Ammarin's Stories

A proud Ammarin woman

Torfa Bint Sabbah Al Ammarin

When I began my photographic journey in 1992, one of my dreams was to meet the fabled camel herders, reputed to graze herds of over 100 camels. After months of fruitless search, I was told that they had moved to Wadi Araba. I hired a Bedouin guide and went in search of the great camel herds, but in vain. On the way back, the guide mentioned that an aunt of his was taking care of her new-born goats in the nearby mountains and asked if we could stop to see her. Since I had nothing else to occupy my time, we drove to the foot of the mountains, from where we had to scale its steep side in order to reach the side entrance of the cave.

It was here that I met Torfa, a proud Ammarin woman. Her cave was unique in that it was divided into three compartments: one for the goats, another which served as a kitchen, and the third which served as a living area. Despite the presence of the animals, the floor of the cave was remarkably clean, and Torfa had even contrived a form of terrace in front of the cave. When asked why she lived so far away, Torfa admitted she liked living alone, away from people, because they talk too much. What she needed in terms of food and supplies, her son brought to her during his weekly visits.

The following year I searched for Torfa. I found the cave, but not the occupant, who was back with the tribe at that time of year. I learned later that she stays in the caves only in the winter months (January through March), when it was warm in the caves and cold outside. In summer, there is less vegetation on the mountain and so she travels to Heesheh, located east of Petra, where she lives in her tent.

On this particular trip, I met instead Hamda, an older Ammarin woman whom I immediately recognised from my visit in 1992. To prove to her that I knew her, I reminded her of how she was saved by other Bedouins from the flood in 1992. Only then she did accept me as a friend and allow me to take photographs of her.

The following June, I searched again for Torfa and found her at Heesheh. Although it had only been a year and a half since I had seen her, the harsh desert had aged her beyond her years. It was shocking how much tired and old she looked. Because of the sun, her skin was much darker and her body, hunched with age. I could only stay one night in her hospitality, since she was moving to find a better grazing area the following day.

It was not till 1996 that I finally succeeded in solving the enigma of Torfa. Visiting her cave in March, I found her herding her goats a usual; but this time she acknowledged me as a friend and told me her story.

Her full name is Torfa bint Saleh, daughter of Saleh and granddaughter of Abdullah. She was born in Heesheh, along with the rest of the family. She is not sure how old she is, perhaps around 70 years. She has given birth to 8 children, of whom four died (2 boys and 2 girls) and the other four (3 daughters and one boy) survived. All have since moved away except for one of her daughters, who helps her herd her livestock.

Torfa was married a long time ago to a soldier. For Bedouins at that time, the military meant the good life, since it provided money, clothes, food and privileges like heath insurance for the family. After he finished his term of service he enrolled in the PLO. One day after the war of 1967, he crossed wadi Araba on a mission, but a land mine went off under his foot, destroying his leg. He was captured by the Israelis, given medical treatment (a prosthetic leg) and then imprisoned for five years. Upon his release, he returned to Torfa for one year before he died.

Today, Torfa continues to herd her goats and sheep, some of which she tends for her brothers and sisters who live in the city. She carries water to the cave from the valley below on her donkey, and depends on her brother for a weekly subsidy. She is getting old, though, and the climb to her cave is becoming increasingly difficult. With her usual dignity, mingled with some sadness, she says that this year or the next will probably be her last visit to the mountain.