It was the summer of 1983. I was slated to do two things: go to Syria for six weeks as part of an archaeological équipe under the leadership of John Lundquist and James Flanagan, and go to Adelfia on the coast of Sicily thereafter, to hang on the beach and lead Bible studies for youth, in the middle of the storm that was brewing across Europe at the time. Missiles were going in left and right. West and East were in confrontation mode. The peace movement was about to peak.
My mother fretted about me going to Syria. “It’s dangerous there.” I knew it might be more dangerous in Sicily following. And it was. One fine summer morning, along with hundreds of other demonstrators, Paola and I blocked as we had for weeks the construction of the Cruise missile base in Comiso, Sicily. We passed panini and shared water with kids our age on the other side of the barricades, Italian soldiers. The order was suddenly given to break up the demonstration. All hell broke loose. We were charged and beaten. Many ended up in the hospital.
But that’s another story.
In this set of posts, I want to reflect on gender construction. Everything I know about gender I learned in Syria from Syrian teenagers who became part of my life while excavating Tell Qarqur. Not everything, but you get the idea.
John Lundquist put me in charge of excavations on the acropolis, the high point of the tell. A great privilege. I loved the view. It’s a breathtaking experience to survey a Levantine valley from atop an ancient tell: Some of my readers will know what I mean. Perhaps, as I do, they remember the view from the top of Megiddo, “Armageddon” of biblical fame. Or from atop Hazor.
A forewarning. I am going to describe everything from a specific, gendered point of view. It’s my own, as I remember it, only lightly censored.
Before I headed off to Syria, I had had a conversation about gender with a high school friend I very much respected. The daughter of a famous math professor at the university, she was a gentle and caring person, soft-spoken and knowledgeable. There was an understated beauty about her that I found attractive. She was also a feminist. That intimidated me. “In the Muslim world,” I said, “things are really bad for women.” Or something to that effect: I was trying to gain her sympathy. “No, they’re not,” she said, looking me square in the eye. “They’re just different.”
Two teenage boys and three teenage girls worked with me on the acropolis. My Arabic is minimal, so I had to rely on an interpreter to engage in conversation. Whenever the interpreter paid us a visit, it was a party. So much to ask. So much to understand.
The older girls, all of sixteen, were polite and sociable, but they avoided eye contact with me or any other male.
There is something unique about having a conversation with someone who is listening carefully, but doesn’t look you in the eye. You learn to read them by other means, by how they shift their hands and move their shoulders and how they look away from you. They enjoyed chatting, I could tell. But they wanted to set a good example for the youngest of the girls, all of 12 or 13.
Syria is not Saudi Arabia. The girls wore a kerchief on their heads, dressed modestly from head to toe, though not in a loose-fitting burka. They wore pajama-like clothing that adhered to their skin. It was a sight to watch the girls walk. As they carried gone-over dirt in baskets on their heads to the designated dump on the side of the tell, they walked with a strong and dignified gait, as if on air. Having flown to Syria from Italy, a relatively “loud” culture, I was struck by the understated grace of my new friends.
One way to listen to a culture is to watch people walk. The gait and dress of the Syrian village girls spoke to me of the moderate Islamic culture that serves as their natural habitat.
I’m going to switch horizons for a moment, and turn to the Bible. Isaiah was a people-watcher, too. A prophet, someone who speaks from God’s side, needs to be a careful observer of the human side. Isaiah watched the girls of Jerusalem of his day walk. He did not like what he saw. This is the message from YHWH he received (Isa 3:16-17):
יַעַן כִּי־גָבְהוּ בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן
וַתֵּלַכְנָה נְטוּיוֹת גָּרוֹן וּמְשַׂקְּרוֹת עֵינָיִם
הָלוֹךְ וְטָפֹף תֵּלַכְנָה וּבְרַגְלֵיהֶם תְּעַכַּסְנָה
וְשִׂפַּח אֲדֹנָי קָדְקֹד בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן וַיהוָה פָּתְהֵן יְעָרֶה
Because the maidens of Zion, high and mighty,
with neck thrown back and roving eyes,
mince along as they go, and jingle with their feet –
My Lord will expose the scalp of the maidens of Zion;
יהוה, he will bare their butt.
As a note in NJPSV indicates, “To bare a woman’s head in public was an intolerable humiliation. Cf. Mishnah Baba Kamma 8.6.”
YHWH, when we walk, what does he see?
To be continued.
Tel Qarqur series: