The Shams Table: Using Dialogue for Social Change in the Middle East

By Anika Baset | 31 May 19
Shams Community

Amman, Jordan, is a city shaped by the historical legacy of the movement of people. Millions of Palestinian refugees fled to the city after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. More recently, refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan have based themselves in the city, fleeing respective crises across the Middle East. As a consequence, the city has also seen the growth of a large expat community of NGO workers. The result is a melting pot of cultures and a city full of diversity of thought. The Shams Community, a grassroots NGO based in Amman, seeks to connect, inspire and empower people from these different walks of life through the power of dialogue, ultimately to create positive change in their lives and communities.

I came across Shams through word of mouth and was led behind a nondescript door in a quiet street in Amman. Every Monday night, Shams holds its flagship program, The Shams Table. The premise is simple: each week involves a topic for discussion, ranging from ‘Violence in Communities’ to ‘Climate Change’ to ‘Quitting Your Job and Following Your Dreams’ to be discussed by participants over a meal cooked by Shams volunteers. The conversation is facilitated by volunteers trained in the art of dialogue. Participants are gently reminded that the evening is ‘discussion, not a debate’ and as the evening unfolds, the prompts for discussion increase in intellectual complexity. The discussion unfolds naturally in English, Arabic and translations between the two. The aim is to facilitate an environment where participants are encouraged to both share their own opinions and learn how to listen respectfully to others’, often differing, opinions.

Critically, the subject matter of each Shams Table matters less than the depth of the conversation achieved every Monday night. Dialogue based on respectful listening, understanding and empathy of another’s point of view offers the antithesis of the superficial, 280 character soundbites of political opinion that has become the trademark of our increasingly polarized world.

‘Most of the time people are saying something but we’re not listening,’ says Shams Founder Saeed Abu Al-Hassan, We’re losing meaningful dialogue globally. In all cultures, there were spaces for dialogue – and now we’ve lost this’.

The other key aim of the Shams Table is to make the political personal. Participants are invited to share meaningful perspectives from their lived experiences and not hide behind political party lines and overly academic debate. My own experience at multiple Shams Table events has been a hugely interesting and enriching one. I am a lawyer by trade, so the difference between ‘debate’ and ‘discussion’ was, at first, a little difficult to grasp. However, offering an opinion without the need to persuade, and the power of listening without agenda soon became apparent.

The sense of safety created by the structure of the dialogue encourages participants to reveal the personal experiences that have lead to particular points of view, turning political opinions into personal stories. It is possible to have human empathy for someone’s experience whilst wholeheartedly disagreeing with their opinion. The encouragement of respectful disagreement is what makes the Shams Table a vastly different experience from academic discussions of community issues, which are often characterised by echo-chambers of similar political opinion.

Al Hasan founded the organisation in 2015 after noticing the gap between those who were committed to social justice issues and the ambivalent majority. The key, he decided, was to create a community without social barriers, where everyone was encouraged to share their opinions, as the first step for meaningful change.

‘You involve people. People love when you give them space. People talk and we all love to talk. Bring people together, create the space, challenge them with questions and then the ideas will come.

If people don’t talk about something, we can’t expect them to do anything or be involved because it’s not part of their lives. Our educational system doesn’t expose us to talk about social issues – we don’t talk about social issues, mental health, climate change, relationships –the real things. Our media is all about entertainment, celebrities, rather than issues in the community’, Al Hassan says.

‘The goal was to empower people to take action, change themselves and change their communities. We want to facilitate that change by asking questions, creating the environment for dialogue, inspiring people. People have ideas but don’t have the space, inspiration, or time to act on them. Social problems become socially acceptable because we don’t talk about them.’

To that end, the Shams Community is expanding globally and encouraging volunteers to hold Shams Table events around the world.

‘This is a concept that can be used in any space – in Jordan, in the Middle East, around the world- but there is a need for people to come together to talk. What we want to do is to give people the tools and then create that community.

We need more light in our communities. We need more people to enlighten our minds without an agenda.’