Apr 27

Petra in the Jordan Desert“Where you staying?” the Bedouin asked. “Why you not stay with me tonight – in my cave.” He seemed enthusiastic. And we were looking for adventure.’

Thus begins the story of an adventure of a life time, a life-changing decision and a love overcoming boundaries and differences of birth, language, society, distance, culture and values.

I first ran into this story when watching CNN’s show Inside the Middle East, which had various little episodes about the economic, social and cultural affairs of the people living in the Middle East. Among those was the touching story of New Zealander Marguerite van Geldermalsen, now 51 years old.

An extraordinary life and love

The journey of Marguerite began as a 22 year old backpacker travelling around the Middle East, who met and ultimately married a Bedouin souvenir seller with a ‘sparkle in his eye’, Mohammad Abdallah. She and Mohamed had three children and lived for the first seven years of their marriage in a 2,000 year old cave, where they lead a very traditional existence in Petra (Jordan), carting water by donkey and learning how to make bread:

“It wasn’t ‘wow this is extraordinary’, but you didn’t have to get up at seven, or whatever it is, and go to work. You got up and you made tea and that was that, Mohammed would wander off to work. Later on I would get up, the sun would come over the rock and I would sleep outside, so once the sun hit, it was too hot, I couldn’t sleep anymore and I’d get up.”

She does not see her decision to stay with her husband in an unfamiliar culture as a leap of faith, but suggests it simply seemed like the best thing to do at the time.

“I didn’t have any other plans, I had been backpacking for two years at that stage, although my friend was going to be flying out of Lebanon, I didn’t know what to do next and I thought Petra would be a good place to sit and think about it. Then, wherever I went with Mohammed, people would say, are you going to marry him?

“I hadn’t thought about what is coming next, it was good, it was fun, and if that is what we are going to do now let’s do it. You take the chance with an optimistic feel and I have been lucky and it has been good.”

In many ways Marguerite was incredibly naive when she married her Bedouin – she knew little about Arabic culture and had a very rudimentary grasp of the language. However, her lack of preconceptions meant she was very open to new experiences. She embraced her new life (and her recently acquired tribe of relatives) with an infectious enthusiasm that overcame any misgivings that either her own or her husband’s family might have had about the marriage.

A quick idea turned into 25 years of her life

A Wadi in the Jordan DesertDuring her 25 years in Petra, Marguerite learned to speak Arabic fluently, converted to Islam and became the resident nurse for her husband’s tribe. She also acquired a number of rather unusual skills, such as how to ride a donkey, bake bread in a makeshift camp oven or to prepare a Bedouin feast. Her three children were born in the local hospital and, while the family travelled extensively (including a stint in Oamaru, New Zealand, where Mohammad worked at the local freezing works), Marguerite was happy to call Petra her home. Following Mohammad’s death in 2002, Marguerite moved to Sydney for the sake of her children’s education and now divides her time between Australia and Jordan.

It’s really refreshing to see an account of a cross-cultural relationship where, over the years, both husband and wife continued to delight in aspects of each other’s culture, rather than seeing the differences as barriers. While Marguerite was increasingly drawn to the Islamic faith, Mohammad appreciated the importance of a Western-style education for his children. Marguerite’s fascinating account of her life in Petra provides many insights into Arabic culture and values.

Following Nia‘s tradition from this article, there are many questions coming to my mind, when seeing this extraordinary example of making a life-changing decisions and going through with them:Marguerite van Geldermalsen, who was married to a Bedouin for 25 years

  • What attracted Marguerite to Mohammad and his lifestyle? Can love only overcome all obstacles which life puts on you?
  • How did Marguerite dealt so easily with her pregnancies, given the lack of medical services in Petra, after having brought up in a Western Society with its emphasis on hygiene and modern technology?
  • In what ways benefited Marguerite and Mohammad each other’s different culture? How did they overcome obvious obstacles of their daily life?
  • Would you do the same for love? Or for the adventure?

Would you do the same for love? Or for adventure?


Marguerite van Geldermalsen published her story in the form of a book or via various articles online as well. Check out the book here as well, if you are interested.

In her own words:

“Married to a Bedouin is the story of how I fell in love with Mohammad and married him; how I settled into his cave, and slept with him on the ledge in front under a sheet of stars; how I fetched water by donkey, baked bread daily and ran the local clinic. And besides that it describes the most recent history of Petra; through our stories and the stories of the people we shared the valley with comes a picture of the site when it was alive, and when I was the Bedouin from New Zealand”

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written by Chris

2 Responses to “What would you do for the Love of your Life?”

  1. JennDZNo Gravatar UNITED STATES Says:

    That is a beautiful story and does not surprise me in the least. When you have found the right person everything changes, you will literally do anything to be with them, even if it is something completely different than what your former life was, because at that point your life is about them, and your future, not your past or who you used to be. Love is the universal reality.

  2. AgentSullyNo Gravatar UNITED STATES Says:

    How romantic and how nice that it worked out. It sounds alluring. Would I do it? Maybe when I had the courage/naivete that comes with youth. Who knows! I haven’t been to Petra lately to find out! :-)

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