Saturday, August 1, 2015

October 2011 Reflections

The next few blog posts transition writings from my group updates onto the blog... and offer some nice memories of the past few years.  :)  Enjoy!  :)

excerpt from "From Jordan: Greetings and October Update"

'Greetings from Wadi Rum!

In October, the desert starts to cool down.  We experience warm, balmy days and beautiful cool nights. The best place to sit is outside under the stars.  This week, the moon is waxing full and that, of course, means another round of full moon gatherings.  It is my favorite time of the month as, each evening, I walk home without a flashlight.

I just returned from a week in the Czech Republic.  In Prague, I had the privilege of attending the re-dedication of the Woodrow Wilson Train Station.  The mutual ideals of democratic governance held by American President Wilson and the President of the first Czech Republic, Tomas G. Masaryk, great admirers of each other, served as the foundation of the first Czechoslovak Republic.  Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke at the re-dedication and I was fascinated to hear her simple advice to those seeking to promote democracy on the individual level world-wide: be respectful of the differences between humans and work to serve others - without imposing your ideas on them.  Her guidance seems appropriate in life as well as in promoting good governance.  Her assertion that states should base their systems of governance on morality instead of ethnicity also offered cause for reflection, as I considered the events of the past year in Jordan and our neighbors.'

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ponderings on Gender

In writing about my experience wearing nikaab, I find numerous challenges.  How to write about gender in a region where the emotions attached to gender roles, masculinity and femininity are so strong?  How to negotiate the clash of culture and religion with their simultanoues melding in the creation of gender norms that absolutely repulse some, yet are held by others as pillars of constancy in a rapidly changing world?

How can I accurately portray the gender roles that exist in the Arab Muslim society in which I find myself – recognizing also that the world of southern Jordan that I experience on a regular basis – Aqaba, Wadi Rum, Tweisi – with the rare visits to Rashiddiyeh, Wadi Musa and Disi are full of smaller communities, families and tribes each of whom take a slightly different view of religion, culture and gender?  In Tweisi, where I live, most women cover their faces.  In Disi, a mile away, most women do not.  After eight years in Jordan, my general understanding of the unwritten rules of this society has allowed me to move past generalizations around Arab or Muslim society to recognize that each micro-community of human beings has its own variation on national and cultural rules.  More and more, I find myself experiencing others simply as humans living on this planet in a multitude of ways.

Women and our place in society has evolved rapidly over the past 100 years as we move from the private space of the home and family into a more visible public space that, until recently, was occupied predominantly by men.  Gender roles are changing on an international scale and the region in which I live is just one of many that is experiencing a struggle with these changes.  While gender inequality exists throughout the world, I believe that the Arab Islamic dress codes of the Middle East call particular attention to inequality in this region because they are such a visible expression of the perceived repression of women.  Who is doing the repressing?  Time and again I hear people from my own educated Western society state: ‘well, men force women to dress that way.  How can you accept to live in a society such as this?  Don’t you think that Islam is a backward religion?  How can you call yourself Muslim when your religion advocates such repression?’

I have yet to meet a Muslim woman who has been forced to cover herself.  It’s just not that simple.  The nuances of social rules, limitations and restrictions are such that women (and men) may be expected or encouraged to dress a certain way … as is the case in any society.  Women cover themselves for many reasons – and yes – one of those is due to the strict interpretations of Islam that emanate out of Saudi Arabia, due to the practice and efforts of the well-financed Muslim Brotherhood … a member once told me he’d gift me a scarf, if I covered my head with it and more often than not the simple desire of people just wanting to do the right thing and to be that truly devout Muslim in front of their friends and relatives in a society in which god and religion play a fundamental role.  Again – I should note that southern Jordan is its own unique community with its own unique brand and interpretation.  It’s been years since I spent a long period of time in Amman and whenever I do visit – which is usually to the western, westernized part of town – I’m struck by the extreme contrast in values between urban, liberal Amman and the rural towns and villages of the south.  But isn’t this the case in most countries?  Brooklyn is worlds away from Cazenovia, New York.  So what are the values systems that I’ve encountered around women in their role in society in the towns and villages, taxis and buses, streets and alleyways, deserts and mountains of rural, southern Jordan?

In these spaces, women care for family and men are bread-winners – women occupy the private space of the home managing child-rearing and other domestic tasks.  Men negotiate the public space –working in tourism, for the government, as traders of legal and, sometimes, illegal goods.  While many women work in the public space, more often than not a woman’s professional life ends when she has children or with marriage.  In the villages, people marry young and family life is at the core of the society.  Respectable women do not voluntarily wander into the world of men – and when they do they negotiate these space with incredible care - being sure to protect their honor and the honor of their families.  As a result, nikaab is, for many, a way of preserving the private space while travelling through the public space.  It’s kind of like taking your tent or turtle shell with you as go, a means of softening the interactions withoutside world.  While the norm for women is to exist openly in the private space, there are exceptions to every rule and every generalization.  In my early years in southern Jordan, I worked with the headmistress of a girls’ school in a desert town who was known throughout the area as a very public force with which to be reckoned.  Shakseet-ha gawaiyeh,’ people told me with awe in their voices.  ‘Her character is strong.’  Over the years, I’ve met a number of women who occupy roles in the public space.  Their common characteristic has typically been possession of a strong character both in reputation and in reality.   

In a similar yet even more restricted way, respectable men do not to enter the private space of women.  When their wives entertain friends, men typically leave the home or confine themselves to one room in order to ensure the comfort of the female guest.  Each home has a guest room for male visitors – corralling their manliness in one corner of the house.  In a recent conversation around the Ryan Reynolds’ film ‘The Change-up” in which Ryan Reynolds and Jason Batemen switch bodies and lives for a few weeks, I discussed with a male friend what we would do if he and I switched lives for a day.  ‘If I were a woman?’ he pondered.  ‘I’d go to see what the women do!”  I paused, empty-handed – I know what the men do in Jordan – no need to use a fictional body swap to see that.  What a privilege to be able to access both worlds!

 So given these strict, universally understood rules around gender segregation, where does that leave a single, foreign woman in southern Jordan?  At times, a beauty, at times, a curse but ultimately a space to be negotiated with creativity and compassion.  I'll let you ponder that thought and return to it in my next post - as I continue to reflect and share on the nikaab story.  Enjoy your day!

Public Space, October 2013

Monday, September 1, 2014

A 'Free' Ride

I've been in the US for a few months now - where I also dress to fit in - usually shorts and t-shirts in the humid summer months.  As I reflect back on my clothing choices this spring - the topic of fashion and community continues to busy my thoughts.  How does what I wear define me and express my values?  What messages does my material presentation send to others?  And how can that message be interpreted or used to make a statement?  

One particular trip to Aqaba this spring stands out in my mind. 
I've just finished my weekly visit to Rum Village and head to Aqaba for the day.  One of my colleagues drops me off at the Rest House, located at the edge of the village, to wait for the bus.  The morning sun shines a golden light over the scene; the world is set aglow with vivid oranges, reds and browns.   I stand quietly by a sandstone wall as people move around me.  Guys from the village hang with their camels, green-plated tourist minivans packed with sightseers come and go.  It's a bustling area and I'm a silent black smudge in a sea of gold.

'Hey!' a guy shouts at me.  'Are you going to Aqaba?'

'N3m. (Yes).'  I answer and nod.

He's a local Rum guide and he beckons me over to a gold mini van with tourist plates.  I cross the road to where he stands.  As he opens the back, he gestures at me to put my bag in.

'Do you need anything?' I ask - a gentle way of asking if anyone needs to be paid for the ride.

'You're Muslim, right?,' he replies.  'Don't worry about it.'

We walk around to the side of the van where a group of French women stand together.  As far as contrasts go, our clothing couldn't be more different.  They wear colorful short shorts and tank tops.  I'm covered in black from head to foot.

'Take this nice girl wherever she wants to go.'  He gestures at me again as he speaks to the driver. 

Their tour leader, who speaks French and Arabic, appears to be of North African descent - she's got bright, curly bleached blonde hair held back by a bandana.  I wonder if the bandana is an attempt at modesty.   She glances at me and then leans in to kiss cheek the guy who offered the ride.  It's clear that we express our modesty differently in this space.  :)

The French women stand back as I enter the van first - straight into the back seat.

They ask me a few simple questions.

'It's surprising.  Her English is quite good,' says the tour leader in French.  I pretend not to understand.

The rest of the ride is uneventful.  I reflect that very few things in life are free.

Outside the Rest House, Wadi Rum

Monday, July 14, 2014


Note: Some of the sequences of events and identities of individuals involved have been changed to protect privacy of my friends and contacts.

After faced with the apparent security issue that my frenetic dress code was causing, I decided to bite the bullet and fully commit to nikaab for a month – as a means of deciding as to whether I could wear it forever at the end of that month.  I spoke to my neighbor, who supported the idea, and was off.  A commitment to covering my face in all spaces outside of my home was a tall order given that for every place I frequent where nikaab is embraced there is another where it is rejected.  No longer did I feel comfortable accompanying friends to Aqaba’s international restaurants and hotels – even the public consumption of food was now a challenge. 

Fortunately, I am surrounded by a community of friends and neighbors, who regardless of their opinion, acted in great support of the choice I had made – either by speaking supportively, offering intellectual challenges to my thinking or by simply explaining to others my intention and actions.  (It’s a strange thing for an unmarried foreign woman working in tourism to choose to cover her face – lots of explaining resulted.)

Each day brings a new lesson as I continue to explore intention, action and interaction.

I’ve been doing reservations work for a well-established, highly professional, locally run camp in Wadi Rum.  On a weekly basis, I travel to my place of work to share the upcoming week’s reservations with the camp’s owner, to plan the coming week’s work and to check out any changes to the camp – a space that is in a constant state of dynamic change – as we add solar power, renovate the bathrooms and make small yet important improvements to the service that we provide to our guests.  Our staff (excluding myself) is 100% male and Arab and our guests are probably around 90% non-Arab, non-Muslim.

“Your English is excellent!,” one German man tells me.
“I’m Italian American.  I was born in the United States.” I explain.

Women, in particular, are curious to understand my dress choice.  Every one with whom I speak is accepting of a choice made to better integrate culturally.

One morning, an Italian guest asks to take my photo.  It’s clear he is under the impression that I’m a local woman.  I feel confused as to how to respond – as a general rule, local women are never photographed, thus ensuring protection of honor and identity.  I’m not local but I’m covered.  I share this quandary with one of my co-workers.  It’s your choice, he responds.

The following week, staff and guests sit around the fire, enjoying tea and music.  ‘Lina,’ says one of my colleagues, ‘tell the guests that you are a foreigner.’  A good save.  
For years, I’ve been friends with a foreign woman in the area who owns an upscale desert accommodation and caters both to foreign guests and to local weekenders.  The atmosphere is reminiscent of Aqaba’s international hotels and dress code runs the gamut of possibilities from the traditional to the modern; tank-top to hijab; middle-class to wealthy.  Another friend has recently started a farming project there and the reservations manager is also from outside of Jordan.  We’ve dubbed ourselves the asheera al ajnebiyat (the tribe of the foreign ladies), and have been known to travel through the desert as a pack intimidating camels and scavenging cardboard boxes to use as mulch for the farm project.

I visit one evening for dinner.  We sit in a comfortable corner of the dining area.  For two of my friends, it’s cocktail hour.  Our group draws curious glances from the guests. 

Friends arrive from Aqaba with visitors from abroad in tow. 
‘Alena,’ says one of them. ‘I absolutely cannot talk to you with that on your face.’
‘Why not?’ I challenge her.
‘I just can’t.  It’s fine when you are in my house and I can see your face.  But it doesn’t seem fair that I can’t see your face but you can see mine while we are talking!’
We decide to sit back to back while we converse.

I reflect that I have always used the faces of other humans as a door through which to identify and to connect with them.  The few friends of mine who permanently wear nikaab either stand out in their dress choice or are women with whom I engage predominantly in private settings.  Wearing nikaab publicly has challenged my basic assumptions about how I interact with and am identified by other humans.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Note: Some of the sequences of events and identities of individuals involved have been changed to protect privacy of my friends and contacts.

A friend owns a hotel near the sea.  I stop by for a visit.  It’s in a part of town frequented by tourists – domestic and foreign … there are local nightclubs in the area and alcohol is available.  His niece runs the reception desk – she majored in English in university and is the only girl employed in this part of town.

‘What’s that you’ve got covering your face!?’ he exclaims as I arrive.
‘I feel more comfortable this way,’ I reply, ’no one bothers me.’
‘What? You are so beautiful that you can’t walk down the street without being bothered?!’
‘Nooooo,’ I’m taken aback by this question. ‘I just get less attention and feel happier.’
“You shouldn’t hide your beautiful face!  Just cover your hair and go about your business.’ 
‘Well, I don’t cover it everywhere,’ I retort, as if this lessens the impact, ‘just some places.’

 A few days later, I bump into his niece in town – she pulls me aside.  ‘My uncle told me that the authorities were asking – why is this girl covering her face?’

‘WHAT?!” My stomach drops into my feet.  Since when are my fashion choices worthy of the attention of the authorities?

We go to a nearby café, order some tea and discuss.  ‘You know,’ she explains, ’they just want to know who is in the hotel and sometimes girls that cover their faces, they are not behaving in good ways.  Also, people think it’s strange that you cover your face in some places and not in others.  Like maybe you are doing something bad?  We have to be careful here.  We are between so many different countries and try to keep ourselves safe.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I reply, ‘when I visited the police station last week, they were pleased.  I even told them that I don’t wear it in all places.’ 

‘It’s difficult for them to tell you this directly – maybe because you are a foreigner... I don’t know.  Just be careful, please.’

I pause and consider the ramifications of my actions.  It was never my intention to endanger national security, I was simply looking to my personal security.

I call my neighbor, perhaps the most-level headed man in southern Jordan.

‘The authorities are upset that I wear nikaab,’ I stutter over the phone, my message dramatized by the onset of tears, as my emotions overwhelm me.

‘Lina,’ he pauses and collects his thoughts.

‘You know, I was afraid about this.  To wear nikaab, you cannot take it on and off again.  If you are going to wear it, you must ALWAYS wear it.  If you wear it in some places and not in others, the people will say – who is this girl?  Why she wears it here and not there?  What is she hiding?  The police must think carefully about the security of our country because we are in a delicate position – between Israel, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia.  I ask you one thing – if you are going to wear nikaab, please  wear it always.  Do not take it off.  I will support you whatever you do.’

His words permeate into my consciousness as I realize that I have a huge decision to make.

Photo c. My Life with Hijab

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Note: names have been changed to protect privacy.  :)

In the community where I’ve lived for the past year and a half, most women cover their faces in public.   The attitude toward the face-covering stems from a mixture of religion and culture.  Some women cover their faces out of devotion but others do it simply to protect their identity when travelling in the public world of men – outside of home and tribe.  3shan akhud ra7tee.  This phrase, which I've heard from many covered women translates roughly to 'take a rest, be comfortable, not be stressed out.'  When one is used to living in a domestic feminine world at home in the village -  full of sisters, aunts and cousins - food, babies and softness - diving into the rough world of men is jarring.  Though niqab/heimar is a dress code that is not traditional to the Bedouin community - as Islamic interpretations have spread and changed and as the post-settlement Bedouin populations have been exposed to different influences - the niqab has gained popularity for a variety of reasons.  While it can be nearly impossible to separate culture and religion, I find that some women cover for God, while others do it for comfort, for family, upon request of their husbands or simply because their older sisters do it (and in two cases, against the wishes of male relatives).  However, in some cases, women who might cover their faces when travelling do not cover their faces in the safety of the family neighborhood.  

When I first started wearing the niqab, which I did with little understanding or guidance (what can I say?  I'm famous for spontaneous decision-making!), I picked and chose the places where I wore it.  In self-defined private spaces – like my neighborhood, place of work and in the homes of friends, I showed my face.  In public spaces, I covered it.  Here is what I found.

Walking through Aqaba with a covered face offers a dramatic change from what I have previously experienced.  In the souq, where the Egyptian store-minders are excited to sell and promote\ their goods with a shout of hello! or welcome! – all I hear is a gentle ‘please, ma’am, buy from us.’  No one else looks my way.  When walking with a female friend who covers her head and wears either the long-robed abaya or jilbab, she notes a difference in her treatment as well – no one speaks to her when she is with me.

Every space that I return to with a covered face, I wonder what the reaction will be.  I’m familiar with the different opinions on niqab, but experience brings a new level of understanding.

After a month in-country, it’s time to renew my visa.  I head to the police station.  Although a government entity and therefore staffed by both genders, individual police officers, as in most places, tend to a more traditional mindset.  I am met with incredible enthusiasm by the two male officers handling my renewal. 

“Are you Muslim?”
“Since how long?”
“About five years.”
“And how long have you worn this?”
“Just a month – but not everywhere.”  (As we shall see, this honest statement will later cause some challenges.)
“That’s fine.  As a Muslim, you are only required to cover your head.”

I nod politely.  The conversation shifts as one of the officers inspects my passport.

“It’s so great you are Muslim!  Hey!  You’re born in 19--! I’M born in 19--!  You’re birthday is 2- October?!  Mine is the 1-th!  I’m just ten days older than you!” 

He’s as a giddy as a school boy.  I cease conversation and sit quietly until my renewal is complete.

I begin to notice that a different dress code attracts a different type but does not necessarily stymie one’s attractiveness.

It’s been a while since I visited my old neighborhood.  My former neighbors are truly gentle people – their love of food, farming and a quiet life is one that I’ve always appreciated.  They don’t stray far from home and when I think of them, I am reminded of Tolkein’s hobbits.  My desert hobbits are among the most Muslim of people I’ve known, taking their practice seriously – keeping their prayers, acting with generosity and compassion, open to learning and sharing with those who are different and nearly always reserving judgment.  The neighborhood is full of olive trees, grape arbors and fruit trees.  A deep sense of peace emanates from their land.  The most devout ladies in this neighborhood wear niqab and their intention is a religious one. 

Selma and I are sitting on the veranda, sharing tea and conversation.  My niqab is flipped up over my head - my face revealed.  Her teenage niece, visiting from the city, drops by.

“Lina!  (That's me.) Mabrouk il niqab!” (Congratulations on your niqab!)

I blush and stammer a polite thank you.

I start to understand that for faithful Muslims the choice to wear niqab is one not to be taken lightly and that when worn by a practicing Muslim – eg. not for reasons of comfort, family or protection - comes an expectation of behavior and practice.  

My 'hood.