The Bedouin are perhaps the most famous of the world’s desert-dwelling nomads and Jordanian society. They captured the imagination of 18th century European Romantics, who created an entire legend around the exotic East of the Arabian Nights, of harems filled with veiled women and of heroic caravan-raiding sheiks. Such tales were embellished by the reports of intrepid travellers like Lady Hester Stanhope and Charles Doughty.
The reputation of the Bedouin as “masters of the desert” was solidified by explorers like Sir Richard Francis Burton, Colonel T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Wilfred Thesiger, who travelled among them and experienced the most desperate rigours of desert travel. Those stories had fuelled my dreams.
I wanted to experience in some small way what men like Thesiger saw, to travel as the Bedouin always had and to learn whatever desert skills they still had to offer. Our travels will take us well beyond the southern limits of the Wadi Rum Protected Area, where we will turn slightly east to venture off of all available maps. It will also be a journey to the roots of Jordanian society.
Jordan, and Jordanian society, is somewhat unique in that it was founded by nomads and comparatively recently. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was only established in 1946. Until then it had always been a marginal zone, sectionally coveted by its neighbours but fully occupied by none.
Referred to as Transjordan, the territory was crisscrossed by trade routes that transported the goods of the world. The cultures that surrounded it spilled over its borders and acquired bits and pieces of Transjordan at different times, but the territory was never unified or entirely annexed. The region saw the waxing and waning of a succession of what I refer to as “linear” civilizations—cultures whose worldview accorded with the straight line of history, of progress from one state to another: Biblical peoples like the Edomites and the Ammonites; the Nabataeans of Petra; the Romans; the Muslim dynasties of the Umayyads and the Abbasids; the Crusaders with their corrupted ideals and castles of stone; and finally the Ottomans. All played various roles influencing present day Jordan and Jordanian society.
Throughout all of these long centuries, the nomadic Bedouin continued to exist on the desert fringes. They inhabited a different worldview, one predicated on timelessness, circularity and oral tradition. The First World War changed all that.
With the encouragement of the British, who were fighting the Ottoman Turks, the Arab Revolt led by Bedouin chieftains Faisal and Abdullah ended Turkish rule, ushering in a period as a British protectorate, which was followed by independence in 1946.
The cyclical worldview of the nomads was brought into sudden contact with the linear worldview of the region’s successive histories, melding to produce a culture that is unique in the Middle East. Every Jordanian will tell you that the Bedouin are the foundation of the nation and that the desert is the soul of Jordanian society. At the same time, the influence of the successive civilizations that occupied Transjordan continues to exist as a sort of palimpsest upon the land—a land that has been whitewashed and overwritten time and time again, each “overwriting” leaving a discernible trace on the final image.