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Jordan’s Bedouins balance cultural heritage and modern tourism economy

Topic: How Bedouins in Jordan balance between the economic opportunities of tourism while preserving centuries-old traditional values of hospitality

Topic: How Bedouins in Jordan balance between the economic opportunities of tourism while preserving centuries-old traditional values of hospitality

Advertising your cave on Airbnb is far from conventional but some Jordanian bedouins are doing exactly that.

Mohammad Zalabieh, a local resident of Petra, has been using the online market place hosting visitors for two years to generate extra income. The ancient city of Petra draws nearly a million visitors each year, and the 34-year-old says that his cave, advertised “an authentic Bedouin experience” during high season he is almost fully booked.

“Tourists are fascinated by our way of life. Throughout their stay, I brew fresh tea, prepare traditional dishes which we cook below the sand and listen to old tales by a campfire. As Bedouins are we are warm and welcoming people, it runs in our DNA and is a trait passed down by our ancestors”

Before the global tourism boom hit Jordan in the 1980s, the desert’s nomadic tribes’s way of life remained relatively unchanged for centuries.

The Bedouins, traditionally an agricultural and pastoral community, feel a strong connection to their tribes and desert lands, while traditional culture remains a source of pride.

Bedouins are not merely defined by their nomadic origins, but rather their belief in distinct set community values thought to be the legacy of their ancestors, such honor, courage, group solidarity.

Hospitality stands as a hallmark of Bedouin ethos, a trait many believe was forged by the unforgiving desert terrain.

“A Bedouin will open his home to a stranger, because he knows that one day he might need the same. People looked out for each other. This was before there was anything called police or government” Faisal said.

Before the global tourism boom hit Jordan in the 1980s, the desert’s nomadic tribes’s way of life remained relatively unchanged for centuries.

Yet, as places like Petra and the nearby Wadi Rum — famed for its sweeping red sand dunes — grew in popularity, traditional Bedouin hospitality had seamlessly merged with the growing need to cater to visitors in many unexpected ways

Leveraging their intimate knowledge of the desert and inherent welcoming nature , they excel as tour operators, desert guides, cameleers and souvenir merchants, all while offering travelers a chance to immerse in traditional Bedouin life.

As they navigate through the lucrative corridors of Jordan’s $3 billion tourism industry, locals are learning to face the challenge of preserving their cultural heritage in an increasingly commercialized world.

Upholding an age-old Arab custom, a Bedouin host would not ask his guest about his identity or reasons for his journey for the first three days .

Bedouin hospitality is exercised through the symbolic rituals of serving coffee. The deliberate offering of three distinct cups – al-dayf (for the guest) al-kayf (for pleasure) and al-sayf (for swords), solidifies the bond between the host and the guest, binding them in shared respect and defense.

Today’s visitor isn’t seeking refuge but a glimpse into a lifestyle that is unencumbered by the trappings of modernity cherishes connection with nature

Their aspiration is to delve deeper into the Bedouin way of life, often forsaking luxury hotel and choosing to sleep in tents to emulate their hosts.

This new-age commodification, especially of something as sacred as hospitality, is a point of contention, given its stark contrast to the age-old traditions that abhorred transactional interactions.

“Many locals here view hosting tourists in your home as dirty work, it’s something you have to get used to,” X said.

While others like X perceive it as a necessity in a changing world.

Tourism is one of Jordan’s top two sources of federal revenue, and locals in Wadi Rum and Petra are heavily Reliant on the influx of foreign travelers for source of income.

“ All the job opportunities in our region are predominantly in tourism. We don’t have industrial or financial industries but Allah blessed us with a beautiful area like this. You have to excel in the field you’re given,” X said.

While economic opportunities might be reshaping some practices, many like X tread cautiously. He draws a line, for instance, when it comes to charging guests for meals, remarking, “I would consider it very shameful if I made people pay for their food. Hospitality in the end it comes from the heart”

X a local bazaar owner, illustrates this tightrope walk between tradition and commerce. He offers a warm drink to every visitor, explaining, “They think hospitality is a trap, we’re in the desert, they think something is about to happen. they’re surprised when they find out that they don’t have to pay anything. They try to give us money and we’re like this is just hospitality. We are shy to ask for money. We leave jars on the table for whoever would like to give but we don’t ask, some people just put them in the jar and leave,” X said.

Marwan says that locals are happy with the doubling source of income and improved standard of living that tourism has brought to the area.

Fadi pointed out the benefits were not only economic but tourism has provided them a platform to showcase culture to the world. Watching tourists embrace local traditions is a source of pride.

For many like X, the tourism industry has also allowed them to feel connected to the wider contemporary Jordanian society.

“We are here in Wadi Rum in the name of Jordan and the Kingdom to serve everyone. If I am the face of tourism I see this as an honorable thing,” X said.

Some pointed out that working with tourists allowed for a two-way cultural exchange.

“Mixing with tourists, we learn from them, we teach them and they teach us, I will welcome new people, new faces, new cultures, new customs and we get people from every corner of the earth, exchange of knowledge, I’ve learned things and made friends from all around the world. Any country I want to visit, I have a friend who welcomes me in their home as I did with them,” X said.

However, amidst this global convergence, some echo concerns of fading traditions. Ahmad recalls a time when daily gatherings and conversations around a fire were the norm.

X said: “The most important custom that has gone extinct is that people no longer gather together. Back in the day. Most Bedouins would wake up for fajir to pray and sit together, light up a fire. A fire is light day night, winter summer, they sit and talk to each other and have a good time and everyone would gather everyday to drink coffee together.

“Now you call on someone and say hello and tell him I’m coming over today, and he’ll tell you I can’t or I’m not home today, even when you tell them I want to visit you, he’ll ask you do you want something? It’s no longer out of love, you call on someone just to check up on them at the end of call he’ll ask you do you want something? Then you’re like I wish I never called because now he thinks I want something from him, I want nothing other than his kheir and salameh.”

“Today a man might not know his neighbor, everyone is busy working, back in the day the Bedouin didn’t care about money, he had had his goats and that was it, today how is going to keep up with modern day life, today he wants to eat, drink, put his kids in school, and university”

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