Married to Mohammad:Marguerite van Geldermalsen’s Writing Life interview

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.

14 thoughts on “Married to Mohammad:Marguerite van Geldermalsen’s Writing Life interview

  1. I am very proud of our daughter and meeting Mohammad the first time I knew immidiately why she fell in love with him. It is great to know that Marguerite has so much success and lovely feedback from her book.

  2. I bought the book yesterday… haven’t finished it, but can’t put it down. What a wonderful free spirit, you are! Thank you for sharing. I wish you continuing happiness whatever you do and wherever you go.

  3. We are having the tenth permaculture convergence in Jordan. Part of this will be a trip to Petra. I am so happy that I found this book by Marguerite. I now have a feeling for the Bedouin of that area, which is important to me when I travel.

    I will try some of the Arabic words she introduced to us in her book, and also want to try the food especially the dried yogurt balls.

    Thank you for writing this book. Visiting ruins feels empty to me without knowing about the people. You painted a great picture of the Bedouin’s traditional life.

  4. When you go to Petra, of course, don’t forget you can actually find Marguerite at her souvenir shop inside the ancient site itself. So take your copy of the book with you and I’m sure she’ll be happy to sign it!

  5. I’m a Jordanian living in Amman. Got the book from Amazon a few days back and cannot put this book down! Being a Jordanian and Western educated, I can relate to both Mohammed and Marguerite. Two wonderful people from very different background and cultures unite for love and I salute Marguerite for her courage to adopt a very simple and basic lifestyle literally in the middle of nowhere.

  6. My mother visited Egypt and Jordan with her best friend earlier this year just as the Egyptian part of the so-called Arab Spring was happening. Anyway, they loved Petra and discovered Marguerite’s souvenir shop and had a chat with her son Raami. My mom bought the book for me because I’m an American who married a New Zealander… but she read it first and really enjoyed it. Now I’m nearing the last pages and wondering if Marguerite has published anything else because I’m going to miss this story and its world. Hence, the Google search and I found Matt’s site. Cheers.

  7. Ramez, that’s a beautiful way to sum up Margeurite’s experience and her book. I’m sure that she’d be extremely happy to have reached someone in Amman!

  8. I am busy at the moment reading Margeurite’s book. And I absolutely LOVE IT. I have travelled to many countries
    but my most magical and memorable experience was meeting the Bedouin in Oman in November 2010 and also going to the Wadi Bani Khalid where there is an oasis and where the people live in the mountain village. Meeting the Bedouin and experiencing the desert was an extremely magical one – there is magic in the sand!

    What I love about the book is that Marguerite and Mohammad’s love was uncomplicated yet they came from such different backgrounds.It reinforces to me what I have always believed that love is universal and that it doesn’t matter what religion, culture we come from. When love between 2 people is
    meant to be, it is simple, uncomplicated, flows and is relatively easy. Thank you for sharing your life in this book – you are truly a remarkable woman!
    Kind regards
    Angela Fuggle, South Africa

  9. The soft breeze lazily, both cooling and warming my Friday afternoon reading spot, the peace of the Arab weekend, the finish of Marguerite’s tale, tears falling on the last few pages. I too married in 1978, in Nigeria. Marguerite and Mohammad’s to-ing and fro-ing with a complex bureaucracy as they manoeuvred through the paperwork to become husband and wife mirrored our own experiences in northern Nigeria. We have four sons who we also trust have been given “a wide enough education that they can make their own decisions”. We ventured around the world with our family, tasting the differences of culture and the sameness of human expectations of life. I lost my husband last year, a heart attack in northern Nigeria. Now, no longer married to a Brit, I am also a nomad once again, living and teaching on a small mound of sand in the Arabian desert, politically part of UAE, ethnically Arab/Bedouin. My present location allowed me to spend a tiny bit of time a year ago in Petra. I sat with a friend in a “cave like a swing-chair” on the back path to the High Place, eating our little lunch and avoiding the rain drops. Marguerite’s book, now finished, was passed on to a visiting acquaintance who will travel with it to Petra on her December break. Perhaps she and my book will meet Marguerite while there. I have also been told so many times that our stories must become part of a book. Marguerite, you have inspired me with your spirit and your story. I believe narrative writing offers the reader an opportunity to make connections. “Who would ever read a book of my life stories and what connections would the make?”, I have often asked myself, mostly to justify my procrastination at making the attempt to write them down. I guess there just might be people our there who may connect with my stories also and if I were very , very lucky, shed a tear or two as they finish, as I did with Marguerite’s stories of her, Mohammed, her Bedouin family and friends, the most recent inhabitants of the remarkable caves and facades of Petra.

  10. This afternoon I finished reading Marguerite’s book, also moved to tears. I’ve recently returned from the Middle East and a visit to Petra. I heard about the book at a shop at the top of a hill where our tour bus stopped for photos and refreshments en route to Petra from Aqaba. My Kiwi (New Zealand) accent was recognised by a German tourist at the shop who reccommended I read the book. However, I didn’t get a copy until after my return home. My quandary is this: would I have enjoyed the book so much if I hadn’t visited and been enthralled by Petra first or would I have enjoyed the visit to Petra more if I’d read the book first? I honestly don’t know. One thing I do know is that I would now like to return there some day for an even more enriching experience although that will most probably never happen. Petra is soooo far from New Zealand which is possibly why I (as a grandmother with all my grandchildren living near to me) felt so moved by Marguerite’s story about meeting Queen Elizabeth and the opportunity this offered to show Raami to his NZ grandparents on TV. If I had read the book beforehand and the interview on this website, I would certainly have searched for Marguerite and/or her family while in Petra, a truly magnificent place.

  11. The best read ever!Margaurite your story should be made into a movie this is an experience most beautiful and inspirational…wish i had known ypour story ages ago.Your life is a life well lived .Thank you what a difference to our world.

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