Yesterday we drove north out of Amman through the countryside, a beautiful rolling landscape with olive groves, vineyards, and enough cypress trees to make you think you’re in Tuscany. In fact, the rain and mist made the vista so green it occurred to me that Jordan is ripe for some English bon vivant to buy a few feddans of land up here and write his best-selling paean to the good life and his love affair with the charming locals. How Jordan could use it!
Nestled between Iraq and Israel/Palestine, Jordan’s perceived to be a dangerous place. I’m here to change that—at least the perception part. I’m writing a piece on Jordan for a travel magazine, and I’ll be touring most of the country. My guide is Ali, a Jordanian in his 30s who speaks English like a native of New Jersey. He lived there for a few years back in the ‘90s and then returned to Jordan to raise a family. Ali is the living incarnation of an argument I made in these very Web pages a few months ago: The biggest incentive to learn a language is the desire to communicate with the people you want to sleep with who speak that language. Ali was involved with an Indonesian woman for a while, and now speaks the language perfectly, as far as I can tell. I’m certain he speaks Spanish with a beautiful Castilian accent, a language he learned because his wife is half-Spanish. I know my argument seems small-minded, but it’s so obviously the case that if you bear with me you’ll see how desire has affected Western perceptions of the Arab world.
Edward Said’s Orientalism makes the case that Western scholars and adventurers wrote in such a way as to “feminize” the Orient, making it ready for “penetration” by colonial powers. That may be so, but it doesn’t apply to the 20th century’s most popular Orientalists: T.E. Lawrence was gay; Wilfred Thesiger was perhaps not gay but spent much time among Arab men whom he sexually idealized; Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark were women. In a male-dominated society like Arab culture, women have some interesting things to say. But an Orientalist who’s primarily interested in honor, shame, and other martial virtues isn’t going to be listening. Western female journalists generally get fairly accurate information about Arab women, but it has no texture, no life, no passion.
For instance, many Westerners, myself included, find the veil a fascinating subject and the locus of a number of Arab world issues. In Cairo, I was seeing an Egyptian woman who told me how much she hated the veil and everything it stood for. She believed that this is what I wanted to hear. And I, who frankly don’t have much at stake as far as the veil is concerned, fell in line with what I thought she believed: The veil is evil, I said, a repressive symbol of male dominance. After some time, she told me to shut the hell up. If women wanted to wear the veil to signify their pride in Arab Muslim culture, it was none of my business. I was baffled. One day it’s this; the next day it’s that. Then I got it: Worse than an East-West conflict; it was a man-woman thing.
At that point, I realized that everything she told me—about Arab men and women, Arab culture, the veil—might not necessarily be true, but it was very real. It did not come from an hourlong interview but was part of the blandishments and furies of being involved with someone. Right now, the Arab world is largely seen in the West as the result of those martial virtues Lawrence and Thesiger so admired. And Arab women are understood as victims—grieving mothers or veiled virgins. Where’s the beauty in the West’s idea of the Arab world? Its landscapes or its women? Where on television are the mad, passionate women of the Levant, North Africa, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Peninsula in love with love?
“Your ex- sounds very, very Egyptian,” Ali says.
We’re still heading north, stopped for a herd of sheep. It’s the kind of folksy scene Peter Mayle, pastoral prose-poet of Provence, might adore. But these sheep are counting their last days. At the end of the week is Eid al-Adha, a feast commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. As part of this holiday, thousands of sheep will be slaughtered, cooked, and shared among the poor. I feel bad for them, but they are delicious. The thought of food reminds Ali of something:
“Lebanese women are great cooks,” he says, starting to sound like a Jersey guy with a little bit of an Arab accent. “Syrian women are very lively. Jordanian women? They drive their men crazy with so much criticism!”