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Reviewed by:
  • Into the Wadi
  • Lisa Suhair Majaj
Into the Wadi Michele Drouart. Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000

It is not an easy feat to capture the complexity of moving between worlds, of weaving a life out of the strands of cultural difference. Narratives that seek to portray such encounters often founder on cultural reductionism. In contrast, Into the Wadi offers a contemplative, unstereotypical look at the complexities of cross-cultural experience.

Australian-born Drouart was studying in the US when she fell in love with Omar (a pseudonym), a Muslim Jordanian from the village of Kufr Soum. Into the Wadi recounts the series of visits she made to Jordan as she decided whether or not to marry Omar and stay in Jordan. Instead of a straightforward memoir, the book offers a discontinuous series of vignettes structured around a wedding she and Omar attended at a time when their own marriage, which ultimately ended, was in doubt. Weaving back and forth from the moment of the wedding to other experiences and scenes, Drouart provides a textured sense of life in Jordan and of the intricate process of learning to live in another culture. Yet, although dense with cultural data, the book is not an anthropological expose. Rather, it keeps at the foreground Drouart's own role as observer and participant in a culture she found different and difficult but clearly still loves.

Drouart's starting point, to her credit, is her own Orientalism. Early on, she admits to always having been fascinated by difference: "To be the [End Page 137] other, or as close as you can come: this was the way to know the world, to be alive" (39). And she admits to having romanticized Omar "in all the Orientalist ways" (193), but she also understands that difference is negotiated through the structures that predetermine our knowledge of the other. Her book is an attempt to break through those structures, to put into words a more intimate knowledge not confined by the perceptions so often used to rationalize imperialist agendas. This is not an easy task. As she observes partway through her narrative, "I have come up against a wall, a wall of words, an opaqueness that prevents the people here from carrying their own story. Snatches and fragments handed down by the Western generations before me…stack themselves up independently of my wishes." Her book is her attempt to find "the chink, where I can tap and tap to find my way through…then the wall will be strewn in fragments" (114).

Even before she met Omar, Drouart had begun to understand that difference is in the eye of the beholder. Early in the narrative she describes the reactions of international students to life in the US, a country they were expected to admire but whose culture they often found dehumanizing. In a poignant passage she describes an African student who could not adjust to the isolation of American life and who ultimately committed suicide. In contrast, the closeness that the international students at her US campus so desperately long for is precisely what she herself finds most difficult in village life. In Kufr Soum, the solitude she craves—to write, to read, to contemplate—is not only discouraged but at times "perceived as an aberration…like an illness, or a shameful luxury" (90). Similarly, she learns that concepts of private possession are culturally defined. In one episode, her sisters-in-law borrow her good blouses without permission; while Drouart is furious at the violation, they cannot understand her reaction: after all, she was not using them, and they put them back unharmed. The incident, eventually resolved with laughter, becomes one more piece of the puzzle of community relationships in Jordan. If individual rights and freedom are at times curtailed, this is countered by the immense care and concern and warmth that envelops each individual and which Drouart recognizes as the most valuable aspect of life in Kufr Soum.

Indeed, the conundrum at the heart of Drouart's experience is the fact that every coin has two sides: there is no experiencing one without [End Page 138] the other. As she writes, "All I most...


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pp. 137-139
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