GW Expat: American desert dweller

Junior Geoff Bendeck, an international affairs major, will spend two semesters studying abroad in Cairo and Beirut, Lebanon. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from the Middle East as one of GW’s many expats.

“I don’t know, I’m not really from anywhere, my passport says U.S.A., but I’m never going back there.”

Erga, an old lady in her 70s, is a nomad with Coke-bottle glasses, grey hair and a wire-thin frame. When Difallah, our guide, picked us up at the ferry stop in Aqaba, our entryway to Jordan and Wadi Rum, the last thing I expected to find was an American Bedouin. Bedouins are people in nomadic, desert-dwelling groups. Several of these groups live in Wadi Rum, a valley in Jordan.

Erga was born in a small town in British Mandate Palestine, but grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. She mentioned being briefly imprisoned for attending a communist meeting in New York in the McCarthy-era ’50s. Erga left the United States in 1978 – she said she couldn’t take it anymore. She ended up in Portugal. Then she headed for Jerusalem. After living in Jerusalem for two years a friend told her about Wadi Rum and its Bedouins-of “Lawrence of Arabia” lore.

“I always felt I was a Bedouin. I came here and met Difallah and stayed with him for a month at first. They taught me how to live in the desert, track snakes, train camels … then I began to go out by myself.”

After a year with the Bedouin, the Jordanian government gave permission for her to live in Rum Village. When she talks, she sounds like a grandmother, and you can still detect a slight Brooklyn accent. I was interested in what she loved about Wadi Rum and its people, what she had learned and thought others could learn.

“A couple years ago a Belgian girl come here and after a couple hours said ‘I’m bored’… I told her ‘Look at the stars. Walk among the dunes. You think you’re bored because there are no gadgets to play with.'”

She mentioned the beauty of the symbiotic relationship of the Bedouin and nature, never taking from the land for individual gain. The communalism of nature and people is all the Bedouin know and have known for centuries.

After three nights in the desert away from the noise, dirt and crowds of Cairo, it is easy to see how Erga came here and after eight years, hasn’t left. The wind, wide vistas and endless Bedouin sweet tea slow your life down to a pace at which you can nearly start to comprehend it. I asked Erga what the future held for her.

“My future is tomorrow, I don’t think I need to be anywhere else right now. I only think in the next five minutes, that is enough for me.”

With that she poured me another shot glass of tea and we sat back in the tent. I thought of nothing but my next five minutes with Erga.

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