,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook. Where I think we’ve really had an impact is the fact that we have 15 people around the country dedicated to this [as volunteers] who believe in this, and who want to create this space for themselves and others. That’s why I would like to see these teams expand and develop leadership skills, help motivate others, and learn to problem solve as a team for something [in] their own community.

AS | In terms of dialogue or discussion spaces, how do you think you can strengthen these platforms in Jordanian society?

RZ | In terms of dialogue, there are already many mechanisms in place by looking at our traditions – tribal or not – [such as] the idea of the diwan (family house), ta3leeleh and others. It’s funny that there’s this trend in using cultural things to make them open spaces for dialogue, but these spaces exist already.

I think “creating a [formal] space for discussion” is a very scary thing. I don’t create a space, I create an open space. There’s a difference: if you were to have an open discussion on political parties in Jordan you suddenly have a political agenda. Discussion is already happening but not in a formal space. So my question would be: how much more important is creating a formal space than the informal spaces we already have? Why do we need formal spaces for discussion? There are lots of them and they are the ones [that are] more easily corrupted. So isn’t it more important to create informal places for discussion than formal ones?

AS | What's your advice for keeping these sincere and open discussions going?

RZ | Let these informal spaces evolve and be, rather than dictate what they should be and institutionalise them.

Ta3leeleh on Facebook

Ali Suleiman graduated from the University of Waterloo's Civil Engineering programme in Canada, and holds a Project Management certificate from the University of Toronto. Of Palestinian and Turkish origin, he is fluent in Arabic and Turkish. His professional experience draws from work in Canada, Turkey, Jordan, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. Currently he works with an engineering firm in Jordan on industrial and renewable energy projects, and is an avid supporter of sustainable development. His interests include history, film, and music. At the moment Ali is completing his MBA studies in Germany.