BEDOUIN CULTURE - A little insight
Some information about our Culture, by all means not everything is covered but here are some 'tit-bits' that may interest you as a visitor to Wadi Rum. Some tips are included in relevant places about how you can be a aware, respectful and culturally sensitive visitor.
We are still very traditional Bedouin in Wadi Rum.
However, we have seen many changes in the last 100 years, we spend a lot of time with tourists, and our lifestyle has changed considerably. For example we mostly live in villages, with just a few Bedouin spending most of their time in the desert. This does not mean though we have lost our Culture, or way of life completely. We are still very strongly Bedouin and we still think and do many things the 'old' ways.
We know our job, and that it is not for us to expect you to know differently. So don't worry too much about offending us unintentionally! This little page is purely for your interest and for people who would like to try doing things the Bedouin way!
Despite our increased 'worldliness' in the home & lives, our thinking is still very traditional.
- Bedouin eat from one large tray sitting around it together. Men together in one place, and women together in another place. Children have a certain freedom to choose where they eat, but younger children would normally stay with women, particularly on formal occasions. In the home when there are no guests immediate family would often eat from one tray together (husband, wife & children).
- Before we start to eat we say: 'Bismi’llah Al Rahmaan Al Raheem’ this means ‘In the name of God the most merciful, the most compassionate' (translation).
- When a person has finished eating he will say ‘Al Hamduli’llah'. This means ‘All thanks and praise is due to God alone’ (translation).
- We eat with our right hand.
- At weddings and formal gatherings the children bring jugs of water and soap for adults to wash their hands before and after eating. On less formal occasions people still wash their hands before and after but they would help themselves.
- We eat quickly and in modest amounts even when the tray is heavily laden.
- Water is passed around for drinking, usually in a stainless steel bowl. This amazingly keeps the water cold even in Summer when you have no fridge. Try it at home: Take a deep stainless steel bowl, fill with water from the tap. Leave for about half an hour outside in a high place (i.e. on top of a wall, in the nook on a branch of a tree). Then come back later and enjoy your lovely cool water.
- When eating you should always eat from the section of tray that is directly in front of you and you should not reach your hand to eat from another person’s section. This is considered rude and unhygienic. Sometimes the oldest women of the household, or the lady that cooked will pass to or put the best pieces of meat in front of a guest they want to feel particularly welcome, this is not the same thing.
- It is bad manners to lick your fingers and then continue eating. If you lick them when you have finished, and will not put your hand back in the food, no problem.
- It is also bad manners to hold the food you have in your hand for a long time hovering over the tray before eating it.
- When the food is served the tray is taken first to the men to eat their fill and then when they have finished the tray is brought to the women to eat. This may seem to the Western mind to be a little chauvinistic but historically Bedouin men are most likely to have to suddenly rush off to go hunting or to make a raid or to defend from a raid. So it is a practical custom as well. Also it is a sign of respect because the men are the protectors and the sustainers of the family. It also practically supports the women as they can then tidy up a little bit and make tea before the food arrives for them. The women sually keep a small amount back and give this to anyone who is really hungry (like children or female guests, pregnant women, women who have just given birth etc) and can't wait.
- I should also say here, that the men do eat first but they always eat modestly and quickly this is also out of respect for the women who will eat after them. There is always plenty of food and meat left, and the women in many ways are better off as they get to eat slowly (no-one waiting to eat), and sometimes even twice.
- Tea is usually drunk in small amounts after dinner. Sometimes coffee as well, but not always. Water is sometimes passed around during the meal, but not always.
- When you want to indicate you do not want more tea you can put your hand over the top of the glass.
- When you want to indicate you do not want more coffee you wiggle/ shake the cup as you hand it back to your host. The coffee cup should not be put down on the ground.
- After eating Bedouin are always very conscientious to clean up any grains of rice, crumbs of bread etc. that were split on the floor while eating.
Sitting & feet etiquette
- It is rude to sit with the soles of your feet pointing towards another person, this is because the soles of your feet are unclean.
- Some people may have medical problems with their legs, in those cases they will sit with their legs stretched out and a blanket/ pillow/ scarf over their feet. People with certain health conditions i.e. pregnant women, someone with arthritis etc are also allowed & often encouraged by the people she is sitting with to sit with their legs stretched out.
- The soles of your feet are dirty, so if there was food in front of you on the floor you would never step over or on the food.
- Bedouin would also leave their shoes outside the sitting room/ tent or house as once again the bottom of your shoes are dirty and it is not nice to mix food and drinks with this thing. If you need to keep them close to you, you would always put them behind you rather than in front of you where you are sitting.
- In addition if one shoe became turned up so the sole was facing up we would always turn it so the sole was facing down again.
Approaching a tent
- In the West when you get to a house there is usually a door, so the custom is to knock on it. So when you live in a tent what do you do? In Bedouin Culture when you are approaching a tent you make some kind of noise. You may cough, clear your throat, say 'hoy' etc. The people inside would then call out to come in, or if they wanted you to wait a bit they would say wait etc. This also gives the women of the family a chance to leave the room.
- Bedouin would never approach a tent or room quietly so the people inside could not hear them and not know they were coming. This applies to strangers, and within the family equally. Even a husband arriving home will clear his throat or make some kind of noise when approaching.
Men & Women
In Muslim and Bedouin Society men and women who are unrelated do not mix. Platonic friendships do not exist. This way of life is very different to a Western life and it has many implications that Westerners can bear in mind when they are visiting Bedouin and Wadi Rum.
- If men ever meet a Bedouin or generally a Muslim woman he should not offer his hand to her to shake. Touch is a door to something more and so Muslim women keep that door closed and do not touch men that they are unrelated to directly. Not offering it can save an awkward moment while she tries to not be rude yet not shake your hand. Some less traditional Muslim women (perhaps in the working world, or Aqaba/ Amman etc) may offer you her hand first. In that case, you can shake it.
- A man who is invited into a Bedouin home will usually be seated in a room for guests call the 'motheif'. He should NEVER wander into another part of the home without being invited. If he needs the bathroom he should ask where it is and wait to be shown. There is always a bathroom for men which does not require him to enter the main house/ tent. Very often if there are male visitors the women of the house (wife, sisters, mother etc) can be inside, and they will be quiet and not make a lot of noise so a male visitor wandering around may suddenly find himself in a room of women. Again if your male host takes you to them, or a woman comes to the room where he is, then that is okay.
- Women often ask us about what is appropriate dress for them, but this question is also relevant to men. Men here also dress modestly covering our legs, arms, most our neck & some of our hair. In the desert both men & women can relax more, but walking around in the village a man in shorts could attract a lot of giggly children!
- Women travellers (all around Jordan not just here) can help to avoid unwanted attention by dressing modestly & behaving modestly. A lot of the time the focus is just on clothing, but behaviour is important too. Lots of raucous laughter & attention seeking behaviour is interpreted differently here to the West, and you can attract unwanted attentions this way. In the West people are encouraged to be individuals, and to be 'different', to be 'outgoing'. Here someone who is shy (not a pushover kind of shy) is viewed much more positively and this is seen as a positive characteristic.
- Night walks: Sometimes our guests enjoy to go on walks in the night with a guide, to see the stars, how the desert landscape is in the night etc etc. If you are a single female traveller and you go alone with a guide on a night walk. Please be aware of the message you are giving him. Lets be honest wherever you are in the world, a walk in the night under the stars in a beautiful setting would be considered romantic. It is best to invite along another male tourist or 1-2 other females. This way you get to enjoy the walk under the stars but you are not inadvertently giving him the wrong idea about your intention. If I ever do the night walk myself I would always ask a small group to join me rather than going with just one guest. I would emphasize we are professionals and if you are alone with a guide you are perfectly safe (much more so than in any European or American city), but please be aware of how your behaviour can be mis-understood, we are human after all. Women please also note Bedouin Directions takes very seriously any inappropriate behaviour, so please do talk to me (Mehedi) before you leave if anything happens during your stay that made you uncomfortable.
- The Jordan Jubilee website has an excellent advise page for solo female travellers I would strongly encourage any solo female travellers to read it.
- Bedouin Culture and our Religion is very respectful and protective of women.
- For Bedouin, just eye contact is something intense and between opposite sexes would be avoided (whereas in the West it indicates more that you are paying attention & listening to the person). If your guide does not look you in your eye when you say goodbye, or are talking, he is not being rude or uninterested, he is being respectful to you. If he does look you in the eye don't panic! He is trying to do things your way!
- People who travel in couples. You may find the guide is more comfortable talking to the man in the couple. This is because he will be hyper aware of not being too friendly with your wife/girlfriend etc as that could be a problem for you. Please don't feel left out ladies, we are being respectful to you.
- Bedouin families are as big as Allah will allow. As soon as a man and woman are married the first child is excitedly awaited. Women even today, often give birth to & raise 6-12 children. A family of 6 might be considered a 'little' small. Bedouin women are proud of their children and their strength doing this.
- Children are very much allowed to be children in one sense but in other ways they learn from a young age to contribute to the family and lend a helping hand. Children will do many of the chores in the house, like going to the shop, fetching things, returning borrowed items to another family member etc.
- As children get older the responsibility in the home and 'difficulty' of task entrusted to them becomes greater, and this is how we learn. Older girls will help their mothers and take care of the younger babies and children, start to make tea, then start to watch and help with the cooking. Boys, will help their fathers, and start to learn how to drive, fix the Jeeps, participate when a goat is killed helping in small ways (they will also learn to make tea, and cook at home with their mother). Learning is approached by first watching.. then trying with an observer... then doing it yourself.
- Children can seem a bit 'wild' to tourists, as they roam freely around the village. Young children are seen perching on walls, house roofs or running around with knives. But Bedouin life and culture is actually very strict and socially there are many more rules they they will have learnt & be learning, that the tourist is unaware of.
- Babies, and toddlers will often be given into quickly as we don't like to see them cry. But Bedouin women and older sisters have all sorts of 'tricks' up their sleeve to keep little ones happy without spoiling them.
- Children can be very mischievous especially when around in the village and away from the parents eyes. Sometimes also with tourists because they know the tourist doesn't know the rules. If a child is misbehaving you can talk sternly with them, as being too nice & tolerating them if they are being naughty, will just embolden them.