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Tamam El-Ghul & Her Empowering Journey

Meet Tamam El Ghul
Meet Tamam El Ghul

Meet Tamam El-Ghul

We created this section to honor and feature amazing women from all around the globe who deserve gratitude and recognition for their achievements and the role they play in society. For our previous post, we were lucky enough to meet Dalia Naber and introduce her to you! As for our fifth inspiration for this section, meet Tamam El-Ghul. Please join us as we learn more about Tamam, her journey, her goals, struggles and dreams. And together, let’s get inspired by her story!

Tamam El-Ghul & Her Empowering Journey

Driven. This is just one of several words you can use to describe this remarkable lady; Tamam El-Ghul. Born in a Silwan, village just outside Jerusalem in the late thirties. She strove to get an education no less than her brothers, not the norm at the time. Her ambition took her all the way to St. Andrews with a master’s degree in economics no less!

“I became aware of my surroundings by the end of WWII, we would close the windows and had heavy blinds to keep the light in to protect us against air raids. And when the English won we were given flags and went to Ras Al Amood to celebrate.” Her father’s house was large and housed as well as her family, two of her brothers along with their families. The rest of her brothers were scattered all around the Arab world, studying or working.

Toward the end of the forties her father got a job to run a farm just outside Jericho and Tamam moved there with her parents.

“I had been attending Silwan School for girls before going with them. It was operating according to the British system; they would even bring us a small meal at 11:00am like a pudding in hug pots.

“At school I found out my name was Tamam; I had been answering to my nick name Um Il Kheir* at home, having been named after my paternal grandmother much to the chagrin of my father’s sisters. Around that time, my brother Mahmoud came to find I hadn’t been going to school after the move to Jericho. The farm was six kilometers away from Jericho, and we didn’t have a car, we would ride in a horse drawn carriage.” She hadn’t given up learning though, and used what she had previously learned at school by copying from a children’s book co-written by her brother Fayez.

“After 1948 we left the farm to Jericho; we were afraid of the Jews in the surrounding kibbutz. Mahmoud took me to school in Jericho, I had missed second grade but I was enrolled in third.” She laughs as she remembers getting a zero in the dictation quiz they gave her, “By the end of the school year I came in second or third top of my class!”

Circumstances would dictate another move for this enthusiastic student.

“At the beginning of the school year in fourth grade in 1949 my parents embarked on a trip to Mecca to perform Hajj.” Tamam left Jericho back to Silwan and stayed with her sister Hasna and her family. Upon her parents’ return from Hajj she refused to leave her school in Silwan to join her parents in Jericho. “My father being asthmatic, the weather in Jericho suited him better than that in Jerusalem.”

Tamam stayed at the family home with two unmarried cousins Sara and Khalayel and stayed on in school till seventh grade. She then moved to Amman to stay with one of her brothers and his family upon their return from Saudi Arabia. “I returned to Amman to Attend Sukaynah School and later I attended high school in Malakeh Zein from which I graduated.” She reflects on her earlier school years. “When I was at the Ma’mounyeh School I would wake up daily at 5 in the morning and walk three kilos to take the bus to school.”

Tamam dressed in a "Rosa" thobe
Tamam dressed in a “Rosa” thobe

I ask about the drive to pursue education with such determination, especially living away from her parents?

She shrugs. “I don’t know, I just knew I wanted to learn!” She continues. “I knew that if I didn’t go [to school] I would remain ignorant and I wanted to learn, everyone around me was educated.” What about being a girl? Did that make a difference? “I didn’t feel it till later when I wanted to go to the teachers’ college and my mother wouldn’t let me and my father didn’t oppose her. I guess they were afraid if I studied too much no one would want to marry me!”

After graduating high school, denied studying at the teacher’s college, she started teaching in Jericho. She laughs “some girls in class must’ve been older than me!” She worked as a teacher in Jericho for a year, then back to Amman to her brother’s house, teaching at Al Faraby school then Sukaynah.

Then she continues. “My brother Mahmoud who was teaching at St. Andrews at the time, returned for a visit in the early sixties. My other brother Fayez was the cultural attaché in Baghdad, and had submitted an application on my behalf at the university there and I was accepted. Mahmoud told me I’d be crazy to go; the Iraqis had just ousted the monarchy and he said there’d be constant trouble and the university would keep on closing and wouldn’t learn a thing! ‘Why don’t you come with me instead,’ he then asked.

My mother didn’t object to my going to study in Iraq, but St. Andrews intimidated them!”

She reflects on that time, “I was hesitant at first. Mahmoud asked if I was ready to study, I assured him that I was, so he submitted an application for me. And I got accepted” Having worked as a teacher for a few years, she was happy to pay her passage there.

“When I first got there I had to spend a year at a school, to sit for exams in English, classical Arabic, Geography and math.” Her entrance to University was conditional on passing these four subjects. “It wasn’t easy, but I passed and was accepted to the faculty of arts.”

I’m curious to know what she studied.

“I was always good at and loved math so I studied economy and statistics.” What about the other students? “Not all the students were English, there were others from commonwealth countries.” And all her hard-work paid off; Tamam graduated in 1965 with an MA, having spent the four years away in Scotland. She explains: “Mahmoud had asked if I wanted to go on vacation, but I refused, fearing some trouble would prevent me from returning, I said I’ll get my degree first then go home!” What did that feel like? “It was great! It was an achievement for me.”

In 1965 she returned to Amman.

“At the airport on my way back to Amman, I met an English man- an expert who had been working at the board of planning in Amman and he told me there’s a chance for me to find employment there. So upon my return I submitted an application there, but they weren’t enthusiastic. Instead, they suggested I try the central bank, and so I tried my luck there and I was hired.”

Tamam worked at the bank from 1965 till 1971. By then she had gotten married to Dr. Abdul Rahim Jalal, a pediatrician who was working in the Arab Army and had had her first child and was expecting her second. “I quit after black September and became a stay at home mom for 13 years.  The unrest that took place as well as having one child and another on the way helped make that decision for me. No one could stay with the kids so I decided to quit. My husband working as a doctor with the army was stationed in Irbid.”

She even found herself in the line of fire one day as a shot was fired between her legs.

“I went to Khalil Salem and told him I couldn’t work there anymore, he said losing me was a shame but he understood my circumstances were difficult. They let me go instead of quitting, which meant whenever I decided to rejoin I would find my post waiting for me.

“I returned to work in 1985; I always knew I wanted to return. In 1973 I was about to go back to work Wasfi Tall was assassinated. We also we moved to Dahyet Amir Rashed- a suburb to the west of the city center, which made it harder for anyone to come babysit. In 1985 with my eldest about to start university, I decided to get a job to help with family expenses.” She continues, “And it was a hunt; no one wanted to take me, because I had been away for so long. Even at the central bank they weren’t willing. They told me you have forgotten the science you studied, I assured them I didn’t, and I wouldn’t.”

The irony was that the ministry of planning were hiring so she applied and was hired.

“Ziad Fareez was secretary general and wondered what to do with me since I was like a teacher to him having been his senior at the central bank. I told him I was willing to work and I even sat for an entrance exam which I passed with flying colors.” She stayed there till 1989, after which she moved to the regional office of Al Baraka, a private company for Saudi business man Saleh Kamel. “Ziad Fareez was sorry to see me go but I needed the higher income. It was an investment company where we prepared economic reports about countries for investment purposes. I worked there for two years.

“As luck would have it, Ziad Fareez contacted me with a project for the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development). So I started work at the ministry of industry and trade, and then I moved to JEDCO (Jordan Enterprise Development Corporation).” While working as the research director at JEDCO, she was assigned to head the Jordanian negotiations for the World Trade Organization, so she was in charge of this project for five years. “We concluded the negotiations in 1999. We became members in 2000 and in 2001 I became minster of social development.”

When did you get the feeling ‘I have accomplished what I wanted to do’?

“It’s difficult to tell. I think when we finished the WTO negotiations. I think that was landmark in my life, I felt I did something from start to finish. We had started just myself and the secretary, translating, working and sending responses, and little by little the team grew, it wasn’t easy.” What about your mom, when did you feel you made your mother proud? She passed away when I was at the beginnings of my career, but I think she was always proud of me.”

Tamam at her sixtieth birthday
Tamam at her sixtieth birthday

What about challenges specific to being a woman?

“I was excluded from the signing ceremony to join the WTO. It was a big deal, what with us being the first Arab country to sign. But I made my feelings known and later I was honored to receive the independence medal of the first order. I also negotiated a tough trade agreement with EFTA and in the end the ambassador was nominated to sign the agreement, which was rather disappointing. I was a minster at the time and I could’ve gone to the signing ceremony.”

Did you sense any differences talking and working with men and women?

“Not really, but I prefer talking business to men, even though in the senate we have interesting female colleagues, but they’ve all served in the public sector, which makes a difference because you end up with more experiences and you’re more ‘in the system’.”

So there’s no discrimination between men and women?

“In theory yes, but not in practice. Men are men all over the world, but here it’s more noticeable; as a woman, you have to work harder and be careful. You have to be tough.” Following her appointment as a minister for social development for two and a half years, she was hired as a consultant with the German Technical Cooperation Agency GTZ for two years in Yemen 2004-2005, to help Yemen in the process of joining the WTO. “It was a good experience, unusual and different.” She reflects fondly on those years where she did recruit many of the experts with whom she worked when Jordan was preparing to begin the negotiations. “I don’t care about working with men or women, I care about them doing the job well!”

In 2006 Tamam went back to the prime ministry to work with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, MCC. This entity gives out grants to developing countries. “I worked two a half years with them, we got a $275M grant for the development of the sanitation and water sector in Zarka and Amman and the project has just been concluded.” Just before the signing ceremony, she was appointed in the upper house of parliament. “The sad thing is that all the work my team and I did, no one bothers to mention us.” She reflects. “But in the end, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s good for the country.”

In 2016 she was appointed again in the senate.

“My niece called congratulating me on the appointment in the senate, then my son called. I had no idea!” How much do you enjoy work now? “I enjoy it. At the senate we are lawmakers and we have contacts with executive authorities. We can recommend and reach out to people but that’s it. We don’t have more authority than that.

“Laws themselves are important, because they have a background that needs to be studied. And have to study its effect on people. I think women are better at tapping into the social side and the effect of laws. Along with Hala Lattoof we’re interested in the social side and effect of a law. A law isn’t just a constitutional text, you have to observe its effect on society. For example, we are about to discuss a law about patents, so I will have to dig up the papers and research I have about this subject. My point is I don’t take things at face value, I do my own research. I always do much planning whenever I work, even when tackling with housework!”

What would you change if you could do it all over again?

“That’s a good question. I would have liked to maybe pursue my higher studies. I couldn’t do that because I was married, and with family it’s difficult to leave and go study. Whenever I traveled taking courses or with work, my mind would always be occupied with the family back home. It’s not easy. Also, my husband’s job -being a doctor, he wasn’t always there so they were mostly dependent on me. I know it’s never too late, but even if I get a PhD, I wouldn’t be in a better position. Due to my vast work experience. Maybe if I started with a PhD and continued it would’ve been different, you are in the mood.

“As a child I wanted to be a doctor. But as you saw, it was difficult enough studying as it is, let alone study medicine. I think part of my independence comes from being in the girl scouts. But can you believe that in high school, us girls had a different math curriculum than boys, simplified math! Of course that was before Tawjihi became unified for all students. I did eventually study proper math in St. Andrews. It wasn’t easy, it was a fight to learn. You have to have the will to succeed.

*It’s a common custom in Jerusalem and surrounding villages to give children nick names such Ábu’ and ‘Um’. Meaning father of and mother of.

Thank you so much Tamam El-Ghul for willing to be one of the inspiring women we feature here. Wishing you more successes along the way!

About the author

Mona Alkhalaileh

An Engineer by training & a violinist by passion, Mona has always been a writer at heart. She's had her finger literally in every pie allover the world, but she remains a enthusiast of meeting & interviewing new people.


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