Bedouins. Before our visit to Jordan, the term conjured an image of mysterious desert-bound, tunic-wearing nomads.
While in Jordan, we met our share of Bedouins — some camel collectors and shepherds, others guides and businessmen. Upwards of 40% of the Jordanian population is of Bedouin heritage. As a result, Jordanian hospitality, wisdom and culture are all very much a product of their Bedouin roots.
As our Bedouin hosts shared some of their protocols, their wisdom, and their clever ways of looking at the world, we took note. Here’s what we learned.
1. “Life is short. Don’t make it difficult on yourself.”
As a guest in his tent, I asked Abu Abdullah, a Bedouin living in Feynan: “What is it that brings happiness to your life?”
Though he added a few other items, he ended with the quote above.
Let us be the first to note this is easier said than done.
2. Arabic coffee: It’s all about ritual.
The subject of Arabic coffee is fascinating. First off, it’s not like the dark, rich coffee most of us have become accustomed to. Instead, it’s made by roasting coffee beans over a fire and grinding them with a hefty dose of cardamom pods. The result is like no coffee you know — something aromatic yet thin, served espresso style.
The host will make the coffee over a hot fire. The first cup he pours will be his — to test the coffee to make sure it is acceptable. The second cup will be for you, the guest.
If you find yourself in a Bedouin tent and you are served Arabic coffee, here’s what you do. Graciously accept the first cup, holding it by the rim. Drink it without placing the cup on the ground. If you would like another cup, hand your cup back to the host for a refill. If you don’t want any more to drink, hand the cup back to the host and give the cup a little wiggle, a signal that you are finished.
Never ask for a third cup and don’t put the cup on the ground – that is, unless you have a request or an important issue to discuss with the host (e.g., marriage, family dispute).
Discussing important issues around a fire over shots of spiced coffee sounds rather peaceful to us. Next up: United Nations, Arabic coffee, Bedouin tent.
Now, you might think that no one will notice your cup if it accidentally ends up on the ground. Trust me, the host will notice instantly. I startled one of our Bedouin hosts by placing my cup on the ground and had to back myself out of the situation with a bit of humor.
3. Tea = Bedouin whiskey.
When you travel in Jordan, you’ll find that the social lubricant of choice is not alcohol, but tea. Wherever you go, expect to be invited to drink some. Take it slowly and enjoy the time together with your host.
4. If you set up camp near someone else, you must invite them to dinner.
New to your latest Bedouin neighborhood? If you are, you must introduce yourself and invite your neighbors to a feast of your making. Bedouin happiness, after all, is dependent on good relations with one’s neighbors.
So true is this that the wife of one of the Bedouins we visited in Wadi Rum was on the hook for such a meal the day we visited.
5. Bread-baking needs no oven.
Nor a bread-maker. So long as you have a charcoal fire (remember how important that is?) and dough, you are good to go.
In Wadi Rum, we dropped in on a Bedouin tent for tea and coffee and a mid-afternoon snack of abud, the Bedouin bread. The raw dough, after kneading, is literally dropped right into the charcoal and hot ashes. Its baking is closely tended to by the careful placement of hot embers.
So you might be thinking: I bet that bread tasted awful.
Think again. Although it was dense (basically unleavened, non-rising dough), the abud was rather tasty. When the bread round emerged from the fire, it was initially covered with hot ash, but our host gave it a good beating and dusting off, and whatever little dust remained actually enhanced its taste.
We will try this at home.
6. You must share water, food and fire.
The three elements essential to Bedouin living. That is, besides camels.
Even if these are scarce for your family, it’s still your duty to share them with others. Hoarding is grounds for Bedouin ex-communication.
7. The Bedouin sixth sense.
Take a drive out into the desert with a Bedouin at night in search of the stars and a good place to enjoy shisha and a fire, and you’ll wonder two things: “How did we get here?” and “How do we get out?”
Bedouins seems to know their way – over dunes, between peaks and through featureless expanses — in a manner that transcends direction and mapping.
This is the Bedouin sixth sense, one that evolved due to all those centuries in the desert.
8. Guest as prisoner?
It’s not at all unusual for Jordanian meals to feature ten times as much food as might be humanly possible for the guests present to consume.
Perhaps at the root of all this hospitality is the fact that Bedouins are honor-bound to the best and highest treatment of their guests. So much so that they themselves joke, “You are our guest; you are our prisoner.”
9. When you return home at night with your camels and sheep, place your mobile phone in the pouch sewn into the side of your tent.
Many Bedouin families have made their way to more sedentary and modern lives in villages, towns and cities, while some live traditionally in tents made from woven goat hair.
Others still, they blend of both worlds. Witness a cloth pouch woven into the side of a Bedouin tent for a mobile phone.
The placement? For the best signal to receive phone calls of course.
10. The ultimate Bedouin compliment for a woman?
“You look like a camel.”