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The Bedouin Boy

July 30, 2012

“It’s just like tying a tie. Double Windsor or half, your choice.”

He wrapped his keffiyeh around my head to protect my neck from the sun. His brown hands deftly wound the fabric into and around itself. We now matched, the American girl and the Bedouin boy. He smiled at the effect. He is almost exactly my age.

Later that night, he and I shared a water pipe, played a popular card game called ‘Hands,’ with cards so faded that though I quickly learned the rules I was slow to identify a spade as a spade, and eights often wreaked havoc as sixes. “Let me show you the hedgehog,” he said as the stillness of the night spread. He pronounced ‘hedgehog’ with gusto, the word clearly amused him. “Gunfud?” I asked, cupping my hands together instinctively to represent the hedgehog. “Is that right?” “Yes. Gunfud in Arabic. Good-food in English, saah?” It had become our joke.

We walked out of the pavilion made of carpets and into a night of moonlit sands and craggy mountains of rocks looming above. He spotted his prey and dashed off, a long legged predator all in white, beautiful in his natural lope. He scooped his hands down to the sand, and came to me with darkness held in his palms.

He set the hedgehog down on the ground. It quivered, shut up inside in its spiny hide. We crouched over it, expectant. The gunfud unwrapped, his large ears seeking danger, his wet little nose sniffing. I touched its spines and it cowered once more. “So big,” I noted. “I would need two hands to hold it.” He smiled.

Wadi Rum, just after sunset.

“Want to walk for a bit?” he asked.

I considered.  “Sure, let’s walk and then look at the stars a little.  I never get to see stars like this at home.”   The hedgehog slowly ambled away.  The desert dog found us and cavorted with boundless happiness, thrilled to have partners in play this evening.  She sniffed at the hedgehog, but decided to leave him alone.

We ambled a bit away, around the mountain at the base of the camp, the sand cool against bare feet.  The stars were bright, but the moon was brighter, and I tried in vain to angle the mountain in between me and the glow.  Resigned at last to the moon outshining the stars, despite its merely reflected glory, I lay down on the skin of the desert.  With a whuff, the dog landed on top of my legs, and I scratched her head as her tail thumped against me.  The Bedouin boy lay down next to me with a little more propriety than the dog, and I asked him about any constellations he might know.

He only knew their names in Arabic, but that was alright.  We both knew the dipper, under different names, and Cassiopeia too.  I showed him Draco the dragon. I asked him the name and ages of all of his 11 siblings again.  He gave me the litany: Ahmed, himself, Mohammad, Yusuf, Abdullah, Zait.  He never mentioned the girls’ names, no matter how many times I asked him about his siblings.  They were merely described by age: “Mohammad, then a girl aged 17, then another girl aged 15, then Yusuf…”    I grew bolder, and I asked a question that had been bothering me for a while.

Three of the brothers: my Bedouin, Zait, and Yusuf.

“Where are the Bedouin women?” I asked.

“In the village,” he answered promptly.

“Why do I never see them?”

“Because they are women, they are with the children.”

“Do they ever work outside of the house?  Lead tourists around Wadi Rum, like you do for your brother?”

“No.  That is not what women do.  They don’t scramble around in the desert, deal with camels.”

“But I do.  Am I not a woman?  How come I do these things, and they don’t?”

He didn’t even have to consider before answering me.    “Our cultures are different. Bedouin women are different from the women in your culture, where they belong is different.  Women working in the desert is fine for you, I guess.”

I looked back up at the stars.  Questions were like tumors on my lips; he could see that we were both women, the Bedouin ladies and I, with the same biological makeup.  He could see that it was culture, not natural capacity that placed women in the home, men in the wider desert.  And yet, for him, this was as it was; it did not stress his mind to believe that Bedouin women belonged in the home, but Western women did not have to.

I don’t think he would have tied his keffiyeh around my head in the masculine Bedouin way if, I were, in fact, Bedouin.

More words were spoken that night.  We connected he and I, despite our differences in upbringing and values, and the scopes of our lives.  He knew every mountain of the desert by name and by feature and had explored all of their caves.  I knew how Nigerian princes laundered money across UK borders by creating shell accounts.  He knew how to avoid being poisoned by a scorpion’s sting – it involved swallowing a dead scorpion’s tail as a child, and rubbing its body over his arms and legs.  I knew how to write a resume, find a place to rent on craigslist, and dance salsa.  We both knew how much ice cream should cost, how to tell a damn good story to our little siblings, and how to make a fire in the wilderness.  We both appreciated the stars.

On the back of a camel named Sinan! (after the great Turkish architect)

He had an interest in seeing America, though ultimately he wanted to live in the desert, maybe start his own tourism business.  He needed to learn how to make a website first.  I told him he had a place in DC, should he need one.  I tried to imagine him out of his long white thob, in jeans and a T-shirt.  I couldn’t picture his long, thick hair under a baseball cap or his large, nimble feet covered by sneakers.  I tried to imagine him holding a map upside-down, keen to see a museum, or him walking in a mall, in front of a Hot Topic.  Under this type of scrutiny, civilized life seems a little abstract, almost silly, for a man so himself, free of insecurity.  He clearly connected strongly with his life, and knew who he was here.  I envied him for that.  Nee-al-lack.

We headed back to the camp, our dog butting her head against our hips to nudge just a few more pats out of us.  She traveled between us as we said goodnight.

The next day, we tourists ate, the Bedouin men saddled up the camels and we left the camp with little fanfare, riding inexpertly on the camels’ backs behind little Yusuf, brown and grinning. The dog trotted by our side, tongue out, chasing lizards for lunch, and then rejoining us just when I thought we lost her. We made it back to the village, had our last cups of sweetened tea, and walked to our car.  My Bedouin (for part of him is mine, and part of me is his) promised to keep in touch.  He told me that I should keep his keffiyeh, that it was now mine.  We clasped hands.  He waved to us in our hospital-green, rented car, the word Thrifty featuring hugely on its bumper, until we left the village of Wadi Rum behind.

I had a scarf, about two pounds of reddish sand in my shoes and pants, and some photos of the desert.  But I also left with a sense of my own rigidity; for if a Bedouin boy can reconcile and embrace having women in his camp, doing men-like activities, why can’t I see him in America, laughing over Chinese takeout?

Abdullah is six. He hopped on those camels like it was nothing, and rode them away.

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