Imagine living life as it was 2000 years
ago. Some cultures still live a life very similar to the way
they were then. On a recent trip to Jordan, I got to meet an
elder of a Bedouin tribe and his family.
We spent the night at Feynan Eco Lodge (See
more about this) and the next morning, our guide, Ali
Hasaseen, led us out into the desert to meet with his family. We
hiked about a mile to where several goat hair tents were set up.
On the way we passed some of the tribe’s goats. In one small
enclosure we found a small puppy confined with a few small
goats. Ali explained that the puppy was being acclimated to the
herd he will shepherd when he grows up.
|One day he will be a useful
sheep herder instead of just a cute pup
Next stop was his father’s tent.
Ali explained the equivalent of a doorbell in the desert.
“Stand back away from the tent and cough or make a noise so they
can hear you. It’s bad form to go right up to the tent flap and
call out. Maybe they are discussing a private matter and that
way they may think you are spying. Also, at a little distance,
the women have time to go to their side of the tent.”
|Abu Khalil prepares to brew
I am sure we all made enough noise no one
took us for spies. Ali’s, father, Mohamed who prefers to be
called Abu Khalil based on another Bedouin tradition where a man
takes the name of his first son preceded by Abu meaning father
(women follow the same tradition preceding the name with Umm) ,
welcomed us into the tent. It was large enough to seat the nine
of us and a few of the family around a fire pit dug into the
ground near the front. We
sat on the cushions placed around the perimeter of the tent.
Abu, who Ali told us is considered an Elder in the tribe,
proceeded to make coffee. Coffee making in Bedouin culture is
very different from tossing a handful of ground beans into a
coffee maker. In their culture, it is a ceremony and a means of
the man can make coffee.
|Gathered around the elder as he
He began by carefully measuring out some
coffee beans into a cast iron pan with a very long handle which
he held over the fire to roast. When he was happy with the
degree of roasting, he placed them into a special vase-shaped
mortar and using a pestle worked them over until they were the
exact consistency he wished. He
put them into a blue enamel pot of water which he placed again
on the fire. Coffee is boiled three times.
He added cardamom and
other spices to get the flavor he wished and poured it into a
beaked silvery pot which went back on the fire. Then it was time
to serve us.
As the coffee making processed, Ali
explained a lot about the coffee tradition. It is a very complex
way of communicating non-verbally. To refuse a Bedouin’s coffee
is not a choice. It is an insult that he takes very personally.
If you are a guest, when he offers you the coffee after first
drinking a cup in front o you, you are expected to take the cup
in your right hand and drink. You then have a choice of
accepting another by holding the cup out to him or refusing a
second cup by placing your fingers over the top of the small cut
and wiggling it back and forth. Refusing a second cup is not an
insult. You may have a second or even third cup. Three cups of
coffee are acceptable, one for the soul, one for the sword and
one because you are a guest. If you seek a fourth you are
considered greedy. Never use the left hand and never sit the cup
on the ground.
|Ali serves us coffee
Once you have drunk coffee with your host,
you are his guest and he must protect you to the death if need
be. By the same rule, you must defend him and his family as
well. Coffee drinking is a way for a young man to request a
bride. He goes to the family and lets them know his intention.
If no one in the family drinks coffee with him, he knows he
has been refused. If the family does he can consider himself
a future bridegroom.
Should a tribe find itself insulted, the
men meet and decide who will kill the opponent in revenge. The
person responsible to avenge the honor is decided by who drinks
the coffee. Should that person fail in his mission, he is
disgraced and becomes a slave. It is also a way to resolve
disputes between families or tribes. The elder will often call
together two feuding families and they sit together in his tent.
He will make coffee and take a cup but the others will let their
cups sit and discuss the matter. No one can drink any coffee or
eat even a tiny scrap until the conflict is resolved.
I’m not a coffee drinker but I had no
intention of insulting a Bedouin elder in his own tent so I
gritted my teeth and drank that polite first cup. Bedouins would
make a bad emeny. Remember there are the people who followed
Lawrence of Arabia across a supposedly impassable desert and
defeated the Turks at Aqaba in the Great Arab Revolt happening
during WWI. 2016 is the anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt. I
can easily imagine Abu Khalil thundering down on the backside of
Aqaba on his camel had he been a century older.
|Me with Elder Abu Khalil
Another custom we were treated to was right
down my alley as a tea drinker. Spicy honey-sweetened Bedouin
tea is almost as much a custom as the coffee. It will sit in a
pot on the hearth in every Bedouin tent keeping hot all day to
serve any honored guest that shows up.
We moved to another tent a bit farther on
where we met Um Khalid who makes the bread for the Ecolodge. She
allowed up to photograph her hands but not her face. The method
and recipe is a simple one dating back through the ages. In his
book Seven Pillars of
Wisdom, Lawrence of Arabia talks of making similar bread on
campfires as he roamed the desert with his Arab companions.
Going farther back, wandering shepherds back in the bronze ages
might have made a similar meal.
Our hostess seated herself on the ground in
front of a simmering fire inside a tent. We leaned into the open
front of the tent and blinked as the smoke burned our
unaccustomed eyes. Um Khalid was unbothered by the heat or smoke
and mixed flour, water and a bit of salt in a large bowl.
She kneaded it until if formed a firm ball about the size
of a basketball and then flattened it. She coated it with a
sprinkle of dry flour. Then she raked back a section of the
coals burning on the hearth in front of her. Tossed the circle
of dough onto the still hot section of ash and covered it over
with ashes and embers.
|Exchanging culture between one
of our group and the Bedouin children
Meantime, her grandchildren, two little
boys and a shy little girl carrying a small baby watched us.
They were studying our culture as much as we theirs. The oldest
boy, aged about 8 or 9, taught us a local game where he picked
up rocks while tossing another in the air and catching it with
his other hand. It
was similar to jacks that I played as a child.
The goats roamed unfenced around the area. Atop the tent
Um Khalid originally emerged from, presumably a woman’s tent,
there was a solar panel on the roof. Most of the Bedouins I met
had a cell phone. Makes me wonder how long this ancient culture
will survive. For now these people are happy and enjoying a
simple life. Studying history, there was a day when our
ancestors were satisfied with such simple pleasures. Would we
even survive if we lost our electricity, our cell phones, our
computers and all the conveniences we take for granted?
|The bread really tasted
When the bread, called arbood, was done, we
watched her rake back the coals and test the bread by thumping
it with her hand. It was ready. The boys brought a plateful of
it over to the adjourning tent; we all sampled a bit of it
slathered with a goat butter called ghee. It is delicious and
not a trace of ashes or burn embers.
I found very little time to shop for
material things in Jordan but I feel I came back with something
more valuable than souvenirs, a better understanding of a
complex and ancient culture.
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