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01 July 2012

Camping out with the Bedouin

The tour bus dropped me at a roadside stop - the takeaway food/souvenirs/basic groceries kind - in the middle of nowhere, promising somebody would be along to pick me up in about five minutes. I barely had time to finish my freshly-pressed lemon and mint drink (Arabs are very good at refreshing drinks) when Mohammed appeared in the doorway. Just as one imagines - slender, dark, fine features and spotless white robes. Unfortunately the spirited camel turned out to be a twin-cab four-wheel-drive Toyota, but I didn't really mind. Sometimes comfort and convenience win out over romance.

We seemed to drive for a long time across the desert; we sped past a mountain Mohammed said was the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but didn't stop for photographs. So here's a link to one I didn't take: Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Mohammed didn't speak very good English, but it was a lot better than my non-existent Arabic. However, he spent most of his time chatting on his mobile phone. Not fair - these Bedouin get better phone coverage than we do! Anyway, at long last we stopped at a row of rocks marking the entrance to the Bedouin Camp.
campsite entrance - Wadi Rum

our accommodation
Of course, I should say here that Wadi Rum is a protected area; something like a national park, where the Bedouin run an eco-tourism business. They are no longer nomadic, but about ten years or so ago began constructing a permanent village where about a thousand people (and probably the same number of camels) live.

Our camp wasn't exactly authentic, either. "Tents" were the traditional woven goat-hair fabric stretched over welded steel frames on cement footings, water was trucked in to small water tanks on top of a couple of boulders, a generator supplied electricity and there were showers with hot water. However, it was still out in the desert, and still far from tacky tourism.

By the time vehicles had come and gone delivering people in groups of one or two there were about twenty of us there for the night. Four young men cooked us dinner, Bedouin style in a metal drum sunk in the sand. An ingenious steel rack with different shelves held the food - chicken, whole potatoes, aubergine, tomatoes, onions. I assume a fire had been lit in the hole first to heat everything, then it was left for a couple of hours to cook and was served with various sauces and pickles I have come to love, even if I've no idea what they're called.
Nothing fancy, but damned good tucker. And as soon as the food came out, so did the cats. A horde of slender desert cats emerged from the dunes and prowled around us, waiting for tidbits and scrapping with each other. Feral cats in the desert are small, lean and delicate-looking; a pale sandy-ginger or washed-out grey or tortoiseshell colour. I spotted one dark tabby, but perhaps it lurked in the shadows among the rocks!

Oud lesson

After dinner one of the men played Oud and another a small drum while they sang. The other two encouraged us to get up and galumph around the campfire in a very clumsy sort of circle dance until we all got bored and decided to go to bed. Some people chose to sleep out on the dunes under the open sky, but I opted for the comfortable bed in my tent. I've slept on sand before, and it's not as soft as you might imagine.

Morning brought breakfast - bread, hardboiled eggs, sliced tomato and cucumber, soft cheese, jam. A huge kettle of tea sat in the middle of the campfire. There was only instant coffee. I've been drinking a lot of water lately, which is probably a good thing.

ready for the morning ride

breakfast in the desert

landscape with sleeping Bedouin

After breakfast we broke up into different groups. Some people were leaving for the village of Wadi Rum then returning to Aqaba; others were going out on a camel tour. I was booked on a four-wheel-drive tour before returning to Aquaba.

I had a new driver - Said didn't speak English very well, but again, it was a lot better than my Arabic. He drove me to a genuine Bedouin tent somewhere in the desert and said "Over there - canyon. Nabatean inscriptions, some near entrance; some further in" and disappeared into the tent. This is what I could see:

I trudged across the desert to that cleft behind the rock in the middle, rather conscious of being all alone in a strange desert. Those are serious trees you can see there, not delicate little shrubs. Just as I was about to enter the cleft in the rocks a couple of camel-riders arrived. They bounced off their camels and skipped ahead of me. They galloped up the canyon and a moment later galloped back again. "Anything exciting up there?" I asked.  "Not unless you want to do some serious climbing" they said. "Did you see the inscriptions?" I wondered "No - what inscriptions?" Uh - "those?" There were some right beside me I hadn't noticed until that moment:

Nabatean inscriptions/tourist advice/graffiti. Or all of the above

the end of the walk; I think that big white rock on the
right is somewhere above head level

In the floor were a couple of circular hollows like water cisterns, about two metres in diameter, and occupying the entire width of the cleft. The rocks at the end were water-worn and one of these cisterns was right below them. Obviously this was a water source for the Nabateans, as the inscriptions might suggest. Or not. Said thought there was sometimes water there but I'm not sure whether he understood my question or I understood his answer. He had whiled the time away playing knucklebones with a young boy in the tent.

An older man made me welcome and offered me tea. Oh dear. (For those who do not know, I don't like tea. I'm strictly a coffee drinker, and a fussy one at that) Well, I'd just have to grin and bear it. To my relief there was so much cardamom, mint and sugar in the tea there was only a very faint bitterness to suggest anything else there. I wouldn't say I liked it, but I could possibly, if necessary, develop a taste for it. Then he rubbed a little perfume on my hand and nodded and smiled.

interior of Bedouin tent

There were trestle tables around with things on them, and he indicated I could look around, but I had no idea what was expected of me, and wasn't sure whether they hoped I would buy something or whether it was just being shown to me, so I stayed put kneeling on the floor beside Said.

Said explained each strip of fabric ran the whole length of the tent and took about a year to weave on hand looms. Carpet covered the sand. There were rugs to sit on and cushions and camel saddles about. Shoes were removed before entering, of course - very sensible.

Eventually Said tired of his game and we set off again. Next stop was a huge sand dune. 

sand dune with kneeling camels
There were some camel-riders trudging up it, but I declined the suggestion I should follow them. Instead, I climbed some nearby rocks and photographed the desert.

Modern Bedouin transport
 At the end of my tour we drove back into Wadi Rum village. At the camp we were told the Bedouin had settled into a village because there had not been enough rain to bring flowers for their sheep (the person telling the story persistently used "flowers" to mean any vegetation at all. I thought it rather beautiful, wanting flowers for your sheep). I had my suspicions, however.

The village consists of a lot of cement-block houses with very high fences separated by narrow streets. The very high fences are to keep camels behind; there were a lot there.

street in Wadi Rum

Said led me into a house, the front room of which sported a wide-screen TV and was obviously a reception room for tourists, but after waiting a little while I was ushered into the living quarters where the women were. A little girl was watching Dora the Explorer on TV. A young woman in tights and a t-shirt rushed to gather up children's toys and clothing and whisk them away into another room. Apart from the lack of furniture, other than a bulging wardrobe held shut with pieces of string, it was all depressingly ordinary. Lack of rain? Ha! Electric lights. Plumbing. Computers and TV sets. Try carrying that lot around the desert on a camel. Bedouin live in the 21st century like everyone else.

The young woman brought me a cup of tea and bowl of soup. I sat there for a while until I got bored then fished out my sketchbook. "Can you draw me?" the little girl asked. So I did. The young woman and an even smaller boy came in and were intrigued. The little girl sat like a rock - better than any professional model I've had! Then I had to draw Ahmed as well. Then the young woman. I was in the middle of drawing her when Mohammed came in. He watched for a while then said "Can you draw Anna too?" and produced yet another small child.

I had visions of being held forever by the Bedouin, drawing portraits of every child in the village, but no. It was time to drive me back to Aqaba to meet the bus back to Eilat and then Jerusalem. And that was my night with the Bedouin. No sign of  Rudolph Valentino and not a dancing girl or sheep's eyeball to be seen.

If you're heading to Jordan I recommend visiting Wadi Rum - there's a modern visitors' centre there, which I didn't go into, and there's a programme (a similar one exists in Israel) to re-introduce the Arabian oryx to the Negev. And, of course, the marvelous desert scenery. Stay a few nights and enjoy meeting the people .

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