Life Lessons We Learned from Jordan’s Bedouins

Bedouins. Before our visit to Jordan, the term conjured an image of mysterious desert-bound, tunic-wearing nomads.

Camel Ride at Wadi Rum in Jordan
Riding camels with our Bedouin guide in Wadi Rum.

While in Jordan, we met our share of Bedouins — some camel collectors and shepherds, others guides and businessmen. Upwards of 40% of the Jordanian population is of Bedouin heritage. As a result, Jordanian hospitality, wisdom and culture are all very much a product of their Bedouin roots.

As our Bedouin hosts shared some of their protocols, their wisdom, and their clever ways of looking at the world, we took note. Here’s what we learned.

10 Lessons from Jordan’s Bedouins

1.“Life is short. Don’t make it difficult on yourself.”

As a guest in his tent, I asked Abu Abdullah, a Bedouin living in Feynan: “What is it that brings happiness to your life?

Peaceful Gaze of Abu Abdullah - Feynan, Jordan
Abu Abdullah, our Bedouin Host at Feynan, Jordan

Though he added a few other items, he ended with the quote above.

Let us be the first to note this is easier said than done.

2. Arabic coffee: It’s all about ritual.

The subject of Arabic coffee is fascinating. First off, it’s not like the dark, rich coffee most of us have become accustomed to. Instead, it’s made by roasting coffee beans over a fire and grinding them with a hefty dose of cardamom pods. The result is like no coffee you know — something aromatic yet thin, served espresso style.

Arabic Coffee Traditions - Wadi Rum, Jordan
Arabic Coffee Served by Bedouin Hosts – Wadi Rum, Jordan

The host will make the coffee over a hot fire. The first cup he pours will be his — to test the coffee to make sure it is acceptable. The second cup will be for you, the guest.

If you find yourself in a Bedouin tent and you are served Arabic coffee, here’s what you do. Graciously accept the first cup, holding it by the rim. Drink it without placing the cup on the ground. If you would like another cup, hand your cup back to the host for a refill. If you don’t want any more to drink, hand the cup back to the host and give the cup a little wiggle, a signal that you are finished.

Never ask for a third cup and don’t put the cup on the ground – that is, unless you have a request or an important issue to discuss with the host (e.g., marriage, family dispute).

Discussing important issues around a fire over shots of spiced coffee sounds rather peaceful to us. Next up: United Nations, Arabic coffee, Bedouin tent.

Now, you might think that no one will notice your cup if it accidentally ends up on the ground. Trust me, the host will notice instantly. I startled one of our Bedouin hosts by placing my cup on the ground and had to back myself out of the situation with a bit of humor.

3. Tea = Bedouin whiskey.

When you travel in Jordan, you’ll find that the social lubricant of choice is not alcohol, but tea. Wherever you go, expect to be invited to drink some. Take it slowly and enjoy the time together with your host.

A good Bedouin host always has a good fire going — for the next pot of tea or coffee.

Our Bedouin Host Returns to his Tent - Wadi Rum, Jordan
Always a Fire Burning in a Bedouin Tent

4. If you set up camp near someone else, you must invite them to dinner.

New to your latest Bedouin neighborhood? If you are, you must introduce yourself and invite your neighbors to a feast of your making. Bedouin happiness, after all, is dependent on good relations with one’s neighbors.

So true is this that the wife of one of the Bedouins we visited in Wadi Rum was on the hook for such a meal the day we visited.

5. Bread-baking needs no oven.

Nor a bread-maker. So long as you have a charcoal fire (remember how important that is?) and dough, you are good to go.

In Wadi Rum, we dropped in on a Bedouin tent for tea and coffee and a mid-afternoon snack of abud (or arboud), the Bedouin bread. The raw dough, after kneading, is literally dropped right into the charcoal and hot ashes. Its baking is closely tended to by the careful placement of hot embers.

Bedouin Man Making Abud (Bedouin Bread) - Wadi Rum, Jordan
Baking Abud (Arboud) Bedouin Bread – Wadi Rum

So you might be thinking: I bet that bread tasted awful.

Think again. Although it was dense (basically unleavened, non-rising dough), the abud (or arboud) was rather tasty. When the bread round emerged from the fire, it was initially covered with hot ash, but our host gave it a good beating and dusting off, and whatever little dust remained actually enhanced its taste.

We will try this at home.

6. You must share water, food and fire.

The three elements essential to Bedouin living. That is, besides camels.

Even if these are scarce for your family, it’s still your duty to share them with others. Hoarding is grounds for Bedouin ex-communication.

7. The Bedouin sixth sense.

Take a drive out into the desert with a Bedouin at night in search of the stars and a good place to enjoy shisha and a fire, and you’ll wonder two things: “How did we get here?” and “How do we get out?

Bedouins seems to know their way – over dunes, between peaks and through featureless expanses — in a manner that transcends direction and mapping.

Riding Around in a Bedouin Truck - Feynan, Jordan
Driving with a Bedouin. How do they always seem to know where they are going?

This is the Bedouin sixth sense, one that evolved due to all those centuries in the desert.

8. Guest as prisoner?

It’s not at all unusual for Jordanian meals to feature ten times as much food as might be humanly possible for the guests present to consume.

Perhaps at the root of all this hospitality is the fact that Bedouins are honor-bound to the best and highest treatment of their guests. So much so that they themselves joke, “You are our guest; you are our prisoner.”

9. When you return home at night with your camels and sheep, place your mobile phone in the pouch sewn into the side of your tent.

Many Bedouin families have made their way to more sedentary and modern lives in villages, towns and cities, while some live traditionally in tents made from woven goat hair.

Others still, they blend of both worlds. Witness a cloth pouch woven into the side of a Bedouin tent for a mobile phone.

The placement? For the best signal to receive phone calls of course.

10. The ultimate Bedouin compliment for a woman?

You look like a camel.”

This is enough to make a Bedouin bride blush. Long eyelashes, big lips — I get it.

Give me a Big Camel Kiss - Wadi Rum, Jordan
Up Close with a Camel – Wadi Rum, Jordan

Now what was that about the wisdom of the Bedouins, again?

Disclosure: Our trip to Jordan is sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board, but the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    Looking forward to reading up on your Jordanian adventures! I’m heading there myself in a few weeks, can’t wait to see and photograph all the wonderful things in Jordan. I’m especially excited about meeting the people.

  2. says

    Excellent post, really cool about the sixth sense. I had a good laugh about the compliment and I tried using that this morning with my wife, needless to say it didn’t go over so well.

  3. says

    I told my wife that she looks like a camel. That didn’t go over too well.

    I like #4 – I think we would all get along much better with everyone around us if we had this rule in our society.

  4. says

    @JoAnna: Seems like the camel (and the advice) is popular. Glad you liked it.

    @Ken: We’ve posted a bunch from Jordan already. A few more posts (including food) to go to round out the experience. Stay tuned. I’m with you on the people: the facet of any visit that we’re most curious about.

    @Pete: The Bedouin sense of direction is uncanny. Speaking of alternate senses, we were told conflicting stories as to whether or not Bedouins can tell what sort of person you are just by the way you walk.

    @Bryan: Regarding #4, almost the exact sentence you wrote was in the initial draft of this post. I took it out so as to not lead the witness. So I’m grateful for your comment. We are with you. The more we engage our neighbors in this way (breaking bread, sharing a meal), the more we’re likely to realize our similarities.

    As for engaging your wife with such compliments, I cannot help you there ;)

  5. says

    As a European woman married to a Bedouin man from Sinai – Egypt I am learning everyday about their culture.
    Very nice article, I learned again, we can all learn so much of their way of thinking and living.

    Thank you for sharing your experience!
    If you dont mind I will share your article at our facebook.

    Marhabba / You are also welcome in Sinai – Egypt

    Hassein and Patricia

  6. says

    Fun post, great photos, insightful observations (as always!)
    No trouble imagining the abud bread. We have something similar in Chile: Tortilla de rescoldo (ember bread!). It can be habit forming.
    Also- very interesting to learn about the coffee ritual. Funny how different cultures attribute such different meanings to our actions. I would have thought that jiggling the cup would be a sign for wanting more!

  7. says

    Great article! If we ventured to Jordan, we would be bringing our two children (currently 8 and 11 years old). I am interested in hearing about the social roles of women and children during a visit. With respect to the “host” family, do the men, women and children sit together and talk with the guests? And with respect to the “guests,” are the children welcome to sit with the adults or must they stay in the background?

  8. TPH says

    I enjoyed reading your post! I never expected dust to be an enhancer but I’ll take your word for it. Their sixth sense is what I admire about them. I like drinking coffee and I’m sure I would like to try their coffee. Nice post!

  9. says

    @Kathy: You pose a very good question about women’s and children’s roles during such a visit and in traveling around Jordan in general. As a woman, I was a bit more attuned to this than Dan so I thought I’d respond.

    My impression is that Jordanians really love children (big families are still the norm) and it would be very family friendly. You and your children would be welcome to sit and be with the hosts. What you will find is that most of the meals and interactions like this are with men. We didn’t have any Bedouin interactions where the local women and children sat with us. However, I do know that visits with women is also possible In our experiences, the women are usually in a separate part of the tent or house and it’s unlikely that they will join you in drinking tea or eating. However, as a foreign woman (and children), you will be welcomed into the “men’s world” and shouldn’t feel uncomfortable with this.

    Now, where you have an slight advantage over your husband is that you can also spend time in the women’s world if you ask or choose to do so. I found this quite fascinating – sometimes women have a separate sitting area than the men where they spend time together. It’s like their own area together where they can spend time with family and friends. It’s a very warm and welcoming area.

  10. says

    @Patricia: Marhaba. You are quite welcome. I’m sure you have learned a lot and have a lot to share from your own very personal Bedouin experience.

    By all means, please share the article. Because our escort/guide in Jordan was Bedouin, I believe we were exceptionally fortunate to have been enlightened (in a deep, and often a humorous way) about Bedouin life.

    @Margaret: “Ember bread.” I love that. Habit forming — I can understand. Any good bread is.

    Your observation regarding how signals that appear one way to many of us (e.g., the wiggle) and something entirely different to others. Very keen observation about our differences. If only we could somehow transmit that level of basic understanding of differences onto broader, more diplomatic levels.

    @Kathy: I was about to respond, but I figured Audrey could give you an even better response. See above.

    @Ayngelina: If you love tea, you’ll be well taken care of in Jordan. No shortage of it. In fact, we’ll talk a little more about teas in our upcoming Jordanian food post.

    @Pete: Am laughing again. Audrey is, too.

    @TPH: Ash as a flavor enhancer for bread — believe it. Take the bread, the coffee, and head out deep into the Jordanian desert with a Bedouin and you’ll be sure to return, and return well fed.

  11. says

    Continuing with the misunderstanding of gestures, I remember trying to explain something to a new grad school classmate from India. She kept looking at me intently and shaking her head from left to right, which I interpreted as her way of saying she didn’t really get what I was saying, so I kept explaining until she finally asked why I was so stuck on the topic. After a bit of confusion on both sides, we finally figured out that her head movement (more of a sideways figure eight) was her way of saying she understood and was following me, where as to me, left to right means no, and nodding up and down means yes…the exact opposite!

  12. says

    Very interesting and insightful post. I especially enjoyed reading about the coffee and the messages that can be portrayed through it. The Bedouin hospitality and willingness to share and treat guests with ultimate service, really stands out. I’m sure all that food and bread cooked over the fire was delicious!

  13. says

    @Margaret: That would be the infamous Indian head waggle.

    @Mark: The coffee protocol is fascinating. I often wonder how customs like that come about. As for Bedouin food, we’ll talk a bit more about that in our upcoming Jordanian food post.

  14. says

    love this! love #6 the most. one of the more surprising things for me while traveling has been the incredible generosity of those who may be most prone to shortage. such a beautiful practice to give when you don’t know if you have enough for yourself. demonstrates a sort of faith in humanity that someone will care for you as you have while another was in need. learned a lot here! :)

  15. says

    @Agne: Bedouins: a great culture, a rich culture, and a new one for us. Am so glad you enjoyed this piece.

    @Lorna: Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. Am glad you found this worthwhile. Like you, we’ve found that the less people have, often the more quick they are to share. A paradox of our human existence.

  16. says

    Sage words of advice and loved this post!

    The Bedouins I met in Egypt were similar (that 6th sense they have is unbelievable) as well, including the gaburi bread above with gibna gemeli – camel cheese which was fantastic.

  17. says

    @Lola: Glad you enjoyed it. The Bedouin spirit and wisdom is alluring. In fact, there’s probably another half-dozen bits of wisdom, but we had to stop somewhere. Am looking forward to polling Bedouins across North Africa and the Middle East…and sampling some of that camel cheese!

  18. says

    Love this post! I just got back from a brief visit to Jordan and unfortunately did not get to stay with a Bedouin. However, the Jordanians I met were extremely friendly and were constantly piling food on my plate! Your photos and descriptions made me feel like I was with you in the Bedouin tent :)

  19. says

    @Leslie: Piling food on the plate in Jordan — I certainly remember that! Am still shedding some of those added pounds. Glad that you enjoyed the post and felt you were “inside the tent.”

    @Kyle: Thanks very much for the compliments! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  20. says

    I love this list. The Bedouin life lesson we learned in Jordan? Two teenage Bedouin boys showed us how to make tea mugs (for all that Bedouin whiskey) out of two liter soda bottles. All you need is a knife, a lighter, and no fear of PCBs :)

  21. says

    @Sabrina: I think it’s the whiskers that push the camel past the point of “cute.”

    @Jesse: We’ve seen those tea mugs. Like #9, Bedouins are traditional, but they are also rather practical.

  22. says

    This is such a great post ! I am a Jordanian Bedouin from the northern region of Mafraq,some of what you mentioned is even surprising to me.(e.g The ultimate Bedouin compliment for a woman ! )I am glad you enjoyed your stay in my country,and if you ever come visit again you’re more than welcome for yet another kind of Bedouin hospitality !

  23. Mamdouh Alenazy says

    Great report.
    The open fire bread is called arboud (not abud as mentioned). The use of the word ‘camel’ as a compliment for a woman is humorous; it is not widely used.

  24. says

    @Mamdouh: Thank you! I’ve made the addition/correction to the name of the Jordanian bread.

    As for camels and compliments to women, we are still laughing…though we understand it may not be very common.

    Thanks so much for your comment.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] “The Bedouin culture in Jordan takes the concept of guests (and tourists are considered guests) very seriously,” said Daniel Noll.  “As hosts, they feel responsible for you. If anything were to happen in Jordan, we felt confident that local people would help take care of us and be concerned with our safety.”  (To read more about Daniel’s impressions of the Bedouin in Jordan, go here). [...]

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