Thursday, November 23, 2006

Married to a Bedouin

I’ve just finished reading “Married to a Bedouin” by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. She was a young New Zealander travelling the world in the late seventies, when she met Mohammed, one of a Bedouin tribe, who lived in caves and tents among the archeological remains of an ancient Nabatean civilisation in the valley of Petra.

She travelled onward, but circumstances brought them together again and she realised that he was the man for her. This is her account of their life together told simply but vividly. She starts off knowing nothing of the language or culture, seeing the Bedouin from an outsider’s view. Gradually she comes to know each individual, adapts to their lifestyle and becomes one of them. She is refreshing in her perspective, neither a saint promoting self-sacrifice for the man she loves, nor a high handed crusader trying to show them the benefits of civilisation. Occasionally her irritation with an incomprehensible tradition or superstition bursts out, but later on she comes to realise that there is a valid reason behind it.

For example, she is initially horrified to discover that a woman is considered ‘unclean’ for forty days after having a baby, as any Westerner would be. The reasons become clear however: the ‘unclean’ epithet isn’t a stigma, rather the new mother is given a chance to recover in a protected space, surrounded by all the other women of the family, friends, neighbours and so on, who cook, clean, fetch water, take care of the other kids, while she has no other duties than taking care of her baby and as a bonus she has the diversion of their company for forty days. No-one but her takes care of the baby and it is not shown around (for fear of the evil eye) until after the forty days are up, thus giving it a chance to develop its immune system before being exposed to the germs of the world.

Their cave, though primitive, sounds snug and warm and over time they acquire some modern conveniences – a gas oven, eventually a kerosene fridge and once Mohammed gets a driver's licence they have a car too.

This book records and encapsulates a way of life that is fast disappearing (by the end of the book the tribe had been resettled into houses away from the archeological site, their children were learning computer skills and many of the traditions of nomadic life had been left behind) and is a fascinating read, both for her personal story and the account of Bedouin life. has an excellent customer review of Married to a Bedouin by someone who now lives in Petra.

To see more details at on Married to a Bedouin click on this title link.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas

Iris and Ruby

This is the third book by Rosie Thomas that I’ve read now. Initially I was a little condescending, assigning them a library book rating – fine to get out of the library for a bit of light escapism but not ones to buy for myself. Now I’m persuaded to reconsider.

Iris and Ruby relates the interlocking but distant relationships of three women: Iris, an old woman living a solitary life in an old stone house in Cairo, trying to hold on to her precious memories of her great love in wartime Egypt; Leslie her daughter, a conventional wife and mother, who has suffered from feelings of rejection by her mother all her life; Ruby, her daughter, a troubled but feisty eighteen year old, rebellious and dyslexic, trying to find direction in her life.

Ruby runs away to stay with her unknown grandmother in Cairo. Iris is initially unwelcoming, unwilling to have her peace and memories disturbed, but Ruby’s persistance catches her interest and the two strong-willed women make a connection. Ruby is determined to help her grandmother record the memories which seem to be slipping from her grasp. Iris’ stories of her time in Cairo during the Second World War, the frenetic life of work and partying to forget the war, that lent intensity to relationships that could be cut short any day, weave in and out of Ruby’s present day exploration of Cairo and the development of her relationship with Iris. Leslie is left out of the equation, frustrated both in her intense love for her daughter and her need for her mother’s love that she feels she has never won.

Rosie Thomas strength is her story-telling. I wasn’t drawn in to identify with the characters, though they are well-defined, my interest was kept by the gradual unfolding of the story and the eventual dawning of understanding and acceptance in the troubled mother-daughter relationships. The background of the war being fought in the desert added another layer of period detail to absorb and add to my historical knowledge base.

If you enjoy tales of strong-willed individual women with a war-time setting, do get this one. It is well written and crafted and I ended up liking the characters, even though I didn’t lose myself in them. To quote the reader's review on Amazon "an easy but intelligent read".

When I looked this book up on the Amazons it was only available from the UK..perhaps Rosie Thomas hasn't crossed the Atlantic yet? To see details at on Iris and Ruby click on this title link.