I’m intrigued by the native people of these lands, the Bedouins. I’m not sure why, maybe just some deep limbic nostalgia for a simple and true way of life. The Bedouin are the semi-nomadic tribal people who have inhabited the North African and Arabian deserts for thousands of years. They herd goat, camel and sheep and live as close to the land now as they ever did, even if they do enjoy a few modern amenities such as cell phones and wifi. In Jordan, the land is owned by the Bedouin tribes and many have become quite wealthy by selling their lands off and assimilating into modern culture. However, hundreds of thousands refuse to give up their way of life. There is a story here in Jordan that the King wanted to help the Bedouin become more stable and so he built them housing and gifted it to them. But they let the sheep and goats live in the houses while they set up their tents just outside and then eventually wandered off into the desert, leaving the homes behind. I haven’t been able to fact check this, but I believe it, or at least the idea that this is what would happen if you tried to force assimilation on them. The desert sun is harsh and relentless as I have now experienced myself. The desire to hide yourself from it and protect your eyes from the dust like sand is overwhelming. It is easy now to see how covering up became a way of life for the Arabs. All of the Bedouin women are completely covered as are the men, although their faces are exposed, they would never greet a stranger with their hair showing. I imagine that being covered was, thousands of years ago just a means to protect the body and eyes from the harsh desert living. Somehow over the centuries it morphed it a cultural expectation of decency and eventually into a religious custom as well. So when I hear or read nasty comments on the internet about why Muslims can’t just lose the head scarves and assimilate, I am amused by the arrogance of such statements. Covering up is such an old practice for them, they have been doing it since before the Americas were even discovered, it is practically part of their DNA. And the Bedouin are the most emotional about this practice, if you were to walk in on a man with his head scarf off, you would find yourself under a verbal and likely physical assault. If you accidently wandered into a women’s tent full of uncovered women, you likely wouldn’t live to tell about it. But they are extremely hospitable, generous and kind people if you know how to navigate their code and use the proper greetings-they are the people from where the Arab notion of hospitality sprang from. Despite their “rough around the edges” way of life, they are very formal. For example, you never walk up to a Bedouin and say, hey man, where’s the closest gas station? There is a long series of greetings and conversation that must be had first or you will be considered haughty and rude. So if you meet a Bedouin, and are in need of help, first you must greet them with Salam alayakoum, peace be upon you friend! How is your well being? How is your family? I wish all the blessings of Allah upon your family brother. Where are your people from? Ma’an, this is the most beautiful land with the most generous of people, god bless you. After this exchange, you may state your business and you will get more help than you could ever imagine.
There is a incredibly beautiful piece of desert land known as the Wadi Rum. It has been inhabited by the desert people since the dawn of civilization. Now the Bedouin are intelligent and resourceful people and have figured a way to earn a living by catering to the more rugged tourists seeking adventure and immersion. They have offered up their land and their tents to host strangers and give them a glimpse of their lives. We are these kind of travelers, and so into the desert we wander, seeking out the Bedouin and open to experience life in the sands. My husband knows their ways and greets them appropriately. He laughs with them and we wait patiently for the drawn out greeting to run its course. We abandon our car and load up only our essentials into an old rusty Toyota pick up truck. In a million years I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing this back home, but my husband’s faith in the Bedouin code of honor is enough to convince me. We jump into the back cab and sit on the benches and ride off into the sunset, my hair whips my face and my soul awakens to the idea of a truly free life. We stop at an oasis, literally, a small and miraculous patch of green in a sea of red-brown blossoming as a result of an ancient spring hidden underground. The local tribes come here to fill up their water tanks and rest their camels. Emma hops out of the truck and a little nomad boy gets her up on a camel and trots her around, the camel groaning and complaining while she squeals with delight and laughs uncontrollably. We continue on, following criss-crossing and zig-zagging tire tracks deeper into the desert. Mountains and rock outcrops jut out from the sands resisting the brutal attack of the elements, digging in a stubborn foothold and creating a fortress of hidden shady refuge for the desert dwellers. We stop and jump out into the dunes, ditching our shoes we climb the sandy swells and slide down on cardboard. We explore a slit of a canyon and our guide points out ancient drawings carved into the rock; crude depictions of childbirth and the local desert deer that still roam these parts. The sand is so fine it is almost dust, it is soft and massages our feet. It is red in color and it stains our clothes. We drive even deeper until we reach the camp. It is a series of small black tents with beds surrounding the one large tent reserved for public gatherings and meals. We wander off on foot and climb a rocky outpost to settle in and watch the sun paint the desert as it hands over its duties to the starry night. The sand grows cool quickly and it feels wonderful as we walk back to the camp. Dinner is cooking in a hole dug in the sand. We wait and are served coffee and tea. I meet the Bedouin woman who is cooking the meal, she is covered completely except for her bright green eyes. My niece translates for me as we talk. She is actually from Syria, near the Iraqi border. Her family lands were in the middle of where the Syrian war broke out four years ago and they had to flee. To the deserts of Jordan they wandered and were granted refuge by their nomadic brothers. We sleep in the silence and relish the cold night, and awaken to the pink mountains aglow in the rising sun. The twins clothes are stained red, Emma’s hair might need to be shaved for it is a gnarly bush of knots now. Shelley was smart and donned a head scarf like the locals, her hair is safe. I want to stay longer, I love this way of life. The kids are free from all the confinements of the civilized world, they don’t care about their messy state of being, there is no pressure to look like this or talk like that, there is no schedule, just the pulse of life and the knowledge that a seemingly inhospitable land could offer so much comfort if you just know where to look.