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Joan Ward: Living in Petra Bedouin

Joan Ward

Published on 3 June 2015

I was born in Birmingham in 1944, to a policeman and a shop assistant. When I was two I had Scarlet fever and spent six weeks in an isolation ward over Christmas.

I have two brothers, nine and 10 years older than me. We all learned quickly not to be afraid to stand alone, because we had a blue telephone box at the bottom of the driveway. Not everybody liked the police at that time. Interestingly though, I was Head Girl at school and my brothers were both Head Boys.

I thought about reading Law at University but decided that seven years of secondary education was enough. Then the idea of a commission in the Royal Air Force came to me. I went for the selection tests and won the sash of merit as the best officer cadet in my squadron.

I was commissioned as a 19-year-old officer in the Admin branch of the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). The impetus of women's importance during the war, with regard to the ATA and such organisations, didn't really continue. I was paid 80% of a male officer's pay. However, joining the WRAF was exactly the right thing for me to do and I've been shortlisted for every job I've applied for since then.

We were usually stationed out in the sticks and you have to make your own fun. The women were outnumbered by male colleagues but we were all close friends and would go to balls. But there could be tragedy, especially for the air crews. I met my first husband at the wedding of another WRAF officer. She married a pilot but he was killed when his Beverley crashed in the Far East.

At the end of my four year commission, aged 22, I married a navigator. When I went to see my Station Commander, he said 'If you had stayed you would have had a very good career.' It didn't occur to me to be ambitious. Choosing to join the WRAF initially was something to do with self-satisfaction, something to do with living in a community, but nothing to do with ambition.

We started married life in Oxfordshire, and then my husband switched to Shackleton planes in Cornwall. We also spent two years on The Moray Firth. But after seven years, the marriage broke down. It was that unhappiness that led to me becoming a mature student in 1970 at St Luke's College in Exeter. I thought I would make a good teacher.

I married for a second time, and my husband took a job at Worth School, bringing us to West Sussex. I became Head of Music at Thomas Bennett in Crawley, a school with 2,000 pupils. It was a culture shock and part of me wondered why the children were not lining up against the wall to salute an officer when I walked along the corridor!

There were moments of fulfilment there but it was difficult work. I left after five years, feeling that few pupils shared the values of the teaching staff. There were great exceptions. One pupil went on to study at Merton College Oxford and is now a senior producer with the BBC. Even now, he invites me to attend the Proms every summer.

I'd made a mistake in remarrying so quickly, and needed to escape, so I divorced for a second time. I took a job as an Academic Administrator at Goldsmiths, University of London. I couldn't afford the rail fare, so I bought a motorbike. It could be quite hairy riding into the City every day!

I was friends with the science writer Nigel Calder and his wife Lizzie, and they invited me to spend time aboard their yacht in Saint-Malo, Brittany. It was there that I met my third husband, a photographer. We have a son, Peter, who served as a Royal Marine for nine years.

When Peter was three, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I expected to die, and couldn't bear the thought of my son growing up with no memory of me. I would never have turned my back on conventional medicine, but I was so desperate to help myself that I visited Bristol Cancer Help Centre, which offered alternative therapies to help combat cancer.

Whilst I was there, I took part in a trial comparing survival rates of people who went to Bristol with those who didn't. I felt there were a lot of dirty tricks to play down the importance of alternative therapies. I appeared in a BBC2 Cutting Edge documentary called Cancer Wars and expressed my opinion about that.

I survived cancer after breast reconstruction surgery at the Queen Victoria in East Grinstead, although my experiences did fuel an interest in alternative medicines. I have never really had a religious faith but I have always felt in touch with the core of myself.

For a time, I worked as a supply teacher at St Wilfrid's, a Roman Catholic School in Crawley, before taking a full time post at Our Lady of Sion School in Worthing. After a year I was appointed as Deputy Head, but an injustice meant I was forced to resign at the age of 53. It was an awful time in my life. However, before long I was
teaching English at Worth School. So not for the first time something that appeared very bad led to something
better. By that time, I had gained my Master's degree in English Literature.

I was invited by two Italian friends to visit Milan. I had been reading about Buddhism and they told me that the Dalai Lama was visiting Milan and that I ought to see him. It was the most extraordinary event. He was in a sort of sports hall and the monks were tantric chanting. I didn't understand what was being said, but from the depth of my soul I started sobbing. It had a profound impact on me.

I believe this experience had a bearing on what happened to me three weeks later, on a trip with Worth School to Australia. We went white-water rafting and the boat turned over. I was caught in a recirculating stopper, being continually pulled up and dragged down in the water. As that was happening, I don't think my heartbeat changed at all. I thought 'I'm being tested.' and I realised I didn't fear death. I wasn't afraid. Then I felt a rope and I grabbed it, and was pulled free.

That incident gave me the strength to live on my own in Jordan for eight years.

I retired from teaching aged 60, and went to Petra in southern Jordan on holiday. I felt this physical response to the mountains and the ancient land. It felt like it was my soul's home. At that time, Peter was about to join the Marines and I was – as I still am - living separately from my husband. Lots of people want to follow their hearts, but do not have the freedom to do so. I was fortunate in that I had that freedom.

I returned home to Horsham and immediately looked for teaching jobs overseas. I took a position as the Head of English at the International Community School in Amman, the capital of Jordan. For two years, I lived in Amman and every weekend travelled down the desert highway for three hours to Um Sayhoun in Petra, where I stayed with poor Bedouin people.

I spent two years at the School before retiring once again and moving to Um Sayhoun to live. A man called Bassam Ali, who initially was my guide and provided me with a donkey, lived there with his family. He and his wife were first cousins and had five children. He bought some land in the village and decided to build a new home. I contributed to the cost of this building and lived in half of the downstairs area.

Before I could speak Arabic, I used facial expressions and body language to communicate. Soon after I arrived, I
intervened to stop two teenage boys who had wrapped electrical cables round the necks of two dogs and were forcing them to fight. I stepped in and they sloped off, but a short time later a puppy had been suspended by wire from its back legs on my fence. It was so traumatised he could hardly whimper. I thought I could set an example of how to treat animals properly, because they are not valued. They are seen only as a means of earning money.

I lived a simple life. I slept like others -on a mattress on the floor. I did not pray, as I was not on a mission. I had
simply followed my heart there.

I sometimes ate on my own but quite often I was invited into other people's homes. Generally speaking, I was accepted by the community as Bassam Ali was respected and people thought he wouldn't have brought me into the community if I wasn't a good woman.

One summer night, I was asleep with just a thin sheet over me and I felt a searing pain on my hand. I staggered up with my heart pounding, put the lights on and saw a cream coloured, deadly looking scorpion! I used a spray to kill it, put it in a jar and at 2:30am I was shouting for my neighbour. In Arabic, she said 'you are lucky – it's a juvenile.' She cut a potato in half, dipped it in sugar and it sucked poison away from the wound. For three weeks that bite caused me pain!

I came across a desert viper too. On Saturdays, when my neighbour's children were not at school and their father was in Petra earning money, I would take them and their mother into the mountains. We would take food - sliced potatoes with onions and chicken – wrap it in foil and cook it on the fire. One of the girls started shouting 'snake' and I picked up a stone and dropped it on its head. I knew that for them all to be afraid meant it was deadly.

Whilst in Amman, I saw a certain nobility and simplicity in the lives of the people, which I admired. But I learned that there is also violence and gender imbalance, and I discovered what it is like to live with Islam.

As time went by, I started to speak Arabic and was trusted. I would take the women to see female doctors and try to help them. I would say to men things like 'women are a lot more than their bodies' or 'in some parts of India women can have two husbands!' For every five men, four would laugh, but one man would understand. There is great pressure to follow the party line.

The boys are raised as tin gods who snarl at their sisters and demand things of them. They will say 'fetch me some water' and if the sisters resist the mother will go. A large proportion of adult men think that nothing stands in their way and they will do nothing that isn't self-serving. So in order to keep any kind of control in society, the men have to be afraid. That is why, in my view, absolute monarchies and dictatorships make for the most stable Arab states.

I returned in November 2012 as Peter was being posted to Afghanistan. I didn't want to be out of the country if anything happened to him. So I thought, enough is enough, it is time to go.

At no point was I in Amman to research for a book. I wrote Living with Arabs to increase people's understanding of the news coming out of the Middle East and more importantly to help people understand how Muslim families work and think. At that time, early 2013, I was watching the news thinking 'of course they would think like that' and 'of course they would react like that.'

Three Ukrainian friends in Jordan who ran a photographic studio took pictures of me and they put one of them in the window. One day, a man went in and said 'I know that woman - she is the angel of Petra.' You ask me if I did any good. I don't know. I hope I sowed seeds for people to behave differently, shown some men that public places belong to everybody and shown some women that they can be brave.

For my 70th birthday, I gave myself a present. I searched 'passengers on freighters' online and came across a cargo ship sailing to south eastern USA and Mexico. I was the only woman on the ship for five weeks. It was fascinating to be on the Atlantic under the stars.

Since returning from Jordan, I have become a friend at St Peter and St James Hospice in North Chailey. A friend of mine had ovarian cancer and of all her friends she chose me to have by her side in her final weeks. Since then, it has happened several other times. I never say to people that 'I don't fear death' but they somehow sense it, and know they don't have to try and be brave as they perhaps are with relatives.

I have learned that I am better on my own. I am blessed partly from the cards I was dealt, partly from my life experiences, partly from my readiness to learn from those experiences, and partly with good energy. If you are in a relationship, half of your energy goes into the relationship. If you're not, then your energy is available to whoever wants it, whenever they need it.


Living With Arabs by Joan Ward is now available as an ebook and paperback on Amazon and from Waterstones J