(written on 30 June)
The music downstairs shakes the windows and my tongue is still numb from drinking boiling hot coffee. Yes, it’s wedding season in Dhiban. As seasonal visitors to this large town we inevitably become enmeshed in the local social scene and attend at few weddings each season. After slinging a pickaxe all day the absolutely last thing I want to do is go to a wedding, but they are socially awkward to avoid.
It seems that a lot of people liked the post Haram at the Beach, so I thought I’d open up another tiny little window into Jordan–the local wedding parties. The definitive work on this subject has been done by Jennifer Jacobs, and I can only provide a faint ghost of her analysis, based mostly on what she’s told me and what I’ve been able to pick up on my own.
As an ajanibia athar (foreign woman archaeologist – probably misspelled) I always feel scruffy when I attend a wedding, especially since the unmarried women there are out of their burqas and dressed to the nines in tight-fitting club gear and blingin’ high heels. The married women are still dressed up, but are covered, and the old ladies are mostly in full black. There aren’t any men–they have their own party, ostensibly guarding the house by drinking coffee in a tent nearby. After greeting the bride (more about her later) we are served several rounds of flaming hot coffee to start–it’s a special green bedouin coffee that tastes like a strong herbal tea and is served by the hostess out of a thermos into one or two cups. She stands over you as you drink it, and you are expected to drink it in a single gulp. It is bad form to serve cold coffee, so it’s always scalding. After you burn the entire interior of your mouth, you shake the cup, indicating that she can move on to serve/burn the next person. Then there are rounds of tea and sweets and I usually try to sit next to a really old lady so that we can pretend to understand one another while we engage in small talk. My Arabic is still completely awful, but I can at least exchange pleasantries.
After sitting and drinking tea for a while, the Persian pop starts thumping and the unmarried women dance with each other. There is some circle dancing and ululation, but it is club-like dancing for the most part. The dancing can get mildly risque, which can be strange with women you don’t really know and hardly ever see out of their veils. The bride sits on a big, overstuffed chair on a platform several feet above the action. At the couple I’ve been to she often looks bored and mildly distressed and is dressed in the most unbelievable sequin-Barbie concoction with sky-high heels and intense make-up. We dance for her, and sometimes she comes down to dance with us. An interesting side note–I was wearing a big scarf to make one of my short-sleeve shirts less “risque” but the scarf was triumphantly torn off of me, not once but twice now. The comfort and security of being around all women and being able to show bare arms and legs was an extraordinary feeling.
Anyway, after some dancing and awkward chit-chat with older ladies, the groom’s female relations come in, chanting their acceptance of the bride into the family. It’s a very moving scene and the chanting is interspersed with ululation. This chanting happens off and on throughout the night, and is accompanied by fantastic drumming. I’m told that the chants are customized for each occasion with specific references to the bride and her circumstances.
Throughout all of this, there are some great intergenerational interactions going on. There are always hoards of little kids around, getting in the way and begging for attention, but generally just running around in a big pack and enjoying themselves. The younger married women sit inside the diwwan (receiving room) and frown. If you talk to any one of them, they’ll instantly break into a smile and be chatty, but the default is a look of general disapproval. The old ladies are all outside of the hot diwwan, sitting in chairs in long rows and hectoring the small children and chatting with each other. They are my favorite, and before I sit down with one of the ladies I’ll exchange several kisses on alternate cheeks with them. I used to be confused with the whole cheek kissing thing in Turkey and England, with one, two, or three kisses given, but this is just a long series of kisses until either party seems to want to stop. There’s probably some order to it, but I generally lose count after five. Quite a few of the older ladies have facial tattoos, and a few of them have gone through a curious set of motions with me, touching each of their tattoos and touching the corresponding place on my face, like they are transferring them to me. They also quite like holding my hand and pinching my cheeks. After the relentless negative attention from men we ajanib attar get while walking down the street, it can be quite comforting to be with the women in their own environment.
So the night winds down, and the next day the bride is taken to the groom’s house for a small, informal marriage ceremony. After living in this world of women’s world of sisters and grandmothers it seems like it might be scary to move into a man’s household, but I’ve never asked. I just go to the women’s parties, drink hot tea, dance, and watch the summer wedding fireworks that dot the horizon.
Last night I watched the sun set over four countries. Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all visible from the beach on the Red Sea south of Aqaba and I had plenty of time to contemplate geopolitical vagaries as I dug my toes into the sand. A hot wind was blowing in from the Jordanian desert and I watched the various families settle in around me. The beach is a liminal zone in Muslim countries, where negotiations of culture, politics, and religion come into high relief.
The public beaches at the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, and the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean all have their own particular local mores and acceptable configurations of the highly contested terrain of women’s bodies. Haram is a very rough equivalent of the word “sinful” in Arabic. As a Western lady working in the Middle East, I hear it a lot. Pork is haram, chicken is not haram, exposing one’s hands may or may not be haram. At first I tried fairly hard to figure out how to behave and dress respectfully, but it is contingent on so many factors that it is incredibly difficult–probably impossible since I am foreign anyway. Even my most conservative mosque-going wear was rejected at the Great Mosque in Damascus and I had to put on an Orko-like cloak to enter. So now I just do what I can in most situations to not draw too much attention to myself, with one notable exception: The Beach. I wear a regular swimsuit and get stared at, but there are usually enough other scantily-clad foreigners to soften the impact. My tattoos also attract attention, perhaps only slightly more than on Western beaches where people pretend not to notice.
Anyway, I will always remember the first time I saw a conservative young couple come to the beach. She was dressed in a full burqa and niqab (face-veil) and he was in short swim trunks. She sat down under and umbrella and fanned herself as he went splashing off into the sea. He occasionally came back to check on her, but otherwise she just sat there, sweating in the 50 C heat.
Since then I have seen this same scenario played out several times, with different age-ranges in different states of dress. I’ve only seen the vaunted burkhini twice, both times on pre-teens who were passing through another liminal state, becoming a sexually mature (and therefore covered) woman.
So it was a familiar scene last night, a woman with her husband and four children, she completely covered and the rest of the family ready for the beach. She sat in the sand while her husband played with the children and splashed around. A scholar that was more sympathetic would probably say that she was still the nucleus of the family, that she guarded with the rest of the beach gear, but she seemed very much forgotten in all of the fun. So, to my surprise, she started playfully throwing rocks at her family and they giggled and dodged the rocks. This continued until after sunset, when she finally hiked up her burqa and waded into the surf up to her knees. I looked around and saw that many women were doing this semi-covert dusk activity and that couples were drawing closer together in the dim light of shisha coals. There’s been daytime swimming as well, women being held tight by their husbands while their burqa swirls around them. I guess it might not be so different than when I wore a t-shirt to the pool as a self-conscious little kid.
I think I will continue to find beaches in Muslim countries fascinating for both the changing ideas of how women should dress and how foreigners are integrated into the social scene.
We emerged from the Syrian/Jordan border crossing in the white haze of a dust storm. I had my headphones in and the music changed the tenor of the landscape from majestic, mysterious beauty to morbid post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The crossing had gone smoothly, and my passport is beyond full, so they’ve started stamping in strange places, on the top and in the margins. What I remember most about this whole process is looking out the window at one of the guards that had sidled up to the car and checking out his well-worn, pearl-inlay sidearm. He would run his thumb up and down one side of it, absently, lovingly. So very Texas.
Our driver stopped at the Duty Free shop in the middle and picked up a bunch of cigarettes, which he then delivered to a small shop on the Jordanian side. A little side business never hurt anyone.
A little while over the border (these are Middle East distances, which are farther than, say, Europe distances, but don’t touch the vastness of the highways stretching across the great American West) turned a corner and Amman emerged through the dust storm, rolling hills made geometrical by the blocky, concrete houses covering every possible surface. Traffic intensified to a proper Middle Eastern fever pitch, but it is a highly organic mess, with its own internal structure and rules. Once you know these rules and devoid yourself of driver-related ego (hey, that’s my lane!) then it makes more sense than driving in the States. In fact, driving back home becomes stultifying and other drivers seem dangerously oblivious.
I headed to Jerash and hung out with Alan Walmsley’s team at their deluxe dig house. They’re unearthing some really interesting classical and Islamic archaeology over there and they were happy to let me bother them with methodology questions. I’ll be headed down to Madaba in the next couple of days, to familiar stomping grounds, but for now I’m hanging out in downtown Amman, trying to finish up some work. I added a bunch of photos to my Flickr stream from Syria, etc:
* No matter what, Homs will be signposted. This will not be helpful.
* Maps vary wildly in accuracy. There are no accurate maps.
* These maps mean nothing to locals. That said, always ask directions from the dudes sitting down in front of the local stores. They know what’s up.
* There are no gas stations. If you find a gas station, it won’t have any gas.
* If you don’t bring a compass, you will not know what direction you are headed for 2-3 hours in the middle of the day.
* If you see Bedouin settlement camps, you’ve probably gone the wrong way.
* If these camps are abandoned, start to panic.
* If you ask for directions to Damascus, half of the time the person will ask to go with you. The other half of the time they will invite you for tea.
* You probably will not find the archaeological site. Sorry.
* Never follow a wadi.
Life lessons, y’all.
We crossed the border from Jordan to Syria in a cab, our driver humming along to various Islamopop songs on the radio and zig-zagging through traffic. There were five or maybe six checkpoints, all of them involving giving up my passport and being squinted at by men in army suits. The Syrian border customs, when we finally arrived, disliked my visa and changed it from multiple entry to single entry, and to only last a week. I was happy not to have any more hassle than that; I’ve known people who were stopped at that dusty border for days.
We got into Damascus in the late afternoon and headed for the center of the city, a twisty maze of hodge-podge mudbrick and stone buildings. I took lots of photos of the mudbrick and plaster and tiny lanes full of people in a hurry. After a very circuitous wander and some of the best mezze of my life, we ventured down the dark alleys of the Christian quarter. Turning around one corner, we ran into a procession of Christians singing with lit candles, taking over the entire street. We looked at one another, shrugged, and joined at the tail. The lights flickering on the walls and the faces of the people was achingly beautiful.
The next day (if I’m remembering–it seems like ages ago now!) we went to the museum and then to the souk for some serious wandering around. Melissa and I waded through a large protest, with a person speaking into a microphone in obvious distress and flags and Palestinian scarves were everywhere. It was only later that we figured out that it was a protest over the IDF tragedy. Before that day, when we told people that we were American they’d smile and nod, and sometimes say, ‘OBAMA!’ After that, it was: ‘well, we can’t all be perfect’ or a just a slight grimace and nod. Still, the protest was entirely peaceful and people are beyond friendly.
After Damascus we went to an incredible coastal site and Krak des Chevaliers, but my time is running out on the internet. Tomorrow: Palmyra.
(Actually written from an internet cafe in the tire souk in Aleppo–I’m a bit behind! Also, sorry about the photos. I left my computer in storage in Amman)
I’m probably the only one among the hoards and hoards of people that felt a bit sad when I climbed to the Acropolis in Athens. Its destruction and reconstruction over the years gives it an uncanny feeling, and the measures that preserve the site make it also feel sterile and a bit fallow. I’m spoiled, of course, and used to climbing up and over ruins and poking my nose into all of the dark corners. But it was more than that, just a sense that people were there for a photo that they could send back to their friends, regardless of the greater meaning contained within the monument. I took the same photo, of course.
It doesn’t help that I have been reading a new book called Ruins of Modernity to review for the Visual Studies journal–ruins are in high relief this summer, with all of the interpretive baggage they bring along. More about that later, though. The Acropolis museum, on the other hand, was incredible–a very strong argument for the return of the infamous Elgin marbles, recent economic struggle aside. My favorite part wasn’t actually the display that mirrored the Acropolis, but the lower levels that displayed assemblages that had been excavated from recent sites, with interesting and fairly in-depth explanation. The glass floors showing excavations added a nice metaphoric sense to it all, with layers of history literally beneath your feet. Sadly you could not take photos within the exhibit–always a poor choice for museums.
The city of Athens was incredibly lovely. I think my favorite moment was walking down a meandering alley in Plaka behind an orthodox priest, watching him looking at all of the anarchist graffiti covering the walls. The graffiti was covering nationalist graffiti, with sections crossed out–vandalizing the vandals. The more touristy zones were a bit crazy with African immigrants selling all manner of things and being periodically harassed by the police. Cats and dogs fought over scraps and I watched the full moon rise over the city.
I hope that I can go back someday and spend more than a day and a night exploring the city.
Today is my last full day on Zakynthos, a medium-sized island in Greece. I’ve been staying in a small town called Kerri, at a house up on the hillside, overlooking the small bay below. Ancient olive trees cover all available space; there is one growing in the middle of the courtyard where we sit in the mornings and bask in the sun–my friend’s parents could afford the land but not the tree, so someone else comes to cultivate it each year. I suppose I didn’t realize that the trees were so methodically shaped and grown, or that they were such a precious commodity, especially when they approach a thousand years old, such as the tree down in the village. The trees here grow smaller olives with bigger pips which make them hard to eat but they are fantastic for making olive oil.
It’s been a fairly slow few days, as a holiday should be–mostly eating, drinking, and swimming. The beaches are mostly white pebbles and are a bit rough on the feet, but I managed to find some nice, small round ones for a backgammon set yesterday. The water is still fairly cold, but clear and blue and we took a boat out yesterday to cruise around the coast. Zakynthos, like most Greek islands, is a karst landscape, made out of limestone. One sheer cliff had thousands of layers in it, millions of years of geological time.
The house I’m staying out doesn’t have power, much less internet, and it’s been relaxing to get away from the hundreds of departmental emails and the constant noise of social networks. The candle-lit dinners and improvisational cooking have been nice features–buying fresh ingredients every day instead of relying on a refrigerator. Warm showers would be nice though.
Tomorrow I’ll be off to Athens for a short day in the city, then to Amman to start work once again. It’s going to be hard to leave!