As the plane took off, I thoughtfully watched the dark edges under my fingernails. They were the result of my stay in the desert in southern Jordan, where I had spent ten days living with the Bedouins. My clothes smelled like campfires. I wondered if my seat neighbor could smell it as intensely as I did and secretly felt a little ashamed. After all, she couldn’t know what I had experienced in the last few days.
Wistfully I said goodbye to the brown mountains, which were slowly replaced by the Red Sea. On my first trip to Jordan in October I fell in love with the Wadi Rum desert. But I didn’t know what it was. This place did not let go of me and so it came that I was only two months later again there. Somehow it was all quite strange. The Islam had always been suspect to me so far, without having occupied myself more intensively at all with it. And now I wanted to place myself in the hands of Muslim men, who on the one hand could not have been more normal and open-minded, but on the other hand lived a religion with which I had had enormous difficulties so far.
This time I didn’t want to get to know the life of the Bedouins from a tourist’s point of view, but to be as authentic as possible. As a Western woman you are fortunately in a Muslim grey zone: While most local women have to disguise themselves and are not allowed to talk to other men, I can move freely. Said, done. Two Bedouins I would stick to my heels for a week from now on. The time was actually anything but optimal, because in December it would be freezing cold in the desert at night and it was to be expected that this would be a challenge, especially for me frostbite.
Kamal picked me up at Aqaba airport. We knew each other from last time and I was happy to see him again. He was also happy, because I had brought him some things in return for my stay in Wadi Rum, which he had wished for and could not be found in Jordan.
He had even brought me a present: A brightly coloured, long skirt, which still carried the price tag with Euro prices and was reduced from 14 Euro to 1 Euro. The origin, according to the price tag, was the Kaufhof in Cologne – however such a skirt comes to a small shop in Jordan. He suggested that I put on the skirt right away, even over my pants. I concluded that my tight jeans were not appropriate if he wanted to introduce me among his peers.
On the one-hour drive, the driver Mohammed and Kamal rocked to the sunset, clapping and singing to Arabic music. Then we changed cars in the Village. In the dark I took a seat in the well-known Landcruiser with the many impacts in the windshield. “If we hurry, we can still eat something in camp”, which meant a 20-minute drive through a pitch dark desert at 120 km/h.
In the meantime I had put aside my fears during these trips, because the men here know what they are doing. Most of them learn to drive at the age of eight and therefore know every bush and every stone. Arrived in the camp she was finally there again, this unbelievable silence. As a city dweller with a permanent sound system she is an almost unknown good and in the beginning she needs getting used to. Also mobile phone and Internet would be from now on secondary matter, which had not disturbed me surprisingly at all already the last time.
There would be a premiere for me on this first night. I would have to sleep in the car. There was no place left in the camp, the nearby cave was also occupied and only the car was left. I had never slept on the back of the loading area before and honestly I wasn’t sure if it would work, especially as the flap had to stay open at the back. But it was always better than sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the cold. Kamal wanted to sleep on the roof of the car. It was clear to me that the company with me would not be that easy for him, because as a Muslim it is actually frowned upon to spend time alone with a woman somewhere. Only under the job aspect “Guide Tourist” this was acceptable and possible.
Although the men here are modern and pleasantly normal, many things are completely different from us. Kamal, for example, has no own address, no account, no credit card, no driving licence and he cannot drive his car outside the town due to lack of registration. Also the date of birth does not seem to be a special date for many – they simply indicate the 01.01. of their year of birth. Birthdays are not celebrated anyway and Christmas, New Year etc. do not exist in Islam. But there are mobile phones or smartphones, Facebook and other media, whereby the music is limited to the Arabic sounds. English music is seldom found on USB sticks, which are stuck in pretty gold tones in the firelighters of cars.
In the life of the Bedouins everything revolves around tourism, which feeds them and their families with mostly many children. This is associated with close friendships, masses of Chai tea (with a lot of sugar in it) and smoking. Cigarettes are extremely cheap in this country, which is why most men treat themselves to about two packs a day. But due to the Islamic religion they do not drink alcohol.
Times have become hard due to the unrest in neighbouring countries. Although Jordan is one of the peaceful and very hospitable countries, the number of tourists has decreased. Therefore, the cohesion among the men seems to be even closer. In the evenings they sit together many hours at the campfire, where I remain as a woman in the background. At a later hour often the mobile phones come into play with which one plays Arabic poems to each other. The spoken poems sound hard, loud and austere, although they are mostly about love, happiness, friendship and longing.
The next nights took place either in the camp or in a sheltered rocky outcrop near the campfire. In the meantime I learned to sleep with my head under several blankets to keep the warmth for the whole body. There is electricity through a generator only for a few hours in the evening and in a crazy way this is quite enough. Fire and water have also taken on a different meaning. While there is plenty of water here and thanks to the stove and heating we are not dependent on fire, we have to keep both in our homes. Already during the day, during the drive through the desert, one goes on the search for bigger wood, which one can use for the campfire in the evening. If you meet other Bedouins on the way, you will usually get out and drink one or two Chai.
Although I wasn’t with any of the guides, other men didn’t pay any attention to me. What we would find rude is a mixture of religion and culture. The woman accompanied by a man is taboo for others. It took some getting used to in other ways as well. As soon as my upper part exposed only a millimetre of skin on my belly, my companion immediately told me to cover this place again. “Here in the car no problem, but outside not! The men are generally quite dominant, which I personally do not find unpleasant. On the contrary. I thought it was nice to finally not have to make any decisions. For example, I was never asked what I wanted to eat. And not because he knew better, but because he would choose something good for me anyway, that was clear.
So much for behavior and habituation. But what do you actually do for a week in the desert, without the comforts we are used to every day? For two days I pretended to be a trainee on day trips with tourists in the passenger seat and passed on my mediocre knowledge about the area to the newcomers. One day I spent on a huge rock in the sun (article photo) and made friends with a big scarab beetle that seemed to feel comfortable there like me.
Snakes, spiders and scorpions are rare at this time of year, which is why I dared to be alone in the desert for a long time. In the silence the hearing gets a new task. While I couldn’t even distinguish between the sounds of the plane and the car in the distance, the men here knew exactly from which direction and at what distance cars were approaching and even mostly who owned the car.
Two more days consisted of long journeys to more remote desert sections near the Saudi Arabian border. The parents of both guides also lived in the desert and we paid them a visit. It was a school holiday, so many families live deep in the desert in big tents and herd their goats. The faces of the women and mothers are already strongly marked in still relatively young years of about 50.
As in many other countries, they have a harder job than their husbands. They sometimes bring up to ten children into the world, take care of their husbands and often also look after a large herd of goats, chickens and other farm animals. Kamal’s siblings, aged between 4 and 25, were happy about the foreign variety and tried hard to teach me Arabic words.
The rest of the time went by with lounging, cooking, making a fire, drinking tea and visiting friends. With more than ten families in the village, I sat indoors or out by the fire at any time of the day and drank chai. You don’t lock the cars even in the village and my bags with valuables flew around everywhere, because here they don’t steal. In all houses the first room is a large common room that consists only of mattresses all around and at best a fireplace. But as long as I was there with a man, I never got to see the woman of the house.
Only later, when I was with the married guide on the way, I could get to know his wife at home, who approached me with mandarins and freshly baked cheese dumplings. She was 8 months pregnant and was expecting her 6th child. This was not the first time I asked myself whether these women would be missing something in this classic role distribution compared to our emancipated existence. Because they actually have exactly what so many people want and don’t find: An intact family, a long marriage, a (probably) faithful husband and many sweet children.
I saw the red-yellow sun setting every evening from a different rock and could have easily hung on for another hundred evenings. Also this time I didn’t find out why this area attracts me so magically. Perhaps it is the sum of a unique landscape, the beautiful weather, the extraordinary hospitality, the proximity to the sea, the good food and the pleasantly simple life. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe the reason is also secondary. I only know that I will come back soon.
Whether one could live well here as a non-Muslim woman without a man, however, is questionable. Although there is a surprisingly high number of Western women in Jordan who have married a Jordanian and thus decided to live according to the Islamic religion and culture, this way of life would be out of the question for me. If you are born into Islam, it is probably something else, but with our usual freedom to suddenly no longer be allowed to talk to other men, to always disguise oneself outside and to have to renounce alcohol altogether, are at least three obligations that would be very difficult for me personally.
Quite apart from the fact that one would of course also have to be convinced of this religion, including five times a day praying etc. There is also the possibility to be with a Jordanian man without marriage (premarital sex with non-Muslim women is relatively common) and to live under one roof, but the whole thing is not appreciated – especially in rural areas with a higher sense of tradition. But as with many other things, one often hears the expression “mafi mushkila” (= no problem) in this country, i.e. one always finds a way for almost everything here.
Now I was sitting in the plane heading home and felt a little transported back to my childhood, where after a long day in the forest I came home dirty and dishevelled and reported about my adventures in the undergrowth. Only that I had now been a little older and had been in the desert…