From Caves to Stone Houses: Is Bedouin Culture Still Thriving in Jordan’s Petra?

Bedouin culture did not prevent Mohammad from being called "Shakespeare" or naming his horse "William." Photo: Layla AL-Kloub

AMMAN, Jordan — Petra, the magnificent historical red rose city in southern Jordan, became one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

Since then, approximately 692,000 tourists a year pay a visit to the rock-cut city to see its marvelous treasures and experience what it may have been like to live in one of oldest trading centers. Petra was the capital of the Nabataean empire which was existed between 400 B.C and A.D 106.

The B’doul tribe is perhaps the biggest Bedouin tribe in Petra. They used to live in Petra and claim to be descended from the Nabataeans. They lived in the caves for over 170 years.

Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the mid-1980s. Many B’doul were forced to abandon their semi-nomadic life for the nearby, purpose-built settlement of Umm Sayhoun where they still live today.

Most of them are working in the tourism industry, either in hotels and camps or as horse riders and tour guides. Umm Sayhoun is a modern village with stone houses; however, it possesses a distinctly Bedouin charm.

Many still wear some pieces of the traditional Bedouin clothes. It is perfectly normal to see people riding horses and donkeys on the asphalt streets. It had even been reported that some people decided to go back to the caves to live in them in the 20th century.

Many Bedouins of the Al Bdoul tribe preferred to live like their ancestors. They chose work over education but that did not necessarily limit their skills or their chance to be open to the world.

Faisal Al Bdoul works in a shop inside the heritage site in Petra. He speaks four languages despite lacking a formal education. Mr. Al Bdoul, featured in the video below, wanted to speak in English because it is the language he most commonly uses.

The same is the case for a lot of other Bedouins. Husam Masha’leh, 20, speaks 4 languages too; Arabic, English, Spanish and Italian. Bedouins are able to learn these languages through their constant contact with tourists from all over the world.

Husam Masha’leh Photo: Layla Al-Kloub

He began working as a horse rider instructor ten years ago. He wanted work that he enjoys, he explained.

Mr. Masha’leh told The Globe Post that he is still adhering to his Bedouin culture in both his work and lifestyle. ”It’s clearly shown in my talk, clothes, religion, and family relations,” he explained.

“I regret what I did, we lost ourselves,” Mr. Masha’leh said of his decision to leave school. Today, he thinks it’s better for children to be educated but that it is too late for him.

We rent a donkey from 17-year-old Mahmoud on our way to the Monastery. He told us that he left the school at a younger age to work as a donkey rider with the tourists and that he doesn’t regret his decision. “I did not like it, work is better,” he said.

He fluently speaks both Arabic and English along with a little bit of French. Mahmoud also chose to leave his house too and is living in a cave with his friend because “it’s more comfortable!”

Mahmoud after a long hard ride to the monastery. Photo: Layla Al-Kloub

Abdallah Masha’leh, 21, is working in a Bedouin camp since he was 16. He speaks Arabic, English, German, French, Italian, and some Japanese despite never completing high school.

Mr. Masha’leh believes his work is “much better than education. Even if you are educated, there are no jobs”.

Abdallah Masha’leh tries to keep his Bedouin culture with a little bit of modern style. Photo: Layla Al-Kloub

According to a study that was announced in 2012 in the Jordanian first conference about “Poverty and sustainable development” for Dr. Maram Al Freihat, more than 400 children work in tourism in Petra. This number can fluctuate to reach up to 550 children in the high season and 250 children in the low season.

Some children feel pressured to leave school in order to aid their families. Raeda Mohammad is 13 years old and speaks Arabic and English. She left school to sell souvenirs inside Petra so she can help her family. She decided to take this decision because she did not like the school, specifically her teachers, despite her dream to one day become a doctor.

In total, 41 children left school in Umm Sayhoun village in 2017 Source: Al Ghad

She added that she thinks “Petra is not permanent for us” and that’s why she thinks education is better than work. If she was grown up and had children she would want them to go to school.

Raeda has her own cave on the Monastery stairs where she puts her goods. Photo: Layla Al-Kloub

Mohammad Hasanat, 21, is a horse rider who started his job before he was seven years old. He left school when he was 15 and does not regret his choice. However, he said that “education is better” for the next generation.

He is known as “Shakespeare”, a nickname he has been given because of his beautiful words and prose. “Shakespeare” speaks 8 languages. His lifestyle is very much related to his Bedouin culture, he said. He cares about his appearance just as much as he cares about communication. ”People come from all over the world, I should be handsome,” he explained.

Dr. Al-Freihat’s study mentioned that approximately 40 percent of the worker children’s parents are illiterate. This means that there’s a lack of awareness about the importance of education.

Some children manage to both work at Petra and attend school. Anwar Naser, a six-year-old, sells photo cards to tourists and also attends school. He and his parents both want him to study hard and gain an education. “I want to study and to enter university,” he said. ”I want to work in a workshop, not in Petra.”

Anwar shows his photo cards to tourists on their way to the monastery. Photo: Layla Al-Kloub

The reality is that the experiences that Petra’s inhabitants live are varied and different. Some love to work and live in Petra’s beautiful caves while others emphasize school and see Petra only as a temporary place to live and work. Another group regrets not pursuing education but still thoroughly enjoy their jobs. A majority across the board could probably agree that an education is important. Perhaps an education is the only way to have a better social, economic, or political position even for people who live in places as remote as Petra.