Thursday, 8 March 2012

Travel: Jordan ~ In search of the Bedouin

‘He who shares my bread and my salt is not my enemy.”  ~ Bedouin proverb

I FLEW to Jordan and back last year on the wings of a book. Or make that two. I checked into reality in the breathing space between written words. Even as I gasped at our first glimpse of al-Khazneh through the towering Siq at the former ghost city of Petra. Even as I sighed over the stained glass sunset over the Dead Sea.

The first breathtaking glimpse of the Treasury at Petra through the Siq
Jordan first beckoned when our Bangalore book club did Diana Abu-Jaber’s ‘The Language of Baklava’ last November. Of Jordanian-American descent, she recreates the patchwork of her identity in this 2005 culinary memoir. My imagination catapulted through time and space when her Jordanian dad drove his uprooted family to visit a sheikh, his grand-uncle, at ‘the source of the winds, at the centre of the valley” in his homeland. Charmed by the child Diana’s pidgin Arabic, the womenfolk in their desert tents outlined her eyes with kohl. Helping the child tuck into traditional mensef of rice- lamb- unleavened bread in celebration, their Bedouin house help Munira proclaimed, “The Bedu were here first. We were here before any of this city nonsense, before any of these crazies from Europe or anybody.”

Inevitably, when a media fam trip to Jordan came my way out of the blue, I faced an unvoiced micro-mission. To seek out more about the still nomadic Bedouin desert dwellers. Would they be akin to the rabari camel-herders around Jaisalmer or Kutch?  

At Jerash, the 6,500-year-old Greco-Roman city 48 km north of Amman, I heard distant bagpipes on our first evening out. Within the ancient southern amphitheatre – its seats marked by Roman numerals for ticketed performances way back then – stood four men in grey, flowing thaubs; the traditional mendeel/ mireer headdress on. “They are retired Bedouin army musicians,” explained our guide, Abdul. As the last notes of their folk melody faded into the sunset, I mentally backtracked to the largely Bedouin Jordanian volunteer force that fought alongside the Iraqi army against Iran (1980- 88). I asked myself: Were the bagpipes a British legacy? Why do they not play the rababa or the oud

Bedouin musicians at the southern amphitheatre at Jerash

As our Mercedes van sped down super-smooth highways, we spied tents by the arid expanse. The black, brown and white tents belonged to the Bedouins, who often camp on land they own, said Abdul; those in other hues were gypsy dwellings.    

At Petra, spread over 78 sq. km. in southern Jordan, we walked through the mile-long steep gorge, the Siq – past niches for deities, wind-hewn rocks, carvings of camel caravans. Our eyes flitted to the rose, the gold, the muted ochre of the rocky terrain. Suddenly, Abdul said, “Look up!” Struck dumb, we gazed through the narrow exit at the 39.6 metre tall al-Khazneh or Treasury. How on earth did the Nabateans create this incredible city over 2,000 years ago? What tools did they use? That gooseflesh moment of history-come-alive lasted way beyond the thrill of the 1989 Spielberg film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” partly shot here. 

We take in ancient tombs, tourist-packed horse-drawn carriages, donkeys led by Bedouin men with kohl-rimmed eyes. Abdul beckons towards a ledge over astonishing striated terracotta-white rocks. At a stall brimming with silver jewellery inspired by Petra motifs, we met Marguerite van Geldermalsen. A nurse from New Zealand, she married a Bedouin souvenir-seller – Mohammad Abdallah Othman – in 1978. They lived in Petra, with their three children. Unhesitating, I bought her 2006 book, “Married to a Bedouin.”  More secrets in store?

Marguerite van Geldermalsen, with her book, published in 2006
At Wadi Rum, 121 km. away, Bedouins came alive again. The Disi aquifer in this desert, we learnt, may quench the thirst of water-scarce Jordan for the next 100 years. This stunning desert doubles as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ country, where David Lean shot his 1962 film. How do local folks regard the Briton? Many see him as a spy, who may have tried to prevent the Great Arab Revolt of 1916-18 against the Ottoman Turks, led by Sharif Hussein bin Ali. The reigning Jordanian royal family draws their lineage from him.  

The rocky desert landscape of Wadi Rum
At Captain’s Desert Camp at Wadi Rum, we peeped into Bedouin goat hair tents. Then, a jeep took us to a granite ledge through dazzling sands that morphed from red to amber to beige within a swooping glance. As sunset unfolded over the gold-flecked sand, inner silence set in. The dimming rays kissed our toes, then settled on camels loping by at ground level. For camels, we gathered, are the wealth of a Bedouin tribe (each costs 3,000-plus Jordanian dinar or Rs. 2,10,000). Multiply that by dozens – and a fortune on spindly legs comes alive.  

‘Masah al khair,’ we greeted a Bedouin with silky eyes at the camp. In response, he broke into a rhythmic cascade of words. These tribes, we find, are known as spontaneous poets. They double as the backbone of Jordanian desert patrols and the army. 

Post-sunset poet at the desert camp
Our van thrilled to Bedouin stories as we left Wadi Rum for Aqaba on the Red Sea. We got clues to the essential social rite of three cups of Arabic coffee, each drunk in three sips. And of how a man lost in the desert would unconditionally receive three days and nights of food, water and shelter from a Bedouin family or tribe, even if he did not introduce himself. And how Bedouin sheikhs gauged a stranger at their tent, his knotted scarf denoting that he had murdered someone. If they deemed him meritorious, they unknotted his scarf, offering him protection. Their legendary hospitality seems almost unreal in our largely I-me-myself global urban world.  

A Bedouin in non-traditional attire leads a donkey, a popular means of transport, in Petra
Back in Bangalore, I dived into Marguerite’s experiences. All for love, Fatima (her Bedouin name) chose the traditional life in Petra. She lived with Mohammad in a 2000-year-old cave. She learnt Arabic. Their children were born in Jordan. She wore a flowing mudraga (first cousin to the Kutchi aba) instead of jeans. She learnt to make unleavened shraak bread from Bedouin women. She became Petra’s resident nurse. Since Mohammad’s death in 2002, she now shuttles between Sydney and Petra.

Charmed by the Jordanians I encounter, as by Diana and Marguerite, I wonder: can a positive future of cross-cultural amity come alive against the backdrop of last year’s Arab Spring, against the theatre of post-9/11 currents? For lack of a crystal ball, I gaze into a traditional Petra sand bottle, and make a wish – that there should be peace in and around Jordan.  

A range of traditional sand bottles at the entrance to the historic site at Petra
Off book time, I’m still in a Jordan frame of mind. Inshallah, I will return one day. To taste that elusive mensef. To browse in a souk. To spend a week in Petra. To chance upon Bedouins off the tourist circuit. And especially to demystify Jordan to myself as an oasis ringed by political fire today.  

Should you travel to Jordan in 2012 (see box)? Sans doubt.  Or as the Bedouins would say, in a tongue closest to the Arabic original: Yallah, yallah! Let’s go! Come on!

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I just found a beautiful short film ~ "Moving with the times: Bedouin in Jordan" on Facebook. It offers perspectives from Raami from Petra (Marguerite's son) and others. The link:

Happy watching!

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The call of Jordan, 2012

* Petra: Celebrate the bicentenary of the rediscovery of the ancient Nabatean capital – Jordan’s spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site – by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.  Chosen by BBC as “one of 40 places to see before you die.” On Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, it is possible to visit Petra by the light of 1,800 candles from 8.30 to 10 p.m.

* Wadi Rum: Monolithic sandstone rockscapes soaring upto 1,750 metres above the untouched desert. A World Heritage site since 2011. 

* Jerash: Buried under sand for centuries, excavated and restored over the past 70 years, it is one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world. The Jerash Festival, held every July, offers folk dances, concerts, plays, opera and handicrafts amidst the ruins.

* Dead Sea: Situated 417 metres below mean sea level, its air is 8 % richer in oxygen. Its super-salty waters allow even non-swimmers to float/ sunbathe safely on its surface. Its sun, water, mud and air have proved beneficial for medical conditions ranging from dermatitis to arthritis, hypertension to Parkinson’s Disease.   

* Biblical Jordan:
~ Madaba (Greek Orthodox Church of St. George with a 6th century Byzantine map of Jerusalem and other holy sites)
~ Mt. Nebo (Moses was buried here, the site from where he looked upon the Promised Land)
~ Bethany beyond the Jordan (where Christ was baptized)

More data:

Jordan: Fingertip facts:

Government: A constitutional monarchy under King Abdallah II, with a bicameral assembly.

Area: 92,300 sq. km.

Population: 6.2 million

Currency: Jordanian dinar (approx. Rs. 67)

Religion: Sunni Muslim: 93 %. Christian: 7 %.

Languages: Arabic. English.   

Main exports: Clothing. Phosphate. Phosphate. Pharmaceuticals.

Economy: Emerging business capital of the Levant.

Tourist infrastructure: Good roads. Superb hotels. Efficient English-speaking guides. Easy online bookings. 

 (First published in The Hindu Business Line, December 2011)

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