Midway through the first day’s ride we pay a visit to the camp of Raad’s family and get to directly observe Bedouin life. A distant flock of goats is tearing at clumps of green and half dozen camels stand hobbled beside two faded 1960s Toyota Landcruisers. A new birth graced the herd only five hours before our arrival. The calf struggles on shaky ninepin legs, bleating and stumbling its way into the world as it trips over rusting auto parts and tries to stay close to its mother.
Our party of three is welcomed into the men’s side of the tent by Raad’s father, uncle and younger brother. We remove our shoes and sit cross-legged on the woven plastic mat that forms a floor space on hard-packed sand. Bedouin tents (beit ash-sha’ar, or “house of hair”) are large open-sided structures of woven goat’s wool, propped up by sticks and securely roped. The gap beneath the sidewalls can be regulated to control ventilation or to block out wind whipped sand. They’re also easy to collapse and pack when the pasturage has been exhausted and it’s time to move on, which is essential to Bedouin life.
“You want whiskey-Bedouin?” Raad asks with a smile as he pours tiny glassfuls of hot, sweet tea. The protocols of desert hospitality are predictable and comforting. We’re made to feel instantly at ease.
After exchanging formalized greetings the men discuss the new birth and also a change in mounts. We had ridden out on two female camels, but Jason’s enormous bag of photographic gear has necessitated a switch to a stronger racing camel called Sainan. I’m given a sturdy male breeding camel called Azaran. I like to think that he’s needed to carry my notebook, which is compact in size, but dense with potential.
I sip my tea and try to ignore the giggles of the younger girls as they peer at us over the cloth partition from the women’s side of the tent. The men are pointedly ignoring them; I sense that etiquette demands we do the same. “Raad, how many brothers and sisters do you have?” “There are 12 in my family. Six boys and six girls.” “Your father’s been busy,” I say. The remark is greeted by grins all around and a nod of approval from the old man himself. “Are such large families common?” “Yes, most Bedouin families are large,” says Raad. “But these days young people are waiting two or three years after marriage to have children and then they are having one or two only, maybe three.” “Does your entire family stay here in the tent?” “Right now my mother is in the village. We keep a house there. Most Bedouin in Wadi Rum do the same. I like it alright, but the village is crowded and noisy. When I can’t sleep, when the noise bothers me too much, I drive out into the desert and unroll my blanket on the sand. There, I can always sleep.” “The desert is the true home of the Bedouin,” his uncle cuts in. “Our roots are here, our life and our spirit.”
Many travellers are surprised and sometimes disillusioned to discover that modern Bedouin life involves jeeps, tourists and a house in the village with modern conveniences like running water, television and Internet. They lament it as a loss of tradition, but in fact it’s a continuity.
Contrary to romantic visions of nomads as the ultimate carefree wanderers, Bedouin life was never a black-and-white choice between the settled and the nomadic. It was a blend dictated by circumstance, by convenience, by what was at hand. Like a pair of scales, the emphasis has always shifted between the desert and the town—and it has always included both.
Though the appearance of modern technology gives the impression of great change, it’s simply another manifestation of the accoutrements of settled life, just as village houses and planting tools were centuries ago. The Bedouin continue to adapt while existing as they always have—in cyclical time, intimately tied to the timelessness of the desert and to the ebb and flow of oral tradition.