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<h1>Bedouin tents in Wadi Feynan</h1>

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.

Puppy in Bedouin community at Wadi Feynan
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.”

four Bedouin men in a tent brewing coffee at Wadi Feynan
Abu Khalil prepares to brew coffee

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 communicating.  Only the man can make coffee.

Group of people in Bedouin tents as elder makes coffee at Wadi Feynan
Gathered around the elder as he prepares coffee

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.

Drinking coffee in a Bedouin tent at Wadi Feynan
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.

Elder and author in Bedouin tent
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.

Preparting bread Bedouin style
Preparing bread

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.

Woman showing Bedouin children something
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?

Bread being served in Bedouin tent
The bread really tasted delicious

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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