Nihad Shabbar brings Jordan’s history to the world stage

By Lucy Chumbley

In the late 1980s, Jordan’s Yarmouk University decided to open a museum. “They wanted someone to go and get a master’s degree in museum studies and come back and run the museum,” Nihad Shabbar says. She leapt at the chance.

Former student Shabbar was teaching ceramics and drawing to undergraduate students at the time, having completed her bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in pottery some years prior.

“Of course, you cannot study pottery without looking at the past of pottery in Jordan,” Shabbar says. “I was always interested in what was going on at the Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology and that’s where the museum was built.”

With support from the German government, Yarmouk University officially opened the Museum of Jordanian Heritage in 1988, but much work remained to be done.

Obtaining a scholarship to the museum studies programme at California State University wasn’t easy, though. The young Jordanian had to compete against 35 or so other applicants – mostly men. She had to learn English, too.

“It wasn’t customary to send a woman outside the country to study abroad. Even my mother wasn’t comfortable with it,” recalls Shabbar. “But my father was for it – he supported me.”

A new way of thinking

“Though Shabbar’s father, Issa, could barely read, he encouraged his seven children – both his daughters and sons – to get an education.” Three of them, including Shabbar, have since earned PhDs.

Issa, a trader who travelled with his work, was based in the village of Bushra, just north of Irbid. Shabbar’s mother, Jamilla, was a seamstress who stitched everything from traditional dresses to school uniforms but had never been taught to read.

Most people from the area worked in the fields, growing wheat and lentils in the winter and produce and vegetables in the summer. At that time, it was unusual for anyone in the area – man or woman – to work outside of the agricultural field, let alone attend university or go abroad to study.

“Sometimes,” says the energetic and inquisitive Shabbar, “distance helps you see your own story more clearly.” She found that the artefacts she was working with in the United States were much newer than those she was used to seeing in Jordan, which gave her a renewed respect for the Kingdom’s ancient history.

“When I went back, I wanted to convey this message to Jordanians, like, ‘Look what we have here!’” she exclaims. “Some people take it for granted. Even Petra!”

She has made it her mission to change that way of thinking by “teaching Jordanians about their heritage and the importance of it, and the importance of Jordanian heritage to humanity.”   

Developing a museum

Taking over first as assistant director and then as director of the Museum of Jordanian Heritage, which tells the story of humankind in Jordan from pre-history until today, was a daunting task.

But Shabbar threw herself into it with characteristic energy and enthusiasm. “They don’t talk for themselves,” she says of the artefacts, some of which are 10,000 years old. “You really have to interpret those objects. Then you have to take care of the physical object and make sure it doesn’t deteriorate.”

Between 1992 and 1996, Shabbar put on five temporary exhibits at the museum, established educational programmes for schoolchildren and the general public and persuaded people – even Yarmouk University students – to come to the museum.

“I had to read about stuff all the time and learn on

the job,” she recalls. But she eventually decided she wanted to continue her education and applied

for a scholarship.

Once again, she competed against a group of mostly male applicants. And once again, she prevailed, moving back to the United States with her husband and daughter to study at George Washington University, where she earned an MPhil and a PhD in human sciences, with a concentration in museum studies. “I had to fight for everything,” she says.

Sharing Jordan’s history

Since obtaining her doctorate, Shabbar has been going  back and forth between Jordan and the United States, where she is now based, to teach people about the Kingdom’s heritage.

At Yarmouk’s Museum of Jordanian Heritage, she worked to expand the museum’s collections (she is particularly proud of assembling a collection of traditional Jordanian costumes), its programming and to preserve the artefacts in a better way by improving the storage rooms and introducing environmental control.

In addition to her work at Yarmouk, Shabbar was tapped to serve on the administrative committee for the Jordan Museum in Amman, and has been widely called upon for her expertise by Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism.

Through her work with the Smithsonian – the world’s largest museum complex and research institution – the museologist is now bringing Jordan’s history to the world stage.

For Jordanian women who want to follow their dreams and make a difference in the world, Shabbar has a message: “Don’t give up,” she says. “If someone tells you no… don’t take that for an answer. Don’t be afraid. You have to insist and you have to explore.”

She concludes by saying, “I always tell my daughter, there is nothing in the world you can’t do if you put your head into it.” 

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