Follow Rough Guides writer, Lucy Pierce, as she explores the Bedouins and learns about nomadic life in the Jordanian desert.
“No way, I love my hot showers” Tarek grinned when I asked him if he’d rather be living nomadically in Petra’s caves, as his ancestors had for centuries. Tarek was born in such a cave, but told me how he prefers having electricity and running water in his house – particularly hot water.
I spent a couple of days in Petra and Wadi Rum, uncovering the bedouin culture – a nomadic Arab tribe in the Middle Eastern deserts – from past to present. How has it evolved over the last 40 years? With shiny modern structures seemingly taking over the continent, could a nomadic tribe preserve their heritage?
The Petra Bedouins
Tarek Abdallah is the nephew of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, the author of Married to a Bedouin, who is now living in New Zealand. On a backpacking trip around the Middle East in her 20s, it was on the steps of the Treasury that she met Mohammed Abdallah, a bedouin shopkeeper in Petra. Tarek was keeping the shop ticking over while she was away. Or as I discovered, watching Youtube videos on his smartphone when there’s a lull.
Marguerite’s story romanticises a life of frugality as a bedouin, as British travellers TE Lawrence – the so-called Lawrence of Arabia – and Wilfred Thesiger did before her. No matter how glorious the desert or Petra was, I didn’t think I could sacrifice my creature comforts, like Marguerite had, for seven years of cave dwelling.
Petra is concealed in a remote valley of the Shara mountains. I walked through the deep canyons, admiring the vivid marbled colourings of iron and copper etched into the cliffs. My excitement built with every corner, as the gorge of the Siq narrowed, towering above me.
Through the curves of the sandstone, I caught my first glimpse of the classical facade of The Treasury. I tried to picture the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt’s face the day he unearthed this wonder for Westerners in 1812, disguised as an Arab.
The hubbub of noise echoed as I took in my surroundings. Marvelling at how well intact the structure was, despite an earthquake and an attempted explosion to unearth the supposed gold and riches. My reverie was interrupted by a six-foot tall bedouin with dark features – bristly facial hair and thick kohl eyeliner – wearing a hooded fleece jacket. He was pointing to an outcrop, claiming it was the best view in Petra. He would show me – for a price.
I encountered this friendly familiarity from the bedouins on every corner, whether it was silver jewellery or a donkey ride. I asked my guide, Mohammed, what he thought about their persistence. With a shrug he admitted, “The Bedouins rely on money and tips from tourists and they know they can make it easily. A lot of them like to go travelling around Europe, so this is their opportunity”.
After an hour’s hike and around 800 steps, I turned to see an uninterrupted view of the Ad Deir monastery. I rotated a full 360 degrees to admire the golden hues of the monastery, the vast Petra basin and Wadi Araba – their layers in the distance looked like a mirage in the midday sun. There was a soft breeze and I heard the clink of a kettle – it was time for a cup of tea.
Another cup of tea was pressed into my hands by a bedouin as I was invited to sit down in his tent. I was discovering Wadi Rum by jeep, and it was time for a refreshment next to mushroom rock. We sat on a geometrical Arabian rug, as the kettle bubbled away on a coal stove. The black tea was flavoured with cardamom and cinnamon, giving it an aromatic, sweet taste. I was definitely going to adopt this in my PG Tips at home.
My host was in his seventies and kept warm by the stove, pouring refills to everyone that stopped by and smoked cigarettes, one after another. Life in the desert was laidback, time didn't seem to dictate their day.
I hopped back into the jeep to the house of Lawrence of Arabia – where TE Lawrence slept – then to the parting of red and white sand. The silhouettes of the sandstone recurred behind each other, fading into the distance. It’s so other-worldly that futuristic sci-fi films Star Wars, Dune and The Martian were all shot in the Wadi.
My driver, Salem Zoida, was a bedouin and invited us to his mother’s tent for lunch. Fatima welcomed me into her makeshift tent that had a solar panel hanging off the side, her electricity source. The living room was centred around a coal stove, and we ate a mezze of galayet bandura – sauteed tomatoes with garlic and onion – potatoes doused in olive oil, and a salad with pitta and hummus. The meal was completed by black tea and sesame biscuits.
I discovered that the Bedouins don’t pay tax or rent as they have no fixed address. Salem told me, “We move for water and weather. In winter we stay in the shelter of the mountains, in summer we go higher up for the breeze. It's too hot in summer, it’s often 40C.” Lucky to have natural air conditioning, I thought.
We trundled on, stopping by three bedu who were taking respite in the shade with their racing camels resting nearby. They were having tea and a lunch of flatbread, to which they offered us some as we admired their prize steeds. Where the bedouins once herded goats and sheep, many of the men now herd camels or work in the tourism industry.
For the most part, women stay at home. The older women didn’t have education or opportunities. Their day-to-day life has evolved from collecting water and wood, to having running water and a stove. However, it’s rare for Bedouin women to have financial freedom or jobs, as their defined roles mean they stay at home, cook and look after the family.
Disi Women’s Co-operative
I visited the women’s cooperative in Wadi Rum, which is part of the King Hussein Foundation. This support empowers Bedouin women as they sell the pottery and cards they make, and are taught about gardening.
I met Jihad Zawaidah, a naturalist who is teaching women how to grow the nearly extinct Ghada tree that will be replanted in the deserts in Wadi Rum and Arabia. He explained: “The shrubs reverse the effects of grazing and tourism – the roots drink up rainwater, preventing runoff and flash floods in the desert. While the leaves provide sustenance for the animals.”
9 million seedlings will be planted to reintroduce the plant. This is an important task to raise local awareness and help the desert ecosystem. We sat down for a tea of thyme – one of the 12 variations of the herb grown there – that has medicinal values for colds and cancer. Jihad and I discussed how these women’s husbands are happy for them to work at the co-operative, learning about money management and building a strong community network.
After a fascinating day, it was back to Captain’s Camp for dinner. On the menu was zarb, a traditional cooking technique where vegetables, lamb and chicken are cooked in an underground coal pit for three hours. The lamb was so tender and flavourful and served with fragrant rice, grilled aubergine and a mezze of fattoush, hummus and mutabal.
I didn’t fall in love with a bedouin on the steps of the Treasury, but it’s impossible not to form a fond attachment to Petra and Wadi Rum. By necessity, life as a bedouin has evolved. When Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the bedouins had to relocate to the newly constructed village of Um Sayhoun. It seems running water and renewable energy from solar and wind have improved the quality of life – and the nomadic cave-dwelling lives of Tarek’s ancestors will have to be experienced through literature and our imagination.
How to visit Jordan
Fly from the UK to Amman with Royal Jordanian or British Airways, from £462. The Jordan Pass (70-80JD), includes Petra, Wadi Rum and more. Discover Jordan with Rough Guides – our local travel specialist will create your perfect itinerary.
Lucy travelled to Jordan as a guest of Visit Jordan.