My first encounter with the Bedouls occurred in 1991. I was driving back from a visit to the Museum of Petra when I came across a shepherd boy herding his goats. Even at a passing glance, I was struck by the uncanny resemblance between the boy’s features and those of a Nabataean statue which I had seen at the museum. I simply had to take his photograph. This chance encounter heightened my interest in the differences in physical traits among Bedouin tribes, but it also was a discovery of more reaching effect: I did not realise at the time that I had stumbled upon the greatest controversy surrounding the origin of the Bedouls, namely, whether this tribe actually descended from the Nabataeans.
With his rounded cheeks and curlu black hair, this Bedoul shepherd boy, Na’el Al-Judeilat, looks remarkably similar to the Nabataean figure displayed in the Musem of Petra. Ironically, one theory states that the Bedouls are descendants of the Nabataeans.
Although Bedouin tribes generally trace their lineage to a founding father, whether real or fictitious, and Bedouin individuals can trace their genealogy several generations back, an enigma surrounds the origin of the Bedouls.
Some claim descent from the Nabataeans; but there is no solid evidence to prove this pretence, and, like other claims, it may be a story fabricated to impress tourists. Yet, on the other hand, the association is plausible because a few Bedoul families also live in the areas of Humeima and Guweirah. Together with Petra, these three sites form part of the old caravan route that the Nabataeans serviced many centuries ago. The Nabataean people, who carved the caves of Petra, controlled the caravan routes between Mada’en Saleh, in today’s Saudi Arabia, and Petra. Since no other routes were known at the time, caravans had the choice between being raided by the Nabataeans, or paying a handsome fee for the Nabataeans protection and the use of their wells. As Petra prospered from this trade, the fees levied by the Nabataeans rose to exorbitant levels. Eventually, when the Pax Romana allowed traders to use alternative routes on land and sea, the influence and wealth of the Nabataeans waned. In its most elaborate form, the theory posits that the Bedouls acquired their name from worshipping Beddle, the son of the Nabataean King. Others claim that the name Bedoul derives from badal (meaning to swap or change) and it was bestowed upon the tribe when they converted from idolatry to Judaism. This theory is fleshed out with accounts of how Moses came upon them while still pagans and, by way of prodding them to the path of righteousness, put most of them to the sword. Only a small group survived by taking refuge in the caves of Petra and assuring him from this hiding place that they have seen the light and converted to his religion. Few accounts exist on their subsequent conversion from Judaism to Islam.
Ali Salem Aldaraweesh, from the Bedoul branch of Al Mawasneh, claims that the Bedouls either descended from the Nabataeans or the ancient tribes of A’ad and Thamoud, mentioned in the Kor’an, who lived before the Nabataeans. They dwelled in the area of mada’en, Saleh, Wadi Rum, Petra, Hasna and Humeima. According to archeological records found in the mountains of Rum, Sajune the second, King of Ashure, waged war on Thamoud in the 8th century BC and won, whereupon he banished most of them to the Samera mountains near Nablus in the West Bank. Later, in the 2nd century AD, Thamoud re-established themselves in the Hasna area, where they built a city slightly smaller than Petra. The last known record of this tribe dates back to the 5th century AD, when two men from Thamoud joined the Byzantine army. It is believed that this tribe incurred the wrath of God, who destroyed them by means of a great desert storm.
These claims are fascinating, but impossible to verify. A less romantic but, plausible theory, is that the Bedoul were a roaming tribe that found the caves and monuments of Petra and simply occupied them. According to this theory, their customs changed, to conform with their new mode of living.
What is known about the Bedoul is that their deereh (territory) is surrounded on the south and west by the Saidiyin tribe, on the north by the Ammarin tribe, and on east by the fallaheen (meaning peasants, the collective name for rural communities). But the Bedoul are a community apart, who intermarry only among themselves, and whose customs often differ from the Bedouins; for instance, they do not raise camels (either through poverty, or because their lifestyle does not require these beasts), and they live in the caves of Petra instead of the traditional tents. In this respect they are a settled rather than a nomadic community.
Burckhard, referred to the Bedouls as the rulers of Petra and claimed that no tourists could enter the are without paying a fee to their Sheikh. His judgement contrast with the standing of this clan among other Bedouins, who see the Bedoul in general as a poor and insignificant tribe. Sixty five year old Sulayman (from the neighbouring Saidiyin tribe)describes the Bedouls as a tribe, small in numbers ( a reference of disdain among Bedouins) living in great poverty around the caves of Petra. This description is corroborated by government statistics which indicate that they numbered 64 families in 1970. However, thanks to the improved living conditions in the government-provided housing estate their number have grown to 300 families, or around 1000 people. They are concentrated in Petra, plus scattered living in the areas of Humeima and Guweirah.
The Bedouls contest that, at some point in the past, they were numerous and so rich that they were did not need to work. With idle time on their hands, they held a dancing party during the day, in course of which women performed the sabres dance. But this sort of activity happens only at night, so other tribes who saw them celebrating in broad daylight felt jealous. The evil eye of jealousy brought upon the Bedoul the black death that decimated the tribe and reduced it to poverty.
The disregard in which the Bedouls have always been held served them well at times. Ali relates the story when the Ottomans invited all the Bedouin Sheikhs to Ma’an for a meeting, omitting the Bedoul as too insignificant. The insult was later seen as a blessing when it was discovered that the invitation was a trap, and the Turks killed 25 Sheikhs who attended the meeting. This incident is the same as the one mentioned by Abou Nassar of the Ammarin.
One very old Bedoul remembers the days when their sole luxury was brown sugar and tea, supplied by the Ottomans in return for firewood which the Bedouls carried on their donkeys. Great famines were common, and Ali recalls numerous nights when his mother sent him to bed with a dinner of only bread crumbs dipped in boiled juniper berries. Medical care was scarce as well. Branding with a hot iron was a common cure for most aches and pains, including stomach flu and headaches. This practice is still used today, but it is not as common. Additionally, the blood of the wabar (wildcats) was believed to hold medicinal properties, but it is hardly used today since the wildcat population has dwindled until it became an endangered species.
In the past thirty years, however, the fortunes of the Bedouls have changed. The increase in tourism to Petra, Jordan’s principal attraction, has brought to the Bedouls considerable benefits. They were quick to learn languages, and now they earn their keep by working as guides and by selling various crafts to tourists.
Today, most Bedouls have been relocated to houses provided by the government of Jordan in order to improve their living conditions and to protect Petra. Yet, for all their new-found ease, they maintain a semblance of their old lives, and some families continue to live and keep their goats and sheep in the caves.
Huessein’s grandfather is deaf from old age, but he still strains to hear the family plans for his grandson’s wedding. His sense of time has faded. He beleive that the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 took place three years ago. As for the demise of the Ottoman Empire (in the First World War), he aknowledges that it was really long ago-he estimates around nine years. He died in 1995.