A bus load of tourists look out their window as their professional tour guide points and explained, “that is one of the remaining Bedouin tents. Most of the Bedouins now lives in the village. There are also some who live in caves.”
The Bedouins, as mentioned in my Wadi Rum post, are descendants of the nomadic tribe called the Nabatean. They are mentioned in the bible as people from Canaan. They lived in Petra since prehistoric time and the creator of these magnificent carved into stone structures.
The tourists zoomed in their 200mm lens to closer see what they’re like. Faintly, they saw a man sitting inside the tent, smoking cigarette, drinking tea. A little boy tagging along a donkey minding the sheep. A couple of women with covered faces making cheese from milk. Then the man waved to a group of people walking by. He must have invited them as they walked into the tent and sat down. Teas were poured and cigarettes were offered.
Something’s odd about the scene though. One of the 3 persons is a woman, but wearing pants, drinking tea and lighting a cigarette with the men.
Guess what? The odd one that doesn’t fit in the picture is me!
I was brought into the inner circle of the Bedouins by my host Ghassab. I found him though couchsurfing, the just as magical place where you find instant friends anywhere in the world.
Ghassab is popularly known as the caveman, because he lives in a “furnished” cave, left to him by his grandfather. He’s also known locally as the rasta man, because of his hair, which he told me became so naturally after swimming in a salty water one day. He sport this hairdo since 10 years ago.
He’s a more modern nomad and has lived and traveled the west for 17 years. But he is a Bedouin and was born inside Petra. He came back one year ago because Petra is home. Ghassab and his cousins, and I’ve met so many of them, were my hosts during my too short stay in Petra.
My disappointment with the simulated genuine Bedouin experience in Wadi Rum was forgotten by my experience in Petra. For days I lived in his cave, ate delicious Bedouin food cooked in open fire, and slept under the bajillion of shooting stars.
He took me to little Petra and told me the stories of the stone carved structures. We would stop at every tent, sit with his cousins and would be offered cigarette and tea. The cousins would smile at me and they would chat about in Arabic. Once in a while, after 10 or so minutes, Ghassab would turn to me and explain what they discussed in 2 sentences. I don’t really mind. Mostly I would wander off a bit to take photos. Then we will walk again or sometimes hitchhike a passing truck of one of his cousins.
At night, he will cook or sometimes one of his cousin will bring food from the village and we will share this around the fire and talk about anything.
Ghassab’s family, cousins and neighbors lived inside Petra, in one of those caves or tents. They did until 1985 when UNESCO came and took over the preservation of this magnificent prehistoric artifacts. They built a village just outside of Petra and relocate most of the families there. In here they have electricity, water supply, concrete houses, schools, telephone, internet and such modern amenities.
Do the people like it? I was curious. He thought for a moment and shrugged. Once introduced to it, who could imagine living without a mobile phone or internet? The children born after the 80’s definitely don’t know what it’s like without electricity. But he said that Unesco promised many things that they are still waiting for to be delivered after 25 years, like free electricity and water.
I was fortunate to have been invited as a visitor to one of the houses in the village. It was the house of Khalid, son of the Nabatean chief, who has 2 wives. Khalid has a total of 11 brothers and 6 sisters. Khalid is Ghassab’s cousin and he was my guide inside Petra. And I tell you, you can’t have a better guide than a person who was born and grew up inside the nooks and crooks of Petra.
There are still about 100 families who live inside Petra, in tents and caves. They are few enough to not make any damage to the protected area, and are left to be kind of tourist attraction. These people have 4×4 trucks and mobile phones. Most of them work as tourist guides of Petra. The women sell jewelries and souvenirs and the children take tourists in their donkeys and camels.
After the exhausting approximately 6 hours of walking, sitting, and tour of Petra, we came out the back door (where tourists don’t go to). We hitchhiked with one of Khalid’s brother’s pick-up into the village. Hitchhiking is very common here. They would take anyone walking towards the village as long as they have space. As this road isn’t for tourists, I was not legally allowed to be in this truck going the back gate of the village. They told me to sit low and blend in. Hahaha. One of the girl in the truck used my scarf to cover my head as a muslin woman would. I bowed down and was smuggled into the village.
Khalid’s family has a big house with many rooms and a center courtyard. I was led to the room where women and children sit, the living room with a big television. I was given tea instantly. The men sit in a separate room and watch another channel and smoke cigarette. I was invited to sit with his brothers, but I prefer to sit with the ladies and children. They also let me take their photos, which I’ve yet to send to them.
One of the sister offered their bathroom for shower which I quickly accepted. I was staying in the cave for couple of days with no shower. Haha! Well, water is extremely valuable in the mountain, only for cooking, drinking, and washing dishes.
One of the sister went to the kitchen to start cooking, for the whole clan. I went over to help chop and peel. It’s a big, HUGE, dish of chicken rice with all the spices available in the Middle East. It’s one of the most delicious chicken rice ever! Sadly all these powder spices were unlabeled. Yes, because I thought I could cook them later!
We should be going back to the cave because Ghassab is waiting for us there. But Khalid wanted me to attend this “bridal shower” party of a girl cousin who is getting married. It’s a 3-day affair and the first night (that night), she spend time with all female friends, neighbors, and relatives. The 2nd night the groom’s family come to visit and the 3rd day is the wedding ceremony. It looks like a normal party one would have where the girls are dancing and drinking tea. I sat there watching, not allowed to take photos, and soon the sisters and sister-in-laws of Khalid came they sat with me. They don’t speak English, so we speak in our own language to each other, smiling, waving, pointing and hoping messages were relayed. It was funny.
It was an Amazing experience to be immersed into the core of Bedouin culture and life. Extremely lucky to meet the people I met in Petra who shared with me their home, meals, teas, cigarettes, rides, time, and stories.