Abu Khalil has 100 goats, twelve children, three wives, and few good teeth. When he hosts people in his main tent, he dons the gold colored bisht (robe), a sign of celebration and status among the Bedu (or Bedouins).
I met Abu Khalil’s family earlier this month while accompanying a visiting American friend on a trip to Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge, set in a remote, wind chilling mountainous area with a spectacular other worldly landscape. The ecolodge depends on American and European tourists. Urban Jordanians do not have the Lawrence of Arabia romanticism of the Bedu that Westerners have. However, while Westerners love an invitation to a Bedu tent, the language barrier makes it mostly a case of excessive smiling and nodding at each other. I fell somewhere in the middle—an unexpected translator for the Westerners, and more importantly to the Bedu, someone they could talk to about the rest of the Arab world, a world which they rarely come in contact with. They see more Westerners than other Arabs, to whom an ecolodge, the idea of going on vacation in a place without electricity seems like a punch line to a joke.
The ecolodge was built to preserve the fragile environment—and bring work opportunities to the local Bedu. In return, the Bedu have modified their activities in order to meet the goals of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). They no longer hunt the cherished but endangered wild rabbits or ibexes to prevent them from extinction. The Bedu understand extinction, including the possible extinction of their own way of life, something they are both fear and are drawn to.
Abu Khalil married his two main wives in the same year, 1990, but not the same day. (There was an earlier wife, but he divorced her, and a younger wife who lives in a nearby village). He is “almost 60” and the wives put their age at 42, although had they not told you, you would put them much closer to his age. There are reasons for that –brutal winds, sun, poor health care. But those affect both men and women.
In the pink dawn, after fajer prayers, we watched his wives climbing the mountains, each with her share of the 100 goats, taking them out to feed. Suleiman, at 20 one of the older sons, the next in line to get married, and a guide at the lodge, explains, “My mothers take care of the goats, make the milk, ghee, and jameed (the Bedu’s beloved dried yogurt), feed their kids, weave the goat hairs for the tent, wash the clothes…”
“So what do the men do then?” you ask.
He thinks on this. “Make sure the women are doing all these things,” he jokes, and then quickly adds, “The men go to town to take care of any business, work in the army or police maybe.”
So it’s not hard to understand why in families with only one wife, which is in fact the norm, kids run around in clothes and hair weighed down in dirt, faces with splotches of mud on them, and noses running freely for days.
When you sit with Abu Khalil’s women, the two wives and their teenage daughters, in their part of the tent (tents are divided into thirds for men, women, and livestock), around a fire where they boil tea with sage and a dentist-defying amount of sugar, they are all welcoming, smiling through wind burned lips. Hospitality is the truest cliché of their culture. They ask all about you, not uttering one complaint about men or goats or each other.
They don’t have TV or the Internet, and they have almost no contact with non-Bedu, outside of what they study in their rudimentary school and now in meeting the guests at the ecolodge.
When they find out you live in Abu Dhabi, they ask you what the people are like there. They don’t mean all the Abu Dhabi expats like yourself—they mean their fellow Bedu. A son had joked earlier about his donkey being the Bedouin Mercedes. You can’t bring yourself to tell them that the Bedu of Abu Dhabi have real Mercedes, new, shiny ones—and all sorts of other shiny things. “It’s nice,” you say. “But too hot.”
That’s when the randomness of national borders strikes you. These Bedu, like most Bedu, trace their roots to Saudi Arabia. But Bedu are nomadic and when oil struck, fate was determined by what side of the post-colonial border you had set up tent. The fortress houses, cars, designer watches, maids, and drivers of the Persian Gulf have left the Jordanian Bedu in the dust, somewhat literally. Or so you think with your Abu Dhabi eyes.
Then you ask Abu Khalil’s daughter, who just turned 14, what she’d like to do when she finishes school. “Keep having a healthy life and family,” she shrugs. She does not say “in another place.” When prodded about moving to the city, she fidgets. Yes, there is another world out there. Yet, she, like everyone else here, is at home nomadic, no upgraded Mercedes of any kind required, a place where not seeing across the border means this is all that life is—aside from visitors who remind you it isn’t.