Bostonian meets Bedouin

JenniferJennifer Barefoot Smith is a world traveler who hails from the great city of Boston. She is a teacher  and college counselor who prides herself on making her students college-ready and world savvy. Jennifer spends her vacations traveling to far flung corners of the world – often alone. Her adventures are many and her experiences diverse. Her goal for this year is to bring her country count up to 70.  Whether she is traveling or at home, she enjoys taking pictures, talking (in various languages), dancing, cooking, and eating. The Howard University alum doesn’t shy away from the road less traveled. And somehow she always manages to return safely and with a smile!

I always enjoy traveling in predominantly Muslim areas: North Africa, Turkey, East Africa, and, this week, the Middle East, Jordan specifically. Generally, the atmosphere is family oriented, bright and richly colored, and inviting. As a woman, I always feel respected and safe—protected almost. As someone who travels frequently, and sometimes alone, this is refreshing and allows me to relax in a slightly different way. While every country is different, of course, there is something in being purposefully respectful and knowing that I will be respected in turn by choosing to be modest. It is also nice to feel that women are appreciated, as a group and as individuals, for more than just their bodies. Call me crazy, but I think that is one of the things that feminism has been arguing for and yet I find Westerners often have a problem with Muslim women covering and with respecting the norms when in majority Muslim countries. Two of my previous trips to Islamic countries have been through European tour groups where the majority of the tourists on the trip wore modest clothing (at least knee-length pants and shirts that were not revealing, i.e. sans décolletage), but there was always someone who insisted on wearing clothing that I would argue was not appropriate for walking around in public other than at a beach, let alone in a Muslim country in the middle of Ramadan. I felt offended. And their constant questions to the guide as to why he couldn’t just have some water or why women had to cover up really bothered me. They could not fathom that someone might be freely choosing to do these things, just as some Christians choose to go to church and others choose not to.

This brings me to why this trip was so great. I was able to travel in the Islamic world with others, enjoying the knowledge that no one in my party would be offensive or disrespectful. Sometimes I think I like to travel alone just to avoid having to babysit someone. This week, however, I traveled with a like-minded friend from college; traveling with friends who know how to travel makes life so much easier. What made this trip even better was that another friend, who works in tourism in Jordan, arranged my itinerary and connected me with her Jordanian friends at each point of my trip. Having personal connections in a new place always makes the experience that much better, and having personal connections in a country as hospitable as Jordan, meant that we got the best treatment ever. (Big up Janine, yuh have Jordan pon lock!) Jordan, like many of the other Muslim majority countries I have visited, subscribes to a brand of hospitality that is unknown in the U.S. I had more tea in the last week than I have had all year, and I do drink tea regularly. Anywhere you go, any store you enter, you are offered, nay, required, to partake in several cups of tea. Everyone checked in with us every day to make sure that we were still doing well and to let us know that if we needed anything they were X amount of minutes away from our next destination and they could be there if we called. Let’s just say I felt taken care of.

As a travel location, Jordan was one of the good ones. Amazing historic sites from several different periods and cultures abound. There are Roman ruins at Jerash, Castles of all types left over from the Crusades and other eras, Holy Land sites in Madaba, Mt. Nebo, Lot’s Cave, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, and of course the Jordan River itself. If it were permitted and I wanted to get my feet wet, I literally could have waded across to the Promised Land. It goes without saying that the Dead Sea is relaxing and an experience without parallel on the planet. But it also forms a unique border, the boundary between the Muslim/Arab world and present day Palestine. The West Bank is across the sea, a constant reminder of the political conundrums that occur when a colonial power does what it wants with pieces of land it controls without regard for the people within that land and the future ramifications those actions will have for its inhabitants, and in this case, the world. At the Red Sea, where the snorkeling/diving is lovely and the vibe is very nice, I kept trying to figure out where Egypt and Israel were in the skyline across the water from me, but everyone had the same answer as they pointed to the lights across the way—Eilat. Eventually I surmised that this was a way of not recognizing Israel without stepping on any toes. By only referring to the neighboring land by the name of the city with whom they shared a shoreline, rather than the state whose existence is in conflict with their beliefs, they did not have to come right out and say that the land next to them was being illegally occupied. They also did not usually refer to it as Palestine either. In fact, guides, drivers, and other people we encountered referred to the cities across the border rather than the larger political entity. At the Dead Sea, I was looking at Jericho, full stop. As a country that is immensely affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with millions of Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan for several decades, I am surprised it did not come up more often, but I am sure if I stayed longer than a week in the areas most affected by the conflict, it would become more apparent. When I came home, someone said to me, “Jordan, aren’t they in the middle of everything?” And yes, they really are. There is conflict occurring around them on every side except for their southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia; in addition to the decades of Palestinian refugees who have sought safety within their borders they have been receiving refugees from Syria too.

But for me the best part of Jordan had nothing to do with it being a welcoming Arab country or the site of ancient Biblical events. For me Jordan’s greatness was in the desert. The night stars, the rocky cliffs, the moon, the peacefulness, and the timelessness of it all. Petra is breathtaking and unique—a funky architectural mix of columns, cylindrical shapes, caves and amphitheaters. Nestled in a valley of equally funky rock formations rising out of the ground, these colorfully changing, soft sandstone walls and craggy formations look simultaneously smooth and like God dripped melted wax in erratic designs that solidified into odd chunks that we behold, here and there today. Nature and wilderness abound with numerous wadis, nature reserves, and springs. We stayed at Feynan Eco Lodge where everything is run by solar power, or candles, and you can hike, star gaze, or be a Bedouin goat herder for a day. We viewed Saturn and its rings in a high-powered telescope calibrated for us by a Bedouin, who then showed us where to watch Scorpio rise over the mountains and stayed up watching shooting stars while he and another friend made us tea on a fire powered by the compacted resin refuse from pressed olive oil. We were lucky that our visit coincided with a yearly meteor shower, but I have a feeling that shooting stars are not an anomaly in this landscape. And thanks to Janine, we slept in the desert, not at one of the many camps that dot Wadi Rum, but just in the middle of nowhere next to her Bedouin friend’s jeep, on a carpet, with some Bedouin mattresses and sleeping bags under the stars, with some great food, and of course, more tea.

Jennifer’s photos from Jordan:

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Eid Mubarak!

“Where I’m from, do you know what your name means?” the doorman said with a knowing smile. “Uhh… yea… I’m pretty sure, but you tell me,” I said. I’ve been here before, so I am more cautious than I used to be. I used to just blurt out, “it means precious. Of course I know what my own name means!” But these days, I’m much more reticent to assume that I know what it may mean in every country the world over. Perhaps it means frog legs where he’s from, and I would surely like to know that now before I spend a lifetime considering myself a gem of the earth.

“It means precious,” he said. “Phew,” I thought. “Yea, I know,” I said with a sigh. “But not like pretty precious, not like gold and jewelry. I mean like air.” With my ‘whatchu talkin’ bout Willis’ face on, I inquired further. “It is precious, as in essential. Something you cannot live without. Think, like water, air. You know, it’s about being essential to life,” he said.

And there in lies my identifier. No one with an understanding of Arabic language or Islamic culture will assume that I am not of the same. I don’t always look the part. I am a bit unassuming in appearance and sometimes I require an explanation – mainly because of my American last name. But, upon introduction I am asked about where I pray. Am I married yet? No. Why not? How old are you? “You need to marry a Muslim man. It is time.” This is generally the progression of things. I am not usually asked to explain myself beyond, “my parents are Muslim. I was born Muslim.” Even in this North Indian world where I have about as much a place as an albino leopard in a gorilla’s cage, I can belong as a Muslim.

It’s interesting though, because I’ve never wanted to belong as a Muslim. It is possibly one of the few identities I could attach myself to that I never needed the validation of attachment for.  I have read the Quran in its entirety. I went to Islamic school when I was quite young. I have worn a hijab for days on end for no reason at all. I was born Muslim, so I don’t owe an imam my shahada. Allah and I have had conversations where I confessed that I will never practice my faith as heretics claim the literal Quranic translations should be lived. I’ve never felt the need to explain my beliefs or their waverings. And, I have never needed to be Muslim to believe in Islam.

Perhaps it’s hard to understand how those of us Nation of Islam babies, or us Sufis, or us Ahmedis, or us Bhoras get along in life – accepting a level of culture that stands apart from the religion itself. The assumption is, of course, that the world’s Muslims are either Sunni or Shi’a. The assumption is, of course, that Muslims speak Arabic, pray 5 times a day, and lock their women in cages with a “Polygamy is my mistress!” sign on it. Some Muslims subscribe to certain ritualistic prescriptions of the religion itself, and others subscribe to the cultural narratives their elders have taught them about how to live the religion. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.

The fighting for jihad, the guns, the guts, the restrictions – dare I say, come out of Middle Eastern cultures that encapsulate its many rigidities into beliefs about Islam.  But their beliefs in Islam are not universally recognized or understood by the rest of us who could call ourselves Muslims.  Nor would I argue that their beliefs are wrong.  They aren’t consistent with what I believe, but who am I to say wrong?

And this comes after being told in high school that most Muslims don’t consider the Nation of Islam’s subscribers to be Muslim. “That is not true Islam,” I was told. And this comes after the Ahmedis living in an Islamic country are considered blasphemous and, thus, persecuted as if they were proselytizing the word of Yahweh and eating pork chops on Mohammad’s birthday.  There are the Sufis of West Africa and South Asia who fast, whirl like dervishes, see djinns and praise Allah just the same.  There are the Bohras who even pleasantly surprised me when I discovered them in Mumbai last week, with their established high society, colorful capes, and formal events where only men do the serving.

I have spent all Ramadan fasting. And instead of reading the Quran, I’ve found myself reading about the cultures of Islam.  From “City of Djinns” to “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” I’ve pondered the practices and the mythologies; these conversations and spaces of holy worship that are socially accepted in certain regions, but lay outside of the universal religious prescription. They have given me much to think about this holy month.

While the intertwining of God and politics has always been accepted in America when it comes to Christian values, my birth into Islam came at a time when Black people chose a counter norm. No doubt, Islam in my life has been as much political as say the politics of shari’a in Saudi, but my politics are fixed from an inner pulse of core values that don’t require stoning or penal codes to reinforce. I can surely say that Jews aren’t the only ones who get to be ‘cultural’ or ‘religious.’ I’m claiming my space as a card toting cultural Muslim.

For every salaat I have not made, I have – without provocation and/or a second thought – said ‘stafallah’ when I killed a bug or spat a foul word. I feel bad when I don’t say grace before eating and, yes, I still say it half in Arabic like I learned it when I was 4 years old. Pork is not allowed in my house, though alcohol is a favorite meal. Submission to life’s way is something I fully subscribe to, but some things are worth fighting for and that, too, is life’s way. I understand that hair is a crucial aspect of vanity and I love shoes and black eyeliner just as much as any Muslima. I have learned to be content to walk alongside religious Muslims, but not with them every step of the way.

What Ramzan (the Indian pronunciaton of Ramadan) in India has brought me is a fuller understanding of what Islam means to me and a greater respect for what Islam means to others. What faith doesn’t motivate and inspire – some to their highest point, others to the weakest of states? While some feel the need to travel to Mekkha and Medina to venerate God, I have had enough frank conversations with God in the comforts of my own home that I’m pretty sure that me and Allah already got a thing going on.  My understanding of Islam is that it can be just as ample as the wind – sometimes whimsical, sometimes dangerous.  Like the Jordanian version of my name, I remain focused on life giving. Some pray for daily sustenance. Some of us find God in the art of living. We can all be called Muslims, that is, if we want to be.

Eid Karim!