Photographs by Rafic
Interview by Khalid Abdel-Hadi
Make-up by Nada Al-Agha
Hair by Mahmoud Karajogly
Digital artwork by Atef Daglees
Behind the scenes video by Ala’a Abu Qasheh and Mustafa Rashed.
Special thanks to Auberge restaurant and Jordan Cafe (مقهى الأردن) in downtown Amman.
View full shoot here
My.Kali’s cover star, actress Jana Zeineddine, came to terms with her new lived environment as she walked more than a mile in Amman’s downtown, rocking Karen Millen strapless dresses and scandalous minis along with her 4-month-and-something pregnant belly, haggling old men for a better bargain in Souk Al Khudra, Jana cuts a provocative sight. While she gracefully rolled with the punches, she did admit that, “Being on the steps in a dress while a crowd of men gathered at the bottom was very challenging.” An understatement?
At 33, Jana is at a transitional phase in her life and career, moving from the all-American lifestyle to that of a Jordanian all-year-rounder. Although she initially found it tough to cope with a range of misfits, she has a fondness for the odd, vibrant theatrics of Ammani urban life.
Jana belongs to a category called a “third culture kid,” which basically characterises those who lack clear roots in a particular country. Jana was born in the US to Lebanese parents, and grew up in Saudi Arabia. Jana felt very sheltered in Saudi, before moving back to the US at the age of 13, saying “I was a child growing up like any other. I was in an International British school, so my friends were from all over the world. I was exposed to a global environment at a very early age in my life, and it felt natural and wonderful.” This appreciation for various cultures and backgrounds began in Saudi continued to inspire her as an adult, traveling to new destinations as a path to gain insights into others’ lives in a tangible way. But it wasn’t until she moved to the US that she felt the ‘culture clash’.
You lived through and between different cultures, from Jeddah to the US, Lebanon to the UK, and now Jordan. What are the struggles you face when negotiating these (clashing?) cultures?
In 1990, we were visiting Washington, DC for the summer as we did every summer. The only difference was that we never returned to Saudi after that, and a month later my brother and I were enrolled at the Maret School, a very small and very American private school. I was 13, chubby, and wore ceramic braces. Moving to the US was an impulsive response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and I was suddenly placed in an environment that completely opposed the one I had been in previously. I struggled big time. It took take years before I began to find my own sense of belonging.
In addition to changing environments, I had Lebanese parents at home who tried very hard to maintain certain ideals and cultural expectations . Their ideals often clashed with the American ideals I was exposed to, causing a lot of tension within myself and with my parents.
It wasn’t until my undergraduate years at the George Washington University that I began to feel more settled in my skin, which was in part because of the comfort I felt among the many Arabs I met.
I felt a huge culture shock again when I settled in Jordan in 2009. It very similar in impact to the one I felt when I moved to the US at age 13, but this time, the shock was encountering cultural conservatism, the rich versus poor divide, religion, and the perception and treatment of women in Jordan. I was definitely not prepared for the environment I had entered.
Did the struggles you faced finding your own sense of belonging help you understand other people’s struggles, for example, in culture or sexuality or religion? In what way?
Yes. I feel that everyone, on some level, whether it’s their relationship with religion, their sexuality, their gender, their social status etc., struggles to fit in. I think that’s part of what makes us human; we all struggle in different ways. Having that experience of feeling ‘out of place’ more than once in my life has made me more empathetic and understanding to people who feel out of place on a daily basis. It is also what inspires my work as a performer and Applied Theatre practitioner — my goal in my work is to connect with people, and to have them connect with each other.
Women are treated differently abroad, and are maybe more “liberated,” even in Lebanon. What are your experiences in Jordan compared to those you had living in other areas of the world?
I have no doubt that women all over the world continue to fight for independence and respect. Whether in the US or in Lebanon, women still have to work hard to maintain their power and position in society. An obvious difference between “abroad” and Jordan is the presence of anti-discrimination laws, which affect the treatment and cultural perceptions of women and impact them on a day to day basis — at work and at home. Living in the US and UK, I never felt that I was any less powerful than a man. This contrasts sharply to Jordan, where there are still many horrific laws that set women back to the Dark Ages, despite the country’s progressive stance on gender relative to other Middle Eastern Countries.
Luckily, I am not affected by the laws that exist in Jordan. I am married to a wonderful person who values equality in our marriage. I feel I have an equal power position with my husband. Our roles may not necessarily be equal (for example I am the primary caretaker of our son), but we still maintain a balance of power in our relationship. It is not until I leave my house that I feel the discrimination as it manifests in verbal and physical assault by men in the street, or not feeling like I have the power to engage. That has been very difficult for me to negotiate, and a struggle that remains an issue.
I feel that progress will continue only at a snail’s pace until a Feminist movement hits the Middle Eastern region. It is up to women to unite and take charge.
Can you talk a bit more about your experience as a woman in Jordan? Have ever felt harassed of violated? What are some of the things that you go (and went) through? And what some of these experiences are?
I have felt violated on many levels as a woman in Jordan. It has mainly been in the form of unwanted verbal assaults and disgusting stares. I usually brush it off by ignoring it and try very hard not to engage. The most extreme case happened when I was walking my baby in the King Hussein Park and a man exposed himself to me and began to masturbate. At first, I was in such a state of shock and immediately ran as fast as I could. I became increasingly frustrated when I could not locate a single policeman in the park to report the man. When I finally did, upon exiting the park in my car, the policeman essentially said that ‘men are pigs’ and that I should ignore it. I told him, “that’s not an answer. There should be better safety measures to protect women from such men so that we can walk in the park and not fear for our safety.” He smiled and nodded politely. Clearly this experience is symptomatic of a much larger issue in Jordan — sexual repression.
So, do you think women can do something about it?
Women can report such incidents to the police and form alliances with each other. Almost every woman I know who lives in Jordan has a story. I am sure that if more and more women got together and mobilized, something would come out of it. It’s usually an incident that’s forgotten about. I even was hesitant to share my story. I chose to because I feel it’s necessary for women to know that it’s not safe to go to the park without a male unfortunately. That was not the first time I had been made to feel extremely uncomfortable by a man in the park on my own. I could have taken more action by reporting the man I mentioned above, but I had my baby with me and just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Should women start “burning their bras” at Dakhelieh Circle to get that attention needed for rapid change?
Not necessarily. I feel that there is an appropriate way to respond in every culture. “Burning bras” was a metaphor in the 60s that was both appropriate and effective in that American context. The difference in the Middle East is that Feminist uprisings are not cohesive. On one hand, you have the secular feminist movement that tries to implement universal women’s rights, and on the other, there is the more conservative religious movement limited by tradition. An act of protest like bra burning or its equivalent would be too extreme in Jordan.
One example that shows this split between progressive secular and conservative religious movements is Article 308 in Jordan’s penal code, which essentially allows a rapist to walk free in gives the rapist the right to marry his victim. For a woman who has a full control over her life and sexuality, what’s your take on what’s known as the “Rape-Law”?
Clearly Article 308 is a horrific law that needs to be abolished as soon as possible. Not only does it infringe upon a young woman’s right to incriminate a rapist that has so horribly violated her, it also serves as a reminder that women in Jordan (and various other Middle Eastern countries including Lebanon) do not have the same rights that men have. If a young boy was raped, what would happen to his rapist in that case? Clearly marriage is not an option. How would his honor be defended? Article 308 is disgusting, sexist and almost too absurd to be true. It’s epitomizes the need for Muslim conservative societies to be less governed by what ‘Thaqafat al 3aib” in society dictates and be guided by more rational and critical problem solving solutions.
Some argue that laws like this “rape law” help decrease honor crimes. Do you believe that this could be the best option given at the moment? Wouldn’t this one be better than for her to be killed for something that clearly isn’t her fault, even if just for the short term?
I don’t think one can solve a problem by creating another one. Article 308 does not necessarily decrease honor crimes, but rather perpetuates the ‘rationale’ for them to exist. The notion that a woman’s honor will be salvaged if she marries her rapist is both damaging and absurd on mental, emotional and psychological levels. In both cases — Article 308 and in honor crimes — a woman is not given a fair opportunity to defend herself, nor is she given any rights that truly protect her honor. If a father truly believes his raped daughter is better off marrying her rapist, then we have a much more serious problem to address in our society.
To return to your comment that some branches of feminist movement in Jordan are restricted by conservative religious movements that would preclude protest acts, such as bra-burning, what societal elements limit you, personally?
Society’s general perceptions and attitudes towards women are quite limiting. Women themselves can be their own worst enemies. The moment a woman begins to settle for the status quo, she is limiting herself.
I have worked with many women of conservative religious backgrounds. Some of them have taken me aside after a drama workshop (it was the Social Theatre project on gender that I did last year), and revealed how ‘trapped’ and ‘afraid to act’ they felt due to what ‘other people in society will think and say.’ Once, a woman approached us and told us how helpless she felt as a victim of physically-abusive marriage. Her family wouldn’t support her because they think her husband has the right to hit her, and Hamayit Al-Usra was ineffective in helping her. She felt incapacitated! She is one of many women who cannot get the help she needs because of the limits that society has placed on her.
In most developed countries, there is at least a collective cultural thrust of women’s rights that empowers women to stand up against inequality. There is more public outrage against misogyny. In Jordan, however, there’s more of a tendency to tolerate misogyny and inequality . Men and women are both responsible in taking on these issues if there is going to be any positive change.
Despite all of these societal challenges, you let My.Kali revamp you and take you to downtown-Amman, casting you in the role of a “classless woman with money” married a rich Arab man, shopping in a risqué dress and heals at 4-months pregnant. Vulgar! You seem to have enjoyed the fuss and controversy of the challenge, but how did you feel about it? What did you gain out of the experience (beside the amazing photos)?
The photo-shoot was a really amazing opportunity for me to challenge myself on many levels! There is something very intriguing about the balad, and in all honesty, as much as I would love to go there and wander the souks on my own, I avoid it at all costs due to the harassment I have received in the past. So, going there 4-months pregnant and in a short, fitted dress and heels was quite a challenge.
At first it was very difficult, and I could feel the stares and hear the negative comments I was getting from the many passing by. Then I decided to let it all go and focus on the photo shoot. I was doing nothing wrong, and would be considered “normally dressed” in a less conservative environment. It became less about me and more of an opportunity to challenge others by putting myself out there and saying, ‘this is what some modern women, mothers, wives and daughters look like.’ It almost became a fun game, but it was far from easy!
Maybe your ability to adapt to the environment and conquer negative emotions connects to your professional life as an actress/director. Why do you think it’s hard for some people to show their vulnerable side, and easy for others? Does acting/theater play on that? Push that?
To be a good actor, you have to be willing to show your vulnerable side. That’s what makes some actors much better (stronger) than others. For me when an actor makes me feel a certain way, they are sharing their vulnerability or fragility in order to make the scene authentic. The level of resistance in showing that vulnerability is directly linked to how a performer processes their own emotions. The more willing they are to show them, the more they have come to terms with them.
Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone who inspired you to get into theater?
I have been performing since I could talk. I don’t think I ever really made a decision to be in theatre; I just gravitated to the stage as a child and adult. I think it’s connected to how I feel as a woman living in this time in which we have so many expectations for life, both good and bad. The theatre has always been my haven as a platform for honest expression, exploration, inspiration, and connection with others. These are things that I seek in life, generally, and the theater has been the place where I have successfully achieved those things.
What roles would make you say ‘Ah! Mmm I like it’?
I like to take on roles that are farthest from who I am as a person. I like to play powerful women with an edge, a fault, an insecurity, and a passion that is different from my own. As a director, and this is a new role I recently have taken on, I like to take on projects that involve collaboration with others. I am inspired by those who think differently from me. In all of my work, I want to do projects that challenge the way people think. Entertaining them is fun, but challenging them is extraordinary.
We can definitely see your interest in challenging the audience in the play/musical, Dum Dum Tak, that you recently managed and put together with Shireen Abu Khader. In it, you casted members from the choir of Dozan wa Awtar, and used stories of the choirs’ members to construct the plot. Channeling comedy and drama, the show was a hit! Have you ever narrated your story or shared something private to a strange audience? How does it feel to share? Was the process healing, considering its applied theater?
Wow great question. I think as a performer you always reveal a part of yourself. You almost have to on some level in any role. Emotionally, I have revealed parts of myself I would rather not, specifically my vulnerability. I have not yet shared a personal story as a participant in an applied theater workshop, but I am definitely open to it. It connects to my philosophy on acting: Be true, be just, be real, and be open.
You took part of a workshop in London for Transsexual people. Can you tell us about it? What did you gain from it?
While I was completing my Masters in Applied Theatre at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, I took part in a course called “Writing with Communities.” The community in focus for that term happened to be transgender youth in London. That course changed my perspective on the transgendered identity, and challenged my perspectives on identity, in general. Based on a model of practice called ‘Democratic Collaboration,’ the process involved over 50 LGBTQ participants (and allies) in a series of four, 5-hour drama workshops that addressed homophobia that both homosexuals and transgender peoples face.
Over the course of the workshops, the group shared stories of homophobic discrimination, improvised selected stories and created a 45-minute play that directly addressed homophobia surrounding the transgender community. The play was then toured throughout England in various high schools with a post-performance workshop that addressed the overlapping nature of three identities: sex, gender and sexual orientation. The experience profoundly affected my understanding of the complexity and multi-layered aspect of identity, and also opened my eyes to the daily struggles that the transgendered people face. I learned more from the amazingly intelligent and perceptive group of transgendered youth that participated in the project more than any other group in my life!
Your acting career is now in transition because of your growing family life. How did you meet your husband, Imad, and find yourself in Jordan?
I met Imad at his actress cousin’s show in NYC in 2002. At the time, we were both dating other people. A year later, she encouraged me to come to a party her cousin Imad was having. I went reluctantly, and spent a total of 20 minutes there, 15 of which were talking to Imad, who had recently become single! One thing led to another, and within weeks we were like two love-struck teenagers dating and falling head over heels.
Unfortunately, three months after we started dating, Imad went to visit his family in Amman for a few weeks, and was not allowed to return to the US due to visa issues. We ended up in a 3-year long long-distance relationship, NYC/Amman, that happily ended in marriage. Being in a long-distance relationship for so long was a nightmare on many levels, but in that time we became exceptional communicators and really became one-another’s life-support. Marrying your best friend definitely makes marriage a lot easier in my opinion. It’s been an amazing ride so far.
Being a mom can be a rollercoaster! What are some of the joys and compromises that comes with it?
The joy of being a mother is like no other. The love I have for my son is the most profound and amazing feeling I have ever experienced. He warms my heart and gives me great direction. He really is a wonder to me. My career took the backseat after I became a mom. I expected that, but may not have been as emotionally prepared to fully comprehend it. It’s a compromise I make without hesitation, but I am also one that loves what I do. I love to work and feel that it brings much added value to my life. Going months without work was definitely very difficult and hard to accept, but it’s part and parcel of being a mother. I do miss sleeping 8-hours uninterrupted, responding to an email in a timely fashion, lounging on the couch with a good book and cup of coffee, and being spontaneous, in general.
However, I know that my baby will grow up, and in time I will start to get back those simple pleasures of pre-motherhood life. Until then, it’s a daily challenge of balance, acceptance, and lots of patience.
You’re a mom of a baby boy and now expecting your second child, who you recently knew is a girl! Many moms hold themselves responsible when knowing that their son/daughter is gay, blaming themselves for their child’s sexual orientation… How do you feel about that? And what can you tell them?
I believe you are born with your sexual orientation. In all honesty, I used to hope that my children don’t turn out gay simply because I feel like it’s a much harder life, and gay people all over the world still face severe discrimination, bullying and violence. Who would want that for their child? But my husband, who disagreed with me at the time, challenged my fears by saying “who doesn’t struggle in life? Who doesn’t have it hard?” The reality is, when you become a parent, the last thing in the world you want is for your child to be inflicted by any pain or harm. You will do anything to protect your child from such harm.
At the end of the day, I want my child to be a happy child who grows up into a happy adult — whether they’re gay or straight is not really for me to decide. So, I can say my perspective on this subject has changed in recent years. I want to raise a healthy, happy and successful individual and hope that whatever their sexual orientation, they live their life to their greatest potential. My role as a mother is to pave the way for that to happen. As for mothers who ‘blame themselves for the children’s sexual orientation,’ all I can say is: love your child no matter what and accept them as they are, for you have no control over who they are or what they want in life.
Controversy and “taboo” comes into many parts of our culture, especially in terms of intimate relationships. You and your husband, Imad, come from different backgrounds: both of you comes from different religions too. So what’s your take on marriage of different religions?
Although I was born into the Druze faith, I was raised in a very secular home. I am not one who lives my life by any religion. I have my faith and my spirituality, but am not guided nor do I choose to guide my life by religion.
As for my stance on ‘marriage of different religions,’ clearly I am all for it. I think it’s hard enough to find someone in life that you feel safe with, that you love and want to spend the rest of your life with. Limiting yourself by religion in a relationship , in my opinion, is tied to social customs. what will people say? How will they raise the kids? What will the kids be? It takes two to tango in this scenario. I believe couples of different religions have to have a very clear picture on the role that religion (if any) will take in their lives and their children’s lives before getting married.
The policing of “taboo relationships” is also quite prevalent regarding LGBT issues. what have you heard or know about LGBT people in Jordan?
I have heard that they are a closed off community, not open, and not very supportive of one another. I was led to believe that they live in fear.
Many LGBT people get married (gay men marrying gay women) or were forced. What’s your take on marriage alone, and about such arrangements?
I am not one to judge. If that type of arrangement works for some LGBT people, then so be it. It’s unfortunate that they have to resort to a ‘marriage of convenience’ but what choice do they have? The laws do not support them. On the other hand, I question whether or not by succumbing to these types of arrangements, do they perhaps become complacent to the system and lose their will to fight for their rights? On one level it seems like a convenient way around the system, on another level, it appears to support an existing system that needs to change.
Do you think the traditional notions of marriage are challenged today, especially when it comes to homosexuality?
Yes, I do believe that traditional notions of marriage are challenged by gays in our society today — referring specifically to Western societies since that discourse does not exist in the Middle East at this point. The very notion of marriage as an ‘institution’ and whether it’s a natural state to be in or not is one that continues to be questioned and challenged. I think that bringing in the ‘gay dynamic’ into this discourse only enriches it and allows for increased critical discussion around the very notion of marriage.
Are we constrained as much by conventional thinking about what constitutes a family?
The term “nuclear family” dates back to the 1920s and consists of “a father, a mother and their children.” Despite the many adaptations to this structure that constitute what makes a family, I still believe that people gravitate to the conventional notion that what constitutes a family is a man, his wife and their children. Whether it’s our own family unit, the various social agents we are exposed to or film and TV, we are bombarded with images of what constitutes a family. Family structures, however, are starting to change in more ways than one, and the media and TV/Film have been ahead in capturing and reflecting these changes — for example, shows such as ‘Modern Family’ directly challenges this notion in intelligent and humorous way.
Do you think LGBT people need or should have that piece of paper to gain stability?
I think LGBT should have the same rights that non-LGBT people have, so yes.
You’re an actress; do you think portraying a lesbian role would help you understand the struggles of what gay women go through?
Absolutely! I think it would be a challenge to portray a lesbian woman but nevertheless a welcomed one. When portraying any role as an actor, you have to understand the psyche, mentality and essence of who that person is, specifically what their struggle is. Through this direct empathy, greater understanding of their struggle would naturally occur.
Ever been invited to a gay wedding/engagement?
Well, few months ago, there were flyers all around Amman, an invitation for a gay wedding of ‘Ahmad and Adel’ on Paris’s circle in Weibdeh area. (an invitation landed on our lap) If that flyer landed on your lap, and decided to go, who would you take with you, and why? What would you wear? (We tried to attend but we missed the zafeh, and the story ended with so many rumors! Really!)
I would go with Imad and I would wear a very bright and colorful dress. I would take Imad because he would appreciate seeing two people like Ahmad and Adel risk their lives for what they believe in. My husband loves controversy, and I love an unconventional wedding!
What would you get them?
I would get them Mlabbas t-shirts that say ‘Game over’
- View the full shoot here
- Watch the making-of Jana’s shoot ‘Vulger Uproar’: