At first, she was only eyes.
Um Mohammad waited for me in the blackness of her open window, the edges of her burka imperceptible against the shadowy backdrop. Outside, among the sweeping sands and crude buildings built from naked concrete and rammed earth, the high desert sun was blinding; its rays bore down on my head and bounced o every surface, radiating heat in all directions. Inside that small window where Um Mohammad stood, however, there was nothing but cool darkness—and those penetrating eyes.
But then, she was standing at the doorway, her body angled in such a way that welcomed me inside without word or gesture. The tiny creases that feathered out from the corners of her eyes deepened, and though I couldn’t see her mouth, I thought she might be smiling.
I stepped into the narrow entrance and followed her past the courtyard into the living room, where her gown formed a stark silhouette in front of a brilliant palette of colors and patterns: orange flowers stenciled on pink wallpaper; handwoven rugs covered with red, green, and yellow triangles; and glittering gold curtains draped across the windows. My eyes finally adjusted to the dim light, and I could at last see Um Mohammad. I could see her eyelashes; every time she blinked, they folded over the top of the niqab that stretched across the bridge of her nose. And her hands—small yet sturdy and rough—were framed by ornate sleeves, not the unmitigated black I had initially perceived, but laced around the edges and dotted with tiny pearls. This was clearly a woman who appreciated beauty. She pulled out her henna kit and signaled me to sit.
In this vast swath of Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, only a few dozen miles from the Saudi Arabia border, it is rare that a Bedouin woman like Um Mohammad would cross paths with an American tourist like myself. This place of thousand-year- old traditions and strict cultural mores dictates that women mostly remain secreted away from the modern world. But we had come together through an unusual network, connected by Intrepid Travel, an Australia-based outfitter that this year launched a series of women-only expeditions to the Middle East. With its female-guided trips throughout Iran, Morocco, and Jordan, the company is taking travelers into the lives of local women at a time when cultural divisions seem more magnified than ever. In an era of burka bans, immigration crises, and growing nationalist sentiment, it’s an opportunity to experience the reality of these oft-misunderstood cultures.“We decided to create trips that would allow our female travelers to really go behind closed doors for a deeper understanding of Middle Eastern female culture. We’re creating connections, building empathy, and breeding tolerance. We need more of that in the world right now.”
Um Mohammad applies henna.“Genuine interaction in these countries is so limited,” says Jenny Gray, Intrepid Travel’s Middle East and Africa expert. “So, we decided to create trips that would allow our female travelers to really go behind closed doors for a deeper understanding of Middle Eastern female culture. We’re creating connections, building empathy, and breeding tolerance. We need more of that in the world right now.”
It was through these deep connections that I had met Abdullah, Um Mohammad’s cousin, earlier that morning. After a long drive from Amman to the edge of the Wadi Rum Protected Area, my guide Nuwar and I had transferred from our chauffeured BMW to Abdullah’s dusty, aging Suburban. He was a giant of a man, brawny and mustachioed and dressed in a long white thobe and prayer cap, but he had an easy smile and a casual countenance, and by way of introduction, he simply said, “Abdullah,” and motioned toward the SUV. We climbed in and off we went, kicking up a cloud of red dust behind us as we followed a small convoy of tourist-packed trucks. Rather than keep on the beaten path toward camel rides, dune drives, and Lawrence of Arabia tours, however, Abdullah turned into the quiet Bedouin village where Um Mohammad awaited.
“She was not born with the name Um Mohammad,” Abdullah said, reclining like Bacchus on the cushions lining the living room floor, watching as Um Mohammad applied tiny henna flowers and dots to the backs of my hands. “It is Bedouin tradition for a woman to change her name after her firstborn son. Her name means ‘mother of Mohammad.’”
Hearing her name repeated in a language she did not understand, Um Mohammad looked up at me. I smiled, and this time the creases around her eyes grew so deep, I knew she was smiling back. Without looking away she said something in Arabic to Abdullah.
“She’s going to give you Bedouin eyes,” he translated, as she pulled out a thick pencil of kohl. After slowly lining my eyes, she handed me a mirror, watching me steadily while I assessed her work. The lines were heavy—too dark and broad to be considered fashionable back home—but they served a purpose in this desert landscape: to thwart those blinding sunrays outside. I put the mirror down and once again caught Um Mohammad’s own darkly lined eyes, and it occurred to me that there might be more to kohl than sun protection; perhaps, it was a chance to adorn the one part of her face that the world was allowed to see.
“We decided to create trips that would allow our female travelers to really go behind closed doors for a
deeper understanding of Middle Eastern female culture.
We’re creating connections, building empathy, and breeding tolerance.
We need more of that in the world right now.”
It was early evening when we finally rode o into the desert, and as Abdullah’s whale of a car bounced from dune to dune, the shadows of the giant sandstone mountains around us grew longer and longer, creating pools of darkness amid the expanses of golden light. By the time we arrived at the Wadi Rum Luxury Camp—a collection of traditional Bedouin-style tents and otherworldly bubble-shaped abodes, each of which surprisingly came with its own bathroom—questions were swimming through my head.
“What would Um Mohammad’s name be if she only had daughters?” I asked Nuwar over a dinner of barbecued lamb and vegetables. “Why do her daughters dress in Western clothes? Will they one day wear burkas, too?”
Nuwar had become accustomed to my nightly inquisitions. In the days we’d been traveling together, my guide had patiently answered a barrage of questions about everything from burkinis to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’d had deep conversations about life and relationships, parents and husbands. We’d talked history, religion, politics, and sports. And, eventually, her questions to me had become as pointed as mine
to her. “Why don’t Americans travel to Saudi Arabia?” she asked over coffee one afternoon. “Why are they scared of such a beautiful country?” I didn’t have an answer to that one. Nor did I have an answer when, in the news the next morning, we learned about Denmark’s nationwide ban on burkas. “Why do they care what women wear?” Nuwar asked. “Why do they care?” I echoed. I felt as if we’d become partners in crime, challenging every country’s status quo, including our own.
Of course, Jordan’s status quo isn’t so clear- cut. The predominantly Muslim nation—which has for decades been a U.S. ally, not to mention a rare bastion of stability in the Middle East—has a proudly progressive side, too, thanks in large part to the female-forward policies of Queen Rania Al- Abdullah, who has developed national organizations to empower and educate women throughout the country. Touring the capital city of Amman with Nuwar, that modern outlook was easy to spot: in the shop that specializes in books that are censored throughout the Muslim world, from Pride and Prejudice to the expanded edition of Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man; in the boutique devoted to chic handicrafts made by women who became the first females in their families to gain financial independence; and at Beit Sitti, a cooking school developed by three sisters to help Jordanian women make lucrative careers out of their natural-born talents in the kitchen.
Elsewhere in the country, however, it was hidden from plain sight. At a Dead Sea beach club one Saturday afternoon, dozens of women gathered in brightly colored bikinis, heads uncovered, bodies golden from the sun—and obscured behind a thick modesty curtain that blocked the views out and, more importantly, the views in. As Nuwar peeled back the curtain to show me the lively pool scene, I found myself frustrated. “Why are they forced to hide?”
But Nuwar was quick to correct my assumption. “They are the ones who don’t want to be seen by men—it’s not the other way around. It is their choice.”
A few days later I stood in the cool shade of a cypress tree on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a valley of rippled beige earth, a few miles south of the Jordan River. “There’s the place where John the Baptist was executed,” Nuwar said, shielding her eyes from the sun and pointing to a distant mountaintop speckled with Roman ruins. But we were not sightseeing in this miserable heat; we were waiting, with sweat gathering in the smalls of our backs and the bends of our elbows, for Halima, a woman whom I had heard was something of a renegade in these parts.
She at last arrived in a way that, not long ago, would have caused a scene in the village of Mukawir: behind the wheel of a car. Dressed all in black, her hijab tightly framing her round face, she drove the small sedan right to the end of the dirt road where Nuwar and I waited. She swung open her door and, purse in hand, marched toward the Bani Hamida center just beyond.
“I was the first woman to drive here,” Halima said, walking swiftly through the center, the two of us trailing on her heels. “It was seen by the community as disrespectful at first.” But, apparently, they got used to it.
Then again, Halima already had a reputation around these parts. The manager of the Bani Hamida Women’s Weaving Project was never what you’d call obedient. As a young woman, she refused to marry a man who wouldn’t allow her to work, and she couldn’t stand to watch other women give away their earning power solely because they were married. So, she recruited them to work for her at the weaving center. At first, it was a means to mobilize women while reviving an ancient Bedouin craft; eventually, it became an international business.
“IKEA is selling these,” she said, running her hand down a towering pile of black-and-white tasseled textiles. “We have women all over weaving them—in their yards, in their living rooms, in between looking after their children.”
In these ancient hills, a woman doesn’t drive a car or put herself through college or conduct business with a Swedish corporation without becoming something of a legend. As Halima marched around the center, inspecting rugs and calling out directives to her team, it was clear that she relished the role of modern woman. And later, in her dining room, over heaping plates of mansaf, she regaled me with the stories behind that hard-earned role—her early days as a humble wool washer, her trip to Santa Fe to sell textiles to rich Americans, and her struggle to raise sons who had trouble understanding why their mother was so different.
“Once, I was out with my oldest son, and the wind blew my scarf from my head,” Halima recalled. “He said, ‘Cover yourself!’ He wanted to be the man, but I wouldn’t allow it. I said, ‘I will not cover my head!’ It was embarrassing for him, but he had to learn.”
I laughed, picturing this small, stout woman challenging a strapping young man in public. But then, she caught my eye and suddenly her smile was gone. “Things are changing,” she said. “Things have changed.”