In the southern desert of Jordan, the ancient Nabateans carved their city, Petra, out of the red-rose rock. Later the caves were home to tribes of Bedouin. And to a young backpacker from New Zealand who fell in love with a Bedouin man. Marguerite van Geldermalsen met Mohammad in the late-Seventies and for the initial seven years of their marriage they lived inside the rock and had two of their three children. The Jordanian government later moved the tribes to a new village nearby, where Marguerite still lives (She has a souvenir shop inside Petra). Though Mohammad died almost a decade ago, Marguerite’s book “Married to a Bedouin” is a touching testament to the character of the man who changed her life and the profound love found by two people from such different backgrounds. It’s Marguerite’s first book and it’s written with a clarity of thinking and of style that’s striking. She has given us the most insightful description of Bedouin life you’ll read and also a unique love story sparkling with the attraction between Marguerite and Mohammad. For my series of interviews with authors, I’m delighted to chat with a writer who came to publish by such an unusual path.
How long did it take you to get published?
Considering the number of people who had told me I should write a book (memoir) I was surprised that I had any trouble at all. But now I know that I was rejected by the first two publishers just so that I could get published by the wonderful Lennie Goodings at Virago Press (no less)!
Would you recommend any books on writing?
I took a class with Patti Miller in Sydney and we used her ‘Writing Your Life’ (Allen & Unwin). I learned to write with it and I recommend it to people who haven’t done any writing before.
What’s a typical writing day?
I started with 3 pages of hand writing ‘morning pages’ from Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ and I felt so inspired that I didn’t dare stop till my book was published. (Actually I still write them most days) I wrote the book on the computer though, and worked as a nurse and looked after my 3 children so it was whenever I felt the impulse and could.
Plug your book. How would you describe what it’s about? And of course why’s it so great?
Married to a Bedouin is set in Petra, Jordan where I have lived since 1978. When I first came and married ‘the Bedouin’ Mohammad’s tribe still inhabited the caves and set up their tents around the valley and by the time we were resettled to a nearby village in 1985 I was part of the tribe. I started writing the book in 1997, when I realized just how much the life had changed and how special my stories were, to capture that recent history of the site and to show the world that people are pretty much the same everywhere.
What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
I seem to find a new good one in each book I read, for the moment I like: ‘He paused in the strong evening wind, took a comb from the top pocket of his tweed jacket, and tried to tame the strands of white hair with which he covered his baldness.’ Which made me think; ‘this writer knows his subject’.
Well, it’s certainly kind of you to choose a sentence from one of my books. But for the next question feel free to pick someone else: What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
So many good ones, but for you Matt let’s have Bruce Chatwin in What Am I Doing Here: ‘Oh! Wales. I DO know Wales. Little grey houses… covered in roses… in the rain’
Well, diolch yn fawr, as they say in Wales… Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
I love John Irving.
How much research is involved in your book and how do you carry it out? Beyond simply being married to a Bedouin and living in Petra. Did you have to go back to old diaries, photographs…?
Although I had written the stories down it wasn’t till 2002 after Mohammad had died and we lived a few years in Australia that I really got into the writing of it. Patti had lots of exercises and I found once I started looking at the memories they kept bubbling up. I kept that blank piece of paper and pen by my bed so I could roll over without turning on the light and get the idea down before it disappeared into the night. My mother paints and she taught me that one. I checked some things out on the internet but I’m not sure if I’m happy about that because it spoiled some memories. For instance the memory of Mohammad going off to play cards was always sparked for me when I heard the Eurythmics song; ‘Sweet Dreams’ imagining I had sat in the cave alone and listened to that but when I checked it didn’t come out till a couple of years later and so I left it out but feel now I shouldn’t have because it is about my memories and that was tied to them.
Do you use other media, like music or art, to get yourself into the mood to write? Or to open up your creative faculties?
‘The Artist’s Way’ had other exercises to open up the creativity and I think they helped. I was working as a nurse at the time and I think the practical-ness of that was a good balance. I sometimes thought I should have music on but it distracted me, I much prefer the silence and the sounds and smells of the neighbor cooking tomato sauce.
What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
Make it good! Selling my book myself at my shop inside the Petra site is perfect; like an all day everyday book signing but in the end the readers do the rest by loving it and talking about it and recommending it.
What’s your experience with being translated?
I don’t read any other languages but from the reactions of readers I imagine the translations are good enough, except maybe for the translation of the title of the German edition. Their title ‘Bedouin at Heart’ indicates a more romantic or philosophical book than the reader gets. And I can’t understand why Indonesian and Estonian publishers have found it worthwhile but French, Italian and Spanish publishers haven’t yet.
Could you live entirely off your writing?
Did you write other books before you were published?
What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
On tour in New Zealand I met a guy who had stayed in Petra with Mohammad before I met him, and had the photo to prove it.