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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

Sands of time

The Bedouins of Petra have swapped their disdashas for denims and their caravans for cars. But despite their apparent modernisation, they never lost touch with their roots

travel Updated: Nov 05, 2011 11:10 IST
Kiran Mehta
Kiran Mehta

A journey through
Jordan is like
taking a trip
back in time,
especially when
you enter the
lost city of Petra. Roman
tombs, Nabatean temples and
gigantic cliffs that give way to
the treasury, transport you
into an epic past. Much like in
centuries gone by, even today,
the Bedouins continue to
populate Petra.

When you think 'Bedouin', the images that come to mind are of an ancient people but what greets you is unexpected. Many Bedouin men dress in crisp shirts and chinos much like in our corporate setups. While most Bedouins own camels, they can also be seen speeding through the desert in four-wheel drives.

Be the change
Ironically, the Bedouin tribes of Petra are called 'Bedul' which means 'change'. Yet, even though they have adapted to modern times, they've held onto their culture which they showcase to curious travellers. One such Bedouin was Salem Al Faqeer, who practises the art of his forefathers -- bottled sand art.

While these bottles look no different from sand art found across the Middle East, Salem informs that they contain naturally-coloured sand as opposed to their dyed counterparts. Salem says, "We have14 different stones in Jordan that we work with. For instance, we grind the sandstone of Petra for red sand, limestone for white sand and many others that give us a range of hues."

Salem works meticulously on bottles of all sizes and recreates the desert in them. With a long, thin metal stick as his brush, he works with the fine sands and creates shapes of camels, eagles, and other symbols of the desert. He can even inscribe your name in the bottle and make it seem effortless.

But borrow the metal brush from him and it's clear within seconds that this art takes years of practise. Salem explains, "I learned sand art from my grandfather and my father. We used to live in the caves of Petra when I was a boy and I'd go with them to the ruins and collect the stones. Petra is my home and all the natural resources I need to live and work are right here." The stones damaged by earthquakes are the ones that artists like Salem have access to as they pose no threat to the heritage site.

Until 1986, the Bedouins lived in Petra, but were later relocated to the Beduoin village of Umm Suquiem in order protect this site. Ask Salem if he resents this move and he says, "Not at all! We want to protect Petra as much as the government. Petra is part of my people's history and a world legacy too. Naturally, there are times when I miss sleeping under a blanket of stars or cooking by an open fire. But, whenever I crave my old lifestyle I camp here for a night. We even bring our traditional musical instruments and sing our tribal songs late into the night."

Just as Salem reminisces about the old way of life, almost on cue, a Bedouin girl covers in the abaya walks into his tent. She poses for the camera when requested, but is quick to warn against putting up the pictures on Facebook!

What is even more startling is the intermingling between the Bedouins and other nationalities. "We have women of 14 different nationalities married to Bedouin men. Most of us speak an average of three languages, so it's easy to communicate with foreigners. Over years of hosting tourists, our men have found life-partners from around the world."

Home sweet home
Meet Marguerite Van Geldermalsen, a Kiwi who came to Petra as a tourist in 1978, while in her 20s. She fell in love with a charming Beduion boy, Mohammed, whom she later married and started a family with. Marguerite became one of the tribe as she lived in the caves, baked bread, fetched water, and ran the local clinic.

Mohammed passed away a few years ago, but she didn't go back to settle in New Zealand as she thinks of Petra as home. Marguerite surprises when she says, "Even though I came from the west, I rarely missed that way of life or the amenities it offered. Today in our village, I have access to the latest technology, such as on demand television or satellite dishes etc., but the truth is, many such advancements, I have little need of!"

Petra is the perfect way to see the old remain intact even as the new is embraced.

First Published: Nov 05, 2011 11:10 IST