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***All names have been changed for privacy purposes***
The setting sun melted over Petra's sandy cliffs, streaking them with golden-red flames of color and casting long shadows of towering rock mountains over the sand. I twisted in my saddle to catch a glimpse while my camel plodded north to Umm Sayhoun, home to the Bedouin of Petra, and my destination for the night.
Some of the women I rode with looked at me with interest and curiosity-an American who could speak some Arabic, female, alone. Whether they viewed me as intrepid or stupid was unclear. A Bedouin friend had invited me to stay with his sister at his family's house and, not one to pass up an opportunity for adventure, I had accepted out of genuine curiosity and a desire to glimpse Bedouin life, despite cultural norms dictating that single women should not travel alone.
Though previous visits to Petra hinted at the tensions that would follow me throughout my visit, I could not have predicted, nor was I prepared to deal with, the juxtaposition of Western and Bedouin cultural ideas that my visit would create.
A month earlier, my sister and I had visited Petra. It was my third visit overall and my second that fall, which I spent studying Arabic in Jordan's capital, Amman. After a winding hike of more than 800 steps, we had reached the Monastery, or al-Deir, a towering facade 132 feet high and 154 feet wide embedded in a small mountain. Two millennia ago Petra was a thriving city at the crossroads of ancient Arabian and Mesopotamian trade routes and the capital of the Nabatean kingdom. Today it is one of the New Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
We had continued beyond the general viewing area to a path that led to several small shops. A sign along the path read, From Here to the End of the World. Eventually the path led to the edge of a cliff that dropped into a small valley fed by a natural spring. Beyond the greenery that had sprung up around this rare source of water, however, lay little else but the vast expanse of Wadi Araba desert.
The path was dry, and our scuffing feet lifted small clouds of fine dirt that billowed into the wind in small, fast-fading puffs. Minimally demarcated by thin lines of stones, it wandered aimlessly towards The End of the World.
As we walked, a man on a donkey hollered to us from afar, Are you Japanese?! My sister and I halted, and he and the donkey ambled down to us. Called Ali, this Bedouin wore kohl, a dark eyeliner that protects against the sun. Despite our sunglasses, he'd easily detected our Asian blood (our mother is Chinese). I see lots of foreigners, because of the tourists, he explained to us as he approached. I can tell you are like Japanese or close to it. Unrequested, Ali accompanied us to the End of the World, inquiring where we were from and why we were here.
We were two young women from the liberal culture of America, and he a young Bedouin from a traditional background which was in constant contact with cultures from all over the world, thanks to the tourists flocking to Petra each year. We were uncertain how to deal with his friendliness--was it unwanted attention prompted by an ulterior motive, or was it hospitality rooted in his culture and bolstered by daily encounters with foreigners?
Unwilling to be rude, we allowed him to walk with us to a shop at The End of the World. Ali and the shop owner, a skinny fellow with crooked teeth and a large mole on one cheek, invited us for a Bedouin barbecue under the stars at Little Petra, a smaller but still wonderfully rambling place to explore-in daylight. In America, we learn in preschool never to take candy from strangers, and a DANGER sign flashed in my mind as we accepted the offer. Curiosity and adventure had gotten the better of us both.
The colors in Ali's spread of chicken, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and potatoes flickered vividly even in the dim firelight. Ali had hacked a whole chicken into chunks, chopped the vegetables similarly, dropped everything onto a giant sheet of aluminum foil, mixed in generous handfuls of yellow curry and salt, then wrapped it all into a neat package, to be cooked over a bed of coals.
Abdullah, an old uncle, had joined us for the evening. His presence as an elder represented to me honor, responsibility, and most important, security. He drove us in an ancient pickup which shook and groaned over the dunes into Little Petra. Towers of rock cast wispy shadows in moonlight over the cool sand. Here was found solitude of the best kind, a separation from distraction and a purity of existence.
Then, a familiar tune pervaded the silence--Estelle's American Boy. Abdullah pointed back in the direction we had come where a parked pickup blared the song. He shrugged, It is different, now. I asked what he meant. He gestured to the desert, the stars, the lights of Wadi Musa twinkling in the distance, the pickup shaking with American hip-hop. It is not like when we used to live in Petra, he said. And now we have trucks.
Abdullah was referring to the 1980s, when King Hussein's modernization programs forced the Bedouin to move out of Petra, where they had dwelled in caves for hundreds of years, into the nearby village of Umm Sayhoun. But, he was also referring to far more than political efforts and trucks. Technology and modernity had hit tradition hard, and while the standards of Bedouin hospitality might live on, lifestyles had changed. Dependent mainly on tourism for income, the Bedouin commute daily on a back path from the village to their shops in Petra where they sell souvenirs, food and drink. They have cars and pickups, running water and television.
The pickup trucks are one of the most glaring symbols of the awkward transition between tradition and modern technology. Although camels were historically favored for their astonishing capacity to weather the desert climate, pickups are becoming the standard mode of desert transportation. Camels suffice instead as a tourist attraction and a symbol of nomadic life. Although they are no longer a necessity for their desert adaptability, they've remained a source of income for some in Petra--selling a camel ride to a tourist can bring at least 10 dinars, if not more.
Though the younger generation of Bedouins I met seemed willing to embrace these changes along with a dependence on tourists, Abdullah nostalgically recalled the past for us, and his catch phrase that night was min gabl, from before. Everything now was different from before.
Abdullah spoke of the trips Bedouin would take into the Wadi Araba desert. We stay there for maybe a week. No people, no sounds. If you think here is quiet, come back with us to Wadi Araba. No tourists. Come another time, he urged. I wondered if Wadi Araba was his escape, and whether he longed for the mornings when he used to wake up undisturbed in the Rose City.
We talked and gazed at the smattering of stars across the night sky. Since we were guests, Abdullah, Ali, and Ali's friend the shop owner considered it their duty to ensure that my sister and I had eaten the best food. They handed us flaps of flat bread, still warm from the bakery in Umm Sayhoun, and encouraged us to eat, even placing food in our hands. That night, traditional Bedouin hospitality was alive and well.
The night ended without incident. Yet the time itself had been an amalgam of crossed boundaries and awkwardly merged cultures. In traditional Jordanian, particularly Bedouin culture, for two young men and two young women to go for a meal alone would have been inappropriate. Perhaps for that reason Abdullah had accompanied us. Yet had my sister and I been Bedouin women, I am convinced our excursion never would have happened. Evidently change for the Bedouin was not limited to technology; ideas and beliefs about what was culturally appropriate were transforming as well.
Walking a Fine Line
The invitation to spend the night at Umm Sayhoun was issued by Mohammad, a friend I'd met on an earlier trip to Petra. A soft-spoken and observant young man, he had not, unlike most of the other Bedouin men or women selling jewelry and knickknacks, hollered to draw in potential customers. He seemed content to wait, letting people come to him.
Every time I returned to Petra, I'd visit his shop. We would exchange the endless rounds of Arabic greetings and Mohammad would invite me for tea in the shop, always refusing payment. Instead he'd ask if I needed a place to stay that night, and press me to stay with his sister.
Completely clueless then about Bedouin honor, I did not realize that for Mohammad's sister to host me was a way of showing that he had no dishonorable intentions. Still, I later worried that some of the Bedouins might view me as a promiscuous Western woman. This label would be most dishonorable, and the most difficult to shake. Jordanian culture can be extraordinarily gossipy. Though Mohammad and I had conversed solely in public, and I would be staying with his sister, I questioned whether some people might get the wrong impression. In a culture where one's honor is determined by how one is viewed by other people, I wanted to be as sensitive and aware as I could.
And so it was that I left the tourist zones of Petra that evening just before sunset, jolting along with the lateral gait of my camel, wondering what lay in store for me in Umm Sayhoun. In the village, goats and donkeys freely wandered the dusty streets. Mohammad and his sister, who turned out to be younger than I, pointed out houses of people I'd met in Petra, noting how the size and facade of a home blatantly reflected the owner's income. One man who owned a large and strategically located refreshment and souvenir stop, Mohammad told me, raked in thousands of dinars per day during the high season. His home was ostentatiously decorated with a faux stone exterior.
Next, Mohammad and his sister brought me to their house, where I met their family. The lower level consisted of a small kitchen and sitting area, and the upper level was split into three separate rooms that functioned as sitting rooms or sleeping rooms.
We had scarcely eaten our supper of scrambled eggs, olives, cut raw vegetables, falafel, and of course, bread, when I was told that I was needed for my English and computer skills. Relatives brought me to a nearby travel agency, whose owner was struggling with some emails. Facing a computer screen and an open Internet window briefly disoriented me--I had ridden a camel to this village, after all. Eager to give back to this community after all their generosity so far, I helped as best I could with some translation and a lot of English typing.
Despite the opportunity to give back, I felt that I was imposing on Mohammad's sister. I had felt uncomfortable earlier, too, when the sun began to set and all of the tourists had scampered back to the security and luxury of their hotels while I mounted a camel and headed to the village. Every Bedouin I met in Umm Sayhoun asked me who I was, where I was from--natural questions--and then why I was in Umm Sayhoun. An disconcerting majority of them asked me if I had heard of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealander who had come to Petra as a tourist in the late 1970s, and ended up staying to marry one of the Bedouin. To this day she remains a part of the Bedouin community. I politely and repeatedly insisted that my time in Umm Sayhoun was based purely on cultural curiosity.
That night, Mohammad's sister took me to a party outside, where enormous speakers blared music of the 'oud, an Middle Eastern stringed instrument. The men were separated from the women by a chest-high wall. The barrier was less physical than symbolic. Anyone could have easily jumped the wall into the other section, but no one did.
Young girls were dancing in circles, holding hands and kicking and tapping their feet in a pattern impossible for me to follow. Grasping the hands of two younger girls and trying to follow along, I stuck out like a sore thumb--significantly taller, wearing blatantly Western clothes, and incompetent in dancing. Some girls did wear Western garb, such as jeans, but they often complemented it with a touch like a headscarf. Despite my awkwardness, however, I felt welcomed--every little girl fought to hold my hand during the dancing, and even if it was only because I was the novelty of the night, I was grateful for their curiosity.
Still, the heat, the noise, the excitement, had all taken their toll, and I was glad to return home with Mohammad's sister for the night. We were joined by a little girl, a cousin, I was told, whose beaming smile outshone the dirt smudges on her face and her adorable mass of tangled, sun-streaked hair. Where her parents were, and whether they'd be concerned, didn't seem an issue.
In a traditional Bedouin room, long rectangular cushions line the perimeter of the room, providing a comfortable sitting area. At night, these same cushions function as bed mattresses. Mohammad's sister and I pulled cushions into the center of the room, and said goodnight.
I could not sleep. Donkeys were braying directly outside, while the light of a full moon filtered through thin curtains. More distracting though, were the thoughts crowding my mind. The world of the Bedouins I had attempted to view from within was fraught with unseen but sharply felt tensions. Being a Western woman allowed me to visit, but it also cast doubt upon my intentions, since I was alone and accepting a man's offer. No one had explicitly questioned my purpose in Umm Sayhoun, but they might just as well have, as the references to Ms. Van Geldermalsen and a few others like her rose again and again.
The irony was that I doubted a Bedouin woman ever would have invited me to stay with her. But Mohammad, a man, could and did, though I would have to stay with his sister. My only bridge, as a female, to the world of the Bedouins, and the female world at that, was through a man. Beyond being paradoxical, the situation is conflicted. Although I could stay with a female, I had to take some risks by accepting Mohammad's invitation. Honor and its unfortunately close ties to gossip may seem trivial in America, but in Jordan both can be taken quite seriously.
Two months later, Mohammad called me. He wanted to ask me something, to confirm that I had no interest in marrying him. My relief at his question was audible. I never asked what prompted that question, but it confirmed for me that my fears, which I'd deemed melodramatic, were not. I had never possessed doubts about Mohammad's intent, but I had had doubts about what others thought. Clearly these doubts, or more likely, others' gossip, had gotten to Mohammad too, if he was calling to ask this question.
I returned to Petra once more, eager to explore the endless paths winding through jagged mountains alongside tombs carved millennia ago. My fascination with its geography, its history, and its people has not ceased, nor will it. But both times, I returned with greater wariness and caution, and a deeper awareness of who I was and where I came from, in contrast to the people whose lives held so much intrigue for me.
For the Bedouin now, the adjustment to modern technological aspects, as well as Western cultural ones, is not smooth. Inserting myself directly into that adjustment was tense and difficult. Two hundred years ago, Bedouins were more isolated, and the roles of men and women were strictly defined. But the Bedouins today, especially those of Petra and others who come into close contact with Westerners, cannot ignore that contact, and the shifts in culture and ideas it brings. Boundaries are frequently crossed, mixed up, and redrawn. The process is an unsettling one, for all involved.
***Elizabeth Whitman is a soon-to-be graduate of Columbia University with a BA in History of the Modern Middle East and a journalist with the Inter Press Service at United Nations headquarters in New York. After graduation, she will continue to work for IPS. Her writing can be found online at http://ipsnews.net.