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Volume 36, Number 6November/December 1985

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The Bedouin From New Zealand

Written by Anne Counsell
Photographed by Bill Lyons

Every year, thousands of tourist visit Jordan's most spectacular archeological treasure - the ancient city of Petra. Multi-colored, mysterious and breathtakingly beautiful, the impressive facades - chiseled from the mountain with a sublime indifference to scale - seldom fail to impress.

Just as interesting, however, are the Bedouins of Petra: 120 families who live in the violet, yellow, terracotta and legendary pink caves or tombs hewn from the rock long ago. Like the tombs, the Bedouins go back a long way. At least most of them do. One who does not is Marguerite van Geldermalsen. Though she is now a Bedouin she once lived in New Zealand.

At Petra, Bedouin women usually are part of the backdrop. They can be seen walking with their children, collecting firewood or chatting in cave entrances with other women; most of them wear traditional, long, black embroidered dresses with plain or colored headscarves. For this reason Marguerite van Geldermalsen is rarely noticed; the only indications that she is not of Bedouin origin are her fair skin and hazel eyes. Sitting with the other women and chatting about the children, her long blonde hair braided and covered with a scarf, Marguerite is very much a member of the group, speaking with the other mothers in the local Arabic dialect while her two children play happily nearby with their friends and relatives. She is at ease. She is relaxed. She is at home.

Almost seven years ago, when Marguerite first came to Petra from New Zealand, she certainly had no idea that she would marry a Bedouin or settle in the ancient city. A tourist traveling around the region with a girlfriend, Marguerite saw Petra as one of the sights of the tour and a handsome young Bedouin's proposal of marriage, an amusing development. "I thought that Muhammad wanted to marry a foreign girl in order to leave the country and travel," explains Marguerite in a distinct New Zealand accent.

Muhammad Menajah, however, was quite serious. Born and brought up in Petra with four brothers and four sisters, he had learned English by speaking to tourists while selling souvenirs at his stall. When Marguerite and her friend arrived in Petra he showed them around the city and asked them if they would like to attend a Bedouin wedding that evening. They accepted the invitation and thoroughly enjoyed the colorful, lively event attended by most of the inhabitants in Petra. Muhammad gave each of the girls an Arabic name for the occasion and today Marguerite is still called "Fatima" - the name she was given for that night.

Unable to obtain visas to visit Syria and Lebanon, Marguerite returned to Petra where Muhammad became increasingly persistent with his proposal. Quite taken with his sincerity and charm, Marguerite finally accepted. They took a shared-taxi to Amman where the required papers were signed and a bride price of five dinars ($12.50) was agreed upon. Laughing, Marguerite explains they had to put down a sum as part of the formalities, but in fact it was never paid. Muhammad got a very good deal, as bride prices, even among relatively poor people, are sometimes quite high.

Returning to Petra, Marguerite again attended a Bedouin wedding, this time her own. Sheep were slaughtered, the women spent all day preparing the food and there was dancing, clapping and singing into the night.

Muhammad is now 33 and Marguerite is 29. They have been married for almost seven years and are obviously happy together. Their children, Salwa, five, and Raami, two, with their father's dark eyes and olive skin," understand both English and Arabic and are lively and intelligent.

The family's home is situated above Petra's Roman amphitheater and is reached by a rocky climb up a hillside track. The one-room cave, with its wooden door and small window, is clean and comfortable. Dressers along one of the whitewashed walls contain the family's clothes and personal belongings; blankets and mattresses are neatly stacked in one corner, while the children's toy box and Marguerite's treadle sewing machine occupy another.

Muhammad put in a door and window at the entrance to the cave, and also built a room adjoining the cave which is used as a kitchen. Pots and pans are piled on a small work top, a few cans of food and fresh vegetables are in a box under a small table and the crockery and cutlery stand in a plastic draining shelf fixed to the wall. Here the family have a stove fueled by gas cylinders and a refrigerator which uses kerosene as there is no electricity inside Petra. Lighting in the cave and kitchen is provided by gas lamps and flash-lights. There is no piped water to the cave so water is collected from a spring in the valley and stored in a metal tank above the kitchen roof. Clothes are washed by hand in a large bowl which also serves as a basin for washing.

The area around the house is fenced with chicken wire to keep goats and sheep out and to prevent the children from falling over the ledge on which the room stands. In a small garden are two swings for the children, a playing area, clothes line and herbs for cooking.

Although quite basic, the cave is very cosy, especially at night when the gaslight flickers on the walls as Muhammad reads stories to the children and Marguerite mixes dough for the next day's bread. The dwelling is cool in the heat of summer and warm in winter.

When Marguerite first began her new life in Petra, she and Muhammad had no refrigerator or stove. She used to cook over an open fire using wood collected during the day. Although life is now easier with the refrigerator and the stove, Marguerite says she could quite happily do without them. Marguerite considers the family's car an unnecessary nuisance, as there are no proper roads inside Petra and as the village of Wadi Musa is well within walking distance. The vehicle is only used when Muhammad goes to Amman or Aqaba to buy souvenirs for the stall and these journeys could easily be made in shared-taxis.

Apart from keeping the cave clean, looking after the children and cooking, Marguerite helps Muhammad at the small store opposite the amphitheater, chatting to the tourists who are often surprised to see her dressed in her Bedouin clothes but with European features.

Marguerite's main "job," however, is supervising the Petra clinic: a small cave containing a table and a medicine cabinet - and giving out tablets prescribed by the local doctor who visits Petra twice a week. Trained as a nurse in New Zealand specializing in pediatrics, Marguerite acts as a liaison between the male doctor and the Bedouin women who are often uncomfortable about mentioning some ailments. Many women too ask her for advice about their children's ailments. She is also on hand to dress wounds and administer medicine or injections when the doctor is not available.

Working at the clinic has brought Marguerite into close contact with the people at Petra. It enabled her to become fluent in Arabic and at the same time to make lots of friends. "I am much less lonely here than I was in New Zealand," she says. "There are always friends or Muhammad's relatives around and it is so easy to visit people. You don't have to phone and make sure that it is convenient to call. You can walk there and be sure of a welcome."

Marguerite keeps in touch with her family in New Zealand. Her mother writes regularly and often sends toys or clothes for the children. Her parents came to stay in the cave with Marguerite and her family three years ago and her brother and his wife have also visited Petra. Marguerite says that her family accepts her way of life and would rather she was happy in Jordan than unhappy in New Zealand.

Just over four years ago, Muhammad, Marguerite and Salwa spent nearly a year living in New Zealand, but did not feel really settled. "I missed our home and life in Petra," Marguerite says, "and Muhammad became bored with his job at a sheep slaughterhouse, so we came back here where we are happy."

Marguerite says that she does not miss the theater, social or cultural events nor any of the entertainment and other activities she used to take part in in New Zealand. "I don't feel I'm missing anything at all," she explains.

Besides caring for her family and supervising the clinic, Marguerite also makes dresses for the women in Petra and clothes for the children, using material bought in the dress market during visits to Amman. When there is a social event such as a wedding or circumcision, Marguerite helps the other women with the cooking and other preparations - decking the outside of blackcloth wedding tents with brightly colored banners of material fashioned by her for the occasion, from remnants of clothes she had made".

Speaking about the future, Marguerite is uncertain whether the family will be allowed to remain in their cave home. There is a plan by the Jordanian Government to settle Bedouins in houses built outside the ancient city, which officials say is being spoiled by the home extensions built by the Bedouins.

Many Bedouins want to move to modern housing - with such amenities as piped water and electricity - but Marguerite does not. First, she believes that the Bedouin traditions will disappear more rapidly if the resettlement programs are implemented and, second, she is happy with her life in Petra. "If we have to move to those new houses, we might as well go and live in New Zealand," she says sadly. Also, Muhammad would no longer have his stall or an income if they had to leave their cave.

Whatever happens, Marguerite would like both the children to have good educations so that they can choose their futures. Salwa is due to start school this year and is excited about it. Already she can read and write a few words in Arabic and English and is imaginative and keen to learn. Raami, although still small, takes after his sister.

Relaxed, natural and down-to-earth, the Menajah family is not only interesting to be with but also hospitable and generous, sharing their home, food and activities with friends and visitors. When Marguerite tells you she is happy in Petra it is very easy to see why; she has a kind, sincere husband, two lovely children and a satisfying, simple and healthy lifestyle as well as a comfortable home and good friends in one of the most spectacular places in the world.

Anne Counsell is an editor of the Jordan Times.

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the November/December 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1985 images.