The Rich Culture of the Bedouins of Jordan
By: Pamela Dimitrova/Arab America Contributing Writer
The Bedouins (meaning ‘desert dweller’ in Arabic) have existed way before the borders of the Jordanian kingdom were drawn, wandering the desert areas between Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Famous for traditionally living nomad lifestyle, they have always … the interest of the rest of the world. But there is another reason why Jordan is very proud of its Bedouin heritage – the community has a rich culture and traditions, which have preserved for hundreds of years!
Clothing is culturally significant to the Bedouins. The traditional male wear is a loose thob and serwal (wide trousers) underneath. The head is covered by the traditional red and white headwear – keffiyeh or shemagh. The ends of the cloth can be wrapped around the face and neck. It acts as protection from the cold, a shield from the sun’s heat, and a screen to keep the wind and sand out. The rope shows the wearer’s ability to abide by the obligations and responsibilities of manhood.
Bedouin women will usually wear madraga, which is simply a long black dress sometimes decorated with embroidery. Bedouin women also cover their heads; their hair is covered with an usaba, which is a black hairband wrapped around the head and tied at the back or on the side of the head. Traditionally a woman’s face is hidden behind a decorated “burqa’ah” but this is only seen with the older generations, not with the actuals. The younger generations cover their face only with their “tarha.”
Bedouins are warm, welcoming, and humble – knowing the harshness of the desert, they do not turn anyone away. Visitors, be friends or strangers, are allowed to stay as long as they please. No questions about the purpose of the stay are asked by the host for up to three days. However, on the fourth day, hosts are allowed to ask the guest for their name and the purpose of their visit.
Coffee is an essential element of hospitality. When a guest arrives, he or she is usually offered three cups: The Cup of the Guest (for the guest’s arrival), The Cup of the Sword (for the bravery of the Bedouin men), and The Mood Cup (for a good mood). There is a traditional ritual of preparing it; coffee beans are roasted in a pan on the fire and water is boiled while the coffee beans are ground with a special traditional mortar and pestle, in Arabic, hawin.
The Jordanian national meal, mansaf, is originally a dish cooked by Bedouins but it is now regarded as the national dish of Jordan and is served almost everywhere in the country. The dish consists of rice, jameed sauce, and lamb. It is, however, said that mansaf was originally served with bread instead of rice and that rice wasn’t introduced to the dish until after the 1920s, following the popularization of rice in Jordan.
Music in the Bedouins culture is a way of desert storytelling – stories set to arouse the imagination of the musicians and their audience. The music is diverted in 3 types:
- Al-shi’ir al-nabati; these songs are mostly a capella songs containing poetry
- Taghrud; the songs of the camel-drivers
- Ayyala; the dance songs of preparation for war
The songs are long and kind of monotone, but very beautiful. Although most music is a cappella they do use instruments- rababa, the oud and the darbukka.
- The Rababa is an over 1500 years old bowed string instrument. A one-stringed fiddle held on the lap. It is made from goatskin and the tail of an Arabian racing horse.
- The oud is a pear-shaped string instrument. Unlike the guitar and lute, the oud has no frets. The number of strings varies between ten and thirteen. The back of the oud is especially beautiful with the thin strips of wood used.
- The Darbukka is an over 900 years old struck drum. It is a single head drum with a goblet-shaped body. This instrument can be played either by keeping it under the arm or resting on the leg.
Tattooing has long been a custom for both Bedouin men and women. Although Bedouin women tattooed themselves all over their bodies – wrists, ankles, breasts, thighs – facial tattoos were the most significant as they were visible to the public.
Traditional Middle Eastern tattoos were done via a rudimentary method of pricking the skin and then rubbing in a mixture of smoke black or indigo. Mother’s milk was used in the mixture, oftentimes, to give an esoteric benefit. Designs were a combination of tribal identification and amulets to ward off evil or incur blessings.
Tattoos traditionally symbolized protection in battles and wars as well as from spirits and the evil eye. In some areas, tattoos were also used for medical purposes; many believed that a combination of dots on the side of the head or above the eyes would heal aches and pains and prevent disease.
Many great and revered poets from the pre-Islamic era used the imagery of tattoos in their poetry as a strong symbol of beauty. The Mu‘allaqāt, a collection of seven long poems from the pre-Islamic Arab world, repeatedly reference tattoos and tattooed women in connection with beauty.
Today the Bedouin lifestyle is completely changed. Since the 1980s, The Jordanian government has relocated Bedouins inhabiting the caves of Petra, offering them housing and necessary services such as electricity and running water. Some people state that they were forcedly removed from their homes while others say that they welcomed the relocation, gaining access to education and hospitals which benefit their children.
There are, however, still many Bedouins living a traditional Bedouin life and are more than happy to share it with travelers.
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