17 May 2014

Married to a Bedouin

Since the book of that name was mentioned in a previous post, here's a little more of a most unusual story.[1] Marguerite van Geldermalsen was a young New Zealand nurse backpacking in Jordan in 1978. On her visit to Petra, she and her girlfriend Elizabeth wanted to stay among Bedouin families that still lived in the ancient caves. The spontaneous arrangement was not as easy as they anticipated until they met Mohammed Abdallah Othman, a resident then working at selling souvenirs. Tourism there was in its fledgling days with few amenities.

Mohammed was clearly taken with the tall, lively girl and the feeling was reciprocated. A couple of days in Petra became half a lifetime in love, to Marguerite's surprise. Their courtship was spurred by attending a community wedding that extended for days. Bachelor Mohammed had already chosen his own home, a fixer-upper we would say, in a cave high on a ledge overlooking the amazing Nabatean vista, not too close to his neighbours. No running water. No electricity. But he was self-sufficient and energetic.
something like this
"In years to come, when visitors, on finding out I lived in a cave with my Bedouin husband, called me brave, or courageous, or daring, I felt like a bit of a fraud. I had just done the easiest thing. No politics or philosophy; just a wonderful man, who started his day by praying that God would be pleased with him, and that his parents would be pleased with him, and then went off to his work with a flick of his mendeel and a joyful step, while I did what I felt like without a care in the world." (p. 33)

They married officially in Amman to ensure her necessary resident's permit, after many a bureaucratic difficulty. Normally at that time, traditional Bedouin marriage did not involve paperwork at all. But a celebration at Marguerite's new home was in order.
"It soon became clear that although I couldn't speak Arabic, didn't know how to milk a goat, make bread or start a fire, and certainly wasn't planning on moving in to look after my in-laws, they were still intending to make a party that would be talked about for years to come." (p.51)

Marguerite learned to do all of those things and eventually converted to Islam. Together they improved their home; travelled in Europe and Asia, and of course to New Zealand; became the parents of three children; and shared a happy life. Mohammed became an entrepreneurial husband. Marguerite provided nursing care for his tribe and the village to which the government finally removed them. Mohammed died in 2002 of complications from diabetes. 

Marguerite was encouraged to write her extraordinary story. She provides an unrivalled insight into the Bedouin way of life, much of which continues today.

From a recent interview:
"I started writing the book in 1997, when I realized just how much the life had changed and how special my stories were, to capture that recent history of the site and to show the world that people are pretty much the same everywhere."[2]

[1] Marguerite van Geldermalsen, Married to a Bedouin (UK: Virago Press, 2006).
[2] Matt Rees, "Married to Mohammad: Marguerite van Geldermalsen's Writing Life interview," 2 April 2011: http://www.themanoftwistsandturns.com/2011/04/02/married-to-mohammadmarguerite-van-geldermalsen%E2%80%99s-writing-life-interview/ (accessed : 17 May 2014).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

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