When I told my Scottish expatriate friend, Pam, that my husband and I would be visiting Petra in Jordan over the Hajj Eid holiday last year she gushed, “Oh I loved Petra.” Pam recommended I read ‘Married to a Bedouin‘ by Marguerite van Geldermalsen before going on our holiday to enhance the experience. I followed Pam’s advice and read the autobiographical account of a red-haired, fair-eyed New Zealander, who while touring Petra with a girlfriend in the late 1970’s met a handsome cave-dwelling Bedouin named Mohammad, fell in love and married him. Marguerite, or Um Raami, (mother of Raami), as she became known, lived with Mohammad in a two thousand-year-old cave for years and bore him three children before the Bdoul Bedouins of Petra were relocated to a cement village. The book proved to be a fascinating read and helped inform me of Bedouin life and traditions, especially in southern Jordan, and set the stage for our upcoming trip to Petra.
I had spotted Arab Bedouins (desert living or cave dwelling, tribal, and nomadic people) when we lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (in the early 2000’s) during our frequent weekend trips to the desert where we, along with western expatriate friends, set up picnics with blankets, coolers filled with food and drink, sheesha (huka), and a boom box for popular Arabic CDs. We caught glimpses of Bedouins in weathered thobes and billowing ghuttras in the distance tending to sheep, goats, and camels in the desolate sahara as we traveled in our convoys along roadways, or desert sand in our four wheel drive vehicles. On occasion, we detected Bedouin villages with clusters of brown and white horizontal striped tents in remote recesses of the desert; children dressed in worn clothes and mussed hair romping about while camels or goats roamed nearby.
Our trip to Petra was awe-inspiring. Catching sight of the imposing Treasury building (Al-Khazneh) through the filtered sunlight of the narrow Siq (shaft), sketched in the towering red rocks was a long-awaited sight – something I had seen for years on TV and in travel brochures. Further along the sandy, rocky pathways we were treated to temples, tombs, a Roman-like open air theatre, and the impressive Monastery (Ad-Deir), all chiseled into the red sandstone rock of Petra. This was all the handiwork of the Nabataeans, an ancient Arab tribe from the Arabian Peninsula who settled in the south of Jordan more than 2,200 years ago. The Nabataean community flourished as overseers of trade routes and caravans with frankincense and myrrh from Arabia, silk and spices from India, and animal hides and ivory from Africa until around 106 AD when Petra became part of the Roman Empire. During their tenure in Petra the Nabataeans were even able to construct an intricate and highly effective irrigation system in the middle of the desert, no less.
While the Nabataeans represent another time in the region’s history, Petra is now regularly filled with tourists from all over the world and the Bedouin who live in the area, relocated from Petra’s caves (where they lived for many generations) to nearby concrete communities. Young Bedouin men, charcoal markings framing their eyes, are in evidence even before entering Petra’s Siq, riding, and sometimes racing horses, as well as at the reins of colorful red carriages led by single horses. Once within Petra, Bedouin men, often with checkered ghuttra scarves wound around their heads, exert their competitive and enterprising spirits with shouts of “Come, I can show you more if you ride my camel,” or “I can give you less price if you take my carriage!” Further into Petra along the passages and sandstone cliffs leading to the many tombs are makeshift stalls with Bedouin men and women selling their wares: colorful beaded jewelry, silver bracelets, white and black checkered ghuttras, Nabataean coins, and other mementos. As in the larger Arab world, the art of bargaining is a prerequisite for souvenir shopping, and the Bedouins of Petra are among the best, due to years of practice interacting with people from many cultures, I assume.
Climbing the 800 steps to the Monastery, (less than halfway up I certainly wished I had decided on mounting a donkey for the ride up the mountain), we encountered several stands where Bedouins (mainly mothers and their children) were selling more jewelry, trinkets, and postcards. We stopped at one stall part way up the mountain and Bishara lingered for awhile, always being more interested in “shooting the breeze” than me. When he saw me moving ahead, he ran up to me and said that the Bedouin young woman, Rose, had said we must stop for tea on our way back from the Monastery. We pushed on, and further down the dirt path scattered with rocks and uneven stone steps, winded with tired muscles, we stopped at another Bedouin stall under a wide tent canopy to rest. A middle-aged Bedouin woman with a colorful pink scarf atop her head and black abaye with intricately woven gold designs, and her daughter, wrapped in a purple head scarf and sweater and wearing jeans, insisted we have tea with them. The older lady yelled out in broken English, “Sit on the blanket, sit on the blanket!” Out came the silver dented tea kettle, which was set over a small portable stove with a lit fire and in less than two minutes we were served aromatic tea in small tea glasses. My husband, Bishara, a Lebanese national, told me later that in the Bedouin culture once you sit in their home or tent, you become the most important focus and priority.
After finally making it to the top of the mountain, taking a protracted respite, and viewing the magnificent Monastery carved into a sheer cliff, we headed back down the passageway, which I thought would be easier since it was all downhill, but found myself leaning on Bishara for most of the trip. As we wound around a curve in the path, we saw Rose and her mother in the distance. Bishara reminded me that we should stop to have tea and say “hello.” I was hesitant since we just had lunch and something to drink when up at the Monastery and it seemed we should keep moving, as any stop in my forward motion could potentially shut me down. Bishara was persistent, however, as was Rose, because as soon as we came into view she called out to us to join her and her family for tea. We were, again, encouraged to sit on a carpet-covered blanket laid out behind the family’s stall. We sipped our robust red tea in small glass cups that seemed to be comprised of more sugar than tea, made “small talk,” and had a look at jewelry. I found a silver bracelet I liked, and we were planning to use the bargaining tactic of saying we weren’t interested and walking away expecting to be called back, however, neither Rose nor her mother called us back. Bishara and I felt bad that we had offered a price that didn’t even warrant a call back, and Rose and her mother had been so gracious, after all, to give us tea during which time other potential customers were neglected. So, we walked back, looked at the bracelet more carefully and offered the last price that Rose had put forward. Rose and her mother were all smiles, and Rose’s mother offered me another necklace. “Thank you,” I said, “I think this is all I want,” pointing to the bracelet I had just purchased on my wrist. Rose’s mother persevered, “No, this is for you!” When I tried to give her some money, she adamantly refused. I was taken aback by her kindness, but had become accustomed to Arab generosity and had heard about the extraordinary hospitality and graciousness of the Bedouin.
While chatting with Rose and her mother, I happened to mention that I read the book, “Married to a Bedouin.” Rose, a twinkle in her eye, related, “Oh, I know Um Raami. She’s in Petra today selling at her gift shop.” Moving forward I asked, “Oh really, do you think it would be possible for me to meet her?” Without blinking an eye, Rose responded, “Of course, we can go right now.” “But what about your shop?,” I queried. “Oh, it’s okay, my mother can handle everything here,” Rose retorted.
We picked up a girlfriend of Rose’s, who was closing up shop, as we hiked down the mountain, and she accompanied us all the way to the Treasury building. Along the way, attractive young Bedouin men with kohl-framed eyes, on camels and donkeys, flirted with our young friends. I was able to meet Um Raami and received her signature, and as we left she said, “tsharafna,” in typical Arab style, which means “my honor to meet you.” After leaving the gift shop, Rose insisted that Bishara and I go to her home to meet the rest of her family.
Several donkeys, street dogs, hens and roosters roamed around outside Rose’s home in Al Beida (Little Petra), about a ten minute drive from the heart of Petra. In the open adjacent lot sat the typical Bedouin tent, bait shair, (house made of goat hair). Rose’s home was a simple white cement block. Inside, there was not a stick of furniture, only a thin foam mattress pushed up against an unpainted gray concrete wall, with a single fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling. We were ushered inside with much fanfare, introduced to Rose’s father, who had several front teeth missing and spoke practically no English, and told to sit on the foam mattress. Immediately Rose’s mother appeared with a subdued smile and soft, kind eyes; she squatted down on the brown linoleum floor, placed an old silver pot onto a kerosene portable stove, and sat cross-legged while waiting for the pot to boil.
After pouring us tea, Rose’s mother insisted on giving me another beautiful beaded necklace, and Bishara several ancient Nabataean coins. The family, sitting around us in a semi-circle on the linoleum floor, also wanted to slaughter a sheep and share in a meal of mansef (rice and lamb served with yogurt sauce). When we said we were quite exhausted after a long day of trekking through Petra, and needed to go back to the hotel soon to sleep, Rose’s father asked if we could come to their home the following night for dinner. At one point, Rose’s sister-in-law entered the house with her young child and seemed quietly mesmerized by us. There were also a flurry of phone calls and plans made for other family members to come and visit with us, as well as a call from Rose’s uncle and his family about an overnight camping trip in the desert with Rose’s family, which we were told is a normal occurrence. Rose’s mother rolled up a cloth bag, placing a portable stove inside, as well as a bag of rice, some vegetables, a container of yogurt in a separate small cloth bag, with khobuz (bread) and other essentials in preparation for the trip later in the evening. Rose’s father asked in fractured English if we’d like to accompany them to the desert, but we said we would have to forgo the trip, as we were simply too tired. The family was quite interested in where we were from, why we were currently living in Qatar and what we did there, and how we liked Petra. Our hosts divulged that they loved meeting westerners, and that we weren’t the first westerners to come to their home. Rose, her mother, and father insisted that next time we visited Petra we would not be staying in a hotel, but rather with them.
- Desert Trips, Bedouins, and Barbecues (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)