Sunday, 10 July 2011

How to: be a good Bedouin houseguest

During my stay in Wadi Rum, Jordan I have been privileged to be a guest in the home of a very devout Muslim Bedouin family who run Wadi Rum Jeep Tours. Being a houseguest made my stay rather different to the average tourist. While I have still seen amazing sunsets, rock art, the changing colours of the desert and climbed some pretty special mountains, I have also been part of everyday life in the Wadi Rum village. Bellow are my tips and lessons for any future visitors.  

If you arrive in Wadi Rum at night do expect to be blown away that greets you as you sand in your doorway rubbing sleep from your eyes.

First thing to know is that the best way to be a good houseguest when staying with a Bedouin family is to be a woman. A male houseguest from outside the family is unlikely and the wife would have no association with him. Thus making every ones life rather difficult.  A female houseguest (such as myself) is free to spend time with the wife anywhere within her home, and may spend a limited amount of time with the husband and his male associates.

The female guest should be somewhat wary of the tone of interactions with friends and cousins – if it feels as if there are inappropriate attentions from male visitors there probably are. When in a mans company the less he speaks to you the more polite and respectful he is being. A very chatty man is flirting. Unless you want to encourage the flirting it is best to remain relatively mute.

Women wear floor length skirts or dresses and long sleeves, whenever they are outside or in male company they cover their heads. When outside of the home a women will often choose to wear a burqa to further remove herself from the gaze of the outside world. Obviously as a guest you should dress conservatively, and never appear outside of your own room unless fully dressed. This is respectful to both your male and female hosts.

At home: 

Do expect to drink a lot of tea, if you do not drink tea you should probably take up smoking.
Do expect people to be extremely generous.
Do not expect to be given cutlery at meal times, food is taken from communal bowls with torn flat bread, you should eat from the side of the bowl closest to you.
Do expect to have regular naps, especially in the heat of the afternoon.
When hanging out your laundry be sure to cover any ‘smalls’ with a sarong. Exposure of ones underwear is most unseemly.
Strange noises in the night may well be a crazed camel, a rooster, a call to prayer, your hosts praying, goats or mosquito’s.
Men do not do very much for themselves, although when away from the females in their family they can make tea and cook quite competently.
Eating, socialising and sleeping will very likely take place in the same room. If you are visiting in Summer hopefully this will be the one room in the home with air conditioning. Depending on the size of the family several generations of the same family will likely use the same room.
Sitting on the floor or on mattresses on the floor is the only option.  There is little other furniture.
Everybody smokes everywhere.

Out and about:

Do not expect to bump into many Bedouin women at the shop, it is the husbands duty to provide the food for the home. A woman may leave the home if the absolutely has to, but the necessity is rare.
In Wadi Rum you can be confident that the price you are given is the true price.  If you have just arrived from Egypt this may come as a surprise, and I am told that the only shop likely to try for a higher price is the one run by an Egyptian.
If you have associated with female Bedouin you should not refer to them outside of their home, if you  must a  woman will be referred to only in the context of her husband, or close male relatives. 
Despite various stages of decay Bedouin seem to be able to keep vehicles running. It will be normal for doors not to open, the dash board to be rotted by the sun, the seat belts and windows to be nonexistent, the car to be roll started or to assist in starting the car by crossing the wires. Despite all this the 4WD  function works and the Bedouin ability to negotiate the perils of driving through sand and over steep rock is sound. If the car stops they can get it going and if it gets stuck in the sand they can get it out again. I was very pleased to discover working headlights on various occasions.

The same goes for climbing- if you venture out with someone you trust you can be confident that the many trails out amongst the steep rocks will be confidently navigated.

When I climbed Mt Sinai in Egypt I was accosted with Bedouin trying to sell you coke, coffee, chocolate and camels every hundred meters or so. In Petra there are jewelery stalls and young boys with postcards and donkeys at every turn. 

A donkey rush at Petra.

Much as I loved climbing Mt Sinai and exploring in Petra there is a lot to be said to the paths that are less frequented by tourist touts.

When you climb a mountain in Wadi Rum be sure to take your own supplies, don’t expect a path, do expect to take frequent naps on the way up. If you are climbing with a Bedouin he will probably carry a teapot and everything required to make tea during the journey. 

Most of all as long as you agree that Wadi Rum is the best place in the world you should get on just fine with everyone, and while the heat made me sometimes wish for Cape Conran I can honestly say that Wadi Rum is up there on my list of special places. 

With many thanks to Mehedi and his family and Salman and his family for welcoming me toWadi Rum and life amongst the Bedouin.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Sandy - It sounds so extremely incredible!! What an adventure!