One of the easiest and quickest ways of travelling around the middle east is in service taxis. These vehicles, either ordinary cars or small minibuses, follow fixed routes, starting when they are full and dropping people off and picking others up along the way.
For the outsider, they also provide a good opportunity to observe local people going about their lives. We took a service taxi from Petra to Aqaba, and enjoyed the opportunity to see this snapshot of cultural life.
Apart from five tourists, ourselves included, there were usually about 10 men and four women on board, which loosely reflects the visibility in public life of women. Throughout our stay we constantly remarked on the fact that travelling and walking about city streets you just do not see that many women: most commercial enterprises, shops etc, are run by men, all of the staff in our hotels were men, everyone sitting around in cafes were men. As might be expected, women were more visible in Damascus, but even so they remained very much a minority.
When we climbed into our taxi there were only a few people in it, and they were spread all over the place, but as local women appeared the men would spontaneously shuffle themselves around so that women would not have to sit next to a strange man. It might seem like a courtesy but is actually a social necessity.
The women themselves were interesting to observe. There was a mother and daughter pair, both covered from head to foot in styled black robes but with faces visible. While the mother wore no make-up, the perhaps 20-year-old daughter's face was covered with a most elaborate application of powders, shading from white to pink, blue and purple, heavy mascara and thick eyeliner. On her head she had a dramatically styled purple Louis Vuiton scarf raised up at the back; on entering the bus she looked regally around before lowering her eyes demurely as men swiftly moved seats to accomodate her and her mother. Another woman who climbed on halfway along was completely covered in black, including a veil and thin black gloves. What was interesting about her was that although only her eyes were visible she clearly had spent lots of time making them special, with eyeliner and extremely long fake eyelashes. Her robe sleeves were studded with sequins and jewlels. So while these two women were observing the social niceties of covering themselves, they were making sure that what was visible was as eye-catching as possible.
Meanwhile, everyone, especially the men, played with mobile phones. Arabic culture is very sociable, and people love spending time talking and sitting together, so mobile phones provide an ideal way of extending this interaction into times when they are unavoidably apart. All through the journey phones rang and people made calls. They constantly sent and receive text messages or otherwise played some game on their phone. One guy seemed to spend a lot of time playing around with different SIM cards. Apparently mobile phones were not allowed in Syria until 2001 but now it seems like everybody has one.
The two hours passed quickly as we watched people just being themselves in this confined space. What they made of us may be in some other blog...