Jordan // Aqaba and the southern desert //

The Wadi Rum bedouin: an insider’s view


Ruth Caswell, author of w, has been visiting and writing about Wadi Rum for twenty years. Here she sheds some light on the background of a generation of bedouin who now make their living as tourist guides.

Two cousins I know, Muhammad and Mahmoud [names have been changed], who are guides at Rum, are both from the Zilabia tribe, a branch of the great Aneizat tribal confederation. Both of them were born in the mid-1970s, in the desert, in the family tent. When they were children they attended the army school in Wadi Rum, usually walking up to 10km in the mornings and then returning to the family camps in the afternoon (school finishes at about 2pm). Sometimes they rode a donkey, sharing it with their friends. After school and during school holidays they looked after their family’s animals, often moving tens of kilometres across the desert in search of grazing. They learned to hunt for meat in the mountains, and to gather the medicinal herbs they found there. Both families had a number of goats, but they were (and still are) too valuable to be killed for meat except for special occasions.

The usual transport was by camel. Muhammad’s father bought one of the first jeeps to be seen in Wadi Rum when Muhammad was 12 years old; they quickly realized that the jeep was more expensive to run than the camel was, so its use was strictly rationed. It certainly wasn’t to be used for things like taking the children to school. Muhammad’s family used to spend the winters sheltered in the Barra canyon; during the spring they made their way slowly across the desert, spending the high summers on a plateau across the border in Saudi Arabia. Then back again during the autumn. Mahmoud’s father preferred to travel from east to west, from the Mudawwara mud flats to the Abu Aina spring in Wadi Rum.

It is not surprising that these men and their families know the desert and the mountains intimately, nor that they are good walkers.

Another trait that they nearly all share is complete independence whenever possible. Because they were not brought up to be able to call a doctor, a vet or a mechanic, they all know a fair bit about treating an injury or an illness, caring for a sick or injured animal or repairing a car. They are confident in their own abilities in almost any situation. Most of the bedouin guides in Wadi Rum have the same or similar backgrounds. The few exceptions are from the families that preferred to remain near to the fort in Wadi Rum that was built by the Desert Patrol and a sure source of water, rather than moving with the seasons. These people might know the deep desert less well than the others, but nonetheless all the Rum guides are still bedouin to the core.

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