Annie Caulfield's new book tells of her romance with a Jordanian Bedouin. In this extract, a trip to the Syrian border with her partner Rathwan serves to highlight the contrast between the lives of women in the East and in the West
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The Independent Travel
Our walk took us up to the hilltops overlooking Syria. Traces of abandoned terrace farming gave the golden slopes a dizzying aspect: miles of faint, descending ridges spinning out of sight against a sharp blue sky. Nearer to us, the land was rich and colourful: there were tiny, whitewashed farms set in vineyards and groves of apricots, and an improbable clutch of Friesian cows clustered under some fig trees. Just behind them were two small fields of pale blue opium poppies - hardly enough to merit alarmist talk of a sideline for smugglers, but then I don't know how much opium you need to start a business. The fields looked small enough to be for the farmer's personal use; perhaps the hallucinatory strangeness of the black and white cows among the figs was a scene he'd set up for himself to gape over while out of his mind.

"Just elegant, isn't it?" Khalid said, and I realised where I'd heard this before: Marilyn Monroe exclaimed it over and over in The Seven Year Itch. Possibly Khalid had gleaned his English from more surprising sources than just the schoolroom.

"Just elegant," I agreed, trying to take in the foreground and background in a single glance: the prettiest of southern Italy backdropped by a scene painter of biblical epics.

When Khalid dropped us back in Ramtha, Faraj grandly asked him how much "we" owed him. Khalid's influences switched from Marilyn to Anthony Perkins, looking as if he'd like to stab Faraj repeatedly, with or without a shower curtain handy. I had a few sharp edges trained on Faraj myself, considering he undoubtedly wouldn't be among the "we" who had to part with money.

"I didn't take you as a taxi, I took you as guests," Khalid said to me, almost turning his back on Faraj. Rathwan stepped in, thanking Khalid for his kindness and wishing him luck with his business. Faraj mortified everyone again by offering to pay for petrol. Khalid refused politely, teeth clenching. Then we all just stared aghast at Faraj as he laughed wildly and said: "Please, take some money. We are not Iraqis, we don't want to take petrol from people without paying."

Khalid shook Rathwan's hand, said that it had been lovely to meet us, and walked away without affronting himself with another took at Faraj.

Basma had run mad in our absence, doing up her sparsely furnished little house with whatever she had available: paper flowers in a plastic pot now flourished on top of the television set, curtains had been put up at the barred windows, a poster of Jerash had appeared on the living-room wall. Everything had been cleaned: all the concrete floors were damp, the bathroom was awash with disinfectant, and the scrubbed-faced children were in fresh clothes. Basma had changed into an embroidered light blue dress and made herself up exquisitely. Her husband remained as unsightly as ever.

Basma gave us Pepsis and wondered if we'd like to rest a while, as it was still too hot to eat. Rathwan didn't need asking twice and was soon asleep in the living-room. Faraj wheeled Basma's crippled husband, Shaban, away to visit a neighbour. I hoped the neighbour was hospitable, so they'd enjoy their visit for some time.

I shared a broken-down sofa outside the house with Basma and most of her children. Although we had very little language in common, we managed to communicate as we sat sunning ourselves. That she had married beneath her would be an understatement of the position this refined woman found herself in; nothing about her matched her setting. I noticed her unwitting flinch of repulsion every time her husband spoke to her. Then there was her struggle to rise above a poverty that was bound to get worse.

With me, she seized a brief chance to think beyond Ramtha. She plied me with questions. What countries had I been to? What were they like? Where would I like to go next? When I asked where she would like to go, she smiled ruefully and held out her hands to embrace the whole world: "Go," she said, with a deep sigh. "Anywhere"n

`Kingdom of the Film Stars' is published by Lonely Planet, price pounds 6.99.

Jordan basics

Airborne to Amman: British Airways (0345 222111) and Royal Jordanian (0171-734 2557) fly non-stop to the capital, Amman. Their lowest fares are pounds 412 and pounds 551 respectively (including tax). Cheaper flights available through discount agents such as Campus Travel (0171-730 3402), which has a fare of pounds 255 on Turkish Airlines. Red tape: visas are essential for all but Arab visitors to Jordan, and should be obtained in advance from the Jordanian Embassy at 6 Upper Phillimore Gardens, London W8 7HB, in person or by post. British nationals pay pounds 27 for a single-entry, three- month visa. (details: 0891-171261). Climate: spring is generally the best time to visit. Amman has cold winters and hot, dry summers. Take rain gear for trips between November and April. The eastern desert is consistently dry and hot.

What's the best way to ...

Visit the Congo? Given the present difficulties in Brazzaville and beyond, it's probably best to make do with spending an evening in the company of the writer-explorer Redmond O'Hanlon. He will be speaking about his latest exploits at the next Stanfords' Travel Lecture, to be held at the Royal Geographical Society in London next Tuesday, 18 February. Three weeks later, Rory MacLean will be talking about his latest book, The Oatmeal Ark: Across Canada by Water. Tickets for either lecture cost pounds 6.50, and can be booked on 0171-836 1321.

Relive the Thirties in Morecambe? Join in the Art Deco Extravaganza between 21 and 23 March at the Midland Grand Hotel in Morecambe (01524 417180). The design of the hotel is in the image of a Thirties-style liner, a stylish setting for the planned music, art and other events.

Reach Hamburg for little more than the price of a burger? Take the new pounds 57 special from Scandinavian Seaways (0990 333000). This price applies to a return crossing from Harwich to Germany's second city, taken before 27 March or from October to December, staying a maximum of six nights.