Haram at the Beach
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.
Return to Tall Dhiban
The countryside around Dhiban is greener than last year–it may be because I’m here earlier or I might have gained a bit of perspective from wandering around in the desert beforehand. It was the same dusty Madaba bus station though, then the same twisty road through the wadi, then Dhiban’s tiny fruit stands and claustrophobic streets. The businesses were about half-shut, as it was noon–nap time in the civilized world. There seemed to be a couple more shops though, so maybe things are looking up in Dhiban-land.
I was a little anxious re-visiting the site. Would I see some of the workmen? Would I even be welcome? I had a particularly harrowing conversation the night before at a coffeeshop, where I had just finished watching the first game of the World Cup. It was the dawning realization that I was talking to a staunch anti-Semite who thought that we were digging for “Jewish inscriptions” to allow “the Jews” to take over that particular part of Jordan. No amount of talking could convince him and I was left pretty shaken. It was a pretty stunning example of the “full-contact community archaeology” that seems to typify work at Tall Dhiban.
None of these fears materialized–it was a hot and quiet afternoon in Dhiban and very still. After a very nice tea with our colleague Feras, we walked down the hot asphalt hill and up onto the tall. The thistles had grown up thick around the trenches and the stone walls were conserved–filled with mortar and even patched in places. It looks like the site held up pretty well, with a bit of pre-season “help” from what I assume are the local kids:
I was a bit cautious–the tall was overgrown and it was hard to see the wadi dogs that like to lurk around in packs. Sure enough, near the Meesha trenches, there was a dun-colored shaggy dog. She seemed content to sleep on a low wall and didn’t bother us, even after we found what is surely the newest addition to the site:
Puppies! Part of me aches when I see baby animals around site–we can’t really care for them or keep them, and sometimes being friendly invites disease or makes the animals less suspicious of people. I’ve also seen the broken creatures that they turn into–I had a particularly haunting experience with a kitten at Catalhoyuk, but that story is saved for over beers. Lots of them.
Back to Jordan
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:
Notes on being hopelessly lost in the Syrian Desert
* 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.
Aloha! I spent last week in Kalaupapa, a northern peninsula on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. I’ve been helping a fellow graduate student out with his dissertation research on the historic lepertorium here on the island. It’s particularly relevant as Farther Damien, a missionary who came to the island and ended up getting leprosy himself, is getting sainted and then the whole peninsula–hereto mostly isolated–will go mad. Access to the peninsula is limited to a small plane and a steep hike up the highest sea cliffs in the world. I went top-side for the weekend, up all 29 switch-backs, picking ripe guava along the way to snack on.
During my first week here we worked at a site that had a chimney still standing. The locals speculated that it had been a bakery, but the archaeology seems to indicate otherwise. We opened up a few test units and found a lot of nails and a huge concentration of melted glass–much more than at surrounding sites. Any ideas? In one of the test units I found what looked like a foundation–stacked stones with just a bit of mortar sticking to one of them–but it didn’t pan out in the other units that we opened up surrounding it. It’s a bit difficult to look for architecture here, as it’s made out of black a`a` (a kind of lava rock), which is all over the place on the island and typically robbed to create other structures and kicked around a lot.
We also planned and tested a site that was post-on-stone construction in the middle of a large date palm forest. The trees kept dropping fruit all around us and the ground was just positively hair with roots. Kalaupapa has been amazing like that–we eat frest fish, breadfruit, oranges, and avocados that we gather ourselves and that the locals share with us. It has been an incredible experience getting to know the community and the archaeology, not to mention being able to jump in the gorgeous clear blue-green ocean each day after work!
Unfortunately I was only able to get a few photos uploaded, due to the vagaries of internet access (and no cellphone signal), but I should be able to share more once I am back on the mainland.
I took an overnight train from Konya to Istanbul, and snapped this photo as the sun was going down over the Anatolian plain. I’ve never ridden a proper train before, or at least one that wasn’t connected to a larger metro. The trip took sixteen hours and we passed squat minarets and blasted mountains and miles upon miles of orchards with fat apples and peaches that swayed in the train’s breeze. After the train I took a ferry across the Bosphorus, then a taxi, but I kept having to look down at my feet–I’d lost my land legs–the cool tile floors of Istanbul rolled and trembled on imaginary rails.
Even after my enormously awful plane flight home and a handful of days spent sleeping, I still feel like I’m on that train. This is probably not helped by watching Brief Encounter and reading Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train:
“In the train, however fast it travelled, the passengers were compulsorily at rest; useless between the walls of glass to feel emotion, useless to try to follow any activity except of the mind; and that activity could be followed without fear of interruption. (…) But in the rushing reverberating express, noise was so regular that it was the equivalent of silence, movement was so continuous that after a while the mind accepted it as stillness.”
I’m just starting to extract individual strains of noise out of the cacophany, to make sense of the summer, and to shudder-start my research/Berkeley/graduate life again. In the meantime, I’ll be tracing my intials in my breath on the glass windows of the train while I wait for my stop.
There’s a giant butterscotch cat sitting on my lap as I peck away at the keyboard, one hand kept behind his battle-scarred ears–he’s a lover and a fighter–his claws digging into my thigh each time I stop petting. Beast. It’s okay though, he and the peat fire are keeping me warm in a drafty, weird, rambling hostel that was converted from a monastery and is now filled with miscellaneous stuffed chairs, art, junk, and young French backpackers. Tomorrow will be one week since I’ve left, and in that time I’ve made it about 3/4 of the way around the coast of Ireland.
One of my favorite days was spent in Belfast, taking in the murals generated by the conflicts between the Protestants and Catholics. I don’t really see Ireland as my home country and when people ask me if I’m here to trace my genealogy (the first thing they do after they hear my name), I just smile and shrug. But seeing the murals was sad and powerful and frustrating in a way that felt strangely close to home. It could be that it was seeing my family names all over the tombstones and memorials that was upsetting, but I think what really caught me was the ever-present government housing in the major conflict areas and the futility of it all.
I managed to chase a lot of that away while scrambling over the amazing geometrical basalt formations at the Giant’s Causeway. The hexagonal columns seem to break away from the black cliffs surrounding them and march into the sea. The waves crash around them and form little pools where huge, hair-like strands of seaweed wind around the angular rocks. It was all I could do to keep myself from chipping the basalt–it makes lovely bifaces in the right hands.
It’s hard to recap during trips; a lot of my time has been spent wandering around small country lanes in the rain, checking out obscure ruins, and talking with random people over pints of Smithix in pubs, but that doesn’t translate well to a travel narrative. Over my laptop I can see that the sun is just now going down over the little tangle of green and trees outside the window–strange to be so far north. The cat in my lap is so solidly asleep that he’s no longer purring and I’ve got a nice little mountain to climb tomorrow, so it’s probably time to finish this up and wander away to my bunk. ‘Night.