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  • April 2012
    M T W T F S S

​Jordan A to Z: ​B is for …. ​Bedouin Heritage!

Dividing up the modern Middle East

Lines in the sand ... the map of Jordan

At first glance the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan seems to be a young nation.  Like its neighbors in the Middle East it is a relative newcomer on the global scene … gaining independence and “official” recognition as a nation on 25 May 1946.  When you look at a map of Jordan, with its straight lines running at strange angles in the middle of the desert, it is not hard to imagine the global powers-that-be arbitrarily drawing up the map of the Middle East in the time between the first two world wars.  However, what these strangely intersecting borders and the relatively recent “birthdate” of the nation fail to convey is the rich and long history of the peoples of this region.

People have settled this area for centuries before the modern borders were drawn.  Those familiar with the biblical lands of Ammon, Moab, and Edom should be reminded that they were located here.  Jordan contains some ruins of the oldest settlements in the world … Al-Beidha is a neolithic village dating from 7200 BC!  Archeological finds have demonstrated that the region covered by the modern day Kingdom of Jordan has been inhabited since those ancient days.  A Bedouin culture typified by the domestication of herd animals and the nomadic lifestyle that accompanied such activity seems to have risen in the Chalcolithic period (4500-3200 BC) and continues to this day.

It must be noted that the lines drawn in the sand by the power-that be cannot contain the ancient culture of the Bedouin peoples scattered throughout the region!

Bedouin heritage shaping culture in Jordan for millennia

It is impossible to underestimate how strongly Bedouin culture has shaped the culture of the modern day Kingdom of Jordan.  From 4000 years before the birth of Christ until a mere 75 years ago most of the inhabitants of this area were Bedouins in the true sense of the word.  They lived in tents or other temporary structures and much of their life revolved around the care of livestock.  The ebb and flow of life was dictated by the seasons and the needs of the animals that were the wealth and lifeblood of the Bedouin.  Even though 75-80% of the Jordanian population today lives in the urban centers, it was the exact opposite less than a century ago.  It is not uncommon to hear the most cosmopolitan, well-educated city dweller to speak of their grandparents Bedouin lifestyle.  Just like in America … you don’t have to go back too many generations to discover the family farm.

Some highlights of Bedouin culture

The coffee pot is always on near the Bedouin's tent

  • Hospitality: The practice of welcoming the stranger is by far the defining characteristic of Bedouin culture.  Today you will hear the phrase “ahlan wa sahlan” repeated constantly in Jordan (welcome and welcome again in the future).  When entering a Bedouin tent it is customary to remove ones shoes, and in ancient times water was provided for washing feet dirtied by travel.  A good host would always offer coffee immediately. Indeed a pot of coffee is often on, or not far from, the fire all day long.  The Bedouin host will continue to fill your tiny cup until you signify you are finished by shaking it slightly left-to-right between your fingers.  Even though your host will fill your cup all day it is good manners to stop at three.
  • Three days of welcome -Part of the importance of hospitality arose out of the perils of living in such close proximity and communion with the desert.  The desert was a a great equalizer for early man.  One cannot exist for long on one’s own in the desert and must rely on the hospitality of the community and sometimes strangers. In ancient times if someone arrived at a Bedouin’s tent it was customary to welcome them for 3 days, providing them with food, water, shelter, and protection for that time period …. without asking questions!  After three days questions would be asked and decisions made about on-going provision and care.
  • Protection – It is a matter of great personal honor for a Bedouin to protect anyone who is a guest in their dwelling.  They consider it their personal responsibility to do whatever necessary to protect a guest.  Even if someone was fleeing from trouble they could expect to be granted asylum from a Bedouin in his tent for at least 3 days.  It could be after that time that the Bedouin would decide to escort the asylum-seeker out of the area … in which case the Bedouin would often provide safe passage by means of an armed escort and perhaps even some provisions for the onward journey.
  • Honor & Shame -All of this comes out of a high sense of honor and shame within the culture.  Honor and Shame don’t just rest on the individual but it rests on the family, the clan, and the tribe.  Thus your actions as an individual bring honor or shame not only on your own head, but on your family and indeed the extended family.  In the west we view the individual as the most important unit of society … but for the Bedouins it was (and still is) the family and the tribe.  It was nonsensical to think of the individual as being completely self-sufficient in the natural environment of the ancient Middle East.  This belief has persisted till modern times and strengthens the fabric of Jordanian society.

Bedouin life today

This post has already gotten way too long (and is a day late!) so I will just treat this topic briefly.  True Bedouins that live in tents and temporary dwellings are still possible to find in Jordan.  You will begin to see their tents just on the outskirts of any major cities.  You will even see shepherds grazing their sheep on open patches of greenery in the middle metropolitan Amman!  Many modern Bedouins are more semi-nomadic or have settled in small villages.  It wasn’t long ago that in the south of Jordan you could find Bedouins living in places like Petra and Wadi Rum as they had for centuries.  However, as the tourist industry grew, the government sought to present a different image in such historic locations and built towns for some of the southern Bedouins to live in.  Many of these Bedouins make there living now as guides and salesmen in Petra and Wadi Rum

As I mentioned before, many Jordanians have Bedouin roots … so even city-dwellers are not far removed from that history.  The cultural values of preserving honor and avoiding shame are alive and well in Jordanian cities.  As is the value of hospitality!  Come visit Jordan and find out for yourself!

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