A view from the Wadi: how the Jordanian Bedouin community has both embraced and rejected modernity

The influx of tourism into a once traditional area has meant that the Bedouins of the Wadi Rum find themselves stuck between the ancient and the modern.

A Bedouin man, dressed in traditional Bedouin robes, sits under a tent made of goat hair, drinking traditional Bedouin tea. He's discussing matters of interest to the tribe. Sitting around him in a circle are the other elders, similarly dressed and drinking similar cups of tea. The younger generation are crowded round the fire where the tea is brewing, eager to ensure that the cups remain filled and the elders remain happy. But in the midst of discussion, the Nokia ring tone blares out and one of the men hurriedly takes the call, climbs into his Toyota Hilux and disappears in a cloud of sand into the desert.

The setting is the Wadi Rum in southern Jordan. This desert is, of course, well known and deservedly renowned for its outstanding natural beauty. Gleaming, boundless orange sand, towering, looming rock formations, a night sky dazzling with countless stars. It’s for this reason that so many tourists have been charmed into taking the opportunity to spend a day exploring its hidden treasures and a night sleeping out in the open in almost unparalleled tranquillity. But while tourists experience the “traditional” Bedouin life, surrounded by nothing but nature, most Bedouins now live in the Wadi Rum Village - a concrete, electrified, internet-connected settlement built by the Jordanian government in 1996.

A month living in these surroundings helping a family of Bedouins with emails and websites in return for a bed and as much humous as I could eat provided me with an interesting, albeit brief, insight into a society at a crossroad between ancient and modern, tradition and technology. On the one hand, traditional values are key; the Bedouin way of life is ardently protected. My hosts, Khaled and Ali Mohammad Al-Zalabieh, cousins who run tour companies in the desert and both in their mid-late twenties, explained to me that most children spend their first seven years in the desert, herding sheep and goats and learning the “difficult life”. They oppose this to the “soft” surroundings of the village. The heat, the lack of shelter and the infrequent access to water, they say, are essential in hardening up the youth to allow them to appreciate the luxury they experience later in life. It all seems very Spartan. Part of the reason for this is to ensure that Bedouin traditions are maintained, but yet the tradition is so engrained that I am told by many that the desert life is the “best” life.

If desert is best, then why do most “modern” Bedouins live in the Wadi Rum village? Well, part of it is necessity. Tourism is the sole earner for the majority of the population of the desert, so no longer do they use camels as their main method of transport, but the Jeep is the vehicle of choice to transport punters around the dunes. Messages are sent via text to ensure that tourists can find their way.

Although Khaled and Ali were adamant that the changes were cosmetic only, and that it would have no bearing on the Bedouin values, societal alterations are surely inevitable. Khaled said that the majority of Bedouins were sceptical about the use of modern medicine to begin with, preferring instead to use traditional herbs. But as tourists have brought diseases that were previously unknown to the area, they began to rely on hospitals. The Bedouins initially had no need for computers and the internet. But as the tourist industry began to boom, all rushed to become connected so that they could advertise their particular tours, ensuring a stream of influence that would once have been a world apart.

In a strange sort of way, though, the very thing that could be detrimental to tradition might be the thing that keeps it afloat. Tourists want to experience ancient Bedouin life, and the Bedouins are all too happy to provide it. At home, many will wear Western clothing, jeans and t-shirts, but as soon as tourists make their appearance, the traditional element is cranked up a notch and they change into Bedouin robes. Food is usually bought from the local supermarket, but during tourist visits, they cook zarb, a meat and vegetable dish roasted deep in the hot, sandy ground. But it’s not yet the same as a British person donning Victorian get-up for an American visitor. Rather, the current generation are trapped between two worlds. The world they are selling is the world they grew up with. The world they are living in now is somewhere between the modern and the traditional, but a grey area that is beginning to become more clearly defined.

All in all, the current generation can still just about say that they are giving tourists the “true” Bedouin experience. Many do live full time in the desert, and those that don’t have still at least experienced this lifestyle. But if the method used to continue tradition is to educate children in the ways of their grandparents, there are going to be problems. For the moment, the grandparents live desert lives and so the grandchildren are educated in desert life. But since the current generation live village lives, surely their grandchildren will be educated in village life. As generations go by, the shift to the modern world will be effected and traditions will inevitably become a way to attract tourists as opposed to a viable lifestyle. But for the moment the Wadi Rum is an extraordinary place for more than its natural beauty alone. It is a place where the traditional stands shoulder to shoulder with the modern, just as the concrete houses stand shoulder to shoulder with the dunes.

 

A Bedouin man. Photograph: Getty Images.