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.

(left) The head of Hermes-Mercury at the Petra Museum.The youth has been carved with a delicate chin, straight nose and defined lips.

(right) With his rounded cheeks and curlu black hair, this Bedoul shepherd boy, Na'el Al-Judeilat, looks remarkably similar to the Nabataean figure displayed in the Musem of Petra. Ironically, one theory states that the Bedouls are descendants of 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 bedouls

The Judeilat, whose name in the Bedouin dialect means savage people, stubborn people, or simple people, claim to be the original Bedouins. They are said to be so poor that they wear very few clothes. Physically, the Judeilat are characterised by their weak physique, small heads and noses, and their frail bone structure. Communities of this branch live in Subeira, Humeimah, Mada'en Saleh (from where they are believed to have come to Petra), the edges of Wadi Araba, and Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron, named after the brother of Moses who is buried on top of this mountain) to the West. In this location, the Bedoul border the deereh of the Saidiyin, for whom they worked as shepherds.

It was probably upon an encampment of the Judeilat that Burckhardt stumbled when he first arrived in Petra. He gives the following account of his encounter:"At the end of three hours, after having turned a little more southward, we arrived at a small encampment of Djaylat, where we stopped to breakfast. The Bedouin tents which composed a great part of this encampment were smallest I had ever seen; they were about four feet high, and ten in length. The inhabitants were very poor, and could not afford to give us coffee; our breakfast or dinner therefore consisted of dry barley cakes, which we dipped in melted goat's grease."

The Samaheen bedouls

The Samaheen, according to legend, had a feeble-minded ancestor called Salameh who, despite his misfortune, had a very intelligent boy. The offspring took his goats to the Shaubak mountains to herd them, which he did so adroitly that he had a bigger herd than all his relations. When he is maternal uncles heard of his affluence, they prevailed upon him to return to Petra where they married him to two of their daughters.

The Samaheen live in an area of Petra called the Christian Caves, which consists of Nabataean tombs and monuments, converted into Christian churches during the Crusader period. Lancaster Harding described this area in the accounts of his visit to Petra, and he mentioned some of the families (probably Mawasneh) who lived in the Christian caves at the time. The only families who are known to have lived in the Christian caves within living memory are those of Haj Salameh, Haj Mutlag, Haj Ruweide', and an old man whose name has passed into oblivion. (Haj, meaning pilgrim, is the title of respect given to someone who has performed the pilgrimage to Mecca). Of these, Haj Salameh and Haj Mutlag have passed away.

The Fuqara,Mawasa and Jamadat bedouls

In Arabic, the word fuqara means literally poor people. Among Bedouins it signifies in addition, a shaman or a person endowed with supernatural powers, somewhat like the Indian Fakirs. Consequently, their arbitration is sought in tribal disputes, and they are believed to possess healing powers by the use of incense and herbs. The Fuqara constitute a branch of the Bedoul, but other tribes also have their Fuqara who are not necessarily related to the Bedoul.

The Fuqara, Mawasa, and Jamadat are closely related, but they come from different roots. The Fuqara are believed to have originated in Hijaz, from where they came to Mada'en Saleh (where a community still exists) , Aqaba, Humeima, and Petra, where they mingled with the Mawasa and Jamadat and came to be considered one family. Nevertheless, they only marry among themselves.

In view of their distinguished status among the Bedouls, the Fuqara are custodians of the shrine where Aaron is buried. This shrine used to be visited by all the people of Wadi Mousa wearing their best clothes as if for a wedding in November of each year. There they would slaughter sheep as sacrifices and cook them in huge cauldrons that could accommodate about ten sheep each. It is said that there are eleven or twelve of these cauldrons, which are the property of the custodians of the shrine. After the feast, the Bedouins used to have horse races until evening, then they would spend the night by the shrine. The following day they would cut a pieces of the cloth covering the grave of Aaron and wear it in their head-gear to gain his blessing.

One member of the Fuqara, whose name came to be remembered in history is Sheikh Abou Zeitoun, wanted to prevent Burckhardt from entering Petra. But Burckhardt had the permission of Ibn Rashid, the principal Sheikh of the Huweitat, and after intense negotiations, the Huweitat escorted the expedition into Petra, paying no heed to the threats of violence of Abou Zeitoun. To this day, the Bedouls pride themselves that Sheikh Abou Zeitoun had the courage to defy the Huweitat, but they admit that the Swiss visitor "contrived by unknown means to sneak into Petra."

Part of the skills of the Fuqara is to prepare for the Bedouls talismans in the form of bracelets made of cloves, and necklaces made of Syrian Rue, which is central to their mythology.

 (left) Huessein's Al Judeilat grandfather is deaf from old age, but he still strains to hear the family plans for his grandson's wedding. His sense of time has faded. He beleive that the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 took place three years ago. As for the demise of the Ottoman Empire (in the First World War), he aknowledges that it was really long ago-he estimates around nine years. He died in 1995

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