Bedouins and Chameleons
I think in a past life I lived as a Bedouin in the Jordanian desert. Feel free to circle the most likely explanation for how I came to this conclusion:
- Bedouin men are charmingly handsome.
- I find a magical element in spending your life in a tent under the stars, camels and sheep flanking this month’s chosen patch of earth.
- I also envy the ability to refuse the conveniences of 2009 in exchange for freedom and spirituality.
- All of the above.
Whatever it may be, I find this Bedouin culture to be the most captivating thing about our time here in Jordan.
After departing from the land of the deadly sinkholes of the fast-evaporating Dead Sea, we crossed the border into Jordan and greeted the Arab world. Salaam! A sense of wariness pervaded slightly perhaps, as we leave the familiar, Western-feeling nation of Israel, in many respects, and enter into a world in which seems a few steps too many out of a normal American comfort zone. However, this caution dissolved when we were met by our smiling guide Maha, a joyful and jolly Palestinian-Jordanian whose positive attitude is infectious. Unlike Chaim, she seemed genuinely glad to see us and eager to begin a new adventure.
We traveled miles and miles through the Jordanian desert, greeted here and there by giant AK-47s and AR-15s. Bedouin and gypsy tents spotted the brown landscape, and once in a while we drove through a small village, where locals sold tomatoes in carts, pita bread on wooden slabs, and lambs hanging upside down in shop doorways. The last thing we expected to find on this path was a giant Roman city.
Jarash is 2,000 year old city in the middle of the desert. It is a huge Roman city, complete with multiple amphitheatres, a grand forum, and chariot racetrack. It is, of course, smaller than the great ruins of Rome; however, it is absolutely worth traveling to Jordan to see. It’s incredible to imagine what these streets must have been like in Roman times, with people bustling through the streets, selling frankincense on the corner and building towering columns to expand their great empire. We climbed into one of the amphitheatres and I scurried down to the stage, chasing my childhood urge to find a spotlight, and did a little dance for an audience of 2.
I walked behind the stage to do some exploring when suddenly I heard the Muslim call to prayer echo from all directions around me, and I turned 360 degrees to find the stems of mosques sprouting from the nearby neighborhoods. The sound is quite incredible really, one that I already know I will love to hear in the coming months. It is as though these prayers boil in one’s stomach and steam out of their throats, releasing a sound which easily quells the hunger of any ear.
From Amman to Petra, we –
~ Bought a fantastic rug from a Bedouin man
~ Climbed to the top of Mt. Nebo to visit Moses’ resting place and see his vision of the Holy Land
~ Hid in corners and crevices of a Roman military citadel in Kerak
~Found a chameleon battling a cat
~ Dined on hummus and tabouleh fit for kings
~ Counted the number of gigantic photos of King Abdullah and King Hussein
~ Admired an ancient mosaic map of Jerusalem and its neighboring lands
~ Went wakeboarding on the Red Sea
As she often does (Team Sopresa, you will enjoy this), Maha proclaimed as we drove towards Petra that this will be a “big surprise!” The Moses Valley is the town in which Petra finds itself; Petra however, is nestled deep within giant bodies of red sandstone, guardians of a long-forgotten civilization of Bedouin and nomad peoples.
Upon arrival in Petra, or rather the Moses Valley, my two companions and I watched the sunset behind the sandstone hills, and I could not help but sit in the beautiful evening air and do some writing. Before it had gotten too late, I had already made a couple of new friends. The lovely wait staff was very inquisitive, and I had fun learning that one was in school to be a tour guide, while another was fluent in almost 7 languages thanks to being around tourists all the time. I then attempted to help translate for one of the less linguistically-talented servers that one of his Spanish guests wanted a glass of milk. When the guest realized I spoke Spanish, she promptly seated herself at my table, quickly stated that she hoped she was not disturbing me, and launched into an epic Spanish tale about her troubles traveling through the Middle East, her recently deceased husband, and her dearly missed Spanish hometown. It was wonderful to hear and speak Spanish after only hearing Arabic for so many days, but I rarely got a chance to say a word. After Mary had retired for the evening, I marveled at the joy of making new friends.
The next morning, we journeyed into the old city of Petra. We walked through the Siq, a twisting turning crevice which opens into a colossal structure called the Treasury. Camels sit out front, chum for his hasty salesman who is waiting to pounce on each and every emerging tourist. Walking to the Treasury, the swirling sandstone is a blend of purples, yellows, reds, pinks, and whites, reflecting gloriously in the day’s soft sunlight. The Treasury is simply this beautiful stone carved into giant columns and decoration, marking tombs of distant souls. On our walk, we came upon more of these giant sandstone structures, not freestanding, but rather emerging from the boulders as if licked to fruition by the wind. Perhaps the most impressive of these sandstone beauties was the giant Monastery, which we had to hike up up and up to.
Huffing and puffing, we finally made it up to the top, after passing at least a dozen Bedouin jewelry stands perched along the 800 stone steps. When we reached the top, we marveled at the Monastery, then wandered to a larger Bedouin shop, with people in one room smoking sheesha comfortably on colorful mats, and antique jewelry laid out in the expanse of another.
We quickly made friends with a young Bedouin named Tayseer, who offered to retie my head scarf the correct way, as the merchant I had bought it from was apparently not schooled in elegant scarf tying procedures. Tayseer told us that his family had been living nearby this monastery in the mountains here for 950 years. He was a very smart kid, very articulate and seemingly at peace with himself and his lifestyle. He described the magic of sleeping outside under the stars every night, watching the sun rise over the Monastery’s columns each day. Why would you want to be anywhere else? he asked. He described his inability to identify with those who felt the need to constantly be surrounded by money and excess; he had a small business which kept him and his family well, but there was not much else he needed to feel happy. Tayseer then invited the three of us to join him under the stars that night, where he would cook us a Bedouin meal by the fireside. Although I could not quite convince my companions to this desert sleepover, I vowed to one day return to the Monastery and spend a night like a Bedouin.
Later the next day, after I had pressed her again and again, Maha finally agreed to stop by a Bedouin tent in the desert, where I and another sweet German woman who also stopped behind us went inside to discover an impressively cool and organized tent house. The tent, divided into a woman’s bedroom, men’s bedroom, and sitting room/kitchen area, housed a family of five or six, including two young women who study business management at university when they are not on summer holiday in the desert. Outside of their tent was a separate tent for the goats and sheep, which were out being herded by the men when we arrived.
Maybe I wasn’t a Bedouin in a past life.
But secretly I wish I was, or will be. I think it is incredibly beautiful to want to live on the land and off the land. To depend on the most basic of necessities, to be able to know where to find water in the middle of a desolate wasteland, to invite solitude in for tea.
The most interesting of all of this: Bedouins own almost 40% of Jordan’s property. Since long before it was settled, Bedouins acquired deeds for most of the land; on some of it they farm, mostly for themselves since they have neither the manpower nor the technology to harvest for large scale export. They move up and down the country depending on the seasons, leaving behind their land until they return again. Most of these people are not poor by any means; in fact, many have made fortunes by selling their property to the government or private investors nearby to big cities like Amman. If the Jordanian government had the money, it could certainly buy most of this land and double its capacity for agricultural export. Alas…
But I think it is interesting to note that sometimes those who we least expect to survive, end up thriving. Unlike the Native Americans of the United States, who now for the most part have evolved with the rest of us and caught up to modern technology, the Bedouins are content and comfortable living the same way they did hundreds and hundreds of years ago. There are not many people who would be able to value such antiquity and such tradition.
To conclude – Jordan is one of the most wonderful countries I have visited. The culture is incredibly accommodating and gentle, very unexpected perhaps for our perception of this part of the world. If you have the chance, don’t miss Jordan, Jerash, Petra, and the wild desert countryside whose traveling inhabitants have secrets worth discovering.