“If people aren’t talking about something, I don’t expect them to change it,” Saeed Abu Alhassan said simply. His words outline the basic idea behind his brainchild Shams Table — a dinner and dialogue night that prides itself on being a safe space for open expression.
Every other week since 2016, dozens of near strangers gather at the Shams Community house in the Jabal Amman neighborhood of the Jordanian capital. The mixture of locals and expats come for the food — a consistent, army-sized feast of vegetarian-friendly Arabic dishes — but stay for the facilitated roundtable.
Discussions range from hard-hitting topics like mental health, sexual expression or religion to current events like the global #MeToo movement, climate change or happenings in the local community. The point is to talk about things that affect all in society but, for some reason, aren’t easily talked about publicly.
“People gather every day and they are talking about shit. Just switch that, place a topic on it,” Abu Alhassan, 31, said laughing. This is the first layer of the Shams Table concept: raising awareness.
The second layer, Abu Alhassan told Al-Monitor, is capacity building. “These problems are big; we can’t fix them alone,” he added.
Abu Alhassan believes that individuals are losing the ability to connect with one another. “We live in bubbles,” he said. “Social media algorithms work to contain us in different bubbles of people who share the same opinion as us.” He gave the example of the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump. “Who voted for Trump? Do these people exist? Who are these people?” he asked metaphorically, mimicking how surprised people were simply because no one was communicating outside their little bubbles — something that Shams Table is trying to change.
Abu Alhassan started this concept five years ago while living in Nairobi, Kenya. When he brought it back to Amman in 2016, he was ridiculed slightly by friends and neighbors. How was he going to charge people to just sit and talk in his home? Slowly but surely people got interested in the safe space that Shams Table provides, welcoming free and open sharing of thoughts without judgment. Spaces like this can be rare in Jordan and in the region.
“Dialogue as a concept is so difficult,” Hala Sabbah, a 29-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian holistic health coach, told Al-Monitor. She explained how this could be seen as especially true in Middle East households. “Embracing diversity is not common. Differences are not discussed."
“Shams really breaks those barriers and provides the space for people to [say], ‘Well, I don’t agree with you. I think differently and this is my opinion,’” she said. "Whereas in a living room with my uncles and aunts and my parents, it is very hard to speak up and say something like that.”
After a Shams Table talk on sex education, Jordanian doctor Shahd Soud, 25, expressed amazement. “I was shocked. It is really hard to find someone here who can talk this comfortably about sex," she told Al-Monitor. "But here we can talk about it with anyone. Here you can express yourself without being judged.”
Shams Table in Amman has evolved over the past four years and now hosts anywhere between 50 to 100 people at a single event. Since its inception, the concept soon spread across Jordan to Irbid and Madaba, and today Shams Table has a presence in nearly 10 cities around the world, with regular events taking place in London and Washington.
“The idea is now to empower more people to start building or taking these concepts to their own communities,” Abu Alhassan said about his goals for 2020. “The space is there. We just need to bring the dialogue to these spaces.” He and his Shams Community team of volunteers are now working on a renewed online platform to better organize global events and provide handy training tools for people interested in hosting dinner dialogues in their communities.
Hosting discussions in different cities produce different results. Sabbah, who hosts Shams Table in her home in London twice a month, noticed right away the differences between her two cities. “[In London] we all tend to be very left-wing, very liberal and very articulate. Very little conflict,” she said. The London and Washington events typically host only 10-12 people at a time, so the probability of variety is much lower than in Amman.
“What I loved about [Shams Table in] Amman is that I would be sitting next to a guy who is from a village in Irbid, whose English is choppy and whose opinion I would have never heard otherwise," she said.
Host of the Washington events, Haneen Abu Al Neel, 24, concurred, noting that compared to Amman, “it’s much less raw” in Washington, which already has a heavy debate culture. Nonetheless, she is hopeful of the impact Shams Table as she explained the many ways her participating and facilitating has changed her, particularly in not demonizing other opinions but listening to them instead.
Part of that has to do with the communal element shared meals create. “Shams allows you to pause and do regular things after your discussion. Getting tea or eating or hanging around the house and just talking — these are all activities you normally do with people you identify with, your friends,” she said, adding that at Shams Table you break down the walls between you and the “other” with the very humanizing activity of eating.
Shams is not set out to change mindsets but merely provides an opportunity to listen to ones other than your own. The idea is that our differences will bring us together and that with time we can create lasting change together. This is what Shams Table is working on — one meal at a time.