Nomads Settle Down : Desert Call Fading for Bedouins

Times Staff Writer

Under towering sandstone cliffs on the edge of a starkly beautiful expanse of desert, Mohammed Utayyiq Zalabia has built a house of concrete blocks.

Similar to dozens of new structures that now dot the sandy landscape here, the two-room house has no windows, no roof, not even any furniture on the rough concrete floor. Zalabia and his family still prefer to live in the brown and white goat’s-hair tent anchored nearby.

Nearly all of the residents of this outpost in southern Jordan are Bedouins, members of the nomadic tribes which swept up from Yemen and Arabia thousands of years ago. The concrete house is a symbol of permanence, a marker of epochal change.

Drives a Pickup


Unlike his Bedouin ancestors, Zalabia works a 40-hour week at a paying job as a guard. He drives a Land Rover pickup. He has no grazing herds of sheep and goats, just a single female camel to give milk. His sons are studying mathematics and English in the Wadi Rum school, and the family draws water from a tap at the end of a pipe in the kitchen.

After centuries as the rugged backbone of the population in an area stretching from Jordan to Iraq, from Syria to the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, the Bedouins, or Bedu in Arabic, now are expected to vanish in a matter of only a few years.

The simple nomads have been transformed by modernization, a powerful magnet that is pulling the last remaining shepherds from their homes in the desert to villages and towns across Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan.

‘Way of Life Disappeared’


“A way of life has disappeared,” said Kamel abu Jaber, an expert on nomads at the University of Jordan. “For all practical purposes, the Bedouin no longer exist.”

Here in Jordan, Bedouins accounted for more than 200,000 of the population of 500,000 as late as World War II. Jordan’s population has more than quadrupled since then, but now the Bedouins living in tents and wandering the desert are believed to number less than 20,000. Throughout the Arabian Peninsula, such tent-living Bedouins account for no more than 1% of the population, according to Abu Jaber.

The change has been as dramatic as it has been swift. The speaker of Jordan’s Parliament, Akef Fayez, is the prototype of the urbane politician, speaking English and French and wearing Italian suits. Yet his father was a Bedouin sheik, or leader, who wore desert robes, traveled by horseback and lived in a tent.

“The last 15 years have produced a greater change in these people than the entire previous 400 years,” noted Ahmed Oweidi, a Bedouin who started out in life as a desert policeman, worked his way through a Ph.D at Cambridge University in England and now makes a living by teaching and writing. His most recent work was a television study of the history and customs of the Bedouins.

Still Prefers His Tent

Mohammed Mousa, a Bedouin who still prefers to live in a tent with his two wives, lamented the changes even while walking his camel toward Wadi Rum to register with the police as a guide offering camel rides to tourists.

“Our sons don’t know how to take care of camels, to water them and take them to pasture,” said Mousa, who wore brown suede running shoes under his djellaba , the airy Bedouin dress. “The next generation will not be like me. It’s a time of reading and writing. It doesn’t correspond with grazing goats and sheep.”

Education is in large measure responsible for the disappearance of Bedouinism as a way of life.


As early as the foundation of the modern state of Jordan in 1921, Bedouins were attracted into the army and police. At a time when raiding rival tribes was an acceptable way of life, the government wanted to find a way of converting the lawbreakers into law enforcers.

Attracted to Military

The Bedouins, who proved fierce fighters and fanatically loyal to the Hashemite throne, found a natural affinity for military service. Meanwhile, they were educated in modern ways, taught to read and write. The experience of living in settled quarters, even cities, had a profound effect on the Bedouin soldiers and their families, who had never before tasted creature comforts.

The British officer T. E. Lawrence, later immortalized as “Lawrence of Arabia,” noted in his memoirs of World War I that “Bedouin ways were hard even for those brought up to them and for strangers terrible: a death in life. When the march or labor ended I had no energy to record sensation, nor while it lasted any leisure to see the spiritual hopelessness which sometimes came upon us by the way.”

Abu Jaber said that the Bedouin life described by Lawrence is still as harsh as it was half a century ago.

“It’s 24 hours of hard labor, moving over harsh terrain to harsher terrain. They are literally scrounging for a living. A glass of water is a luxury,” he said.

Acquire Housing, Schooling

Little wonder that the vast majority of Bedouins have readily exchanged the Bedouin way of life for modern conveniences, particularly housing, schooling for their children and medical clinics.


“The Bedouin came to the city and the city came to the Bedouin,” said Oweidi, the Cambridge Ph.D.

In the process, the divisions between modern Jordan and Bedouins have been broken; clothes are now more Western than traditional, for example, and Bedouin youngsters tuning into radio request programs ask for Michael Jackson, not Bedouin ballads.

Another factor in the decline of the Bedouin life style was a devastating drought that destroyed most of the grazing area of the Badia, the huge empty spaces where the Bedouins once roamed. A recent survey of the region found that nearly half the Bedouin households now keep no livestock at all.

Want Municipal Services

Here in Wadi Rum, home to 1,500 Bedouins, the residents have been pressing the central government to provide more municipal services now that the village is beginning to look like a town.

The town is a ramshackle collection of concrete block houses and tents. A number of Land Rovers lean arthritically on wheels without tires, while camels munch on thorn bushes nearby. A single dilapidated shop caters to the town’s commercial needs: sugar, flour, candles.

On a recent weekday morning, a gathering of Wadi Rum’s notables met with the region’s governor in the barren, single-room municipal office to complain about government plans to create a huge wildlife preserve that cuts across the path of their usual grazing area.

Also high on their agenda, the men of Wadi Rum wanted the government to build a school for their daughters. Because of tribal customs, they will not allow their girls to be seen by other men, let alone visit the town’s schoolhouse. While teen-age boys learn chemistry in high school, their sisters remain at home weaving the traditional goat-hair tents, which are renewed every year.

Tribal Traditions Strong

Despite the encroachment of the state, the Bedouins are to a large degree still governed by tribal traditions, the kind of cultural values that have made a lasting imprint on the Arab world.

According to Oweidi, the Bedouins live by a strict code of honor in which men, women and animals are ranked in terms of importance and for which death and insult exact a price.

Under tribal justice, the victim of a crime is entitled to claim damages from not only an enemy but his family going back five generations. While the state exercises jurisdiction over most crimes these days, even the government stands aside in cases involving murder or a woman’s honor.

Oweidi noted that a man accused of attempted rape recently was sentenced to three years in prison by the state courts. But a tribal court sentenced him to have his genitals slashed three times with a knife by the victim, and his family to pay an elaborate set of reparations. In the end, however, the family paid a heavy fine to the girl’s family and decorated her tent with white, to show that she was still unsullied.

Family May Kill Murderer

The family of a murder victim has the right to kill the murderer, according to Oweidi.

“Usually in matters of honor and murder, the state agrees that state law and tradition shall proceed together,” he said.

The system of justice used to employ elaborate means, including an ordeal by fire in which a red-hot poker is used on an accused’s tongue to determine guilt or innocence. The practice has fallen into disuse recently, however.

Yet, under the equally elaborate system of Bedouin hospitality, which is practiced to a greater or lesser degree in every Arab household to this day, a Bedouin must allow even a mortal enemy to rest, eat and drink in his house without complaint.

Salhan Smeyhan, a 42-year-old Bedouin who grew up in a tent and then joined the Jordanian army, said he often regrets having given up the traditional way of life, despite the hardships.

‘Everything Is Changed’

“In the past, needs were very simple,” said Smeyhan, who has a pocket full of ball point pens and a digital watch on his wrist. “Comparatively, we were very wealthy. Now everything is changed.”

Smeyhan, who now lives in a house with his family on his army pension, noted that before modernization, “it was psychologically easier. You had freedom. There was no illness. We were free to move around without interference by outsiders. The tribal commitment was stronger.”

Even now, life in the settled confines of Wadi Rum is still not likely to appeal to many outsiders. In the tent of the reigning sheik, Utayyiq Eid Zalabiya, furniture consists of foam rubber mats on a dirt floor. The women and children remain behind a woven wall of goat’s hair, with the women wearing a veil when they leave the tent. Cooking is by campfire, and the temperatures vary from extreme cold in the winter to broiling heat in the summer.

“We will never again be like our ancestors, because they were governed by themselves, judged by their own judges,” the wrinkled sheik told a group of visitors recently. “We had our own army and police. We raided and we were raided. As the Arab saying goes: ‘Life without honor is nothing. Life without justice is not worth living.’ ”

Charles P. Wallace, The Times’ bureau chief in Cyprus, was recently on assignment in Jordan.