Over the weekend, I went with two other American volunteers to Wadi Rum and Wadi Musa (where the historical site Petra is located). If you ever go to Jordan, both of those are must-see areas – so beautiful you will think you’re dreaming the whole time.
Both of these villages are located in the southern part of Jordan, far away from the capital city Amman. This part of the kingdom is where the Bedouins live.
The Bedouins are a tribe of desert dwelling people with two recognizable sects in this area: the Nomads and the Gypsies. The Nomads claim to be first to the lands. Our tour guide in Petra, Abdullah, said he is from the Nomad sect and his people are the “rightful” dwellers. They are very devout Muslims, he said, following the Koran very closely. Most of them don’t smoke, and none of them drink alcohol. When you meet a Bedouin Nomad, you can expect to find someone who is very quiet and calm, only speaking when he has something important to say.
It’s hard to find a female Nomad in the area – in fact, I never met one. Abdullah said this is because they believe women are weaker than men, and so they must be protected. He said it would be very unattractive if a woman insisted on taking care of herself, because he doesn’t want to court another man. He said he believes in treating women like princesses or like they’re delicate, and he believes this puts women on a socially superior level to men. He is never protected when he goes out, after all.
Another Nomad Bedouin I met in town, Ahmed, also talked at length about women and men. First, he asked me to marry him. (I declined.) Then he asked if it was because I assumed he couldn’t afford my dowry because he is a shopkeeper – he assured me he could pay my family at least 20 racing camels for my hand in marriage. (That’s about $150,000 worth of camel.) He told me that westerners don’t understand the dowry – we think it’s paying for a bride. He said the Bedouins consider a dowry to be a gift of gratitude to a woman’s parents for all of effort they’ve put into raising their daughter.
The other Bedouins in the area call themselves Gypsy Bedouins. They joined the Nomads a few decades ago after a conflict drove them out of their home. No one I talked to seemed to know where that home was. The oral tradition (the only history they have) says about 50 families moved into the caves in what is now the national park Petra. One Gypsy Bedouin I met, Mahmoud, said he was born in one of the caves but was forced to move to a nearby camp when the Jordanian government decided to preserve the park. He told me he is determined to die in one of the caves, whether it’s legal or not.
Mahmoud told me that Gypsy Bedouins believe in having fun, that life is a party. They are not strict Muslims, he said, and they like to drink, smoke, and get rowdy. They believe women are the same as men – in fact, that all people are the same. Mahmoud said he wasn’t going to ask where my home is, because he believes wherever you are is your home for the moment. He said if you can’t be at home where you are, then you should go somewhere you feel at home. He said he doesn’t like the Nomad way of life, and thinks they take themselves too seriously. He said he thinks their way of treating women is archaic, and he invites any woman to challenge him on any front.
Another Gypsy Bedouin I met, Tarik, echoed many of these sentiments. He likes to live on the edge – from riding his horse on the edge of the canyon to dancing until he can barely breathe. Like Mahmoud, he never asks a personal question – just being with him is enough to be his family and live in his home (which is the whole world).
What the two sects have in common, however, is they both believe in dignity and respect for nature and for other people. Both were incredibly hospitable, instantly loyal, and made sure to respect other people’s feelings at all times. Both said it only takes a minute to become friends, and an hour (or a tea time) to become family. Every Bedouin I met gave me their contact information and said if I ever need anything, in any part of the world, to call – they know people in all the countries, and help would be provided. I think that’s a way of life we all could strive to live!