Tin roofs on simple mud and concrete dwellings are weighted by heavy stones.
"Who else might I have been?" is this week's Sunday Scribblings prompt. With all the bad news emanating from the Middle East these days, people have often said to me, "Thank God we were born in the West." Certainly being born in a Western nation provides opportunities few in the world can ever imagine, much less achieve.
We are privileged to live relatively stable lives, with adequate nutrition, roofs over our heads, healthcare, education and jobs. Until fairly recently, being born in a Western nation provided an immunity of sorts, guarding against many problems ever directly touching our lives. Of course exceptions exist in pockets of poverty throughout the United States, particularly in the industrial North and the rural South, including the Mississippi Delta.
I spent years in the Middle East, thanking my lucky stars I was born in the West. Because not only do the Arabs live with the constant threat of conflict with Israel, many many people in the region live far below what we would consider the poverty line. Many Palestinian children grow up in refugee camps in simple dwellings, their corrugated tin roofs held down by stones.
I first visited the Beqaa Refugee Camp in Jordan in 1983. Children played games next to a stream of raw sewage running through the dirt roads. The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) and numerous private charities have contributed to proper sanitation facilities as well as schools, medical clinics and improved living conditions. But more often than not, school consists of one unheated room, furnished only with a chalkboard and hard wooden benches and desks.
Despite the physical discomforts these children pay attention; they're eager to learn, because they know that the only way out of poverty; out of their predicament is an education. You'd probably be surprised at how many Palestinians growing up in dire circumstances speak two or more languages. Their ability to adapt to changing environments and learn languages puts most Americans with expensive educations to shame. These Palestinian children grow up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and diplomats. They work hard to ensure they aren't mired in the circumstances in which their parents were forced to live, after fleeing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
As a reporter based at the United Nations, I covered so many Security Council and General Assembly meetings regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and traveled to so many countries in the Middle East, the Palestinian delegation used to joke that I was becoming like them - "a refugee" - always moving from place to place, country to country and never really settling anywhere. For too many Palestinians, home is an elusive dream. But that's another story for another day.
Nomads by choice
The Bedouin tribes are nomads by choice. They travel throughout the Arab World, pitching tents, shepherding sheep for a time, then moving on to another locale. At first glance, they might appear poor. But many of the Bedouin have healthy bank accounts and houses in town; they prefer the freedom and open spaces of desert encampments.
The Bedouins are a hospitable people, generously sharing everything they have with anyone who turns up at their encampment. Often they kill and cook a goat in honour of their guests. By tradition, the Bedouins have a responsibility to shelter and protect guests for three days, no questions asked. They turn no one away, regardless of religion, politics or nationality. At the end of three days, the traveler must go elsewhere.
In 1980 in the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, Jordan I first noticed a blonde woman wearing Arab dress. She was selling necklaces and earrings fashioned from polished agate, aventurine and other stones mined in the region. I asked her how she'd come to live in Jordan. She told me she had been a tourist, visiting from New Zealand and had met and fallen in love with a Bedouin man. They married and lived very simply in an open cave near the Petra Treasury. Later the Jordanian government moved the few people living in the area to government housing in a nearby village.
Years later I saw the woman at Safeway in Amman, fashionably dressed in jeans and sandals, her hair pulled back into a braid. The next time I went to Petra she was again dressed in Arab dress, selling jewelery to tourists - apparently quite a profitable venture!