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French Version

A career woman - bucking the clichés

The heat is unbearable and so is the stench. Garbage and filth merge into a muddy mess in dark alleys that emit a sweet, rotten smell. Sweat gushes out of each pore of her skin and covers her body like a wet membrane. With her left hand she alternately pushes her sunglasses up on her nose and pulls down the sweaty t-shirt that keeps creeping up her back under the rucksack.

Her right hand is holding on to an enormous, dark blue suitcase that slaloms its way between puddles and filth. It is the summer of 2001 and Hala Khalaf has just arrived at a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where she is to teach English. This experience made the young woman realize that an existence on the shady side of life does not necessarily overshadow human vitality—and that she wants to use her privileged background and education to make a difference.

“It is undoubtedly the experience that has made the greatest impression on me ever. I’ll never forget—and if I do, I am a bad person. In that period of my life I needed to learn about my background and identity.

My father is a Palestinian, and I wanted to know more about the lives of these people. It’s part of my background and I could easily have shared their fate. That was scary,” explains Hala Khalef, eagerly gesticulating to underline the importance of her words. Hala Khalaf is a journalist and works as an information and press officer at the office of Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan.

The 23-year old Khalaf was in Denmark because she has won an international article competition about diabetes arranged by Novo Nordisk. Before working at Her Majesty’s press office, Khalaf worked with The Star weekly where she had a successful last-page column. Although Khalaf is almost euphoric about winning the competition, the two and a half months in the refugee camp are still clear in her mind. “I was so ashamed that I didn’t know what it was like there. There is no excuse for my ignorance. In the beginning I dreamt of making a difference in somebody’s life, but honestly I don’t know if I did,” Khalaf said. “They, on the other hand, gave me a lot. They taught me the meaning of endurance and hope. And that being alive cannot be taken for granted.

This is where my interest in human rights began. Basic rights such as the right to clean water, education and work. At the same time I realized that my parents had probably spared me too much of the harsher aspects of life.” Khalaf has studied English, rhetoric and journalism in Canada where she lived as a child with her parents. After university she returned to Jordan and worked as a freelance journalist with The Star. Suddenly, one day she received a phone call from the royal press office, and on June 1, 2004, Khalaf took up her new post as English Information and Press Officer for Queen Rania.

The office has about 25 employees, and for Khalaf the job is a dream. “The job is exciting, and I am comfortable working for a woman who serves her country in important areas that also interest me. I do everything from writing press releases to researching inquiries for interviews.

We keep long hours and it is hard work, but rewarding. My working hours are between 9 am and 4 pm, but at an information office things are always happening in the late afternoon,” Hala says adding that her friends are always complaining that they don’t see enough of her. Khalaf lives with her parents. Her father is an engineer, and her mother is a general practitioner.

The family, including her two younger brothers, lives in a large flat in an upper-middleclass neighborhood in the capital Amman. “Some people are surprised that I live with my parents and brothers. But even though I enjoyed my freedom in Canada, I missed my family. I love my home. My parents are a lot of fun—open and encouraging. They have always helped me develop my talents and given me so many opportunities,” she says shaking her head so that the dark, red-striped curls hop up and down.

She experiences Jordanian society as open and modern and has never encountered restrictions as a result of her gender. In other words, Khalaf feels that Jordan is a good place for a young, modern woman. “Generally, all Jordanian women have hopes and expectations. We work and want to help the country develop. We are constantly encouraged to contribute to society.

We have several woman ministers in the government, women executives, and the government’s spokesperson is a woman,” Khalaf added. “Many women also continue to work after they’ve had children. Having your child looked after is no problem. There are many public and private possibilities for day care.” Khalaf is a Jordanian national, but primarily sees herself as an Arab and a Muslim. She is proud of her culture and religion and the traditions, such as hospitality, that are part of the culture.

Khalaf has many plans and dreams for the future. She would like to get a Master’s degree, to win an Oscar for a screenplay—and to establish a cultural center that is open for all. For the rich, but particularly for poor people. “Education is not only about mathematics and reading, but also about music, literature and art. I wouldn’t have been here if my parents hadn’t given me such a broad education. Art and music enrich my life, and I’d love to establish a center in Jordan that gave all kinds of people access to the enjoyment of culture, irrespective of their income. That is my big dream.” Not many of Khalaf’s friends are married, and if it is up to her, she won’t commit to a husband too soon. She does not conceal the fact that her parents regularly—or often rather—touch on the subject, and that her father in particular would like to see her married today rather than tomorrow.

But Khalaf is determined not to succumb to pressure. When she gets married, she will do so from her own free will and to a man she chooses. “I want to marry and have children. It is just not a theme in my life right now. I want to be completely independent before I start a family. My husband and I must be equal partners. I believe in love, but also that you need more than that. Common background, common interests, goals and hopes. I imagine a man who speaks good English because I express so much in that language and write it more fluently than Arabic. He must be a Muslim. That is not up for discussion. It would not only be against my religion, but it is also about what I talked about with common background and interests,” Khalaf says.

Forced marriage is not a phenomenon Khalaf has ever come across. But arranged marriages are common. Family members have plan a meeting for the young people, for instance at a café, and they can take a good look at each other and get acquainted before the thumb goes up or down. This was how Khalaf’s parents were introduced, and this form of introduction of potential partners is acceptable to her. “I am open and positive if there is somebody they think I should meet. I know they want the best for me, and since I am close with my family, I should have very good reasons to marry somebody they didn’t like.”

Khalaf is open about the fact that she is ambitious in her job as well as in her private life, and in addition she possesses the bubbling energy, vitality and rock-hard confidence that is characteristic of young people. But she also feels a deep obligation towards her parents to apply her talents as well as she can. Preferably in a way that benefits Jordanians who are less fortunate than her. “I feel privileged. But it takes more than gratitude. I must pay back. Otherwise, my parents would have toiled and made sacrifices in vain.”

Jette Lüthcke
The Star

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