Beyond 100 Goats

Abu Khalil has 100 goats, twelve children, three wives, and few good teeth.  When he hosts people in his main tent, he dons the gold colored bisht (robe), a sign of celebration and status among the Bedu (or Bedouins).

beyond 100 goats

I met Abu Khalil’s family earlier this month while accompanying a visiting American friend on a trip to Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge, set in a remote, wind chilling mountainous area with a spectacular other worldly landscape.  The ecolodge depends on American and European tourists.  Urban Jordanians do not have the Lawrence of Arabia romanticism of the Bedu that Westerners have.  However, while Westerners love an invitation to a Bedu tent, the language barrier makes it mostly a case of excessive smiling and nodding at each other.  I fell somewhere in the middle—an unexpected translator for the Westerners, and more importantly to the Bedu, someone they could talk to about the rest of the Arab world, a world which they rarely come in contact with.   They see more Westerners than other Arabs, to whom an ecolodge, the idea of going on vacation in a place without electricity seems like a punch line to a joke.

The ecolodge was built to preserve the fragile environment—and bring work opportunities to the local Bedu.  In return, the Bedu have modified their activities in order to meet the goals of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).  They no longer hunt the cherished but endangered wild rabbits or ibexes to prevent them from extinction.  The Bedu understand extinction, including the possible extinction of their own way of life, something they are both fear and are drawn to.

Abu Khalil married his two main wives in the same year, 1990, but not the same day.  (There was an earlier wife, but he divorced her, and a younger wife who lives in a nearby village).  He is “almost 60” and the wives put their age at 42, although had they not told you, you would put them much closer to his age.  There are reasons for that –brutal winds, sun, poor health care.  But those affect both men and women.

In the pink dawn, after fajer prayers, we watched his wives climbing the mountains, each with her share of the 100 goats, taking them out to feed. Suleiman, at 20 one of the older sons, the next in line to get married, and a guide at the lodge, explains, “My mothers take care of the goats, make the milk, ghee, and jameed (the Bedu’s beloved dried yogurt), feed their kids, weave the goat hairs for the tent, wash the clothes…”

“So what do the men do then?” you ask.

He thinks on this. “Make sure the women are doing all these things,” he jokes, and then quickly adds, “The men go to town to take care of any business, work in the army or police maybe.”

So it’s not hard to understand why in families with only one wife, which is in fact the norm, kids run around in clothes and hair weighed down in dirt, faces with splotches of mud on them, and noses running freely for days.

When you sit with Abu Khalil’s women, the two wives and their teenage daughters, in their part of the tent (tents are divided into thirds for men, women, and livestock), around a fire where they boil tea with sage and a dentist-defying amount of sugar, they are all welcoming, smiling through wind burned lips.  Hospitality is the truest cliché of their culture. They ask all about you, not uttering one complaint about men or goats or each other.

They don’t have TV or the Internet, and they have almost no contact with non-Bedu, outside of what they study in their rudimentary school and now in meeting the guests at the ecolodge.

When they find out you live in Abu Dhabi, they ask you what the people are like there. They don’t mean all the Abu Dhabi expats like yourself—they mean their fellow Bedu.  A son had joked earlier about his donkey being the Bedouin Mercedes.  You can’t bring yourself to tell them that the Bedu of Abu Dhabi have real Mercedes, new, shiny ones—and all sorts of other shiny things.   “It’s nice,” you say.  “But too hot.”

That’s when the randomness of national borders strikes you.  These Bedu, like most Bedu, trace their roots to Saudi Arabia.  But Bedu are nomadic and when oil struck, fate was determined by what side of the post-colonial border you had set up tent.  The fortress houses, cars, designer watches, maids, and drivers of the Persian Gulf have left the Jordanian Bedu in the dust, somewhat literally.  Or so you think with your Abu Dhabi eyes.

Then you ask Abu Khalil’s daughter, who just turned 14, what she’d like to do when she finishes school.  “Keep having a healthy life and family,” she shrugs.  She does not say “in another place.”  When prodded about moving to the city, she fidgets.  Yes, there is another world out there.  Yet, she, like everyone else here, is at home nomadic, no upgraded Mercedes of any kind required, a place where not seeing across the border means this is all that life is—aside from visitors who remind you it isn’t.

A Good Library is Hard To Find

What is more important in a library than anything else – than everything else – is the fact that it exists.  ~Archibald MacLeish, “The Premise of Meaning,” American Scholar, 5 June 1972

The other day in Jordan, my mother made the day of a young Spanish woman with whom we were chatting by telling her she could be Audrey Hepburn’s double.  This was true enough, but what struck me was how quickly the woman

Faten Hamama

blushed and said thank you,  banging on her tea cup to make sure her boyfriend had heard the compliment.  Audrey Hepburn was before my time, let alone this younger woman’s.  Yet the three of us shared a common language:  Hollywood films.  What we didn’t learn of this language on the big screen or at home, we were taught via the video store, TV, or iTunes.   Or for those of us who wanted to perfect the language, our knowledge grew through classes—and through access to a film library.

Jordan’s Royal Film Commission is in my favorite part of Amman, Rainbow Street, which fits because the street is named after the city’s first cinema, the Rainbow Theatre, now long gone. I love the film commission because it has given Jordan a genuine film fan and filmmaker community.

But perhaps more uniquely, it has a cozy film library over looking old Amman.  It’s not big or comprehensive, but if you’re looking for film that brought Syrian cinema to an international audience in 1972, you can scan the shelves and find it:  The Leopard.  Arabic films have a language of their own and very few people learn it because the Middle East has no significant film library and no effort has been made to educate students about Arab cinema.

While everyone laments the decline of reading in the world, particularly the Middle East it seems, one forgets that good libraries also house novels and films, perhaps both truer windows into who we are and who we were than any text or history book could ever be.

Before Kramer vs Kramer made divorce a topic to carry a movie or Broke Back Mountain told of the tortured deceits of closeted homosexuality, Egypt’s most famous actress Faten Hamama was dealing with them in the 1974 film Oridu Hillan  (I Need a Solution) . (Honestly, I haven’t seen it recently, so I can’t verify the gay issues that my cousin said were implied in the divorce.)  The movie in fact changed Egypt’s divorce laws.

When looking for the roots of today’s revolutions, much of it can be found even in the poorly produced and directed very broad comedies and melodramas of Egypt over the past decade—rife with farcical scenes about men not being able to afford marriage because jobs are always illusive, scenes government institutions and the absurd rules applied to the Everyman when he tries to feed his family or take care of their health needs, and scenes of the brutal consequences of speaking out against the corruption.

Arab cinema is not always at level of most Western cinema, but it has a long history that lays scattered—and damaged by time—because libraries don’t have the importance they should.   Arabs have a long film history that is their history.  Yet sadly, Arabs don’t have as much as they should a language in which they can say, “You remind me of Faten Hamama in….”

Just Peachy in Jordan

In Jordan, my mother’s garden has a peach tree that doesn’t stop giving at this time of the year.  She hands out bags of peaches to neighbors and relatives and anyone who passes by on the street.  She makes peach jam with whatever peaches she can save, and still she mourns the peaches that fall on the ground, uneaten.

“Can’t you find something American and tasty to do with these?” she asked when I arrived.  I knew she meant bake something, and the American part referred to the use of fruit in desserts. In the Middle Eastern fresh fruits are eaten fresh, dried, or as jam or as an ice cream flavor.  They are not baked into desserts usually, unless they’ve been dried first.

My first thought was peach cobbler, summery and simple.  But if you’ve never heard of peach cobbler, it pretty much looks like its name implies, something cobbled together.  Not particularly appealing to Middle Eastern guests I discovered.  Which is how they also they reacted to my next endeavor, the peach crumble.  “Didn’t quite come out like you hoped it would,” my aunt said to me sympathetically.  “Maybe you didn’t put enough butter in the crust and that’s why it’s all broken apart like that.”

It had come out pretty enough for any TV chef to pose with, perfectly crumbly and buttery on top, juicy and sweet filling with a hint of cinnamon.  But aesthetically, the Jordanians couldn’t get past the appearance to get to the taste.

My next venture should have been pie, but I could see that the aecetics reaction would be the same.  Then I remembered the one Western dessert that all people appreciated:  the birthday cake. I’d make a peach cake, and cut the peaches small enough that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the fruit-in-dessert concept.

It was too hot to spend hours creating a layer cake, so instead I took a basic coffee cake and an apple bread recipe and combined them, and called it peach coffee cake.  Anything with the word coffee goes over big in the Middle East.

For Americans, for whom peach crumble, cobbler, and pie say summer, the coffee cake may have less appeal.  To the American half of my taste buds, it welcomed in fall.  Very tasty but a little early in the year to let go of summer.  But freeze for winter, when the hint of peaches should be a welcome surprise and thus save them from landing on the ground, their glory untapped.

PEACH COFFEE CAKE

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 t. vanilla

1 ¾ C sugar

1 C vegetable oil

1 ½ C white flour

½  C. whole wheat flout

1 t. salt

1 t. baking soda

2 t. cinnamon

¼  t. nutmeg

3 C. peeled and diced fresh peaches (this seems like a lot of peaches, but it’s not)

Topping:

For the streusel:

½ c  packed brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

½ c. chopped walnuts

6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

ALTERNATIVE TOPPING/ADDITION: Drizzling with icing sugar when slightly cooled

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.   Grease a 13x9x2 inch pan.

Add sugar and vanilla and oil to the eggs and mix thoroughly.  Mix together dry ingredients, then fold into egg mixture until combined.  Add in the peaches.

For topping, mix together nuts and sugars.  Cut in butter until topping forms into little pieces.

Pour cake batter into pan.  Sprinkle on topping.  Bake about 35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  I used a glass baking dish because the usual baking pan would have looked like I didn’t have enough to serve it in decent kitchenware.   Add alternative/additional icing drizzle when cake is almost coool.

Jordan: “Yes, I don’t know”

“Where can I get a Blackberry battery?” I asked in the Nokia shop.  The two men working in the shop both pointed and said, “That way.”  They were both pointing in different directions.   It didn’t result in a “jinx” moment where they both looked at each other, laughed and then agreed on a direction.  Nope, they just both

Jordan: "Yes, I don't know."

continued to point in opposite directions as if they were both giving me a legitimate answer. Which, perhaps on higher philosophical plane, would be correct—after all isn’t life of a circle we all spin around?

Alas, there was nothing metaphorical in their response, at least not intentionally.  And really who wants philosophy when its hot and dusty and you need directions?  But Amman can feel very much feel like a vicious circle when you ask questions—and take the answers seriously.  That’s because no one seems to be able to say the simple phrase, “I don’t know.”

Even “Do you have green tea?” got me the response at a café.  “Yes, no.”  It took me several more questions to figure out whether the yes was more correct than the no. The truth was he didn’t know if they had tea at all, which I gathered from the various other “yes, no” responses.

Never saying “I don’t know” seems to be a phenomenon among the 20-somethings of Jordan.  There are questions in Jordan for which they have no answers but these are matters strangers don’t discuss in public—“Is it likely I’ll get a job?” “How will I pay for heating this winter?” “Which one of our neighbors –Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria—will be the most unpredictable this week?”   Big questions for which people are afraid of the answers.

But people want to be able to answer something. So maybe that’s why a less earth shattering question like “Do you sell Jason Shampoo?” gets answered “yes” by the cashier and “no” by the clerk in a shop the size of a big living room.  The real answer was no, but that didn’t make the yes man feel bad.  He just shrugged, like he had a 50-50 chance at being right.  “I don’t know” just doesn’t have that definitive power of taking a 50 50 chance of being right, which are about the same odds for a long lasting marriage, all Jordanians take that risk.

After more than an hour and a half of elaborate directions from about 10 people who “yes,” knew where to get a Blackberry battery and then finally running into the Blackberry store by complete accident, you just want to throw some one for a spin by asking, “What do you think are the advantages of the Blackberry over the iPhone?”   If no one knows the answers to the little questions, then dare to ask the big questions.

The Right To Drive Well

I support jailed Saudi Manal Al Sharif’s right to drive.  I support her right to join the men on the roads in her country, a country that has one of the highest car accident fatalities in the world, like most of the countries in the region.

The Right To Drive Well

See, having spent big chunks of my life in the Middle East, I most importantly support Manal’s right to drive well—to stop at traffic lights, to use her turn signal, to look both ways, to wear her seat belt, move a speed lower than your body temprature, to remove her child from the dashboard, and tell the other kid hanging half way out the window to sit back in his car seat. This I wish for all the male and female drivers in the Middle East.

Driving means respect for the lives of your fellow human beings with whom you are sharing the roads, and I don’t see a lot of that from my steering wheel.  It’s why I sometimes envy the women here who are only allowed to have drivers.  They don’t have to grind their teeth while someone makes a U-turn out of the far right lane, they don’t have to patrol narrow streets looking for a place to triple park their car, they don’t have to drown out hundreds of randomly honking horns.  Whenever they need to go somewhere, they just call their driver and he drops them right at the door.  While the driver is negotiating the roads, a woman can make her phone calls, grade papers, and listen to her iPod, take a nap, answer her e-mails.  Of course, some people do all this while driving, too, further making me wish I had a driver.

For some women, like me, a driver is s a luxury, for others a form of subjugation.  However, living without luxuries is easer for most—but not all–women than living under someone else’s control.

I too remember when driving was my form of emancipation.  I turned 16 and just like every American-born 16-year old, the first thing I wanted to do was get what I was entitled to:  a drivers license.  The only problem was we were living in Beirut.  That meant no testing center for eager American teenagers.  However, I wasn’t about to let a license get in the way of my right to drive.  We were in the middle of war, I explained to my mother, so who really cared about licenses.  I figured the soldiers and the militias patrolling the roads wouldn’t be interested in my legality as a driver so much as what I might possibly have hidden in the trunk.  My incessant droning on about this, with the support of my brother, who at 15, was  little Datsun on the Corniche  one Sunday morning and tossed the keys at me.  “You can go up to the Rouche and back,” she told me.  “That’s it?” I complained.

But in that short drive, I skidded to avoid a car going the wrong way and forced my way into the other lane.  Actually, it wasn’t another lane so much as a funeral procession, and I was right behind the hearse of a militiaman whose people didn’t take to kindly to my nouveau driving.  After my mother negotiated us out of the situation, explaining that I had too many American notions about being 16 in my head, she took her place behind the driver’s wheel and said, “You think driving is some kind of way to get your entire family killed?” my mother shouted.  “This is not a game.”

Middle East roads are stressful, requiring vigilance and patience.  Most women who have fought hard for their right to drive did so with vigilance and patience.  I hope they remember that on the road, along with all the others, male and female, behind the wheel.

People should also remember that driving isn’t just a right.  For all its stresses,  it is also a privilege.  I remember a well-intentioned European asking a boy from Gaza if his mother drove.  “No,” he said.  “That’s a shame,” the lady said, her feminist indignation not registering with the boy.  “Yes, imagine one day if I could make enough money to buy my parents a car,” he answered.  Many women here—clerks, maids, nursing assistants–must say that, too, as they stand in the 120 degree weather, often more than twice a day, hoping that an empty and affordable cab will eventually stop to take them to their jobs.

Tor’s Palestinian Photographs: 1967 and 1977

Today my friend and photographer Tor Eigland sent me two of his photographs as his way of remembering 63 years of the Palestinian Naqba (Catastrophe).  Tor is Norwegian and he’s covered events around the world since the 1960s, but his most amazing stuff is of the Middle East (aside from his photo of Castro on his day of coming to power–which is pretty the much the photo of Castro coming to power).

Palestinian Refugees 1967

Tel al Zaatar 1977

What Arabs Talk About At Dinner

On a recent work trip to Kuwait, my American colleague started chuckling while he listened to my Syrian cousin and me arguing about the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  “Is this what sitting down to dinner with family sounds like in the Middle East?” he asked.  Yep.  Pretty much always unless there is a divorce to talk about.

Until recently, if you were to look at the Middle East through television, which is how most people know it, you would think everyone in the Middle East was either a terrorist in training or a rich oil sheikh.  That was never the case, and maybe one of the good things that might come out of these heroic demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will be to see the Arabs as people.  And people who love to eat.

So in case you’re wondering what else we talk about at dinner, here’s a list. The order of this list may change family by family and depending on what is the largest and latest crisis of the moment.  For example, Libya (see no. 2) would top of the list today.  I don’t mention Osama bin Ladin, Al Qaeda or the hijab, because honestly those seem to be West’s favorite Middle East topics.

Here’s a peek into dinner, say over lentil soup, stuffed zucchini, cucumber yogurt salad, and hummos or something made with eggplant.

1.     Israel:  Israel via Palestine, Israel via Egypt, Israel via Lebanon, Israel via Syria, Israel via Jordan, Israel via Saudi Arabia, Israel via Iran, Israel via the nuclear bomb, etc.  These conversations are ready to go even on an empty stomach.

2.     Arab dictators:  Mubarak and Qaddafi and Ben Ali and so many more to choose from.

3.     Iraq:  See above.  We were talking about Saddam at dinner long before he became Enemy No. 1 and we’re still talking about Iraq because it’s still tragic.

4.     Shiite/Sunni:  Also see above.  Long winded stories to get to “@en did this divide become so big?”

5.     Lebanon:  See most above.  Also can revolve around “Do you think this is a good time to go to Beirut for fun?  I go the best haircut there.”

6.     America:  See all of above.  America means the U.S., not the North and South American continents.

7.     Conspiracy theories:  See all above, especially #1.  People are already buzzing on carbs from rice and bread when these started getting kicked around.

8.     Stories about how great the Arabs once were.  Remember Andalusia? So a thousand years ago.

9.     No one has better food than us. Followed by the latest diet theories and a bit of comfort that yes, America may have everything but that includes more fat, too.

10.  “What has the oil really done for the Arabs?”  This one usually comes at the end of the dinner, when everyone is wiped out, defeated, and decides, just like their fellow humans in America, to turn on the TV and zone out.  With some shisha.

Today the topic at the dinner table:  Is the conversation actually going to change now?