“‘Where are you staying?’ the Bedouin asked. ‘Why you not stay with me tonight—in my cave?’ He seemed enthusiastic—and we were looking for adventure.”
This introduction to the story (which is also written on the back cover) of a New Zealand-born nurse’s marriage to Mohammed Abdullah Othman will sell many books, as will the mystery and romance of the words ‘Bedouin’ and ‘Petra’. Curiosity and the thirst for adventure will draw many toward this book and the cave dwelling where there is no mortgage, no water and electricity bills, no fridge, no television or calendar on the wall.
This book comes with many Arabic expressions (all explained in a helpful glossary), colourful photographs and local customs including Bedouin celebrations with references to bride prices, henna painting, women ululating, people dancing, babies being born and males being circumcised. However, rather than focusing on the extraordinary, Married to a Bedouin is like a daily journal with entries that describe the ordinary life of collecting wood, lighting the fire, baking bread, washing and toileting.
The story raises the issue of whether even in the simplest form of existence one still feels the need to accumulate things, to renovate the cave, to lust for a bigger cave and spend one’s shekels on interior decoration and modern conveniences.
This book is enchanting because it is a love story about a tourist who attends a Bedouin wedding and falls in love with one of the guests. The author recalls, “It was as Mohammed guided us singing through rocky oleander-crowded canyons, that I fell in love with him….but I didn’t know it was love.” (p29)
For people contemplating or negotiating inter-cultural marriage Married to a Bedouin offers a useful mirror for their own reflections. The book records the many cultural and legal objections and myths that friends and family members might raise: e.g. “If your husband dies, you will have to marry his brother.” And how did Marguerite’s parents back in Nelson, New Zealand feel about their daughter’s marriage and her cave life in sunny Petra? And how did her in-laws feel about their son and his new bride as they looked on from further down the ledge outside the next cave?
Marguerite holds together well the balance between adventure and foolhardiness as she explores like any person the many ‘what if’ questions about her marriage to Mohammed. With insight she conveys the mental see-sawing that is common to most people contemplating a new partnership: “Although I didn’t want to consider divorce, I needed to know it was there, like checking out the emergency exits on the aeroplane, hoping you will never need them.” (p33)
Many times Marguerite is asked by tourists and reporters, “What is your reason for living here?” While her unusual address prompts the high frequency of these enquiries, the question and her answer are valuable in urging readers to reflect on their own situation: “Where is your home? Why do you live where you do? Did you marry just because you liked your prospective partner? How much did the house and the context shape your decision? Are you married to a person or are you tied to the entire tribe and to life in a particular community?”
A highlight of the story occurs in 1984 when Queen Elizabeth II is about to make her first visit to Jordan. The organizers of her tour ask to see whether Her Majesty, accompanied by the Queen of Jordan, might visit Marguerite and Mohammed’s home. The reasons explained were that Marguerite was a British subject and her home, location and lifestyle were most unusual. Marguerite’s initial response to the royal visitors is one of reluctance but she eventually complies. This episode captures one of the issues of the book as readers can feel somewhat voyeuristic and eager to see the quirkiness of her existence as the author opens up (like reality television?) her life to the world.
Van Geldermalsen does not write in a sensational style and many aspects of her life remain discretely behind the veil. What will rile many readers is the sunny tone of the book that depicts Marguerite’s life in a Bedouin community as predominantly one of ease. The author appears to ignore the problems and gloss over her frustrations. Consequently her account often does not seem honest and real, leaving readers feeling diddled. In the epilogue the author acknowledges her style saying, “I have mostly remembered the good times, but that is how I like to look at life.” (p271) This is a weakness of the book as it projects a lopsided view of her experience. Furthermore, there are many topics (e.g. her shifting relationship with Islam and the maintenance of her cultural identity) and painful events about which the author chooses to be highly reticent.
One wonders whether Marguerite became truly reconciled to the Bedouin lifestyle and the extent to which she adapted to her special community. Yet the book surveys her movement of belonging as she learns about her new culture and language. It also portrays the growing acceptance of her extended family. This belonging and affirmation, not only by her partner but by the whole community is beautifully expressed in Marguerite’s reflection after attending a wedding: “I felt surrounded by the blissful feeling of being a part of it all.” (p236).
Marguerite van Geldermalsen, Married to a Bedouin (London: Virago, 2006).
This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 75.00.
Dr. Geoff Pound
Image: Front cover of Married to a Bedouin.