As I get ready to leave the Badia I find myself with somewhat mixed feelings. I’ve found the experience rewarding and challenging at the same time. Culturally, the Bedouin are both similar to and different from the Jordanians and Palestinians I know in Amman, but those in the Badia seem to appreciate having a more traditional and relaxed life. Though I think I would have a hard time fully adapting to this lifestyle and culture, I find a tremendous amount of beauty in it. It isn’t for me to pass judgments on other people’s way of life, it only matters that it works for them.

That said, I also wonder how well it is working for them. The lack of economic opportunity, the desire to achieve a higher standard of living, and potentially the desire to change entrenched attitudes toward gender roles, religious freedom, and other social questions while still seeking to preserve the uniqueness of the Bedouin culture and way of life places a great deal of pressure on these communities. I have to imagine that their efforts to navigate these dangerous waters are not free of casualties. It may be true for example that most women in the Badia embrace their culture’s interpretation of their role in society, but with satellite television and easy connections to cities like Amman and Damascus, it would be unreasonable to assume that every woman welcomes this interpretation of her potential.

There don’t seem to be any easy solutions to these challenges, and they’re likely to be important catalysts in changing these societies, both progressively and traditionally. What is most interesting is the degree to which members of the Bedouin community feel empowered to answer these question proactively and conversely, the degree to which the process becomes its own force, slowly but steadily pulling people toward unchartered territory, while the people are left with underlying feelings of reactionary trepidation.

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The Qatari family left this morning for Doha. Most of the village turned out to give them a tearful sendoff. It’s interesting to understand how tribal politics function within this village. It’s my understanding that Abu Ahmed’s family only lives here for two months every summer, but they seem to be far and away the wealthiest family here and seem to play a prominent role in local politics. On at least two of the nights I’ve been here my host father has attended a discussion at Abu Ahmed’s home with a number of the other men from the tribe. On the second night I was invited to attend and though I didn’t fully grasp all of their conversation it seemed to focus on the sheikh and the allocation of a fairly large sum of money to some sort of project in the area. During this discussion Abu Ahmed acted as the gracious host, but also seemed quite involved in the decision-making process which struck me as somewhat odd given his part-time status as a resident here.

After they finished packing their belongings into the two SUVs they brought to Kariya and farewells were shared, they drove away. Almost immediately after this, my host family and another family began cleaning Abu Ahmed’s house for him. Later in the day we planted grain in the fields on his property. Since Abu Ahmed won’t return until the following summer, I have to assume the village men also bring in the harvest from these fields. I’m not quite sure what to make of this and plan to ask about it when I return to Amman, but there seem to be four possibilities to me. First, these acts may be a simple extension of hospitality. Second, Abu Ahmed may pay the families to do this work for him. Third, Abu Ahmed may allow the families to plant their own crops on his land while he isn’t there. Or finally, Abu Ahmed may hold some sort of prominent role in the tribal hierarchy, which makes these acts appropriate or necessary.

Mohammad and I headed north again today along with the eldest Qatari son, Ahmed, and ended up climbing a mountain that offered an excellent view into Syria. Yesterday we had climbed an inactive volcano that wasn’t as close but gave me my first glimpse of the neighboring country. It is really incredible how close we are, towns on the other side of the border are easily visible from here. I’ve tried to broach the subject of the current situation in the north a few times, but haven’t gotten much past a general agreement that Bashar al-Assad is haram. My inquiries about whether there have been any problems here or unique perspectives on the issue have been met with a resounding no. I guess they’re getting their information from the same place I am: Al Jazeera.

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I had an interesting run in with the grapevine-like communication structure here in the Badia today. Earlier today I jokingly mentioned Mohammad’s late night, hushed phone calls to his girlfriend in Amman while hanging out with him and another young man, Khaled. We all laughed and I didn’t think anything of it until that evening when Khaled promptly reported the information to a large group of the village men. I’m sure it was at least a minor embarrassment to my host family and I really hope I haven’t caused any major problems. The role of gossip in encouraging social conformity is really fascinating and it seems to be a really pronounced phenomenon in small town environments where everyone is privy to everyone else’s secrets.

That said, this is actually something I’ve experienced in Amman as well. My host family is related to one of my classmate’s family and I’ve often shared mildly embarrassing personal information in our Arabic class, where our Arabic professor encourages culture questions. On more than one occasion, this information has made its way back to my classmate’s family and though I don’t think any of it has been particularly damning for my family, it’s easy to see how news travels quickly.

I’m really surprised at how difficult the language barrier is here and the language issue is another big difference between life in the Badia and in Amman where many people speak at least some English. Though I admit my skills in Arabic are weak, my ability to understand my host family back in Amman and my teachers at SIT seems to be much higher than my ability to understand people here in Kariya. Even when they’re saying words I should easily recognize, I am having great difficulty getting past their accent. They also seem to speak much more quickly and with less of the melodic quality I find many urban speakers give their Arabic. The language seems much more direct and utilitarian here. I’m sure my inability to communicate effectively is frustrating to my hosts and is limiting my experience in ways I’ll never completely know. If I have one regret, it’s that my language skills lag so far behind my intellectual curiosity and desire to understand. Even when I can form a question, people are forced to reduce their answers to the most basic of concepts and I truly feel I’m losing a great deal of the nuance that could make this experience so uniquely valuable.

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After repeatedly stating my desire to attend noon prayer at the mosque, I was a bit disappointed this afternoon when my request was denied. I tried to explain why I was interested and that I intended no disrespect, but they just told me that I could not pray because there was no church in the town. I reiterated that I wanted to go to mosque not a church, but they were unmoved. My understanding has always been that there would be no problem with a respectful visitor going to mosque and I did everything I could to communicate my desire, so I’m not quite grasping the reason behind the decision. In the end, although I’m disappointed at the missed opportunity, I have to respect their decision. If the thought was in any way discomfiting to them, then they certainly have every right to refuse my request.

It feels almost cliché to begin this journal with an entry focusing on hospitality since it is one of the most obvious qualities of the Bedouin, but being the recipient of this degree of welcoming is somewhat overwhelming. Upon arriving at Abu Mohammad’s home I was welcomed with a cup of coffee and the traditional “ahlan wa sahlan.” The saying is often translated simply as welcome, but it actually goes much deeper; the connotation is actually of someone being welcomed into the family. I was offered a seat in the guest room and asked some introductory questions. Soon men from the village began arriving and eventually the small room was filled with almost a dozen of us. I didn’t quite grasp until later that this gathering was a way of honoring me. Enormous trays of a special sweet dish made with layers of thin bread, golden raisins, and nuts were brought out. This was quickly followed by copious amounts of sweet mint tea. I’m certain my inability to communicate with any degree of eloquence makes me a less than interesting conversationalist, but the men have been tremendously gracious. It’s immediately clear to me that Abu Mohammad wants me to feel I’m a welcome and honored guest.

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With the exception of two visiting Qatari boys, I’ve spent most of the day with my host brother Mohammad and another young man from the village, Nawaf. My village, Kariya, is more than an hour from Mafraq and well over two from Amman. It’s located right on the Syrian border and is too small even to have a store. In theory, this village should be entirely self-sufficient, yet globalization seems to have changed the calculus in some ways. Unlike his father, who seems to be content working in the village, tending his small flock of goats and few chickens and the fields during much of the year, Mohammad travels to Amman each week to work as an emergency operator. The lack of economic activity in rural areas and the allure of a different sort of lifestyle often pull young people toward urban areas. What’s interesting is how Mohammad transitions between the two worlds. Though I haven’t seen him in Amman, I’m sure he has a group of friends and a somewhat different lifestyle there. Yet, every weekend he returns to Kariya and seems perfectly comfortable in this more relaxed and traditional setting.

Nawaf strikes me as a guy who feels very comfortable in his own culture. My conversation with him earlier focused mostly on Islam and I get the sense that he is quite pious. At one point he chastised Mohammad and got visibly upset when Mohammad unintentionally revealed the existence of a girlfriend in Amman. It’s often pointed out that the Bedouin have a very tight connection to the military here and this is accompanied by a deeply felt patriotism and love for the king. In a second conversation this evening, Nawaf and I discussed his service in the Jordanian Special Forces. Within a few weeks he’ll be deployed to Haiti, a place he’s been stationed before. In the course of our discussion I found Nawaf repeatedly said things that seemed blatantly racist to me, including a statement about having to go to Haiti to stop the “monkeys from killing each other.” I suppose I’m always a bit surprised when these sorts of thoughts come from people who have spent time in other cultures. I like to chalk most ethnocentrism and prejudice up to ignorance. As someone who has always been fascinated with other cultures and who spends a lot of time arguing for an increase in understanding of other people within my own country, Nawaf’s perspective reminds me that the beauty I find in other cultures doesn’t mean that the darker side of my own culture is unique to us. In fact, I’m unfortunately finding that one of the most obvious similarities between Americans and Jordanians is our tendency toward ethnocentrism. If attitudes are to change, it seems clear that work needs to be done by people within both societies to increase understanding and appreciation of other perspectives and traditions.

At the outset of this post, I feel the need to include a disclaimer. I in no way intend to draw perfect equivalences nor to offend what I readily acknowledge as very deeply painful memories for people. That said, I hope this post is received in the spirit in which it is written, in the desire for greater understanding and empathy.

One of the most interesting aspects of visiting a country other than your own is in the potential for breaking down preconceptions, those you hold about another culture (and by extension, those held by your friends and family through blogs and facebook), and those held about yours. That’s a challenging task, but I think an important one, particularly in this region. One of the fundamental problems faced by those who would seek to move this region toward a lasting peace is that understanding between people is tragically missing and very few people have a desire to correct that. This isn’t an indictment of just Arabs, but also of Israelis, the Western governments who have inserted themselves into this region, and most people who have a deeply held opinion on this monolith we call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Three days ago, my friends in the United States marked the tenth anniversary of a day that will live in our memory as a society for countless decades. The horror and the tragedy felt by the American people on September 11th changed us; it changed how we see ourselves, how we see the world, and by consequence, how we are seen. I can think of few things more offensive to an American than the dismissal of this event. I can’t imagine many Americans would respond positively to being approached by someone from another nation who argued that 9/11 didn’t occur, was unimportant, or was deserved. This event has become a part of our collective memory and because of this it has become sacred. It’s moved beyond a rationally viewed historical event, and it can’t be treated lightly. In the same way, telling a Jew that the Holocaust didn’t happen or wasn’t that bad, is staggeringly insensitive and unlikely to make you many friends in the Jewish community.

It is my assertion that a similar societal trauma exists among the Palestinian people and the societies of the Middle East who identify with them. Last week, I asked one of the members of my host family if I should visit Israel/Palestine before going home. I expected him to react strongly to the idea of visiting the Zionist regime, but his answer floored me. Without missing a beat, he replied, “You must go.” He told me Palestine was the most beautiful of places and that the land was holy and that all human beings should visit such a place. He then thought for a moment and told me he and his family would love to visit, and he felt a sadness at the impossibility of this occurring. “The border is less than 30 minutes from here, but I can’t cross it.”

A few days ago, I had another experience with this. One of my Arabic teachers, a young Palestinian woman, was asking us which countries we had visited. At the end of the exercise, we asked her to share the same information. She told us that she had not yet had an opportunity to visit another country but she loves cultures and badly wants to visit so many different places. When asked where she’d like to go, she listed Rome and Spain and then said with a quiet sadness in her voice, “and of course, Palestine. That is my homeland.”

For people in this part of the world, the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 is referred to as the nakba, translated as the disaster, the cataclysm, or the catastrophe. This was the time when hundreds of thousands were evicted from their homes and their land with precious few of their belongings. The vast majority of them have never been allowed to return, even to visit. Today, there are about 4.62 million people who were either displaced personally in 1948 or 1967 or are the descendants of those who were. For this community, a profound loss continues to reverberate. A sense of injustice, of a deep and abiding wound, lingers in their collective memory and psyche.

Recognizing this is vital to understanding the situation from this side of the Jordan river. Unfortunately, I fear we dismiss this trauma far too easily, maybe not by denying outright its existence, but by downplaying its significance or its legitimacy or, more often, being ignorant of it entirely. I don’t pretend to know how these wounds can be healed, or how they can be addressed in the broader context of a mutually fair settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I think increasing understanding and empathy on all sides is part of any desirable solution.

From the Palestinian perspective, Israel is the embodiment of this pain. Not only did they come into existence at the expense of others, their rockets and tanks continue to kill innocents and their government continues to oppress those living in Gaza and the West Bank. And that government, with its guns and its jets, is funded, maybe even propped up, by the U.S. Therein exists a fundamental problem for both nations. It absolutely must be acknowledged that this is only half of the story, but that doesn’t make it an unimportant half.

This issue is the fundamental cause of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. How can you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t accept the most painful part of your history? When the president of Iran denies the Holocaust, he is instantly relegated to the status of crackpot. His ideas are no longer legitimate to us on a very emotional level.

At very least, traumas must be acknowledged.

Last night a number of us decided to go to a concert in Amman. We had seen it advertised in a few places and upon checking the band out online, they seemed like they might offer an enjoyable evening. The band, Mashrou3 Leila (pictured right), is a Lebanese alternative-rock band who are somewhat known for pushing the envelope of cultural norms. One of the band’s songs tells the story of a young man who falls in love and decides to marry. He approaches his parents and expresses a desire to bring his soon-to-be-bride home to meet them, to which they agree. Upon arriving, and presumably to the parents’ horror, the bride-to-be turns out to be another boy.

In addition to the band, the concert had one other major selling point. It was happening on Jabal al-Qal’a, known in English as the Citadel. A quick note for future reference, Amman is a city constructed on seven original hills (now encompassing nineteen), and jabal is the Arabic word for hill. Not only would the location offer a great view of the city during the concert, it was also an absolutely fascinating contrast.

Jabal al-Qal’a is known for its ruins, from dozens of the civilizations that have existed in the area that we now call Jordan. Inside the archaeological museum on site, there are flint tools from more than 10,000 years ago. The museum contains the oldest statue made by man, from the Neolithic era, pottery from the Nabataen era, a first-hand account of the political events in Palestine during the first century recorded by the Moabites, a handful of Dead Sea scrolls, and a collection of artifacts from the Islamic age. On top of this, the site contains the ruins of the Roman Temple of Hercules (pictured left), an Umayyad palace, a Byzantine church, and one of the oldest mosques in the world, constructed in 730 C.E. The hours I spent exploring these sites could have been expanded to months. The breadth of history here is just staggering.

Contrasting that with the concert made the day that much more fascinating for me. Mashrou3 Leila not only entertained us, they turned out to be absolutely fantastic and are now one of my new favorite bands. Their lyrics don’t hesitate to explore political and societal issues and a number of them tackled the political issues facing the region and the hope represented in the Arab Spring. In some ways, the band is probably to the extreme point of the cutting edge of what’s happening in the Arab world. For example, on an issue like homosexuality, tradition is still very important here and attitudes on this issue are unlikely to change soon. The concert probably attracted more Western expats and Westophilic Jordanians than anything else, but it was nonetheless a representation of one of the voices trying to push into the societal conversation occurring here.

Not to overplay the observation here, but this concert in this place is a good analogy for this city. Everywhere you look there is an example of this dichotomy. In some ways, this interplay of tradition and modernity is exactly what all cultures do. It is a healthy and normal part of progress. The question remains in how the tension is maintained and how people feel about it. Does it seem imposed and foreign or progressive and welcome? This question is answered differently by every individual, but for most it is probably a mixture of the two.