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    Classic Mercedes-Benz trucks leave imprints of change on bedouin caravan paths

    February 28, 2022

    AMMAN — Globalisation has changed nomadic lifestyles, fusing them with fixed housing, social media and water collection. Evidence of this can be seen in many aspects of bedouin life in Jordan, including the use of water.

    The bedouin’s relationship with water is longstanding, with the “thimayal” or “umshash” watering system being most common. The word “thimayal” is derived from classical Arabic, translating to “drunk” — the soil is drunk with water.

    The use of a thimayal to obtain water has been adapted in a way that facilitates life. “As the water is going down and being stored above the bedrock, bedouins would dig holes to remove soil and gravel before reaching water,” archaeology expert, professor Fawzi Abudanah, told The Jordan Times in a recent interview.

    The system is mentioned by 10th century AD sources for both Jordanian and Saudi Arabian bedouins.

    Abudanah said he had seen bedouins “pumping water from the “thimayal” into a “hasniya” truck, using an electric generator with a diesel engine that works as a pump”.

    From camels to cars

    Cars are a point of pride within the bedouin community, especially the Mercedes “hasniya” truck (from the 1970s), described as “the 20th century bedouin camel” by Abudanah. The truck derives its name from “Ward Hasnan”, a car distribution company in the region. Water transport is its main function, as Abudanah explains that “it is not easy to have water in the desert, especially in times of drought when you are moving around”.

    The “thimayal” and “hasniya” truck, are a sign of “bedouin identity in modern times”, according to Abudanah, alongside the tribal judicial system. This deals with community issues including murder, which are settled in the houses of bedouin sheikhs.

    In the case of murder, according to the tribal tradition “al jalwa” (forced relocation), the family of the murderer has to move to a different governorate. However, a recent government agreement limits the number of people moving. Tribe traditions are legitimised alongside identity through representation in government.

    Each badia region has parliamentary seats, divided into the “social map of Jordan”. The classification is based on the lifestyle of the region, with “the official system encouraging the continuity of this identity”, said Abudanah.

    Tourism and social media

    As well as being valued within Jordan, the bedouin identity and culture is also known outside of Jordan, with tourism being a large source of revenue that is facilitated by social media.

    “We can live without it [social media] personally, but for tourism we can’t live without it,” desert camp manager Ahmed Al Sadeen told The Jordan Times. “Before social media, tourists could book a visit by post,” often resulting in unknown cancellations.

    Although fully nomadic lifestyles are now hampered by borders, there is a strong emotional connection to travelling and guests. The culture of hospitality to any is amongst the most highly valued morals alongside “the love of freedom”, said Abudanah.

    Upon arrival, a guest is offered Arabic coffee. If it is refused, it means that there is “either an issue or the guest has bad intentions towards the tribe”. “If you eat or drink in someone’s house or tent, it is a sign of peace and that you have good intentions towards them,” Abudanah said.

    Aside from tourism revenue, bedouins depend on the products of their livestock, noted Abudanah.

    Livestock and education

    The introduction of cars has increased herds; more water can be carried and for longer as “the trucks have tanks on the back which enables them to breed more sheep and goats”, he added. Traditional livestock-based lifestyles continue to be a “marker” for social standing, especially camels — more camels equals to more clout.

    Livestock is also used as payment for education, as “some tribes used to bring a teacher from a major town to teach their kids — especially the boys”. The teacher was “paid with what they had… sheep or goats”, and had a tent which moved around with the tribe, explained Abudanah.

    The Jordanian government in 1960 launched a programme to encourage settlement because “education and healthcare cannot be offered to people who are moving around in the desert”, said Abudanah.

    Additionally, this was profitable for the Jordanian economy, offering security for travellers along the Desert Highway that has since become lined with villages. “Sometimes people set up a bedouin tent next to a modern house,” noted Abudanah.

    However, Sadeen explained that many bedouin parents are “scared that the schools will take kids away from the culture”, as they “spend their lives free, staying in a room at school is not normal for them”, which is why many stay only for primary school.

    “The point of bedouins with new generations is not to leave them when they are younger, because then they completely lose the culture,” said Sadeen. He stayed with his fully nomadic parents until the age of 20, and then left as “I need an income. This would not work if I didn’t move away from the middle of the desert”.

    Sadeen has “traditional bedouin knowledge; I know everything… if I want to go back I can do that, but at the same time, the way that my parents live does not work with the new generation”.


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