Interview with Um A’yube: Writer, Mother and Wadi Rum Transplant

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um a'yube

Interview with Um A’yube: Writer, Mother and Wadi Rum Transplant

Hello Um A’yube. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a shy person and I like to watch the world go by. People fascinate me and I reflect a lot on why people act the way they do. I like to hold on to hope that the world is overall a good place. I am a mother, a Muslim, a writer, a dreamer, an optimist, a scrambler upper of mountains. I am curious and I always want to know what is on the other side of the mountain – even if it may only be more mountain.

What first got you into writing and travel?

I have always loved writing. I think a lot and writing is a natural way to process thoughts and feelings.

As a child and teenager, I would mainly write poetry (probably terribly neurotic stuff), then handwritten letters to friends from my boarding school (showing my age there). I would also write very long dramatic fiction stories. Now as an adult and a parent, I enjoy writing short/medium travel articles. Travel is a physical form of philosophy and self-development. This is what interests me when I write about travel. I also write children’s stories, which began from a frustration with looking for stories to read to my children and finding very little quality material that feature Arabs. I think it is important to expose one’s children to diversity from a young age, but also for them to see themselves in literature because this encourages self confidence. In cartoons and children’s books, the “baddies” often have physical features that are Arab-like, such as dark arched/shaped eyebrows, dark eyes, a large nose, beards. The baddies are not so very different in looks from their father. I think sub-consciously this infiltrates the mind of the child. I can see the effect in young Bedouin children now when they tell me they think pale skin is more beautiful. Or how they think blonde hair and blue eyes are more beautiful. They fail to see their own beauty. Bedouin people are a very proud people so I am sure 60-100 years ago they didn’t think their own features were not beautiful. I find this very disheartening and sad. I think there are lots of factors at play, but how children feel about themselves has a lot to do with the subconscious messages they receive through the television and internet. In my own small way, I hope to counter the negative stereotypes with my writing.

My first book, “Bedouin Bedtime,” is available as an e-book on Amazon here. The book is for very young children – babies and toddlers, but could also be for older children as early readers.

As a child, I travelled a lot with my parents, then as a teenager and adult I travelled independently. Travel is something that is a part of my life and my identity. While I no longer travel, in some ways you could argue I am in a permanent state of travel. I am no longer English, but I am not Bedouin either. My identity is in a process of travel even though I am not physically moving. Living in the desert, I am never fully at home in the sense that I am always hyper aware of the environment around me. Growing up with greens and greys in the UK, the desert is the ultimate contrast.

Tell us how you came to make Wadi Rum your home.

This is somewhat of a long story and private. However, I will say that it was a kind of personal awakening and a religious reversion combined with meeting a person who I admired greatly and whom I felt (despite massive differences) was the same from the inside. Those things led to marriage and my life in Wadi Rum.

What is an average day like for you?

My average day is probably very boring sounding for most people! But the setting is a beautiful one! The routine changes with the season, but in general it goes like this: I wake up early to make my prayers. Then I make sweet Bedouin tea for the family. We drink this sweet tea with powdered milk, or tinned condensed milk. Then I get the children ready for the day and clean the house. We live in the room we sleep in so I tidy away the mattresses and blankets and clean the floor, then the room is ready. I feed the goats and geese and carry water to them. The children usually play outside for a while and I do some work on the computer. Then around 10am, I make a light breakfast – usually bread with various things to dip the bread in.  After breakfast I might do some more work on the computer, or shower the children. In the summer, I don’t need to heat the water, but in winter/ autumn/ spring I heat the water first in a metal pan, then make up a bath for them in a plastic bowl I have. Then it is usually time for midday prayers. After prayers I might cook for lunch if I have food for cooking. If not, I make a light lunch; hummus etc. with bread. After lunch in the summer, we usually have quiet time because it is too hot for anything else. In winter the children will play outside all day. In the afternoon, I will then do some more work on the computer or play with the children until around 4-5pm when it is time for afternoon prayers. I then make afternoon tea. My husband will often have had a nap/ siesta and he will eat something at this time. Then the children and I go outside and play. We feed the goats and geese. I might have other goat jobs to do, like cutting their hair or their hooves. If we have the means, we will sometimes drive into the desert and play in the sand, climb the mountains, collect stones. Or I might walk to my sister in law with the children. Once sunset arrives it is time for prayers. Then I think about dinner. In the summer, we sit outside in the evening. In winter we make a fire in my husband’s Bedouin tent next to the house and spend time together around the fire. Then it is time to get the children ready for bed and get some sleep.

In between all this, my husband has tourist guests that come and go: they arrive at the house, he gets them organized and then sends them off into the desert on their tours.

One of the things I like about life here is that work and lifestyle are all wrapped up together. I appreciate that we don’t lead these two separate lives: work and home. We have our one life within which there is work and play, home life and social life.

There is also a rhythm to our lifestyle that is dictated by nature. I enjoy feeling connected to nature because of that.

Tell us a few things that we may not know about where you live.

  1. The desert is not just cold at night and scorching in the day all year around. There are seasons. In summer the days are boiling and the nights are cool (not cold), or they can be hot too. Some nights you cannot sleep outside because of the heat. While in winter, the days can be hot, but usually they are cold and the nights colder. In winter everyone is preoccupied with collecting firewood and we spend a lot of time around the fire.
  2. Bedouin women are not just sad, oppressed, meek and mild creatures. They are generally pretty feisty and tough. If they are upset with you, they will tell you. If you do something strange, they will say why are you doing x thing such and such way, why not do it this way. They also form very strong support networks together so no woman is ever lonely in difficulty. The society functions in a different way in that women will usually concede to their husbands wishes. However, when something really matters to them they will stand up and protest. Their “ace” card is to go home (alone) to their parents in protest, and I tell you there is nothing quite like a house full of children with no mother taking care of them to bring ones husband around to ones way of thinking. : D.
  3. Deserts are very silent places. The environment is very harsh so there are not many animals that make noise. Utter silence is something very profound and it can break you or make you. As a result, Bedouin culture is very social.
  4. Anyone visiting Wadi Rum should do their research and not just rely on booking platforms to arrange their tours. There are a lot of camps with multiple names, and camps listed that don’t exist (the guide will take his guests to his cousin’s camp or something). That in itself doesn’t really matter, but it makes guides less accountable because the business is like the wind – you don’t really know where you are going or with whom. Choose a guide and camp to the South end of the area (look on google maps to find the quiet camps) because this is where the quietest most beautiful areas are. Also, to the South your views of the stars will not be affected by light pollution from the village.

What inspires you to write? What is your focus area?

I don’t know if I am inspired to write. Either I am compelled or not. I go many years without writing a thing. Then there are times when every chance I get I am writing my thoughts down. At the moment, I am focused on travel and children’s books.

What was your most interesting work experience?

Working for a very rich Chinese Malaysian man for a number of years. He was very eccentric, but ridiculously driven and I learnt a lot from him. When he was at university, he made a vow that he would not get married until he had £1 million in the bank. Lol, if that had been me I would never have gotten married. I can’t be so driven about money.

What was your favorite story to write?

I enjoyed writing all of them, but probably the story about Living in Wadi Rum because this is the most recent experience. Secondly, the one about my childhood experiences in Symi, Greece because this is a memory that I hold dear to my heart. The feeling I have about the two places (Symi and Wadi Rum) are very much the same.

In a few words, what is one of your best travel experiences.

As a child, standing on the edge of a cliff, waves pounding the rocks below, while a stranger held my legs and we watched molten lava pouring into the sea.

What advice can you offer others who are moving/transitioning to a different country and/or adapting to new cultures?

  1. Keep your sense of humour, you are going to need it : D.
  2. If you are also getting married, then you have to be flexible. Any marriage requires compromise and one that involves two people from different cultures is going to need even more compromise than usual.
  3. Don’t fight over things that are really superficial, then you have the energy to hold on to the things that really matter to you.
  4. Don’t get mad when people around you (or your spouse in this instance) react differently than what you expect.
  5. Sometimes you need to frame how you view the situation differently.

For example, when my husband and I first got married, I made him a fried egg with lovely runny yellow yolk. My husband was horrified. He had never seen anyone make an egg with the yolk runny before. He thought “this food is uncooked, is disgusting and will make me sick.” I could get upset about this (why has he rejected my food), or angry (why can’t he be more open minded). But you have to think about it from his culture and world view. In the desert, eggs are relatively new, and also it is ridiculously hot most of the time. In summer food can go off in a matter of hours. Therefore, you can see how it would not be common practice to make eggs with runny yolks because yes, the reality is, you are likely to make someone sick that way. Now I simply don’t make him this food and I don’t try to force him to try it (why fight about it, it doesn’t really matter). Then when I want to eat a fried egg, I make it for myself when he is not around.

This story about sums up living in a place where the culture is radically different to one’s own. You have to be in a place of acceptance, willing to change some things, but you can retain yourself and your own culture without rocking any boats…

The path is a narrow one, take your patience and humour and you will be fine, Insha’allah.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

When you travel, leave arrogance at home and the world will open its doors to you. Most people have a sense of their own “rightness,” and then when they travel and encounter people doing something different they view the other person as “wrong,” “stupid,” “misguided,” ” uneducated” or various other derogatory assumptions. I would urge people to notice and catch themselves doing this, because something you view as incorrect can be viewed differently elsewhere, and perhaps in a different environment YOU are the wrong one. When you travel, try to keep an open mind and heart and the rewards will be worth more than gold.

Erika

Erika

I was raised in a tight-knit Midwestern family with a strong commitment to service. An architect by training, I currently work in affordable housing finance. Prior to moving to NYC, I lived in Nicaragua for two years and have also spent time in West Africa and the Middle East. I started this blog as a way to catalog musings on travel and everyday life around the world.

2 Comments

  • Erika
    Erika

    Thank you so much for sharing a snapshot of your life with us!

    September 23, 2017 at 6:00 pm
    • Um A'yube

      You are welcome I hope it was interesting!

      September 25, 2017 at 4:00 am
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