"neither of us quite bedouin"
While I was waiting on one of the three village buses as it filled up for its afternoon run home from the city of Jerash or Irbid, a local man would sometimes stick his head in, take a long look at me, and ask the bus driver, "What's that ajnabiyya doing on your bus? What could she possibly want in your village?"
"Ajnabiyya?" All three bus drivers always had the same easy response. "That's no foreigner! She's our daughter, Maryah al-Harahsheh."
Most days, that almost felt true. Certainly, when I opened my mouth to speak Arabic, I didn't sound like any ajnabiyya most Jordanians had ever met. My monthly trip to the Peace Corps office in the capital city Amman was like Davey Crockett going to DC. He could wear a suit and tails to the White House and claim the title Congressman, but he still had his East Tennessee twang. I looked like an American, dressed like an Arab Christian with terrible fashion sense, spoke with a strong Bedouin drawl. I loved that look on a cab driver's face when he said, "When you first got in, I thought you were ajnabiyya," and I would say, "W-allahi—By God, I am!" I relished the confusion, dancing back and forth across the line between ajnabiyya and bint al-bedu—daughter of the Bedouin, Maryah al-Harahsheh.
When I would say that name to almost any Jordanian, they would say, wide-eyed, "Ah, yes! The real Bedouin!" The reality was more complicated, the barrier slippery but crucial between who was and wasn't Bedouin.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was carved out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire by the British after World War I, but the kings of Jordan were put in place and are kept in power today by the Bedouin. The seven tribes who backed Sheikh Hussein—first in his alliance with Lawrence of Arabia, then as ruler of Transjordan—are honored in the seven-point star of the Jordanian flag. The Bani Sakher are the largest tribe, but at least as important are the tribes who call themselves "The BH" with all the dignity and pride of a post-graduate's credentials. These three tribes are the king's own Bani Hashem, descendants of the Prophet Mohammad's own ancestors; the Bani Hamida whose weaving was made famous by the American-born Queen Noor; and my beloved Bani Hassan.
My neighbors on either side in Peace Corps were Rawashdeh sisters, married to their first cousins, Harahsheh brothers from the Bani Hassan tribe. Every head of household in our little hilltop village was a Harahsheh. The Rawashdeh sisters and their sisters-in-law, who were also Bani Hassan of various families, made it known that I was their sister, or in certain affairs like marriage proposals, their daughter. In any case, I was their kin and responsibility. They taught me their culture, scolded me when I blundered, fed me, cooked with me, occasionally summoned me to help with chores or the olive harvest, and took me to family graduations, engagements and weddings. I was one of theirs.
Yet, while I was a sister, a daughter of the Harahsheh, I was always a little on the outside. I didn't wear hijab, wasn't Muslim, didn't dress quite right, couldn't quite pronounce letters and words that even a first grader could say with ease.
Yet, while I was a sister, a daughter of the Harahsheh, I was always a little on the outside. I didn't wear hijab, wasn't Muslim, didn't dress quite right, couldn't quite pronounce letters and words that even a first grader could say with ease. Whether they knew it or not, I was also a contrived person, burying for those two years some fundamental things about myself—my fondness for tank tops and swimsuits, my Wiccan-leaning agnosticism, my attitudes on alcohol and sex, and political opinions that put me firmly left of center back in America. Those white lies were a sacrifice worth making so that fathers would trust me to teach English to their daughters, but the secrets could weigh heavily.
Once, Umm Anis, one of the Rawashdeh sisters, said to me, "You should be careful how much time you spend with Umm Tareg." I didn't have the heart to tell my sister Umm Anis that I spent so much time with Umm Tareg because she was most like me in the village. More than any other, even my Rawashdeh sisters, in Umm Tareg's home I could let my guard down just a little, the tiniest easing of the strain of the cultural integration that was my job, twenty-four/seven, even more than it was my job to teach English at school and out of my living room.
The other Rawashdeh sister, sid Muna, was also the headmistress of the girls' school where I taught. She had introduced me to Umm Tareg as her best friend, an English teacher like me—a professional resource—and the best candidate in the village to continue my Arabic language lessons. I had a little money from Peace Corps to pay her to be my tutor, but Umm Tareg would be even more important to me as a cultural interpreter … and my closest friend.
We met on a dark, cold March night in 2004. It was the first time I had ever been in the village I would live and teach in for the next two years. We were sitting in the low light of sid Muna's family room, cross-legged on the fershaat—the wool ticks on the floor along the walls. The family would later pull those fershaat out into the middle of the room for us to sleep on. In the center of the faded, room-sized Persian rug, a small tin stove had a long, precarious-looking stovepipe snaking up to a hole in the ceiling. Wind and rain lashed at the windows, but the room was cozy.
Umm Tareg was a short woman, thick around the middle but not fat. Her ankle-length velour dishdasha shift dress was faded and balding with years of sun and harsh detergent, mended in places with a coarse overhand stitch. Though not quite a decade my senior, she looked a generation older. Life and sun had taken their toll on her round, open face and strong hands, dark and weathered, creased by hardship. Despite the challenges writ large across her face, Umm Tareg was loud, brash, jovial, self-confident. When she smiled, which was often, a deep sunburst of laugh lines radiated from the corners of her eyes, creasing her temples and half her cheeks, and her eyes lit up. It was impossible to resist her big, outdoor laugh.
She spoke beautiful English, and was happy to mediate conversation between sid Muna and I. We talked about the school where I would be teaching, about the teachers I should rely on and the students who would be most helpful.
The first time I visited Umm Tareg in her own home was about six weeks later. Four houses down from mine, hers was the last on the way out of town, the whitewash not as bright as my neighbors, the verandah walls unfinished, the painted steel front door slightly crooked on its frame so it never closed quite right. Her Persian rug was threadbare in places, burnt in others. The dingy walls were empty of all but a framed portrait of her beloved eldest brother. Stuck in the corner of the frame was a snapshot of the mangled car he died in. All the years I knew her, I never understood why she kept it there, corners curling in the dry air.
"I'm not going to teach you that Standard Arabic they speak on Al Jazeera," she warned me. "And I won't teach you what sid Muna and Umm Anis up the hill think you should learn, either. I'm going to teach you the real Arabic, like the Bedouin speak. With 'ch' instead of 'k' and all the rest."
She made me thick, sweet Turkish coffee and lit up a cigarette—her two favorite vices—and we talked about how we would schedule our Arabic lessons. "I'm not going to teach you that Standard Arabic they speak on Al Jazeera," she warned me. "And I won't teach you what sid Muna and Umm Anis up the hill think you should learn, either. I'm going to teach you the real Arabic, like the Bedouin speak. With 'ch' instead of 'k' and all the rest."
"Good!" I would sound like a hick on my periodic trips into the city, but in our little village, I would sound like the shepherds and farmers and car mechanics.
I knew firsthand the value of a local speech pattern. I knew how my mother's misplaced New England 'r's stood out in Pennsylvania Dutch country where I grew up. I also knew that even though I couldn't control the way I subconsciously adopted a local accent and idiom in my mother tongue, I had unusual control over my dialect in foreign languages.
As an exchange student in Bern, Switzerland, it had infuriated seventeen-year-old me that no matter how good my High German was, cashiers and other strangers would always answer me in English. It was my first experience with language as a political instrument. One shopkeeper said sharply, "If I'm being forced to speak a foreign language outside of school, in my own business, then it's not going to be that High German!" As soon as I started to learn Bärndüütsch, the local dialect, everyone responded in kind, unable to conceive that I might speak like that and not be one of them. For years, no native German speaker believed that I could actually be a Mayflower American—"But your mother is Swiss, gau?"
That's what I wanted and needed in Arabic—to be able to simulate belonging right down to the shape of the last vowel on my tongue.
After we had finished our coffee, Umm Tareg's eldest daughter Ghadeer brought out the battered little round metal tray with a dented teakettle and half a dozen little glasses as tall as my palm. Then Ghadeer disappeared with our coffee cups, probably to do whatever housework her mother would have been doing if I weren't there.
After a couple hours outlining an Arabic curriculum and getting to know each other, Umm Tareg yelled for the second of her three daughters to clear the tea and glasses away. To me, she said, "I want you to meet my husband. He should be on his way home with the goats. Let's walk out to meet him."
Umm Tareg and I walked the rest of the way down the big hill at the end of town, and up the next big rise, where goats had just begun to appear in a single-file line from beyond the crest. Last of all came Abu Tareg, a short, leanly muscular man in a long white robe, the pale ochre dust irrevocably ground in. He wore a faded red- and white-checked kufiyah wrapped fully around his head, neck and the lower half of his face, protection against both sun and dust. He pulled the tail of it down beneath his chin to greet us.
Introducing us, Umm Tareg said, "My husband Abu Tareg was the postmaster here for many years. Now he's retired."
Abu Tareg spoke rapidly in Arabic, looking earnestly back and forth between his wife and me. I thought I heard a name I recognized. She laughed, a long, uninhibited outdoor sound that revealed a deep sunburst of joyful lines radiating from the corners of her eyes, creasing her temples and half her cheeks, lighting up her round face. It was impossible not to smile back, even though I didn't know the joke yet.
Turning to me, Umm Tareg said, "He wants you to know that he is like President Jimmy Carter. At the end of his term, the president was coming out of a fancy hotel, and a reporter asked him, 'Mr. President, what will you do next?' And Mr. Carter said, 'I was a peanut farmer before, I'll be a peanut farmer again.' That's Abu Tareg. He was a shepherd before, and he is a shepherd again. Never retired, always a busy, working man."
Abu Tareg nodded emphatically at me, rapping blunt fingertips against his chest. "Jimmy Carter."
I grinned and nodded enthusiastically, understanding that he was intentionally building a bridge between America and Jordan with his carefully chosen anecdote. It was the work I had come to do, too.
Jogging briefly to catch up with his flock, Abu Tareg hurried back ahead of his wife and me. We had the perfect vantage point to see how the goats seemed already to know where to go, half peeling off into Abu Tareg's pens, the others continuing on to the pens where his young nephews were waiting to feed their father's flock. I would never lose my fascination with the flocks peeling off in seamless formation and filing home each day in the waning afternoon light.
After feeding and watering his goats, Abu Tareg joined us in the living room, settling himself on one hip and elbow on one of the fershaat on the floor along three walls. He slid his kufiyah off, revealing a round head as bald as Bruce Willis, with the same quick smile and deeply creased cheeks, and skin as weathered as his wife's, though not as deep a sun-kissed nut brown thanks to the protection of his kufiyah.
This time, Ghadeer sat with us. I recognized her from the ninth grade English class I was co-teaching, and matched her shy smile with one of my own. Ghadeer was a tall girl with a round face, dressed in mismatched second-hand clothes from the Friday souq in Ramtha, where smuggled goods from Syria met secondhand clothes from Europe and America.
I've still never been to Ramtha, but I got a lot of my own pants and especially wool sweaters from the Friday market in Amman. Since so few buses ran on Fridays, Amman's central bus station—a big parking lot between two important streets that curved towards each other but never touched—turned into a big flea market. There were vegetable stands, jewelry booths, and purveyors of mobile phone accessories, used furniture, bolts of cloth… I imagined the souq in Ramtha as a dusty place more like the Green Dragon Market and Auction that my mother loved, a long, tall barn of an exhibit hall open every Friday near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Green Dragon has everything, from whoopee pies and wheels of Wisconsin Amish cheese, to the fuzzy little Bantam chicks I had raised as pets. As they say, "If you can't buy it at the Green Dragon, it chust ain't fer sale!"
Almost everyone in my Jordanian village bought clothing from the souq in Ramtha, where T-shirts might be as little as a quarter each. Most had originally been donated to Goodwill and the Salvation Army, but hadn't sold retail, so they were exported for pennies a pound to Africa and Asia. I once saw a neighbor kid with a T-shirt from the summer reading program I had attended in the single-stoplight rural town of Whiteford, Maryland.
Ghadeer squatted on the edge of a lumpy, over-stuffed fersha, listening intently as Umm Tareg and I spoke, mostly in English. Every so often, she would ask Umm Tareg a clarifying question in Arabic. It was clear that she understood our conversation almost as well as her mother. After a while, her mother said in Arabic, "Well, ask the sister yourself! You need to practice your English, and she needs to learn Arabic."
I waited a long moment while Ghadeer gathered her thoughts. I strained forward to catch her soft voice, and was immediately impressed with her excellent grasp of my language.
A few days later, teaching my first unassisted lesson in Ghadeer's ninth grade English class, I found myself thinking about how the girls on the right side of the classroom, including one of sid Muna's nieces, raised their hands and bounced on the edges of their seats to answer every question. Their green uniform smocks were pressed, the jeans and sweaters underneath clean and purchased new each school year. "Ya, miss! Ya, miss!" they chanted, even when my co-teacher told them to hush. By contrast, the girls on the left wore shirts and jeans under uniform smocks that were a little more faded, more obviously secondhand. Those girls rarely raised a hand and never begged, "Ya, miss! Ya, miss!"
Suddenly pricked by the inequality of the system, I did something that their other teachers didn't. I called on a student who hadn't raised her hand, Ghadeer.
Suddenly pricked by the inequality of the system, I did something that their other teachers didn't. I called on a student who hadn't raised her hand, Ghadeer.
"Don't call on her," sneered sid Muna's niece. "She's Bedouin. She doesn't know anything."
I don't remember how I responded. I do remember that Ghadeer, when I turned back to her, did have the right answer, as I had known she would. I also remember that it was a sharp, unwelcome reminder of my own school days.
When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents somehow managed to obscure from us how much money they had. In this, I now think they probably had a lot in common with the influential old families who had farmed the southern half of our school district for generations. Because my parents had come from suburban Boston, though, the local matriarchs always looked askance at my mother, suspicious of her artistic, unchurched, New England Democratic values they never quite understood.
As a child, not a cousin of one of those big families, I was left to the company of the other misfits—the Mormon sisters, the daughters of the adulteress or the recovering addict, the girl whose father was teaching her to live on the land in the ways of his native Susquehannock ancestors. Regardless of my parents' financial success, many of my friends also fell into a category known by some as "white trash." Their clothes were faded, their laughter too raucous, their dinners more Chef Boyardee, but they claimed they didn't care what anyone thought. Whether or not it was false, I liked their bravado.
In the background, my mother quietly adjusted the Scout troop dues so that the struggling families could go camping without contributing to the cost of food, and there was always one drink option that wasn't soda for the Mormon kid. She didn't explain what she was doing or why, which would only have drawn unwanted attention to the poorest Scouts. Mom simply waited for the right moment in the planning process and said, "What about bug juice?"
For Ghadeer's parents, being Bedouin was an honor, but not everyone agreed, even in their little village where everyone was a Harahsheh or married to one. Although to an outsider that made the whole village Bedouin, on the inside there was a strict caste system.
My immediate neighbors, the Rawashdeh sisters and their in-laws, though they were all second cousins to Abu Tareg and his neighbors, did not call themselves Bedouin. They were fellaheen—peasant farmers, from the verb for "plow" or "till." When I first moved there, I thought the whole village were fellaheen. Within weeks of that first afternoon with Umm Tareg, I came to recognize that the fellaheen considered themselves a cut above, while the "real" Bedouin scoffed at such pretension and maintained their own superiority.
For the Beat poets of 1950s America, the "fellaheen" were the downtrodden simple people—the underclass, the marginalized. Kerouac called them "the subterranean," a people "not involved in great cultural and civilization issues." Ginsberg called them "desolation angels." In my Jordanian community, though, it was the other way around. The fellaheen considered themselves more cultured, better educated, more involved in the formal economy and national progress.
Sid Muna, with final say over the grades of every student in the only girls' school, was the most powerful woman in the village. Her husband was an Air Force pilot rumored to be a ranking officer in the secret police. Her sister Umm Anis's husband was an engineer with the electric company who managed delegations of foreign engineers and consultants, accompanying them around the country for weeks at a time. My landlord's daughters had set the bar high for their cousins—all five were engineers, graduated with honors and respectably employed. Sid Muna's children aspired to medical school, pharmacology… and one who longed to be a shepherd, against his parents' expectations that he would be an Air Force officer, too.
The more I split my time between the Rawashdeh sisters and Umm Tareg, the more obvious the differences became. At school, too, it became clear that the girls whose fathers had a little money sniffed at the poorest girls as "Bedouin" and "stupid" in the same breath.
The more I split my time between the Rawashdeh sisters and Umm Tareg, the more obvious the differences became. At school, too, it became clear that the girls whose fathers had a little money sniffed at the poorest girls as "Bedouin" and "stupid" in the same breath.
With Umm Tareg's encouragement, I learned to codeswitch in Arabic, starting with the fellaheen 'k' and the Bedouin 'ch' in the simple question, "How are you?" The Rawashdeh sisters said, "kayf Haalik?" but Umm Tareg asked, "chayf Haalich?" If I were to "aHchee haych"—speak like this with 'ch' to Umm Anis, she would scoff, "Don't talk like that! That's not real Arabic." On the other hand, if I were to "aHkee hayk" with 'k' to Umm Tareg, she would puff up her chest and scold, "That's not the Arabic I taught you!"
In this, I was actually much closer to sid Muna than her sister Umm Anis. In her home, sid Muna spoke the fellaheen dialect, but as headmistress to all the village's girls—Bedouin and fellaheen alike—she codeswitched as much or more than me. With poorer mothers it was, "chayf Haalich?" With better educated parents it was, "kayf Haalik?" With the teachers who came from the nearby city of Irbid, sid Muna switched to a third, urban dialect that I wasn't comfortable with until years later—"Keef-kee?"
Just as I had hoped, learning to codeswitch with Umm Tareg paid off. In my second year, strangers started commenting on my language skills—"Where did you learn to speak like that?"—and asking if I were Russian. I assumed this was because many village men, unable to get into university in Jordan, went to university in Russia and often came home with wives.
Umm Tareg took me once to a larger nearby village to visit her sister, who in turn introduced me to her sisters-in-law from Russia. As poor as rural Jordan could be, for many Russian women in the 1990s and 2000s, it seemed a step up from what they could expect at home. For one thing, marrying a Muslim came with mahr—a bridal gift of several thousand dollars' worth of gold that belonged solely to the wife, a significant largesse. With no formal language training, but full immersion in communities where no one knew even a word of Russian, these women learned the same Bedouin and fellaheen dialects that I did.
I never met anyone else who learned to "aHchee haych" like me in Jordan.
Although formal language lessons from Umm Tareg didn't last very long, I visited her more and more often over my two years in her village. We talked about many things—about Islam, about teaching, about how sid Muna called Umm Tareg her best friend but they saw very little of each other. Sid Muna was busy with school, Umm Tareg had her children, and anyway, sid Muna's in-laws didn't really approve of Umm Tareg, even though their husbands were second cousins.
One afternoon, sipping tea with Umm Tareg on her big cement porch, I got a text from Bob, a newer Peace Corps Volunteer, asking me how to cook rice. "I usually buy the package with instructions in English," I replied to Bob, then turned to Umm Tareg for advice. A couple weeks later, I happened to be sitting on the same porch in the fall breeze when Bob texted, "How do you cook a chicken?" I had never tried, so I turned to Umm Tareg again, and she dictated the instructions I texted back to Bob.
She would occasionally ask how my friend Bob was faring in the small northwestern mountain city of Ajlun. She called him "your friend Bub," a common Jordanian pronunciation of his name. Though we never spoke of it, I'm certain Umm Tareg knew exactly when Bob and I started dating, and understood my sadness when he returned to America. I wasn't concerned that she knew, confident that she would both reserve judgement and keep it between us.
We tended to spend our time together on her porch as much as the weather allowed, and my visits often lasted hours and hours. Umm Tareg was made for the ancient Bedouin tradition of sahira—to stay up all night telling stories with friends or family. I didn't mind indulging her on the occasional Thursday night. With no village buses on Fridays, there was literally nowhere for me to be in the morning.
At midnight, action movies would come on television, subtitled instead of dubbed as they were in the daytime, starring Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal or Bruce Willis. "Steven's so handsome!" she confessed to me more than once. "But before I let my children watch his movies in the daytime, I watch them first at night, while everyone else is sleeping." She gestured at her husband and five children slumbering on their fershaat all around us, mounded high with blankets. "To be sure the films are suitable for my children." It wasn't violence she was worried about—many Jordanian parents believe that seeing violence on television, real or fictional, toughens their children for the realities of the world. Umm Tareg was worried instead about how restrained the romance would be.
By the flickering light of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Wesley Snipes kicking ass, Umm Tareg would tell me about growing up in her comfortably merchant-class family in the city of Ajlun. She told me about her father's British friends, who were frequent guests in their home. She had learned English from them, which had led to her degree in English from Ajlun University College.
She protested, and I'll admit her English was a little rusty when I arrived, but within mere months of regular visits, she spoke with perfect fluency. I believe she could easily have gotten a scholarship to go to England or America for graduate work. I even think her family would have supported that. She would sometimes take me to visit them in Ajlun, and I liked them a lot. Her father's British friends, I realized, were emblematic of a family that, though they had never travelled far, were open to exploring the world. In this, they were a lot like my own parents, who had raised us to be generous and empathetic in our curiosity, and not afraid of adventures.
As she was finishing university, Umm Tareg fell in love with an older Bedouin man. "All my life," she told me, "I had wanted to be Bedouin. The romance of rural life, raising their own meat, making their own dairy products, the noble, loyal tribesman..."
I understood Umm Tareg's longing to be Bedouin. As a second grader, I had read every book on Sacagawea I could find. I dreamed for years of what it would be like to be that young linguist explorer, so highly valued for her intellect that the sophisticated Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would gladly put up with her new baby, and even her mean drunk of a husband. If I wasn't dreaming of being Sacagawea, then it was Pocahontas, or an Algonquin woman at the first Thanksgiving.
I understood Umm Tareg's longing to be Bedouin. As a second grader, I had read every book on Sacagawea I could find.
As a third grader, I added Laura Ingalls Wilder to my idols. In fifth grade, my grandmother introduced me to Shabanu, fictional nomadic daughter of Pakistan's Cholistan Desert, whom I always pictured with the iconic haunting beauty of the Afghan girl on the National Geographic cover.
Even in college, I clung to a childhood dream of moving to North Dakota, Montana or Alaska to teach in the last of the one-room schoolhouses. I applied to Teach for America hoping they would assign me to the Navajo Nation, though perhaps I would have preferred to teach for the Lakota. Joining Peace Corps and accepting an assignment in Jordan followed, in part, a similar impulse. Though my neighbors did not live in beit sha'ar, the iconic black goat hair tents, and did not keep camels, even still, I was living with the Bedouin, nomads of the Middle East.
There are still nomadic Bedouin, roaming northward and upward in summer and southward or down to the Dead Sea and the Jordan River Valley in winter. In the desert at the junction of Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are tribes so rootless that they are officially—though mostly undocumented—citizens of all three nations. The border can't be policed and neither can they.
How does a government count a people like that? How does it tax and regulate them? In the 1950s and 1960s, according to the memoir of Queen Noor, the late beloved King Hussein found the right incentive. The Bedouin desire for knowledge and education is older than Islam. It's said that the Prophet Mohammed's favorite proverb was, "Pursue knowledge, even unto China," which was the edge of the world for even a well-traveled merchant like Mohammed.
King Hussein built schools in the places where he knew the Bedouin wintered. Eight months a year, the Bedouin pitched their beit sha'ar within an easy walk from the schools, and when the summer came, they decamped to cooler elevations. Slowly, they began to build houses. First, only a few families stayed the whole year, then a few more, until villages like Gafgafa solidified, accreted into a whole town of Harahsheh families
Then, like Pa Ingalls, my neighbors' grandfather and his four brothers decided Gafgafa had gotten too settled. Their goats had to travel too far each day for good grazing. On the farthest hilltop they could see from Gafgafa on a dusty day, they settled their own community of goatherds, olive farmers and military officers, where eventually I would become a daughter of the Harahsheh.
Though he was working full time as postmaster of a neighboring town when they met, goats were something Abu Tareg promised his wife years before in their marriage contract. One day, he had said, he would buy her goats and they would raise them together. That day came shortly after I arrived. Over the two years I lived in their village, I was able to watch Umm and Abu Tareg negotiate goat husbandry together, which he had done as a boy but she knew little about in practical terms.
At first, there was no milk, but after the first knock-kneed kids were born, weaned and sold, I would follow Umm Tareg down to the pen after the goats had come home. Milking the nannies was a two-person job. Abu Tareg held them by their ears, and Umm Tareg squatted behind, reaching between the hind legs to squeeze out milk by hand into a big bucket. In the beginning, sometimes she couldn't protect the bucket from being kicked over, but despite how precious a commodity that fresh milk was for their household, Umm Tareg always laughed her irrepressible laugh, her irresistible starburst of wrinkles spreading across her face.
Over the course of my first year in the village, as she had dreamed of as a child, Umm Tareg learned to make more dairy products than we have words for in English. "Come with me!" she would say, jumping up in the middle of a conversation and leading me into her central hallway. With both front and back doors open to the prevailing easterly wind, it was a pleasant breezeway on a hot desert day.
She had a pink plastic basin, as big around as her encircled arms and about eight inches deep, that she used for kneading bread dough. Once she began learning dairy production, though, I would usually find her basin on the cement floor by the door, cradling a goatskin bag called a shakwa. The goatsmilk inside had to be shaken periodically in order to separate out the butterfat for making the neon yellow clarified butter known as zibdeh baladiya. From the remaining solids, with a little starter from her last batch to supply the right bacteria, she would make that staple Jordanian side dish, laban—yogurt, unsweetened and tangy.
Then, Umm Tareg learned to strain laban into labneh—a much drier, sharper version of Greek yogurt. This was done by stretching cheesecloth over a deep bowl and spooning the yogurt into it so that the liquids dripped down and the solids stayed in the cloth. Several times during a long afternoon visit, Umm Tareg would jump up and lead me back into the breezeway. She lifted up the cheesecloth, holding the top together with one hand and squeezing more liquid through the cheesecloth with the other. At its driest, most delicious sharpness, labneh could be formed into little balls and stored for longer periods in jars of olive oil. Sometimes even now, when I see fresh mozzarella in an American grocery store, I get excited thinking that it's labneh.
Finally, to my delight and hers, Umm Tareg learned to further strain, salt and dry labneh in the old Bedouin tradition. Molded into fist-sized balls, she would carry it on big metal platters up onto her flat roof, where it dried in the sun for days until all the moisture was gone. This was jameed and could keep without refrigeration in even the hottest desert. Over a period of months, one ball at a time could be crumbled and melted into boiling water to make a sharp sauce for some of my favorite foods. For the national dish of Jordan, called mansaf, goat or chicken is cooked in that jameed sauce, then placed over rice and drenched with more jameed sauce, also known as shorbah—soup, and topped with toasted pine nuts and fresh chopped parsley scattered on top. As we ate mansaf, Umm Tareg would ladle more and more shorbah over the communal platter, until the rice swam in that sharp, creamy goodness.
Umm Tareg talked about her goats and growing repertoire of dairy products as part of the romance of the Bedouin life she had dreamed of as a child. Abu Tareg framed his shepherding as an endeavor of the heart, noble and post-presidential. Over the months, I realized that, however deeply and truly they believed in the nobility and romance of their Bedouin traditions, that self-sufficiency and thrift was also a necessity. Those dairy products and the occasional slaughtered goat were often the only protein they could provide for their six children. Other times, small excesses in production could bring in a paltry income from the neighbors, too.
Umm Tareg talked about her goats and growing repertoire of dairy products as part of the romance of the Bedouin life she had dreamed of as a child. Abu Tareg framed his shepherding as an endeavor of the heart, noble and post-presidential.
Her struggle wasn't just about money, either. Though her husband loved and supported her, Umm Tareg was never fully accepted in the community. All the other wives were Bani Hassan, quintessentially Bedouin. Just as having Bostonian parents had made it difficult for me to fit in at school in rural Pennsylvania, Umm Tareg's urban Ajlun childhood was a barrier to integrating into the village we now shared. While I had a certain amount of leeway as the ajnabiyya, a complete outsider, Umm Tareg remained suspicious, ambiguous—too close to be a foreigner, too different to become one of them.
It really hit home for me when sid Muna hired Umm Tareg as a maternity leave substitute for one of my fellow English teachers in the village school. I was excited both to see Umm Tareg at school every day, and for the three months of salary that would mean so much to her family.
Umm Tareg was my friend. She was smart, funny, confident, and not afraid to take a risk. I didn't think less of her for her life of hardship. I thought she was impressively resourceful and resilient. She had grit, which is just a gentler word for the stubbornness my mother says I have in spades. What Umm Tareg and I didn't share in common, I admired. I guess I assumed the other teachers would agree. They didn't all approve of me or like me, but they were all kind and welcoming, and enough of them were friendly that I enjoyed being at work. I thought at least those women would embrace Umm Tareg.
From her first day at school, the gulf between Umm Tareg and the rest of the faculty was immediately apparent. Her life had aged her face faster, left her darker and more creased by the sun. Even her best hijab and jelbaab—the ankle-length, long-sleeved duster coat they all wore—were a little faded, a little stained, a little out of fashion.
Most of the teachers were from the larger town down the hill—definitely a fellaheen community—or from farther away, a few even from the city of Irbid to the north. I realized that there had always been a sense from some of my fellow teachers that teaching where we did was a temporary good deed for the less fortunate. Perhaps I hadn't paid attention to this attitude before because this was explicitly my purpose among them.
When Umm Tareg arrived, she didn’t spend time in the teachers' room as I did, and I realized that the other women from our village didn't either. There was one teacher who lived next to the school, sid Noor the Arabic teacher. As loud and plain-spoken as Umm Tareg, she was only sometimes found in the teachers' room.
Instead, they both spent a lot of their time in sid Muna's office. It made me reconsider my doubts that sid Muna calling Umm Tareg her best friend was more than just lip-service. It also happened that sid Muna and the two women who shared her office, the assistant headmistress and secretary, also lived in the village. When Umm Tareg wasn't in sid Muna's office, she was in the little windowless closet of a kitchen with the "tea lady," the custodian who also kept the faculty supplied with all the sweet black tea and occasional Turkish coffee we could drink. She, too, lived just a short walk from the school.
As friendly and plainspoken as Umm Tareg and I were on her porch at the end of the village, it was jarring to realize that her three months of work were ending and we had hardly had a dozen conversations in school.
Umm Tareg and I didn't talk about those three months at the school, but it was one of the few things I saw her agree with her sisters-in-law about. There were three of them, living around the corner from Umm Tareg with their widowed mother, and the youngest auntie was khaalah Nayfa, a physical education teacher. She was the one I liked the most, with a smooth, open face and a habit of standing, arms akimbo and feet apart, laughing down with good-natured mock disapproval at the antics of her smallest nieces and nephews.
It struck me sometimes how boldly masculine this stance was, and how uncouth the Rawashdeh sisters would find it. Once, sid Muna and I had been standing at the edge of the Jerash farmers market, waiting for the village bus home. I think it was June, only a few months into my time as sid Muna's neighbor, and the cloudless sunny day felt like a blast furnace. There was an occasional hesitant breeze through the trees growing up out of a still-moist gully behind us, and I had my fists on my hips to catch even the least hint of air to disperse the sweat streaming down my sides. I could feel individual rivulets of perspiration roll down my inner thighs, and had spread my feet under my ankle-length skirt in hopes of drying my skin a little before it chafed into eczema.
Sid Muna frowned at me. "Why are you standing like that?" she said sharply, looking down at my A-line gray tencel skirt.
"It’s hot," I said.
She tsked abruptly and shook her head.
I stepped my knees together, dropped my elbows, endured my damp undergarments in silence.
Khaalah Nayfa, by contrast, did what she wanted. She exulted in being out of doors and on her feet in a community where most people couldn't understand why I would want to walk the four kilometers to school and back. Like the dairy farm kids I grew up with, Nayfa was used to the wide open spaces at the edge of town, comfortable taking up space and using her outdoor voice. Unlike Umm Tareg or me, khaalah Nayfa didn't care what sid Muna thought of her, which probably didn't help her substitute teaching experience.
Our regular gym teacher resented her job. She had loved her English classes as a girl, she told me, but when her year's tawjihi school-leaving exam results had scrolled across the television on Jordan One, on that evening every July when the kingdom's collective breaths are held in anticipation, she had barely passed. "I could go to university," she told me, "but only if I studied physical education. I begged to be allowed to study English, but my grades were only good enough for this." Her disappointment was plain in the bored, desultory way she led classes and perfunctory calisthenics at morning assembly, and the terminally disappointed slump of her spine.
When the reluctant gym teacher went on maternity leave, khaalah Nayfa became sid Nayfa for three months. Her ringing voice was well suited to calling out stretches and jumping jacks at morning assembly, and the girls responded with extra length in their side bends and a little more height in their hops. They ran faster on the playground during gym classes, laughing—even the older girls who thought they were too mature and dignified for exercise. Sid Nayfa also walked to school, and like me she always attracted a Pied Piper entourage of schoolgirls.
Students almost universally loved her, even some of the most academic-minded among them, but teachers shunned her. When she wasn't teaching, sid Nayfa was always in the dark cupboard of a kitchen with the tea lady.
In the Ministry of Education's system of waasTa⎯connections and nepotism, although substitute teachers were supposed to be ranked and awarded both maternity coverage and permanent positions according to objective measures, school headmistresses also had a lot of sway in a system where there were always more female teachers waiting in the wings than jobs to employ them. Sid Muna could express a preference for her friend Umm Tareg, to the Ministry and her fellow administrators, and rightly so. Umm Tareg was a highly effective teacher who easily garnered the trust and enthusiasm of her students, especially young women eager for more self-determination than most of their mothers seemed to have sought for themselves. With sid Muna's help, the offers kept coming, though the time and cost of transportation too often proved prohibitive for Umm Tareg to take the positions she was offered. I would be surprised to have heard that sid Muna had done the same for Nayfa.
Khaalah Nayfa was also the sister-in-law that Umm Tareg had the least friction with, though all her relationships with Abu Tareg's family were fraught. They were a proud family—proud of their Bedouin heritage, proud that the eldest son Abu Sahel had once met Saddam Hussein, proud of khaalah Nayfa's education degree—proud to a fault.
Abu Tareg's father had died when most of his children were still in school. Perhaps that was what thrust Abu Sahel, left responsible as a young man for his mother and sisters, into the hustler's life. According to apocryphal local gossip, he had made a small fortune. No one was clear what he had done, except that involved a lot of travel back and forth into Iraq in the Nineties, and may have had some connection to Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay. I suspect he was a smuggler, a common trade there along the borders of Iraq, Syria and Jordan.
I would never have guessed his widely rumored wealth from his grimy, threadbare home or his children's grungy, second-hand clothes, but theirs was the only home in town with satellite television. Abu Sahel did own two of the village's three buses—some said that was where his money had gone—but otherwise all he seemed to have was his arrogant disdain for anyone but his loud, angry wife and insufferable mother and sisters.
None of the sisters had married. There had been offers, especially in the years when their big brother's hustle was good, but no one could be good enough for Mama, and so her beloved son Abu Sahel never consented to any of the potential marriages. Although Abu Tareg did not require his mother's consent to marry the city girl he had fallen in love with, Mama always made it clear that Umm Tareg was not the wife her son deserved.
Although Abu Tareg did not require his mother's consent to marry the city girl he had fallen in love with, Mama always made it clear that Umm Tareg was not the wife her son deserved.
The family would drop by when I was visiting, blatantly assessing my marriageability for the eldest grandson Sahel. They bummed cigarettes off Umm Tareg, cooed over her children, and ranted loudly together about injustices, real or perceived, against them. Umm Tareg tolerated them, her children adored them, but I was never sorry to see the in-laws go.
Back in the States after Peace Corps, I went to graduate school. I finally learned that Al Jazeera newscaster Standard Arabic that Umm Tareg had refused to teach me … and I had been reluctant to learn. I graduated in 2008, just as the economy was beginning to collapse, and decided my chances were better back in Jordan. I got a teaching job in Amman, the capital, but visited Umm Tareg regularly.
On an early return visit to the village I had called home, we went across the street to a neighbor, Umm Mohammad. She poured tea while her daughters finished preparing dinner. Her husband Abu Mohammad arrived home, and Abu Tareg with him.
Abu Mohammad worked for a shipping company down in Aqaba, Jordan's only port, and he had managed to get Abu Tareg a job there, too. Abu and Umm Tareg were extremely grateful, even if it kept Abu Tareg away at the farthest southern end of the country for ten days at a time, sleeping on some thin mat on a concrete floor five lonely nights a week. They needed the money, with the brand new baby girl who had just been born a couple weeks earlier, on my birthday.
Umm Mohammad and Umm Tareg exchanged news and gossip, and filled me in on some of what had happened in the village in the two years since I had left. All the children gathered around, spreading plastic on the ground and arranging the dinner. After we had eaten, the daughters stayed. One of them was in university by then, another studying for those all-important school-leaving exams. A few other neighborhood girls in their teens and early twenties drifted in. Umm Tareg, with a calculating, educator's gleam in her eye that I recognized well, turned to me. "Tell them what you've been doing since you left, ya Maryah."
I wasn't sure what her lesson plan was, but I could see in her eye and hear in her voice that she had one. "I just finished my Masters degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures—basically, in Arabic. I wanted to learn Standard Arabic, to read and write."
"You can hear how much her Arabic has improved, right?" said Umm Tareg. Then she turned back to me again. "Tell them why you're back in Jordan."
"I got a scholarship from the U.S. government to study Arabic in Amman."
"Did you hear that?" Umm Tareg asked the assembled neighborhood girls very pointedly. "Maryah has her Masters, and she's still in school, still studying."
"Well, just for nine weeks..."
"Shut up, ya Maryah. I'm trying to make a point here." It was even more abrupt and pointed than I was used to from Umm Tareg, particularly since she had said it in Arabic in front of everyone. I bit my tongue and let her speak. "Do you see how important education and learning is to Maryah? Even with a Masters degree, she isn't finished learning and studying. She's not worrying about getting married. How old are you, ya Maryah?"
"Twenty-seven," I said without blinking, even though I was well aware that in Jordan it made me an unmarriageable aanissah—an old maid.
"Twenty-seven!" repeated Umm Tareg. "Still unmarried and not worried about it, right, ya Maryah? Focused on her education, on self-improvement. Do you see this?"
The girls acknowledged that they did.
"And that's after she left her whole family behind and came here all by herself to teach English and live all alone for two whole years. She was barely older than you, and she came halfway around the world to learn Arabic and teach you English. And all you can think about is getting married?" she asked the girls pointedly.
"I'm trying to convince these girls that their educations are more important than anything. Umm Mohammad and I both are. Education can lift these girls out of the lives that Umm Mohammad and I have. They can do better. They can aim higher, like you have."
Though an explanation was entirely superfluous at this point, Umm Tareg turned to me and said in English, "I'm trying to convince these girls that their educations are more important than anything. Umm Mohammad and I both are. Education can lift these girls out of the lives that Umm Mohammad and I have. They can do better. They can aim higher, like you have."
As Umm Tareg and I sat sahira late into that night, with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover saving the day at low volume in the otherwise darkened room, she said, "Last summer, a real Bedouin family pitched their beit sha'ar on the hills outside of town." She gestured north, toward where we had met Abu Tareg and the sheep the day of my very first visit to their home. "For many years, Abu Tareg's mother and sisters have been telling him he should marry a second wife."
I had heard this many times over the years I had lived up the road. As always, I wondered how Abu Tareg's mother and sisters thought he would support a second household. His brother wouldn't help, I was sure of that, and the only way Umm Tareg could work would be if Ghadeer gave up university and stayed home to care for her little sisters. There was no way Umm Tareg would let that happen.
"This family had a daughter. My children said she was very beautiful, even though she is even older than me. Abu Tareg fell in love, and his mother and sisters insisted that he should marry her. She was a real Bedouin, worthy of their family." I couldn't see Umm Tareg's face in the dark, but I could hear the tension in her voice, and the edge of anger.
I hardly knew what to say, other than to murmur "Ya Haraam!—How sinful!" and "Ya waylee!—Oh woe!" as she spoke.
"But I know my rights!" she declared, her voice regaining its usual spine. "I know that Islam says he can marry whomever he likes, up to four. I know that he should ask my permission, but he does not need me to give it. And I know that even if he marries another woman, this is still my house! 'Abu Tareg,' I told him, 'you can marry this woman if you must, but if you do, you will never walk through this doorway again for as long as I am alive!' He was surprised, but he knew I was serious."
I didn't know if I was more proud of my friend for her stubborn intelligence, or more sad for the storybook romance they had once shared, or more afraid of how the story would end.
"So, he didn't marry her, and the family took down their beit sha'ar and went away. I was angry with Abu Tareg for a while, and so were his mother and sisters, though they were more angry at me for making him change his mind. It's why we had another baby. I didn't want to have another. Five is enough to feed. We're already going to have tell Ghadeer she can't go back to university because we can't pay for it. I didn't want another baby, but I had to do something for Abu Tareg."
I've never been married, so even though my shoulders were with rigid with affront on her behalf, I held back my opinions. I settled instead for, "That's hard. Really hard."
Yet, where I saw Umm and Abu Tareg's life as desperately poor and incredibly hard, they didn't see themselves that way.
Almost three more years had passed, and I was studying in Cairo. Every week, it seemed, we read from a different angle about how difficult it was to be Egyptian. We studied the economy, with dubious official unemployment figures at nine percent but youth unemployment nearer fifty percent, and no hope of change in sight. We visited the gorgeous cave church in the slums of the Zabbaleen trash pickers, living an existence I couldn't fathom, even as I looked straight at it. We studied the government that paid lip-service to democracy as Hosni Mubarak ran unopposed in four presidential elections over thirty years, and no hope of change in sight. We studied religion in Egypt and the generations of guest workers in Saudi Arabia who came home to Egypt dedicated to acetic Wahhabi Islam and carefully keeping their distance from oppressive national politics... with no hope of change in sight.
When revolution broke out, I rode the exuberant, hopeful wave of protests for two weeks, but eventually Mubarak's recalcitrance made me anxious. Would the violence keep escalating if he didn't step down? I hopped a plane to Jordan, and headed north to see Umm Tareg.
She shouted my name with joy as I came down the steps of the bus in front of her house, and all the children came running to take my bags and lead me inside. Abu Tareg came home with the sheep, and we all gathered in that familiar room with the big, dingy white walls and the portrait of her brother, the room where Umm Tareg and I had so often sat sahira—talking all night.
Conversation turned inevitably to the protests in Egypt. "When I lived in Jordan," I said, "I thought I was living in a very poor country, but then I went to Egypt and realized that Jordan is not a poor country." Immediately, I regretted my words, expecting Abu Tareg, who sometimes had to borrow from his brother to put food on the table, to think that I was belittling the hardship of poor Jordanians, of his own proud Bedouin family I so loved.
"When I lived in Jordan," I said, "I thought I was living in a very poor country, but then I went to Egypt and realized that Jordan is not a poor country."
Instead, without a moment's thought, Abu Tareg agreed wholeheartedly. "That's why Egyptians will come to Jordan to work for just five dinar a day," he said gravely, almost proudly. "We're not a poor country, and for an Egyptian, Jordan is paradise!"
Umm Tareg's father had warned her that Bedouin village life would be even harder than she had imagined, regardless of her husband's good government job, but she had been in love. In Umm Tareg's university days, even more than now, love before marriage was rare in Jordan. She had grabbed her dream with both hands and an open heart. More than once over the years, she said to me, "It is hard, but I love it. Being Bedouin is everything I always dreamed it would be. I love my husband Abu Tareg and our children, and I'm not sorry I did it."
She was my teacher, my friend, and I admired her. Sometimes I think that "I followed my dream and I'm not sorry I did it" is the best we can ask for out of life.
Maryah Converse was a Peace Corps educator in Jordan, 2004–2006, and was studying in Cairo during the 2011 Arab Spring. She has written for From Sac, New Madrid Journal, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, BLYNKT, Silk Road Review, Newfound, Stoneboat Literary Journal and Amsterdam Quarterly. She pays the bills as a grant writer in Manhattan, teaches Arabic, and blogs intermittently about the world here.