MERIP mourns the passing of Aida Hashim al-Dabbas, who died of cancer on November 1, 2003. A dedicated grassroots activist, Aida gave the last seven years of her life to advocacy for peace and justice in Palestine, the welfare of the Iraqi people, and political and civil freedoms in her home country of Jordan. Her efforts for these causes did not waver even as her condition worsened. Downplaying her illness, she made phone calls to raise funds, extend networks and launch new projects from her hospital bed.
Born to a Jordanian father and an American mother in 1964, Aida finished high school in Amman before receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kansas State University, and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Kansas. Upon returning to Jordan, she worked in education, designing new curricula and volunteering her spare time for a variety of community-building projects.
In the mid-1990s, Aida left her job with the Jordanian-American Bi-National Fulbright Commission, largely due to a dispute with management over her activism in opposition to the UN economic sanctions on Iraq and particularly over her display of an anti-sanctions poster in her car window. The incident politicized Aida further. In subsequent years, she spent her own money to travel to meet parliamentarians and prominent figures around the world, where she urged them to work against the sanctions. She pushed for accumulating what she liked to call “small victories,” so as to empower those who otherwise felt powerless.
Aida was a bridge-builder, advocating for inclusion, tolerance and cooperation in political and social spheres. She was a key figure in the emergence of a new network of young activists in Jordan that brought together liberals, progressives, leftists, nationalists and even Islamists in a wide range of protests and other activities. An educator to the end, she organized art exhibitions that tackled political topics and arranged for diverse lectures, often in coordination with the Union of Professional Associations in Jordan, human rights groups and schools throughout the country.
Aida was arrested and subjected to not so subtle pressure by Jordanian authorities on several occasions, but such attempts at intimidation only redoubled her resolve. Her more creative projects — as when demonstrators throughout Amman flew thousands of kites in support of the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples — were organized after the Jordanian government tightened its restrictions on political activism. She worked on the Mariam Campaign to Lift the Siege on Iraq, the million-signature campaign against the sanctions, the Baghdad Library Campaign and the campaign to bring pencils to Iraqi students in defiance of the embargo. Frustrated with the ineffectual response from much of the Arab world to the damage wrought by sanctions, she mobilized many artists to erect a huge mural in Amman: “No to Arab Silence.”
With the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, Aida struggled with how best to engage the large numbers of Palestinian and non-Palestinian Jordanian citizens who wanted to demonstrate their solidarity with the Palestinian cause. In addition to demonstrations and right of return campaigns, she envisioned the unique Right of Return Quilt — hundreds of square-foot panels woven together to form a quilt so large that it took up the whole stage at the Royal Cultural Center in Amman. Stitched into each panel was the name of a Palestinian village and that village’s local embroidery patterns. To the extent possible, Aida located women from the village in question to contribute each panel. The names of villages still in existence were embroidered in green thread, while those villages destroyed in the 1948 war or subsequently were woven in red. Some 7,000 Jordanians turned out to view the quilt and even more were turned away by the police for “security reasons.” After the Amman event, Aida traveled with the quilt to a number of cities in Europe and the wider Middle East, and everywhere it attracted large crowds and invigorated local solidarity movements.
Aida Dabbas was a generous and loyal friend, an intellectual, a humanitarian and a tireless advocate for justice. Her efforts on behalf of the Iraqi and Palestinian people made her a few enemies, but many more allies. She sometimes worked quietly and sometimes loudly, but she never stopped working. Aida will be remembered, and terribly missed, by the hundreds of people whose lives she touched.