Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ladies of the Bus

Tonight the International Women's Forum Cornerstone Conference Building Bridges Breaking Walls officially begins with a dressy reception at The Citadel, part of the old Umayyad palace in Amman. We are all hoping that Queen Rania, who is sponsoring this conference, will attend. However, her schedule is never published in advance--for obvious reasons. The Grand Hyatt Amman is alive with the largesse of beautiful Arab manners and the chit-chat of old friends coming together again. Since I, as a guest, am a step outside the ring of IWF-ers, perhaps my role here is one of historian, and therefore Monday morning finds me at my blog in the business center. Nevertheless, already this morning I have met and talked with two Jordanian women attending the conference and had breakfast with my new acquaintance Marilyn.

Thinking of Marilyn, I realize I should say a few more words about the ladies of the bus, we sixteen sixty-somethings on the four-day tour of Jordan, before we disperse into the throng of five hundred now gathered here. A more distinguished group of women I have never met--and I say that as someone who went to an all-girls school K-12 and then Vassar before it went coed. An indication of these ladies' engagement with the world, intelligence, and accomplishments is that talk never came around to husbands and children. Just to mention a few women in passing, I give you Susie, who once mentioned casually a propos something else that she had instructed a Saudi sheik on monetary interest and banking, and Betsy, who brought Nordstrom's into southern California, served on the Walmart board for eleven years, and has now "repotted herself," as she says, as a private consultant. This summer she goes to Japan to give a seminar to a Japanese firm. I believe she travels the world teaching good business practice.

But really I want to talk to you about Marilyn from Dallas and Texarkana. I especially want to give you Marilyn because so often on the east and west coasts I hear people talk condescendingly about Texas women, with Texas hair, the colorful clothes, the twang, the Christian faith. Marilyn is all that--as well as one of the most impressive women I have ever met. Her grandfather started a newspaper in Texarkana, Arkansas, and since that time her family has expanded the business. They now own the Arkansas Democrat and several other newspapers; also, they moved early into cablevision.

One of the first things Marilyn said, in explaining herself, is "my grandfather started a foundation, and so I always wanted to start one of my own." Marilyn has done exactly that. Through her foundation, she teaches micro-finance to Ethiopian church women and brings water to Ethiopian communities. She says it takes only $25,000 to provide a community with a constant source of clean water. She came to Jordan from Ethiopia--her third trip--where she had been laying the groundwork for new projects and checking up on the old. We had an interesting discussion over breakfast about the need to choose just the right leaders for these women's micro-finance groups, because it is hard for women to grasp the idea that they have to pay back the initial loan--especially since they live in a religious community where "forgiveness" is stressed.

Marilyn's trips to Ethiopia involve a certain amount of danger, so she has not chosen the easiest path, especially since, although she looks my age, Marilyn is a generation above me. She told the ladies of the bus about the trip on which two U.N. security vans had to accompany her group around the countryside. Lately, she has linked up with an American couple (the man started Stewart Title Company), who are also bringing water to Africa. Now that I think about it, water has been a theme of conversation on this journey. Jordan is running out of water, and our guide Zuhair spoke to us at length about the problem. My friend Clare says that if she had been born ten years later she would have gone into water law. Marilyn talks about the need, more than the cure for AIDS and malaria that the Gates Foundation is working toward, simply for a constant source of clean water in Africa. And this is something that on a community-by-community basis is not expensive, by American standards, to provide.

From small beginnings good things may come, in ways other than we intended, sometimes beyond our ken and not in our own lifetimes. I see a glimmer of this, not just with Marilyn and her foundation, but here in Jordan with the coming together of Jordanian and American businesswomen. I already have much to report on this subject--but for another day.

For our last Jordanian tour, we ladies spent a few hours at Wadi Rumm, home of the Bedouin, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. Now this is the desert--and a more beautiful place I have never seen. I would love to come back and camp in the desert. Zuhair, our marvelous Jordanian guide, brings guests to Wadi Rumm late in the day, for the sunset. Then the group camps out in Bedouin tents. The next day, the group goes by camel caravan to a more remote spot and sleeps out overnight on the desert floor. The stars are said to be magnificent. And I cannot begin to describe for you the dignity and loveliness of Bedouin hospitality. I am much too cerebral a person to become one of those western women who goes ga-ga in the Arabian desert, but I can see how that can happen.

So I was wrong about the landscape of Jordan. My husband may also be wrong about the ladies from the West gathered here. At least three-fourths of the ladies on the bus are religious--many, like Marilyn, more devout than me. When you think about it, that makes sense. It would be Christian and Jewish American women who would feel the legitimacy of the religious underpinnings to Muslim lfie. Now where else will I be proved wrong?

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