The Saidiyin of Wadi Araba

In 1917, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jazi of the Huweitat asked the Saidiyin to join his cavalry fighting in the Great Arab Revolt under the banner of Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca. Thus began an alliance which, to this day, leads outsiders to the false conclusion that the Saidiyin are a branch of the larger, more prosperous and more powerful Huweitat.

This misconception is encouraged by the Saidiyin for reasons of tribal politics. Traditionally, the borders of a deereh (tribal territory) were always approximations at best, which used to cause frequent disputes over wells between many claimants. Small and weak tribes faced the choice between a tribal war in which they would lose livestock in addition to the disputed territory, paying a khawa (protection money) to a more powerful tribe in return for its protection, or claiming common roots with a powerful tribe. While the third option would not create an equal relationship among the allies, it tended to deter aggressors, since it imposed a duty of honour on the powerful tribe to defend its weaker "relations" if attacked.

Today the Jordanian desert police has brought peace among the tribes by its patrols of the desert and mediation in tribal disputes. Nevertheless, the Saidiyin persist in claiming common descent with the Huweitat. In truth, the Saidiyin Bedouins are a branch of the tribes Shammar, originally from Najd in the Arab Peninsula. In Iraq today, Shammar is a major tribe with considerable wealth and influence; but the Saidiyin are a minor branch which does not count among the powerful tribes of Jordan.

(Left) Muhammad Al-Aqra' and Fatima with their children in 1996. 

As far as we know, the Saidiyin have lived for centuries in the southern desert of Jordan. In the course of their wanderings in search of pasture and to trade their wares in nearby towns and villages, some families of this tribe went as far as Palestine. There they settled until the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and the closure of the border to Bedouin migrations, whereupon they returned to their homeland in Jordan. Today, their deereh extends from Khanzeereh (meaning sow) in Wadi Al-Feenan, located in the south of the Jordan Valley, to Rhama (meaning mercy) just north of Aqaba. Bordering the Saidiyin are the deerehs of the Huweitat to the east, the Heewat to the south and the Ammarin to the north, with Israel on the west.

Although the Saidiyin like to claim descent from the Huweitat, they are conscious of their true lineage and each man is able to trace back his ancestry for many generations. When inquiring about their history, I was told many war stories. One elder recalled an ancestor who fought in a battle against the Ottoman Empire at the Sharah area, probably in the course of the Great Arab Revolt. The man was not aware of the context of the battle, but he provided an elaborate and vivid account of how his ancestor cut the throat of a Turkish soldier who manned the cannon.

This recounting is an example of the Bedouin concept of war and of history. They are more concerned with personal or tribal prowess than actual events or military activity. Stories are passed down through the generations, glorifying the deeds of each tribe's warriors, and the veracity of the tale is not as important as the honour remembered.

This conversation with Suleiman Khalil gave me further evidence that the Saidiyin are not related to the Huweitat. When going into battle, it is customary for Bedouins to call out the name of a noble woman from the tribe (who may be contemporary or long since deceased) to remind themselves that they fight to protect her honour, so it becomes unthinkable to run away. In due course, the name of this woman becomes the distinctive nakhwa (tribal cry) of the tribe. I learned from Suleiman that the nakhwa of the Saidiyin is ekhwat Salha (meaning "brothers of Salha.")

Notwithstanding their small numbers (and hence their relative weakness), the noble origins of the Saidiyin can be discerned from the fact that they are ahl ibel (camel herders). The camel is considered the noblest animal in the desert, because of its economic importance. A camel is a virtual factory in its own right, providing its owner with large quantities of milk and meat for nourishment, and hair for weaving purposes. In addition, as a beast of burden, it is capable of carrying a load of up to 250 kilograms, which makes it the equivalent of a small pick-up truck. But it was the camel's effectiveness as a war machine that earned ahl al-ibel their notable place among Bedouins.

The camel's great endurance in the harsh desert climate made it the perfect means for long- range power projection in attack, and the optimal conveyance in escape. In battle, the camel's high posture affords its rider considerable protection, and its ability to outrun a horse over short distances gives it great value for manoeuvring.

Today, the Saidiyin still hold the distinction of possessing the largest herds of camels, but this no longer signifies wealth, power and status that it once did. More so in the winter than in the summertime, these animals become a financial burden as they require shelter, in addition to food and water to survive. Being a poor and small tribe of around 4,000 people, the Saidiyin like to claim the Huweitat heritage out of convenience and the desire to align with a prosperous tribe. 

*Written by Rami Sajdi, Copyright © Rami Sajdi All Rights Reserved