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Bedouins of the Desert
One of the most famous group of people from Jordan’s population is the Bedouin. Known in Arabic as de Bedu, or “desert dwellers”, they endure the desert and have learned to survive its unforgiving climate. Although it is difficult to count the Bedouins, it is generally known that the majority of Jordan’s population is of Bedouin origin.
Most of Jordan’s Bedouin live in the vast wasteland east from the Desert Highway. All throughout the south and east of the country, their communities are marked by distinctive black Goat-hair tents. These are known as “beit al-sha’ar” or house of hair.
Bedouins are often stereotyped as nomads, wandering the desert in search of water and food for their flocks. However, only a small portion of the Bedouin can still be regarded as true nomads. Many live a sedentary lifestyle to cultivate crops rather than drive their animals across the desert. Most Bedouin have a style of living which combines the two lifestyles. The Bedouins who still practice pastoralism will camp in one spot for a few months at a time, grazing their herds of goats, sheep or camels until the fodder found in the area is exhausted. It is then time to move on. Often the only concession they make to the modern world is the acquisition of a pick-up truck (to move their animals long distances), plastic water containers and perhaps a kerosene stove.
It can be said that many of the strongest characteristics of the Jordanian and Middle Eastern society are found in Bedouin culture. Bedouins are most famous for their hospitality and it is part of their creed, rooted in the harshness of desert life, that no traveler is turned away. The tribal structure of Arab society is also most visible among Bedouins where the clan is at the center of social life. Each Bedouin family has its own tent, a collection (hayy) of which constitutes a clan (qawm). A number of these clans make up a tribe, or qabila.
As the Bedouins have been historically outside the governing authority of the state, they have used a number of social mechanisms, including exile from the tribe, and the exaction of “blood money,” or vengeance to right a crime, to maintain order in the society. The values of Bedouin society are vested in an ancient code of honor, calling for total loyalty to the clan and tribe in order to uphold the survival of the group.
The Jordanian government, which in the past has promoted the settling of the Bedouin, recognizes the unique value of their contribution to Jordan’s culture and heritage. It has been said that they are the backbone of the Kingdom. The government continues to provide services such as education, housing and health clinics. However, some Bedouins pass these up in favor of the lifestyle which has served them so well over the many centuries.
With thanks to the website: http://www.kinghussein.gov.jo/people1.html
Brenda, a Bedouin?
I was lucky to live nine months in the desert in Heshma near Garaza (a natural bridge in the desert) and Quwayra together with my son, our horses and wwoof volunteers. We were surrounded by herds of camels, grazing in the desert. You can find more detailed stories on the blog. More about our life in the desert is described on the website of a very special French couple, travelling the world with their camper. And recently a column has been created detailing my life in te desert www.emigratieboek.nl
After that experience, we lived among a Bedouin family belonging to the Huwaytat tribe in the village. They advised me on how to live and survive in the desert. We also had the privileged experience of living with a formal Bedouin Sheikh and his wife, sons and their family. It was very interesting to compare their lives with the ‘”modern” life of the Bedouins.
I also had the opportunity to learn more about cooking: baking bread, preparing olives and other delicacies, shooting and slaughtering animals, and collecting herbs to use as medicine, tea or in the food. In the desert they taught me to cook some Bedouin meals. The most memorable cooking experience was under the ground cooking called zarb or mendy.
After both experiences I moved to Petra to marry to my husband Rami Mashaleh. I currently live with him and his family in Wadi Musa, the village overlooking Petra. Here, I mostly live the life of an Arabian woman, but I am unique because I work from the house of his family. I have learned (and continue to learn) more about Islam, the Arabic language, and the role of the Arabian wife in a family.
In my heart I will always stay a Bedouin, roaming freely in the desert. I’m happy that Rami shares the same ideology. Now, we go into the fairy tale-like nature of Petra to roam along caves left by the Nabateans or find ourselves in the desert of Wadi Araba. I can not wait until we have completed building our Bedouin tent.
The Bedul of Petra and the Wadi Musa Inhabitants
There are many speculations about what has happened to the Nabateans after the Romans inhabited Petra. There are signs that the wealthy Nabateans under the last king Rabbel II integrated in the Roman culture. Under his reign, the Nabateans started to focus their attention on agriculture and setting up horse breeding programs. This has been understood through the Nabatean inscriptions found in the Roman empire. Many of the Bedul of Petra let the visitors know that they are the descendants of the Nabateans. There is also speculation that the Bedul are the descendants of one of the sons of Jacob of the Torah and the Old Testament and are one of the lost ten tribes of Israel with a Jewish background.
In 1984 and by the time Petra became an UNESCO heritage, the Bedul were moved from Petra. The government built the village Umm Sayhoun for them next to Petra and all of them were required to move there. The Bedul still consider Petra as their home. It is a small tribe of 5 families and most of them make their living from tourism.
I have sat with an old, wise man in Wadi Musa to hear the history of the Wadi Musa people. The people of Wadi Musa, along with the Bedul and the Amarin, are all connected in one tribe called the Bani Leith: the tribe of the lion. Originally, they were all Bedouin coming from the neighboring countries of Saudi-Arabia, Yemen, and Israel. They found spring water (Musa Spring) and fertile grounds for their animals and decided to stay. By that time, Wadi Musa was a very small village. Some of the remnants of the village, such as the restored Elgee village, can still be seen today.
Fifty years ago, people lived in Bedouin tents, in the caves in or near Petra, and in little (now extinct) villages. The people all lived a Bedouin life until some started to collect land in the vicinity and focused on agriculture.
It was King Talal, the third king of Jordan, who made a change (Arabic beddel) and created the name Bedul. He wanted to give Petra to the tribe of the Bani Leih but they refused. Instead, they wanted land for their animals and crops. The Bedul stayed inside Petra and the other Bedouins started to settle down and build houses next to Petra in Wadi Musa and surrounding area.
Rami’s father had a first hand experience with the historical trajectory of Petra inhabitants In his youth he lived in a Bedouin tent in blistering hot summers and freezing winters. He also lived in the caves and in the now deserted village al Hajj. A couple of years after his marriage he settled down in Wadi Musa. He left the city for 10 years for his work in the army and returned to live now 15 years in his own family house.
Currently, there are 15-20 families in Wadi Musa. The Mashaleh and Falahat family were the first Bedouins to arrive and settle. Other family names include: Hasanat, Nasarat, Twaisi, Farajat, Nuwaifleh, Hamadien, Masadeh, Hlalahat, Salamien, Fdoel, Sjamasien, Amarat and more.
The Nuwaifleh family has a particularly interesting story. The first member of the Nuwaifleh, Mashalah, was married to four wife’s but none bore him a son. With no son to inherit his valuable possessions and land, there was a growing interest among other families to kill this aging man. Some of the Nuwaifleh went to Mashaleh one night to warn him of the mischievous plans of the other families, allowing him to flee just in time to Tafila. After narrowly escaping a potentially fatal encounter, he was blessed with 12 sons and their name is still connected with Wadi Musa.