The Bedouls Of Petra
My first encounter with the Bedouls occurred in 1991. I was driving back from a visit to the Museum of Petra when I came across a shepherd boy herding his goats. Even at a passing glance, I was struck by the uncanny resemblance between the boy's features and those of a Nabataean statue which I had seen at the museum. I simply had to take his photograph. This chance encounter heightened my interest in the differences in physical traits among Bedouin tribes, but it also was a discovery of more reaching effect: I did not realise at the time that I had stumbled upon the greatest controversy surrounding the origin of the Bedouls, namely, whether this tribe actually descended from the Nabataeans.
Although Bedouin tribes generally trace their lineage to a founding father, whether real or fictitious, and Bedouin individuals can trace their genealogy several generations back, an enigma surrounds the origin of the Bedouls.
Some claim descent from the Nabataeans; but there is no solid evidence to prove this pretence, and, like other claims, it may be a story fabricated to impress tourists. Others claim that the name Bedoul derives from badal (meaning to swap or change) and it was bestowed upon the tribe when they converted from idolatry.
Ali Salem Aldaraweesh, from the Bedoul branch of Al Mawasneh, claims that the Bedouls either descended from the Nabataeans or the ancient tribes of A'ad and Thamoud, mentioned in the Kor'an, who lived before the Nabataeans. They dwelled in the area of mada'en, Saleh, Wadi Rum, Petra, Hasna and Humeima.
These claims are fascinating, but impossible to verify. A less romantic but, plausible theory, is that the Bedoul were a roaming tribe that found the caves and monuments of Petra and simply occupied them. According to this theory, their customs changed, to conform with their new mode of living.
What is known about the Bedoul is that their deereh (territory) is surrounded on the south and west by the Saidiyin tribe, on the north by the Ammarin tribe, and on east by the fallaheen (meaning peasants, the collective name for rural communities). But the Bedoul are a community apart, who intermarry only among themselves, and whose customs often differ from the Bedouins. They are a settled rather than a nomadic community.
Burckhard, referred to the Bedouls as the rulers of Petra and claimed that no tourists could enter the are without paying a fee to their Sheikh. His judgement contrast with the standing of this clan among other Bedouins, who see the Bedoul in general as a poor and insignificant tribe. Sixty five year old Sulayman (from the neighbouring Saidiyin tribe)describes the Bedouls as a tribe, small in numbers ( a reference of disdain among Bedouins) living in great poverty around the caves of Petra. This description is corroborated by government statistics which indicate that they numbered 64 families in 1970. However, thanks to the improved living conditions in the government-provided housing estate their number have grown to 300 families, or around 1000 people. They are concentrated in Petra, plus scattered living in the areas of Humeima and Guweirah.
The Bedouls contest that, at some point in the past, they were numerous and so rich that they were did not need to work. With idle time on their hands, they held a dancing party during the day, in course of which women performed the sabres dance. But this sort of activity happens only at night, so other tribes who saw them celebrating in broad daylight felt jealous. The evil eye of jealousy brought upon the Bedoul the black death that decimated the tribe and reduced it to poverty.
The disregard in which the Bedouls have always been held served them well at times. Ali relates the story when the Ottomans invited all the Bedouin Sheikhs to Ma'an for a meeting, omitting the Bedoul as too insignificant. The insult was later seen as a blessing when it was discovered that the invitation was a trap, and the Turks killed 25 Sheikhs who attended the meeting. This incident is the same as the one mentioned by Abou Nassar of the Ammarin.
One very old Bedoul remembers the days when their sole luxury was brown sugar and tea, supplied by the Ottomans in return for firewood which the Bedouls carried on their donkeys. Great famines were common, and Ali recalls numerous nights when his mother sent him to bed with a dinner of only bread crumbs dipped in boiled juniper berries. Medical care was scarce as well. Branding with a hot iron was a common cure for most aches and pains, including stomach flu and headaches. This practice is still used today, but it is not as common. Additionally, the blood of the wabar (wildcats) was believed to hold medicinal properties, but it is hardly used today since the wildcat population has dwindled until it became an endangered species.
In the past thirty years, however, the fortunes of the Bedouls have changed. The increase in tourism to Petra, Jordan's principal attraction, has brought to the Bedouls considerable benefits. They were quick to learn languages, and now they earn their keep by working as guides and by selling various crafts to tourists.
Today, most Bedouls have been relocated to houses provided by the government of Jordan in order to improve their living conditions and to protect Petra. Yet, for all their new-found ease, they maintain a semblance of their old lives, and some families continue to live and keep their goats and sheep in the caves.
The Judeilat "the original Bedouls"
The Fuqara, Mawasa, and Jamadat
The Samaheen ,
The Story of Salha Mohammad Salameh with the half-naked tourist