Wadi Rum, Jordan: A Disappearing Way of Life
There have been Bedouin people living in the area of Wadi Rum for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. Perhaps it is only in the last 30 years that they have been persuaded out of their desert into villages with schools, health clinics, electricity and water bursting forth from pipes. As a testament to the difficulty of life in the desert, there is not much evidence to show for their presence.
To me one of the most interesting things to find in the Wadi Rum desert is the thousands and thousands of inscriptions all over the place. Whenever I go on outings with my family I go inscription spotting and they are literally everywhere. There is a certain kind of rock that you see all around and these are often candidates to spot inscriptions on. I like to call them “cheese wedge rocks.” As their name goes, they look much like a wedge of cheese. There is a large flat surface often at a 45 degree angle and the inscriptions are usually found on this surface. There are “official” inscriptions that tourists will visit on their Jeep tours in Wadi Rum, but anyone who explores other places along the way are bound to spot more.
When you go climbing in the mountains you can often see marks high up along the scrambling routes. People like Tony and Di Howard, who pioneered rock climbing in the area, have seen inscriptions of feet, hands and hollows. A lot of these markings were left as signs. Signs for hunting, route finding signposts, signs to let people know something important happened in a particular place, and there are even maps. The pure quantity of the inscriptions is one of the characteristics of the area that merited Wadi Rum being nominated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2011.
Now, in the present of 2017, I can honestly say that the old nomadic life does not feel terribly far away. Bedouin people have not forgotten how to live in the desert, they could go back, but as time goes on, if things continue as they are, children will forget, they will grow up not learning the skills, the toughness.UA
All Bedouin people have a dream of finding treasure in the desert, and they will claim that some of the signs left on the rocks are like triangulations that can be used to pinpoint the location of treasure. You just have to figure out the significance of the signs and find the appropriate three inscriptions. Then if you dig in the right place, Insha’Allah, you can find gold…
Nomadic life was hard, yet when I look at the desert and think about the lack of impact Bedouin people have had on its physicality, the environment, then I would argue the old life was also a sustainable, environmentally friendly way of life. All the recent negative affects on the desert’s environment can be attributed to modern life. Concrete, plastic, over grazing. Once the borders went down then the routes they had taken before were restricted and the clock was set on the nomadic lifestyle. The population could grow because of new villages being built and better access to health care, but this then put more pressure on the environment. In the past Bedouin people could travel all the way from what is now Yemen, through Saudi Arabia, to Jerusalem and all the way to Damascus without anything to stop them. Camel caravans would carry goods, and a simple way of life remained unchanged for many thousands of years.
One of the things most surprising to me upon living here is the tolerance I have been shown. Particularly by older people. The older people are often illiterate, have a strong immovable culture and see Bedouin people as the “best, most noble kind of people,” so if they were intolerant, I would forgive them. Yet they are not. Despite the fact that I am so different to them, they welcome me, tolerate me, and accept me 100% as one of “their own.”
The Bedouin life is easy to romanticize, and many people do – they come with shining eyes, see the stars, the beauty of the desert, the congeniality of the people. They are impressed by the hospitality and generosity of the people they meet, their aura of nobility, their strength. These qualities arise from living in such a harsh land. There is no room in the desert for weakness – there can be kindness, but this kindness comes with codes of generosity, of give and take. When a traveller passes by a Bedouin tent, he will be invited in, welcomed, fed, given water, all the best the host has. This system works because the host would receive no less should he be the one travelling. The nomadic life was one entrenched in movement. They would travel, move their tents – there was no risk that if you were generous to another person than you would not be the one in need at some point in the future, or that you had not received such aid in the past.
With kindness there is also cruelty, death is an ever present possibility, life is lived with a balance of action and accepting the will of God when handing out misfortune. Difficulty is a test, and will pass. Difficulties are to be overcome with strength and honour.
The desolate nature of the desert and the influence of practicing Islam gave rise to a rich culture of community. The community is the law, the priority, the safety net.
Now, in the present of 2017, I can honestly say that the old nomadic life does not feel terribly far away. Bedouin people have not forgotten how to live in the desert, they could go back, but as time goes on, if things continue as they are, children will forget, they will grow up not learning the skills, the toughness. Bedouin life will be a culture that could be lost, and with its loss will come a great loss of knowledge and wisdom.
Then it should be asked, what will be left as a mark by modern civilization on the desert? For certain, the desert will outlast the modern world.
We will no doubt leave a layer of concrete dust, plastic bags, tins, glass. Empty bullet casings.
For more articles on the Middle East, check out Dalyan, Turkey.