Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan. May 2017
The nomadic campsite was about one hour drive from the village of Wadi Rum.
The camp was a black stain in the red sand. There were two big tents. Each tent had a porch and a part that was closed on 3 sides. The fourth side was open, but coming up to huge rocks, to prevent people from seeing inside. A few men roamed around taking care of the camels and goats. They all wore black. Kids ran around like colourful birds. Hidden in the most secluded part of the biggest tent was a woman, also wearing black.
It was Mazen, an old man I had met in Palestine, who had invited me there. He was renting an unfinished house in the village and told me that I could stay there as long as I liked. I didn't know Mazen all that well, in fact I hardly knew him, but he was well respected within the Palestinian community. It was either that or the prospect of spending a week in a place where tourists only spent a couple of days, surrounded by a landscape whose colours hurt my eyes, that made me accept the invite.
I soon realised that the desert was not as exciting as I had imagined it to be.
Most of the time was spent sitting on cushions and drinking tea mixed with camel milk. It was too hot to move, and the days seemed to never end.
Sometimes Mazen and I would go around and climb to the top of rocky mountains.
Sometimes we would follow the boys who followed the goats.
The chief, Abu Adil (“father of Adil”, his first son), was Mazen's friend. Abu Adil was a desert ranger, a job that – besides all the jeep driving and poisonous snakes killing - I couldn't really grasp.
Noor was Abu Adil's wife. She never left the tent because there were always men around. She talked to her family through the black curtain that circumscribed her space.
At times her kids would drag me there, and we would play games and eat the bread and goat cheese she made.
On the second day Abu Adil left the camp to take the kids to school in Wadi Rum. Mazen and I remained on the porch. Noor was on the other side of the curtain, as usual.
Mazen suggested I go talk to her, he would stay on the porch and translate our conversation from there.
Somehow embarrassed, feeling that I was infringing on her space without a good enough reason to, I lifted the curtain and joined Noor. I asked her in Arabic how she was doing today. She said it was hot.
Past that point, I was already at a loss for words. I told Mazen, hoping that he would invite me back to where he was, to the rest of the world beyond that black curtain. But he didn't. Instead, he spoke with Noor in Arabic, and then he invited me to talk to Noor some more; he insisted that I tried to connect.
I felt uncomfortable, but really only because I didn't know what to say. It was like being at a friend's grandma's place. Your friend goes to the bathroom, and you sit there on the couch for those three never-ending minutes wondering what to say, wondering whether you shouldn't pretend that you suddenly need to go as well and look for your friend. Then you remember that you are a grown up and you just find something to talk about.
And that is what I did. I said “Noor, I really like the bread you make, would you teach me how to make it?”. She immediately went and fetched the ingredients – was she relieved that I had found something to fill our awkwardness, or had my compliment been transformed into an order through Mazen's voice? We started kneading the mixture of flour, water and goat butter.
Noor dictated instructions that bounced through the black curtain and returned to me in a language that I could understand. She moved slowly but confidently through gestures that she had evidently rehearsed many times. She never looked at me, and I couldn't tell whether it was shyness, politeness, or the distance that was created by the fact that each of us was actually having her own dialogue with a disembodied voice that separated and connected us at the same time.
With all that kneading, melting and pouring that needed no translation, Mazen had become superfluous. Still I knew that he longed to be part of that moment. In the week we had spent together in the village he had often used my visit as an excuse to be allowed in the presence of the women so he could talk to them. And because of that complicity that had formed between us, I now chose to include him in a process to which he could only be a distant spectator, listening to my voice narrating every step of the breadmaking.
Once the bread was ready, Noor and I sat on the ground. She still wouldn't look at me, but had loosened up a bit. She asked me what country I was from, what my job was back home and what I was doing in Jordan. I asked her how long they had been in that campsite, where they would go next, how long it would take to pack their stuff and how they chose their locations. Mazen had also told me some things about Noor: I knew she came from a nomadic family from the same area and that she had married Abu Adil 4 years earlier. I knew she was his second wife. I also knew that she was only 27, but looked much older than her age. Other things I would have liked to ask: how does it feel being someone's second wife? Have you ever met the other woman? Do you enjoy the nomadic lifestyle, do you ever feel lonely, do you have room for intimacy with your husband, do you love him, do you take important decisions together? I was frustrated because I didn't care about simplified questions and polished answers, yet of course that was all I was going to get. But then the frustration somehow shifted into a quiet acceptance: for how curious and distant all of this may seem to me, it was her life and it was very real to her. Once I acknowledged that she wasn't there for me to fulfill a yearning for adventure, I could only sit in silence and focus on not giving myself the answers I wanted to questions I hadn't posed.
Mazen was still on the porch, a couple of meters away from us, still laying on the cushions and sipping tea. I knew that sometimes he peeked through the curtain to look at us, to get a glimpse of that feminine universe that he knew so little about. I knew he was happy that I was talking to her. I could feel his benevolent smile through the black curtain.