The Bigger Picture #2
Hala from Jordan ‘All those smiles made me feel safe’
‘What happened here?’ Hala remembers clearly what went through her head when she first arrived in Groningen. ‘I thought there might be another Covid lockdown, or a strike or something’, she says.
The actual reason the streets were empty: it was 6.30 p.m., the shops had closed, and people had gone home for dinner.
An absurd notion to a student fresh from Amman, the capital of Jordan, where shops are open day and night and the sounds of blaring car horns and shouting people in the crowded streets drown out the silence all day long. ‘In the Middle East, cities never sleep’, says Hala. She loves Groningen, though. ‘It’s so clean and beautiful, the houses are symmetric and everything feels relaxed.’
Hala, a pre-master student of arts, culture and media, left her home in Jordan to continue her degree in film and contemporary audiovisual media. Even though the academic level in Jordan is higher than at other universities in the region, it’s not as high as she’d like. ‘The university where I did my bachelor’s degree provided me with useful knowledge for my career, but it wasn’t enough.’
Women in the Middle East need to be powerful in order to fight for their rights
It’s understandable, she says, that issues such as poverty, the water shortage, overpopulation in the cities, and the influx of refugees from Syria take priority. But for her, it meant going abroad was essential.
Hala had already worked with international media like Al Jazeera and BBC English. She also established Khararif, a platform to preserve the intangible heritage in the region, such as folk stories and traditional storytelling methods. But she wanted to have not just practical but also theoretical knowledge of the media.
‘My family and partner studied abroad too, and they encouraged me to travel and to study in the Netherlands.’ The experience would make her stronger, they told her, and that’s a necessity for women in the Middle East, Hala says. ‘They need to be powerful in order to fight for their rights. It’s not easy for women to get onto a male-dominated job market, and the media sector is no exception.’
Another reason to come to Groningen for her studies was the censorship in Jordan, which is limiting for a media student. How are you supposed to learn how to deliver a message through film, or to what extent the film industry is affecting people’s behaviour, when you’re not allowed to study certain examples? ‘Arts education has to be without limitations’, she says.
It has been a great experience for her. Back home, teachers would focus on the theoretical framework without connecting it to modern society. But when she started the Introduction to Audiovisual Arts course, the lecturer played a song by Beyoncé and asked the students to analyse it. ‘I was so surprised’, she says. ‘Studying here is like live-action.’
She’s not just impressed by the teachers in Groningen, though. ‘I had never imagined that I would meet all these nationalities and study with them.’ It has really enriched her learning experience, she feels. ‘It has been an amazing journey to discover the Other.’
In Jordan, I feel like I’m in a race with time and history
As a woman, Hala was also curious about how diverse and inclusive the cultural sector was in the Netherlands. She hasn’t been disappointed: ‘I can be who I am here’, she says. ‘I don’t have to worry about speaking my mind.’
She likes the calmer rhythm of Dutch life. ‘In Jordan, from the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep, I feel like I’m in a race with time and history. Here, people concentrate on one thing and focus on doing it the best possible way. It doesn’t matter how much time it will take, because they enjoy doing it.’
But what struck her most of all, was that people overall are so nice in Groningen. ‘It is so common for people to help you with a smile, be it in the streets, in the shops or at the university. For a foreigner who doesn’t know anything about the country, the attitude of people towards you makes you feel so safe.’
In fact, immediately upon arriving in Amsterdam, she felt so safe that when she found the trains were on strike, she jumped in a cab with three strangers also heading to Groningen. In Jordan, she would never have done that. ‘It’s just not something people do.’
Still, she did find it hard to deal with the stereotypes of the Middle East going around. People think they know about your background, she says, based on what they’ve seen or heard in the media. And certainly, a lot of that is true, but Hala prefers to show other aspects of herself. ‘That’s the great thing about being abroad: you have the space to do so. I can build the image that I want of myself; the image that I love.’
That Dall-E image is going to haunt my dreams. Those blue button eyes 😂 Other than that, cute interview