beliefs, bedouin, and breathtaking scenery

Armed with several litres of water, emergency rations (crisps, Laughing Cow, and bread), and scarves for modesty, Callum and I had finally touched down in the Wadi Rum for three weeks of living and working amongst the desert Bedouin who call it home.  We had been in touch with Mohammad el-Sabah, who agreed to have us for this time, providing lodging and meals in exchange for our help with the camels, the tents, the children, and the tourists. A strictly traditional, Islamic settlement, we were slightly apprehensive about what the coming time would bring, me with more reason to worry given the reports from the northern Bedouin of the Wadi Mousa of the “bad” southerners, whose oppresive and judgemental lifestyle meant living there would be far from what we were used. And yet, despite the hostility initailly shown to a young couple travelling from the infidel West, as the days past, the Bedouin opened up and we were able to talk more and more about their history, lives, beliefs, and traditions. Once we had shown we were willing, and able, workers, helping to construct the big, heavy, goathair tents, tending to the belligerent camels, and playing with the village children, frowns of disapproval no longer followed us around, replaced instead with bemused smiles and tentative attempts at conversations.

Situated rubbing shoulders with Saudi Arabia, the Wadi Rum is a vast expanse of desert with towering dunes and flocks of tough, wirey goats making their way from oasis to oasis, followed by harangued looking shepherdesses upon stoic donkeys wielding sticks and loud voices which echoed after the bleeting mass.

We’d come from snorkling in the Red Sea, and the dry desert air of the interior of the Arabian Peninsula was quite a change from the gentle sea breeze of the coastal shores. Having convinced a local to take us out to the desert, at casual Jordanian breakneck speed, we got as far as the Visitor’s Centre, several km away from Rum Village, at which point he admitted that he probably shouldn’t take us all the way to the village, on account of the falling out he had had with several members some time ago. Old wounds, it seems.

From there, we were piled into a Landrover (blonde hair, blue eyes, and a shy smile proved useful tools when it came to hitchhiking the Middle East), and with a scribbled map and instruction as to how to find the compound that would be home for almost the next month, we were dropped off under “the tall kinda phone-signal metal thingy, opposite an oil storage drum thing maybe?”.  As you can see, directions were definitive.  Nevertheless, we found it, and introduced ourselves to various family members who looked bashfully out at us from under burkhas and behind doors held ajar.  Mohammed materialised  a little while later, and we got down to the serious business of trying the hot, sweet, herbal chai that would become a much loved staple over the coming weeks.

A night in the village, and the next morning we were up bright and early, introduced to what was probably once another Landrover, but now arguably isn’t distinguishable as a car rather than scrap heap that has happened to fall into a shape vaguely resembling one, and were bouncing and clanging off into the desert. Now, how we got there, how we got anywhere, remains one of life’s true mysteries. Without even considering that the car was started with a spoon, or that the petrol tank was in fact a CocaCola bottle balanced on the engine, our dear banger defied all reason when it made the 30minute drive across the sands, groaning to a stop just next to the Bedouin tents.

Undeniably beautiful, especially at sunset when the vivid colours painted out across the red sands only to be replaced with the stretch of the Milky Way and shooting stars making their way across a backdrop of millions of pinpricks of light.  During the day, with huge blue skies standing in contrast with the rich colours of the sands, the desert is no less photogenic.  We spent our time taking visitors on tours of the petroglyphs and ruins, helping with the cooking, walking out in search of the oasis, avoiding the gun-wielding guards on the Saudi border, all the more so after seeing the bullet wounds in one of the old shephers who wandered too close, playing cards, drinking copious amounts of chai, listenning to the Bedouin music flowing over the sands from the men who gathered nearby, and taking refuge from the soaring temperatures in the shade of a rocky overhang, quietly chatting, and listening to the desert silence.

Being young and in love, this was a wonderful way of spending our hours alone together, surrounded by a stunning landscape, imagining life in this world and greeting the Bedouin shepherds who passed us by.  Joined in the evening by the returning tour groups, and their drivers, they bought us news of the outside world that we had spent the days away from, and a chance to ask the drivers who lived in the villages around the Wadi whether our imaginings were accurate.

Come nightfall, the fires would be lit, the groundovens prepared, and feasting would begin – Ramadan was followed closely here. With the feasting came too the desert wildlife, with the little desert hedgehogs appearing with regularity, and the desert foxes coming more rarely.

For some days, we braved the car once more and headed back to Rum village, where the little girls delighted us with their bubbles and skipping games, and we were able to visit the village market to stock up on water and Laughing Cow. Time was spent with the camel herders, helping to water and feed and keeping the camels exercised, or playing with the family’s little puppy.

Much of our time was spent with Jack in particular, who took us under his wing to show us the best places to buy bread, and helped smooth any, probably unforgivable, blunders on our part. Able to see life passing, watching the village feuds play their way out, and talking quietly with some of the women, we came to understand how such a hard and unforgiving landscape shaped the traditions and beliefs of these Bedouin nomads. We were never fully accepted by the village, nor did we feel fully comfortable as we did with the Bedouin in the north, but at least, by the time we left, we had a litte insight into the ways of this place, and an appreciation of the determination and strength of character that was indispensible to creating and maintaining life in the Wadi Rum. It was a steep learning curve for both of us: we had always found young people with senses of humour and underlying beliefs that were, for all the cultural differences, quite similar to ours, individuals like Toto or Khaled who became close friends, and with whom we could not have spent enough time talking.  These Bedouin were different in that respect, and with the exception of Jack, maintained their distance. But it is a breathtaking place, and our experience offered an unparalleld chance to see it.

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