The night was just cold enough to send bouts of adrenaline through my veins, and as I dug my toes into the cool sand of Wadi Rum I watched a mesmerizing display of shooting stars skip across the diamond encrusted sky. We arrived to our so-called destination, which happened to be an ideal piece of land nestled between two towering mountains in the middle of Jordan’s largest desert.
I opted to aid Ahmad, my Bedouin friend, in his quest to gather up some wood for a fire. As I followed him loyally in the dark with nothing but his humble flashlight and intrinsic sense of direction I started to wonder who was this man that donned a Jordanian red scarf wrapped around his head and introduced himself as ‘Journey’ to his English-only friends?
Wadi Rum proves to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in Jordan, behind Petra, Jerash and Amman’s citadel.
If one were to Google search “Wadi Rum,” the amount of tourism hits related to exotic camel rides in the desert, epic rock climbing adventures, sunrise jeep excursions and Bedouin-style camping is overwhelming. I had the opportunity to recently visit this breathtaking landscape for a weekend jaunt with my study abroad group.
I could tell you of the fantastic adventures I had riding into the sunset on a camel, scrambling around mountain cliffs in the desert, or eating traditional food that was cooked under the sand. I could show you perfectly captured photos with a traditional red Jordanian scarf tied around my head with a stunning backdrop of desert and rock.
I could tell you stories of how I slept in a perfectly clean and comfortable tent in the desert of Wadi Rum and how I blazed across the sand in an old pick-up truck driven by an outstandingly skilled twelve year old.
I could tell you these stories, and show you my pictures and even dig out sand still stuck in my pocket from my weekend adventure but my fleeting narrative stands in the shadow of that of the Bedouin people who make a living off the high demand of tourism coming to “experience” their now dying and illegal lifestyle.
Remember Ahmad? My Bedouin friend who took me into the desert for stargazing? His family’s long lived culture as nomadic people of the desert now survives in a bastardized fantasy of what was through the tourism industry. His name is Journey according to visitors looking for that quintessential Wadi Rum experience, one that their Google search/Lonely Planet guide promised. But his name is Ahmad, whether your Western tongue is capable of pronouncing it correctly or not and his family’s long and proud history and tradition is for sale at the low price of 39 Jordanian Dinar (not including tip).
Only a handful of traditional nomadic Bedouin exist in Jordan today after the government mandated they be relocated into settlements under the promise of a better life with access to modern healthcare, and education systems at the expense of their traditional agricultural and pastoral land.
Since the late 1980’s, a large number of Bedouin people across Jordan cling to the tourism business as it seems to be the only option available, especially for the younger generations. As a result systemic poverty, substance abuse, lack of job opportunities outside the tourism industry and abandonment of cultural tradition and practice are the realities for most of Jordanian Bedouin living in post-settlement conditions.
When your means of living clash with your way of life, unfortunately tradition must be sacrificed in order to put food on the table, or in this case on the floor. When poverty meets opportunity, native language becomes a way to woo American women with foreign sounds and song to make a quick buck or steal a quick kiss.
One of the most important principles to the Bedouin is freedom. If you ask Ahmad where his home lies, he will respond saying, “My home is under the stars in al-sahra’a (Arabic for desert), not in the camp where you sleep.” His ‘home’ and nomadic lifestyle is an illegal place of residence and reserved now for you, as a paying tourist.
The next time you decide to take a trip to Wadi Rum, I challenge you to ask the man leading your camel into the desert about his history with the land before you ask him to take a photo of you.
Brooke Lake is an international and arabic studies major. She studied abroad in Meknes, Morocco and currently studies abroad in Jordan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.