Lessons of the Bedouin

Over the weekend, I went with two other American volunteers to Wadi Rum and Wadi Musa (where the historical site Petra is located). If you ever go to Jordan, both of those are must-see areas – so beautiful you will think you’re dreaming the whole time.

Both of these villages are located in the southern part of Jordan, far away from the capital city Amman. This part of the kingdom is where the Bedouins live.

The Bedouins are a tribe of desert dwelling people with two recognizable sects in this area: the Nomads and the Gypsies. The Nomads claim to be first to the lands. Our tour guide in Petra, Abdullah, said he is from the Nomad sect and his people are the “rightful” dwellers. They are very devout Muslims, he said, following the Koran very closely. Most of them don’t smoke, and none of them drink alcohol. When you meet a Bedouin Nomad, you can expect to find someone who is very quiet and calm, only speaking when he has something important to say.

It’s hard to find a female Nomad in the area – in fact, I never met one. Abdullah said this is because they believe women are weaker than men, and so they must be protected. He said it would be very unattractive if a woman insisted on taking care of herself, because he doesn’t want to court another man. He said he believes in treating women like princesses or like they’re delicate, and he believes this puts women on a socially superior level to men. He is never protected when he goes out, after all.

Another Nomad Bedouin I met in town, Ahmed, also talked at length about women and men. First, he asked me to marry him. (I declined.) Then he asked if it was because I assumed he couldn’t afford my dowry because he is a shopkeeper – he assured me he could pay my family at least 20 racing camels for my hand in marriage. (That’s about $150,000 worth of camel.) He told me that westerners don’t understand the dowry – we think it’s paying for a bride. He said the Bedouins consider a dowry to be a gift of gratitude to a woman’s parents for all of effort they’ve put into raising their daughter.

The other Bedouins in the area call themselves Gypsy Bedouins. They joined the Nomads a few decades ago after a conflict drove them out of their home. No one I talked to seemed to know where that home was. The oral tradition (the only history they have) says about 50 families moved into the caves in what is now the national park Petra. One Gypsy Bedouin I met, Mahmoud, said he was born in one of the caves but was forced to move to a nearby camp when the Jordanian government decided to preserve the park. He told me he is determined to die in one of the caves, whether it’s legal or not.

Mahmoud told me that Gypsy Bedouins believe in having fun, that life is a party. They are not strict Muslims, he said, and they like to drink, smoke, and get rowdy. They believe women are the same as men – in fact, that all people are the same. Mahmoud said he wasn’t going to ask where my home is, because he believes wherever you are is your home for the moment. He said if you can’t be at home where you are, then you should go somewhere you feel at home. He said he doesn’t like the Nomad way of life, and thinks they take themselves too seriously. He said he thinks their way of treating women is archaic, and he invites any woman to challenge him on any front.

Another Gypsy Bedouin I met, Tarik, echoed many of these sentiments. He likes to live on the edge – from riding his horse on the edge of the canyon to dancing until he can barely breathe. Like Mahmoud, he never asks a personal question – just being with him is enough to be his family and live in his home (which is the whole world).

What the two sects have in common, however, is they both believe in dignity and respect for nature and for other people. Both were incredibly hospitable, instantly loyal, and made sure to respect other people’s feelings at all times. Both said it only takes a minute to become friends, and an hour (or a tea time) to become family. Every Bedouin I met gave me their contact information and said if I ever need anything, in any part of the world, to call – they know people in all the countries, and help would be provided. I think that’s a way of life we all could strive to live!

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Shhhh…. Don’t Say “AIDS”

There is a concept here in Jordan – like many places – that HIV/AIDS is only contracted through sexual contact. It is thought that people with HIV/AIDS must have it because they engaged in an encounter considered immoral by the majority of Jordanian society – either adulterous or homosexual. If a person abstained until marriage, and then only had sexual experiences with their spouse, there should be no chance of infection, right? (Wrong, in case you’re wondering.) So unless you’ve cheated on your wife or husband, there is no reason to get tested. So the thinking goes. (On the flip side, some believe you can get HIV/AIDS from shaking hands with someone who has it. These two misconceptions seem to live side-by-side, even within the same person.)

This doesn’t take into account infection during birth, from unsanitary medical or dentistry equipment (as my friends tell me is prevalent here), or from untested blood transfusions. Similarly, it doesn’t account for faithful people who contract AIDS because their spouse has been infected – whether through sexual acts or not. All of these are “blame-free” ways of contracting HIV/AIDS, yet that’s not what comes to mind – for Jordanians and probably for Americans, too.

In Jordan, it is such a taboo to have HIV/AIDS, that if you reveal you have the disease, you can be fired from your job, disowned from your family, and rejected by all your friends. This prevents people from agreeing to be testing, or revealing their positive results to anyone – including their spouses.

Part of the problem here is not just the social taboo against testing, but the cultural values of doing things the traditional way. I was told some doctors and dentists don’t believe in blood borne diseases like HIV/AIDS (I can’t imagine where they are getting their degrees!) so don’t sanitize their tools. No one in the old days sanitized tools, and everyone was fine then! So convincing these caregivers to change their ways is one of the steps.

The idea that HIV/AIDS is contracted only from men (meaning women can get it from their husbands, and men get it from other men) appears common here. Homosexuality is barred in the Islamic faith, and so some local leaders say HIV/AIDS is Allah’s way of punishing the gays. Obviously, as not every person who engages in same-sex activity has AIDS, it seems that it’s not God’s punishment after all. (Unless you believe in an unfair God, I suppose, which doesn’t seem to be the base of Islam.) Also, who could blame an infant for having HIV/AIDS? The argument just doesn’t make sense to those who understand how the disease is spread. (And – to be clear – not all Muslims are uneducated about HIV/AIDS. However, some uneducated people use their faith as the reason for their beliefs. Much like some Christians do in the States about many issues.)

Also, because it’s seen as a homosexuality punishment, it can be hard for AIDS education projects to find funding. Local businesses and organizations don’t want to get involved in funding HIV/AIDS education and prevention because they believe it will be seen as condoning homosexuality.This would hurt their reputation and sales in a community forbidding homosexuality.

In short, contracting HIV/AIDS is almost seen as “it-serves-you-right”.

The truly unfortunate part is HIV/AIDS is 100% preventable. If the doctors and dentists cleaned their tools, people protected themselves during sex, needles were not shared between people, mothers were tested for HIV/AIDS during pregnancy, or other simple precautions were taken, the rate of infection would plummet. But because of community ignorance and cultural taboos, the rate is rising.

However horrifying this looks on paper, I want to take a step back here and look at my own country, the USA. I’m an honors student and my undergraduate honors research is on sexually transmitted infections, so taboos around STIs are incredibly fascinating to me.

In the States, we have numerous body-fluid borne infections – syphilis, chlamydia, HPV, herpes, etc. – most of them curable. The tests are cheap (or even free at some clinics) and so are the treatments (again, sometimes free). In fact, all of the government agencies dealing with reproductive and sexual health recommend all sexually active people be tested for infections at least once every six months, and between each new partner.

Yet to say you have ever had chlamydia or syphilis (both curable with antibiotics) is greatly shameful. There’s an idea in the States that if you were not promiscuous and you did all of the “right” things, you would never have a chance at catching a sexually transmitted infection. “Good” girls don’t catch chlamydia – only “bad” girls do.

In fact, I spoke to a sexual health representative at a recent health fair in my town, and she told me I was the first person to approach her table in hours – despite hundreds of free condoms piled on the table and boatloads of information on health. She said it was far from unusual – young people don’t want to be seen near a table with info on STIs because their peers may assume they are promiscuous or don’t practice safe sex.

I believe this is ludicrous. I firmly believe every man and woman – no matter what their orientation, number of notches on their bedpost, or regular protection habits – needs to be regularly tested (and treated, when needed) for sexually transmitted infections. Condoms don’t protect against every STI – and even for the ones they do protect, condoms break or fail sometimes.

Believing that only “bad” people get HIV/AIDS – or any STI – is like saying only bad people get the flu. It could happen to anyone – and those people should not be shamed into feeling like they are worth any less because they care about their health and the health of their partners. You would never scoff at someone with the flu and tell them they should have stayed out of elevators – why treat other infections any differently?

While the issue is definitely more extreme in Amman, it’s also interesting to see the parallels we have in the States. Definite food for thought.

PS – if you haven’t been tested in the past six months, please click here to search for a local testing center. It doesn’t matter what your age – even senior citizens can contract an STI.

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Health is Culture

The office of MENA Friends of the Global Fund, my volunteer site.

My first day at Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Friends of the Global Fund, executive director Rawan told me health is not just about your physical body.

“Health is art,” she said. “Health is sports. Health is smiling. Healthy doesn’t mean just not being sick – it means having a good life. Going to see a play or a comedy show is healthy. Spending time with friends is healthy. If you are not happy and you have a bad life, what does anything else matter?”

It made me think, in the States, we divide the different kinds of health and treat them separately. Mostly, we talk about mental and physical health – for which we see two different professionals who don’t communicate about our needs. It makes a lot more sense to consider everything to be health.

I had thought I was coming to help simply eradicate disease – and though I knew that included some social aspects, I didn’t think of it as almost entirely cultural.

“Health is culture,” said my coworker Abeer. “People with disease face discrimination every day here, so they don’t get tested to find out they have it. They would rather not know and die among friends than be alive, but jobless and without family.”

She said she has asthma, and though it’s under control, some employers don’t want to hire her because of the ailment.

“They think I’ll get sick a lot or something silly like that,” she said.

Abeer said it’s common for someone with a disease – particularly HIV/AIDS – to become an outcast in Jordanian society. My host sister, Suha, had said the same thing earlier that day.

“It’s assumed that you got AIDS from sexual misconduct,” she said. “If you weren’t sneaking on your wife or doing something else immoral, you wouldn’t get it.”

Abeer says the real reason most patients get HIV/AIDS is because of a lack of standards in medical care.

“They use the same instruments on everyone,” Abeer said. “So if the dentist doesn’t wash his tools well, and they are still bloody from the last patient, BOOM. You could get AIDS.”

She said even hospitals don’t have standard sanitation methods in place to prevent blood infections from traveling between patients.

Because of the mismatch between the taboo and the reality of poor medical sanitation, the workers at Friends of the Global Fund aim to educate community leaders to break the silence and talk about these issues. They hope to end discrimination towards those with diseases, encourage testing, and create an open dialogue with the community.

Only when these elements are in place – when the community attitudes are healthy, or at least open-minded – can any organization hope to impact the physical health, too.

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West Side (Amman) Story

Amman is divided into two areas – East and West. East Amman is described the same way Raytown is described (my apologies if you aren’t a KC-area reader — hopefully you can substitute your own local example!): lower income, family values, working class, small businesses.

West Amman, in contrast, is described the way you would describe the Plaza if it was also located in Johnson County: very cosmopolitan, wealthy, individualistic attitudes, corporate everything. There are two malls in West Amman, a Lamborghini dealership, and single-family homes that look like apartment buildings.

I’ve had the chance to experience both already. My host family is on the east side on Amman – a large family in a three-story house (I’ve counted 9 people so far – 2 men, 6 women, and a baby boy). The street signs are all in Arabic only. If you need to buy something, you stop by a street stand or a small shop owned by one person.

My volunteer site, on the other hand, is located in West Amman and is staffed by women who live within walking distance. The streets are wide, the signs are in English (often with Arabic subtitles) and there are no small shops in sight. If you need to buy something, you can go to CitiMall (which includes a two-story store my coworkers affectionately refer to as “Arab Wal-Mart”) or Mecca Mall.

They sell everything in the "Arab Wal-Mart" - across from diapers and shampoo is a jewelry section.

These sides appear to live in relative peace. The East Ammanis drive to the West Side to eat a ritzy dinner with friends, seek office jobs with the corporations there, and shop in the mall on occasion. The West Ammanis never go to the East Side, because they have everything they need already.

Inside Pastiche Cafe in West Amman.

But it’s the same sort of peace you might find between a working class person in Raytown and a wealthy person in Leawood. If you take the time to talk to either side, they have some strong opinions.

“Over there on the West Side,” said one of my host sisters, “they try to pretend to be something they aren’t. They try to act American. They only care about themselves and their stuff. They think they’re better than us, just because they have money. They’ve forgotten what it means to be Muslim and Jordanian.”

That’s why West Side signs are in English, she said.

“They want to pretend they are in America,” she said. “All their signs are in English so they can pretend they aren’t here. They don’t like it here. They’ve turned it into mini-America.”

She said she believes that’s why more American students have decided to visit than ever before.

“It’s easy for you,” she said. “You haven’t really left America.”

She said she likes the East Side better.

“We have community here,” she said. “And families all live together. You know, over there [on the West Side], their children move out and get apartments before they’re married. They don’t stay where they belong.”

At my volunteer site, I asked my new friend where she lived. Coincidentally, she lives on the West Side.

“People on the East Side think we’re wealthy,” she said. “We’re not. My parents bought our house a long time before the West Side was nice. It’s not our fault they put all the foreign delegates here in big houses and built the malls close to where they live. Our house is still the same.”

The CitiMall in West Amman.

I asked her if she thought there was any difference in values between the sides.

“Not really,” she said. “I mean, we’re all Muslim. I believe the same things. But we do like the development more on the West Side. The East Side is so traditional. They’re stuck in the past.”

She said she believes East Side Ammanis resist development because they can’t afford to live an American lifestyle.

“That’s not what it’s about,” she said. “It’s about being taken seriously and having the same opportunities as an American or a Frenchman. We don’t have any natural resources here – no oil or anything – so we just have our people. And our people can have good jobs and nice things.”

She said she would love to live in the States. One of my other coworkers agreed, and said she studied in Ohio for a while. This other coworker cried for months when she came back, she said, because she missed America.

It’s interesting to me that both East Side and West Side Ammanis characterize development as an American influence.While the West see it as progress and seem to admire the American way, the East appears to wish to stay with traditional, simple living.

With the improved education and health systems – which both sides mentioned – comes capitalism and fast-paced living; if they are not actually linked, it appears so to the Jordanians.

As an American citizen myself, it’s hard to objectively think about the issues. Like the West Side Ammanis, I think of development as a good thing. I like the city experience, I like living apart from my family, and I like being individual. However, I also enjoy family time, community experiences, and small businesses. I don’t know that West Side life is necessarily intertwined with advancements in medicine and education. But I’ve only been here for a day. I’m sure these thoughts will mature as I spend each of the next 18 days on both sides of the city line.

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Airport Observations

It’s a strange feeling to be in a foreign place and know your nationality will be instantly recognized if you speak. As I’ve travelled through Toronto and London to Amman, I’ve noticed some other things that make my fellow Americans stand out.

The first is how loud we are. Everything Americans do is loud. From talking, to zipping up luggage, to just walking. It’s all at least twice as loud as the Canadians and Europeans.

We wear the strangest clothes. While most people on the flight from Canada to England were dressed in dark colors, every American (including myself) on the flight was wearing a bright color.

Finally, Americans talk to everyone. While most people are quietly minding their own business, Americans are busy trying to chat up everyone around them.

And of course, the essential list of craziness witnessed in the airports:

–          Before even entering the terminal in Kansas City, I stood behind a woman in seven-inch stilettos. She used – no kidding – eight bins for her belongings. Each time she went through the metal detector, they sent her back to take off more accessories. When she was finally cleared, she screamed at everyone for touching her Coach bag. Yikes.

–          A young man began reading a Buddhist book in the terminal, waiting for our flight. A huffy woman across from him pulled out her Bible and furiously flipped through the pages, looking at him between each haughty turn. When he didn’t respond, she actually began to pray out loud for his salvation.

–          Flying with children is never fun, but it’s worse when the child is the boss! One little girl screamed for the entire flight to Toronto because her mother wouldn’t give her any more cookies.

–          Last, but not least – remember how I mentioned Americans are chatty? Well, a young woman was talking the ear off of a young man in the terminal. After repeated attempts to end the conversation, the guy eventually folded up a piece of newspaper into a cell phone-sized piece. He said, “Sorry, I have to take this.” He proceeded to “answer” the paper phone and talk away until the girl left.

I have learned that people are very kind and willingly help a lost American girl in the airport. I only had a one-hour connection in Toronto and had no idea how to find my gate. A lady driving a Special Assistance truck in the airport took one look at my boarding pass, practically yanked me into the truck, and went careening down the terminal. She pulled up SWAT style at the gate and said, “And that’s how it’s done.” Indeed.

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My Journey to Jordan

Andi in Jordanian regalia.

You could say my journey to Jordan started when I was seven years old, as a Girl Scout Brownie. Each troop in the district represented a different nation at the Southern California international fair, and my troop chose Jordan. After that fair, I knew I wanted to visit Jordan someday.

Flash-forward fourteen years to a small Middle Eastern café in Kansas City, Missouri, where I’m a college student. Fruity Egyptian hookah smoke curled in the air and soft Arabic music played overhead. I thought this café would be the perfect place to tell my friend I was planning a trip to Amman.

You could almost hear the record scratch as she did a double-take.

“But… why?” she said.

Continue reading this post at the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors blog.

This trip sponsored by America’s Unofficial Ambassadors and United Planet.

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Yesterday was the last day of the Gulu seminar. The journalists there, mostly from the Acholi tribe, decided to give all three of us Acholi names. Steve’s new name is Komagum (ko-mah-goom), meaning Luck. Grace – who suggested the name – said it’s because she feels lucky that Steve came into their lives to give them the knowledge of peace journalism. Keith and I were both given names meaning Hope – Okello and Akella, respectively.

Today we all took a trip into downtown Kampala to get traditional clothes for a Buganda tribal wedding tomorrow. Caesar, our driver to Fort Portal and Gulu, is getting married and asked us to please stop by on our way to the airport. Keith and Steve got white man-dresses and I got a blue set that has a peasant top-like blouse, a wrap-around skirt and a head covering. The seamstress was very cheerful and friendly, and said if only I could turn black I would look like a real African. She took great amusement at watching me try to tie traditional knots on the various ties of the outfit.

Next, we went to the craft bazaar to buy souvenirs. The shopkeepers were mostly friendly and excited to talk to foreigners. I learned a little about the art of negotiation. Some shopkeepers I didn’t argue with at all because the price seemed more than fair. Others had prices that sounded outrageous so I talked the shopkeepers down to something better. It was really fun, actually and I wish that I could do more shopping that way.

My proudest purchase of the day, I got for less than half the sticker price. A pair of ebony wood bookends, priced at 55,000 shillings (about $25), looked really nice on the shelf. But I was looking for something for myself that was more in the $10 range, so I shrugged and walked away. As I reached the door, the shopkeeper yelled out, “Okay, okay – 20,000 shillings!” Well, for $9, we certainly had a deal! 

This was a really great and relaxing way to end my trip in Uganda. The only thing I’m not looking forward to is the insanely long travel to get home!

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