An Archeogical Dig in Jordan
Crash Course in Arabic Leads to Integration
Genevieve with three Bedouin workers and
a fellow Canadian archaeologist.
Not liking the sense of cultural disconnection that comes without basic communication skills where I traveled has led me to short courses and various levels of language ability in French, Spanish, and German. But my Arabic crash course in 2004 has been my biggest—and most rewarding—challenge to date.
When I was accepted for a summer archaeological dig in southern Jordan I knew that meant learning Arabic. The first century BC Nabatean site at Humayma, between Petra and Aqaba, seemed the icing on the cake to completing a university degree in anthropology with a specialization in Middle Eastern archaeology. My goal was to be able to talk with the Bedouin men who carried out much of the excavation, not just issue instructions in simple English. I had six months to get with the program.
My parents and grandmothers immediately got with the program, deciding that an introductory Pimsleur cassette course in Eastern Arabic would be a great Christmas present. Every day I drove to work or college churning the cassettes. Since my dad teaches at an international college where a couple of Jordanian students attend each year, he lined me up with Hiba, a 17-year-old first-year student from the capital, Amman, so I could learn about the culture and practice my Arabic pronunciation. Despite our 10-year age gap, we hit it off and became coffee buddies for the next six months.
Two months before I was to fly to Jordan, Hiba announced in a tone that brooked no argument, “You are coming to stay with my family. We will give you a final immersion before you go into the desert!” I knew both Hiba’s mother and father spoke some English, but she assured me that her extended family would speak only Arabic while I was with them. I had planned to go to Jordan early and stay in a hostel to get my ear accustomed to the language, but this offer was too good to be true.
I spent eight amazing, intense days in the Fakhoury household. Hiba’s 8-year-old brother, Mohammed, appointed himself my senior language coach, and Hiba and her 14-year-old sister, Sabah, taught me all the slang expressions I would need to get by in both pleasant and unpleasant situations. At each meal, Mohammed would not let me eat or drink until I could remember the word for it in Arabic. Lucky for me I have a good memory, so I didn’t starve!
We shopped the big modern capital city, and visited with aunts, uncles, grandparents until I felt the language was finding a comfortable place in my brain. My philosophy: “Don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot—the more you speak, the sooner you will move into more competent communication.”
When I joined the dig team of international archaeology students and professionals I quickly realized I would have to modify my vocabulary and expressions to fit the rural, Bedouin context.
Even my very new Arabic put me into a significantly more interactive mode with the local people. Being tall, physically strong, and not deterred by egg-frying heat, I picked and shoveled and brushed at a pretty steady pace each day while nattering away with the Bedouin men around me. After a month, I was assigned my own team whose high level of productivity was attributed to an ability to cajole and, where necessary, embarrass the slackers in Arabic and to praise the productive into even more impressive performances. I was honored by my team with the Bedouin name, “Umm Ra’ad,” meaning “Mother of all Thunder”—apparently they liked the motherly way I made them take regular breaks and saw to their water supplies and snacks, while not sparing the slackers a thunderous tongue. Of course, I had my share of sincere marriage proposals, all based on camel dowries. However with diplomatically worded Arabic, I was able to decline each offer without compromising my working relationships with the men.
In the evenings I frequently strolled to the village to visit the families and introduce myself to the women and children who otherwise were virtually invisible during our excavation season. Along with one or two other foreigners, I was invited by the Bedouin men to go on a weekend of 4WD truck camping deep into the wadis or dry river canyons, and I even did some target shooting with them, which certainly added another level of respect in this very macho part of the world.
In my Jordanian desert summer, I became what I could only identify as a “third gender.” This allowed me to be gender neutral in the company of Arabic men and yet a welcome woman able to step into the domestic family sphere where the culture, activities, and interests of country women are quite distinct. Without the language, none of my most memorable experiences would have come to pass.
Join an Archaeological Dig
Whether considering an archaeological dig to enrich your career path or simply to satiate your curiosity about archaeological
techniques and historical destinations, here are some recommendable options:
Archaeological Institute of America, www.archaeological.org. AIA is North America’s oldest and largest organization devoted to the world of archaeology. Its Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin features 250+ listings of active fieldwork sites each year. Its tours offer a wide range of small-group
land tours and small-ship voyages led by practicing archaeologists who offer behind-the-scenes commentary and insight that only scholars can provide.
Earthwatch Institute, earthwatch.org. Since 1971, this
international nonprofit organization has placed more than 81,000 volunteers with field researchers engaged in a dazzling menu of
scientific and social science research around the world. In the
next year, 14 sponsored archaeological dig projects will welcome the helping hands of volunteers.
The Responsible Travel website, www.responsibletravel.com, showcases a number of volunteer dig programs.