Meet The Bedouins: Jordan’s Desert-Dwelling Nomads
Mountains of bronzed dirt, speckled with grey rocks and pale green grasses, decorate the desert terrain around 30 minutes outside the southern village of Karak, Jordan. There are no tourist trails or worn roads here – only an enchanting horizon, strong winds casting dust into the distance and, occasionally, a Bedouin man herding his sheep through unforgiving desert hills.
“That’s my home,” says Hussein, a nomadic Bedouin from the Sabaa’ tribe, as he looks out towards surrounding lands.
“But if I don’t like an area, I can easily remove all the camp and go to another place that has better water or grasses. At any time, I can go to any place and live freely."
The land is also the Bedouin’s life source, providing them and their family with a trade – sheep farming – medicine and food.
“We cook the grasses from some of the trees that live in the area and sometimes, when we face illness, we use some of these grasses as medicine.
“When it rains here, there’s greenery and the sheep eat from that. After that, we take the grown sheep and sell them. That’s how we make money. We try and eat from the land in the spring [season].”
Desert dwelling is not just a way of life to nomadic Bedouins, it’s an ancient, Indigenous tradition. ‘Bedu’ (Arabic for Bedouin) are thought to have migrated to Jordan from the Arabian Peninsula during the 14th and 18th centuries. Nomadic ways of life have been passed on from generation to generation ever since.
Hussein tells SBS he was born into this nomadic life, so it’s all he’s ever known. He says it’s highly likely that his children will remain nomadic when they become adults and have families of their own.
“If we had a better opportunity, they would go to school.”
Hussein’s brother-in-law, Abu Omar, has just arrived on the scene, wearing more traditional Bedouin clothes. He welcomes us into his two-room home, a large tent, where his four children are playing. The Bedouin smokes and we chat about the ups and downs of a nomadic lifestyle.
“The wild animals that come at night are wolves, hyenas and wild dogs,” Abu Omar tells SBS. “Our dogs deal with it so we always have dogs to protect us.”
His daughter enters the room. Abu Omar hugs her, pauses and becomes emotional. He explains that although nomadic freedom is a luxury, desert dwelling comes at a cost - his daughter’s education.
“She’s in grade two. She was really good at school but I have no car to take her and bring her, so she left school. We can’t live close to town because there’s no agriculture…I am very upset but I am not able to do anything about it.”
Diversity in Jordan’s Indigenous culture
Today, Bedouins make up from 33 to 40 per cent of the population of Jordan.
And just as Australia’s Indigenous peoples are extremely diverse so too are Jordan’s native Bedouins.
Not every Jordanian Bedouin is nomadic. In fact, Bedouins from most tribes or ‘clans’ now live as non-Bedouins do - in a house in a village or city.
Bedouin lineage is highly valued by the Jordanian Royal Court and their support is considered essential for the continued ruling of the Hashemite monarchy. It’s for this reason that certain Bedouin tribes hold a lot of power in the Kingdom of Jordan.
Many have high-ranking positions within Jordanian society, including in the national army and security agencies. Members of some tribes are also supported by the government and given education, housing and health services.
Tour guide Emad is a ‘modern’ Bedouin from the Zuwaideh tribe in Wadi Rum. He says a small proportion of local Bedouins retain a nomadic lifestyle while the rest work in tourism.
“Almost 90 per cent of Bedouins in this area work in tourism,” says Emad.
“For us, it’s the actual source of living – it’s like oil in Jordan. This is how we [make] our living.”
Emad admits that his life is recognisably different from Jordan’s native nomads – he lives in a house, makes a respectable income and owns a car.
“[The lives of] those living in the desert are always going to differ from those living in the city,” he says. “For example, I have electronic equipment and [a Bedouin in a tent] doesn’t. They may use kerosene lamps and I use electricity.
“Our life is also settled. We used to be nomadic in the past and go from one place to the next but now, we live in villages.”
Emad adds that, unlike traditional desert dwellers, his three children will all go to school once they come of age.
But for all the outward differences between nomadic and modern Bedouins, Emad says their indigenous tie to Jordanian land is the same.
“Our language is similar, the culture is similar. If I leave my home and go outside the desert, I would be the same as the person in the desert.
“One generation after another, we all come from here. And where we come from represents everything to me. [This is our] homeland, the motherland.”