The Forced Resettlement of Petra's Bedouin
The Bedouin are a predominantly desert-dwelling Arab ethnic group. The word "Bedouin" roughly means "those who wander." Its root is "Bedu" which means "Wanderer" or "Nomad."
Starting in the late 1800s, many Bedouins under British rule began to transition to semi-nomad-ism. In the 1950s as well as the 1960s, large numbers of Bedouin throughout the Middle East started to leave the traditional, nomadic life to settle in the cities of the Middle East, especially as ranges have shrunk and population levels have grown
What is a Bedouin?
A Bedouin is one who was born and raised in the desert or mountain wilderness and lives alongside nature in black tents or in caves. Someone who raises goats, sheep, donkeys, horses and camels, and who knows how to milk and shepherd the goats. One who knows how to use all kinds of herbs as food, drink and medicine. A person who can navigate and live with ease in the desert. His life is simple—but his famed hospitality and generosity is no myth. A Bedouin accepts and appreciates what he has and is willing to share this. He is happy to give and to assist. He is proud of who he is and is loyal to his land. A Bedouin sees bounty where you perceive barrenness and finds poetry in everything. It is more than a name, it is a way of life.
These black tents, that seem so romantic on the landscape, are the quintessential material possession of the Bedouin. Referred to as "house of hair" in Arabic, they are woven by the Bedouin women out of goats' hair, in separate sections. Goats' hair shrinks when it is wet, so in winter the tent is protected by the closely woven fabric. When it is dry, this fabric often sags, seeming to have holes everywhere, and allowing a breeze to enter.
Jordanian Bedouin Kicked Out of Petra's Caves
Until not long ago, the Bedouin of this region once lived in the caves at the site of Petra—most notably the Bedul clan. They'd summer in the tents, and spend winters in the caves (most commonly in the plentiful sandstone tombs of the ancient Nabataean kingdom that created today's tourist attraction).
Like most of his peers, my 29-year-old CouchSurfing host, Talal, was born in a cave. It's a very common trait in these parts for Bedouin born before the mid-80s.
But several decades ago, the freshly independent Jordanian government took notice of Petra as a source of revenue. Strategies for relocating the Bedul since the 1960s have included ideas about returning them to farming so that Petra could become an open-air tourist museum, free from the incursions of its native inhabitants.
After World War I, Emir Abdullah (who presided over postwar Transjordan from 1921 through independence in 1946 until his death in 1951) met with the Bedul Sheiks in 1923. When asked whether they wished their territorial claims to Petra and its environs formally recorded, hence making them responsible for taxation (which they could not afford), they alternatively accepted government trusteeship of the land in return for a guarantee of traditional rights of occupation and use.
While international interest in Petra, intensified by tourism, increased throughout the 20th century, the Bedul continued their traditional activities of goat pastoralism and rainfall farming of wheat and barley. Even in the late 1980s, most of the farming was done without mechanization, the fields tilled with ards, and even harvested by hand.
By the late 1960s, a formal development plan for Petra National Park was funded by USAID, and U. S. National Park Service was enlisted to advise on the future of Petra. Relocation of the Bedul away from the most significant Nabataean monuments was advised at that time.
In the 1970s there was armed resistance against the Jordanian government's initiatives, which ultimately constructed a pair of government-built settlements in 1984/85.
On December 6, 1985, Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the original dual-family houses built by the government to take the local Bedouins out of their tents and (Petra) caves and into a village of cinder block and concrete.
The relocation process held several consequences. The Bedul are concentrated in a very density settlement, with no space available for further expansion. Short-range goat herding from the village increases the pressure on the already-depleted rangelands immediately around Petra. Overall, fewer people participate in the traditional agricultural and pastoral pursuits while more initiate or expand their participation in the tourist trade, partially to compensate for economic losses in other areas and to support a growing population. Also, the tourism business seems to be the only option available, especially for the younger generations.
Numbering only about 1,000 people, the Bedul represented a distinct case of an indigenous people encountering the benefits as well as the threats of rapid modernization. It has to be noted, however, that the establishment of the village gave the Bedul a certain measure of national recognition which they did not previously have.
I see a tremendous amount of indifference from those contemporary Bedouin that I've spoken with. Most of those around my age have little memory of full-time life outdoors, and don't have much of a desire to continue the semi-nomadic traditions of their elders. There are clearly growing pains inside the community regarding way of life inside a concrete box versus outside in a goat hair tent. This has clearly been a difficult cultural transition into modernity for the Bedul Bedouin that won't settle itself for a long time to come.