The Bedouin of Wadi Rum
The photos here have been supplied by Bernard Domenech to whom I owe many thanks for all his help


Some of the history of Wadi Rum

First a note on Arab names and their spelling

It should be remembered that Arab pronunciation of certain letters in no way resembles English pronunciation of those same letters when rendered into English. I have therefore adopted a general practice of spelling Arab personal names as they are pronounced in English.

A very short remark on vowels which in Arabic are often susceptible of various pronunciations. I cite the example of the English "Hallo" which can be and often is written as "Hello" and "Hullo" with no real difference in pronunciation. In general, Arabic "soft" vowels are a bit like this, so that "Zilabia" can also be perfectly correctly transliterated as "Zulabia" or "Zalebyeh" or even "Zlabeh", again with no difference in the pronunciation. This makes web searches for anything relating to the Zilabia or the Howeitat (Howaitat, Howeytat, Huweitat etc.) a real challenge!

The Tribes

Wadi Rum in 1965. The fort of the Desert Patrol is the only building in the valley, no houses, no Rest House. I am grateful to Heinz Hugl for allowing me to use this photo that I "discovered" on his website

The Howeitat Tribe hold all the area around Wadi Rum from Taba in Egypt, north to Al Husseinyer on the Desert Highway, and well into Saudi Arabia to the south. The land in Wadi Rum however is occupied by the Zilabia and the Zuweida tribes who are an offshoot of the Aneizat in Saudi Arabia. These two sub tribes were officially confirmed as being "in possession" of these lands by the Abu Tayi and the bin Jazi sheikhs in the 1920s, after having virtually "squatted" them for a number of years. Aouda Abu Tayi, the famous leader of the Howeitat against the Turks, tacitly accepted their presence when he "invited" them to join him in one of his raids against the Bani Sakher, instead of simply calling them out. However the Zilabia and the Zuweida insist that they occupied the lands long before this, citing stories from the tribal history which (as far as I can calculate) go back easily to the 1880's. They also furiously refute any claim that they  belong to the Howeitat Tribe, although both accepted authorities and local Howeitat sheikhs claim that they do.

On rereading "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" I found it interesting that T.E. Lawrence remarked that the "Zelabeni" were worried about being absorbed by the Howeitat if they cooperated with Abu Tayi. It looks as if this is still going on.

The Zuweida lands are around the village of Dissieh, much less frequented by tourists than the area around Wadi Rum. Dissieh is a metropolis compared with the village of Rum, the water from the aquifer is to be found only a few feet from the surface and led to a settlement in this spot long before anybody built a house in Wadi Rum itself. This is the first thing that strikes a visitor to Dissieh, the green. There are trees, bushes, plants, flowers - there is even grass growing beside the road! Although the shops are still village shops, at least there are a number of them - unlike Wadi Rum.

The Zilabia live in Wadi Rum and the surrounding territory to the south. Almost the entire population of Rum village is from this family - nearly a thousand of them! Before the filming of "Lawrence of Arabia" here, the only building in the valley was a desert fort on the traditional road to Saudi Arabia and Mecca; the present Resthouse was originally built for the personnel making the film. In the valley were only tents. Wadi Rum (the valley between Jebel Um Ishreen and Jebel Rum) has always been known for its good springs, the Bedouin frequently pitched their tents here to water the flocks and so it had become a central gathering point. The lands to the south are also well watered and were a valuable asset to the tribe - well worth fighting for if necessary.

This is a "thumbnail" image, click on it for a larger version
The village of Rum in 1986 when I first saw it. (Don't ask me what the railway carriages are doing there!)
Photo Bernard Domenech

A few of them built houses on what was then "tribal land" (now government land) near to the Resthouse, and were followed by others as the Government encouraged the sedentarization of the Bedouin. Unlike some other Arab countries there was no force involved in Jordan, the offer of land for building houses and the provision of schools for the children were presented as privileges that the Government was offering to the Bedouin. King Hussein offered several of the Zilabia tribal notables a "personal gift" of a house and some surrounding land. More land was made available at special prices and subsidized loans were also part of the package. Many of the Bedouin took up this offer and Rum Village was born. All this has happened in the last twenty years or so, much of it in the last ten - see the photo at the head of the page. Since the land was cheap by normal standards, many families bought enough to build several houses later on for their children, and today Rum is unusual for an Arab town in that many houses only hold a few people, these are the "young marrieds" setting up their nurseries!

This "compound" like scheme of building also provided room to pitch the traditional tents while the houses were being built, or while the money was being found to build them, and today you can often still see these tents or livestock among the houses.

The traditional money earning occupation of the Zilabia, as of many of the Bedouin tribes of Jordan, is the Army or the police. As members of the Desert Patrol or of the Arab Legion, they lived in garrison towns, they often took their wives and children with them and met the challenges of living in fixed places and of urban life. This undoubtedly helped to make the change from nomadic to settled life easier for them as they returned to their home lands.

As the Bedouin gradually left the desert for the housing in Rum, the village acquired the reputation of being a dirty and careless conglomeration of houses: the idea of actually painting them took a long time to occur to their owners. But the new generation of young guides is in the habit of meeting and talking easily with tourists and on equal terms, many of them have travelled abroad and are much more environmentally conscious than their elders. The houses are increasingly being painted and this is being actively encouraged by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan under the rules for the Nature Reserve of Wadi Rum currently being established. The wires for electricity and telephones are being buried and gradually Rum is turning into a pleasant village, just as the idea is spreading that rubbish must not simply be discarded in the desert but brought back to Rum to be treated correctly.

This is tremendous contrast to when I first saw it, some fifteen years ago, the dirt and general sloppiness around made a greater impression than did the landscape. When one looks at the landscape today, one realises a little bit just how much dirt there must have been! I was by no means the only one. Again and again one heard tourists complaining of the bad impression made on them by the village of Rum. One can only hope that tourists today see more of the pleasant part of the village than of the potholes that are still there in the side streets! Much of the village is indeed a very pleasant place today.

"Lawrence of Arabia" and Wadi Rum

This is a contemporary photo of T .E. Lawrence with Aouda Abu Tayi (reality this, not from the film!)

A visitor to Wadi Rum gets the very strong impression that Wadi Rum was a favourite haunt of the British soldier. In fact, if you read his biography "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" you will see that Lawrence did indeed come to Wadi Rum, just six times in a year and a half, each time with the army and for military purposes. Many people are under the firm impression that "Lawrence's road to Aqaba" is the route he took to attack Aqaba; not at all, he came to Wadi Rum for the first time much later. The attack on Aqaba took the easier road down Wadi Yitms.

So strong are these impressions that many of the young Bedouin are starting to believe the stories, happily elaborated on by their elders having fun with the tourists, and there is no doubt this tradition is becoming firmly established. The filming of "Lawrence of Arabia" in Wadi Rum didn't hurt either.

The "Lawrence Connection" was largely a story spun by the tourist agencies, seeking desperately a reason to attract people to the area, as if the beauty of the area itself was insufficient. It is true that a few years ago, Jordan was only on the tourist map because of the site of Petra, anything else was secondary. I say "a few years ago" but unfortunately this is still largely true today.

You might like to look at the page on "Lawrence of Arabia" in the History section for more about T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt.

Bedouin sheikhs and customs

The much respected Hadji Attayak who died in 2001 aged well over 90 and  possibly over a hundred years old.
He was probably between 15 and 16 years old at the time of the Arab Revolt and took part in the march on Aqaba with Lawrence and Prince Faisal. Here he is wearing the traditional dress of a sheikh or of a tribal elder. You can see a photo of him as a young man in the page on the early History of Jordan

The office of sheikh is an important one in a community. It almost invariably passes from father to son (not necessarily the eldest), except very occasionally when it might pass to a son in law or to a brother. (This happened three generations ago with the Zilabia.) Today the sheikh in Wadi Rum is a diffident and retiring man and he is represented largely to the outside world by three of the older men of the Zilabia who have been chosen to speak for the tribe. He succeeded his father in 1990.

Many of the traditional functions of a sheikh are today being carried out by the police and the courts of law. They were not what so many Westerners consider as such: a sheikh was and is concerned with religious and social matters rather than administrative. His principal function is that of an arbitrator. He is not "the chief" of a tribe, who can on occasion be somebody completely different, and often somebody inconspicuous to outsiders.

Some comments on names

This might be a good place to provide some information on people's names.

You have seen in several places on this website names such as "Attayak Ali" or "Mohamed Ibrahim". The custom in Jordan, as in several other Arab countries, is for people to add their father's first name to their own and use it for general purposes. There are a number of "Attayak Zilabias" in Wadi Rum, so this serves to identify them. (You might like to know that in Wadi Mousa, just in the telephone directory, you can find 37 men called "Mohammed Hassanat".) Officially, and when needed, they also add their grandfather's first name. A man's full name in Wadi Mousa might therefore be Mohammed Ahmed Hussein Hassanat, and this would be the way he figures on official documents. His father's "use" name would be "Ahmed Hussein".

In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the widely used variation of "Mohammed bin Ibrahim" or "Attayak bin Ali" comes down to exactly the same thing.

The women are named in the same way : their first name followed by their father's first name, so you have names like "Nadia Ahmed", "Fatima Mahmoud".

In their home towns, this is usually enough to identify the person concerned - but not always. In Wadi Mousa, granted a larger community than Wadi Rum, I personally know at least three men called "Mohammed Haroun". This is where one needs a bit more detail, often a nickname or "Abu xxx" (the name of his eldest son). The family name in these cases is quite useless as explained above.

Bedouin Tents

In this photo you can see the traditional black tent, but the round tent in the foreground is a "Saudi" tent, which is used in Wadi Rum much more than usual in Jordan.

These black tents that seem so romantic on the landscape are called in Arabic "beit sha'ar" or "house of hair". They are familiarly referred to as a "beit" or "house" (the same word of course as a house in a village).

They are woven by the Bedouin women out of goats' hair, in separate sections; a woman will normally weave the sections for her own "house", and also prepare the fabric strips in advance in anticipation of future need by her family or perhaps her children later. Goats' hair shrinks when it is wet, so in winter the tent is protected by the closely woven fabric. When it is dry, this fabric often sags, seeming to have holes everywhere, and allowing a breeze to enter.

You might like to look at the page concerning Bedouin weaving for more details on the looms and techniques used. There are also some photos in the Photo Galley page on Bedouin.

In summer, you may notice that many tents are in poor condition and even eked out by cardboard boxes, bits of sacking or sheets of wood or metal. In fact, when it is warm, all that is required is shade from the sun, shelter from any wind and privacy from passers by. Hence the old tents are usually used in summer, and the "good" tents reserved for winter. One is tempted to think that the poor tents are a sign of poverty: absolutely not necessarily, just prudent management!

A normal tent is apt to be large: often 30 or 40 meters long. It is divided into 2 sections : the public area, usually left open to the world during the day, and the women's area on the right hand side (when you face the tent), which is usually kept closed when any strangers are likely to be around. Nobody from outside the family would ever venture to intrude upon the women, even other women do so upon invitation. The public area is normally arranged to receive guests, who sit, lounge or lie upon mattresses arranged around a small fire. The women are free to join in any talk, and usually do so. When it is cold, this area is closed at night by dropping the sections of cloth which are rolled up during the day.

No discussion of money or business, no bargaining will ever take place inside the tent which is "to be kept inviolate" from outside matters. A guest will be received inside, will sit and drink tea or coffee, but if he has come to discuss business, eventually, when the talk becomes serious, the whole party will move outside, taking mattresses and tea etc. with them. If the affair interests them, the women will often join the men here as well.

Coffee is prepared in advance, the beans are roasted at the end of a long shovel before being crushed in a mortar and the grounds solemnly dropped into hot water. Just enough cardamon is added, and the infusion is left to stand for several hours. When a visitor arrives, the coffee is boiled on the long spouted coffee pot and the coffee poured ceremoniously into small cups. The visitor drinks off the hot light coloured liquid in one gulp and will usually be offered a second. Accepting a third cup of coffee means that you consider yourself one of the family and that you are ready to fight for it if necessary. Deliberately to refuse an offered third cup is a very serious thing to do.

Good manners are very important to the Bedouin. The worst sin is to cause a quarrel in somebody else's tent (or wherever could be considered somebody's home), and invariably people will go to great lengths to avoid this. A polite man will try to avoid visiting anywhere near to a meal time - there is no way his host cannot invite him to stay, however scarce the food supply. The polite man will also arrive protesting he is in a great hurry and must leave as soon as possible, thus cutting off his host's offer to "kill a goat" in honour of the visit. Several minutes are always spent in enquiring after each other's health and family, before any mention is made of business.

Obviously non-Arabs are not expected to know the nuances of "Bedouin behaviour", all allowances are made for them - even for those who sit with their bare feet pointing directly at the host.

A word about Saluki hounds

Somebody asked me recently about Saluki hounds, and I took my usual way out by asking Attayak Ali about them. What he answered was interesting.

"Yes" he said, "when I was young (he is just 30) we always had two or three of them in our camp, sometimes more when we were training puppies. They went out with us when we took the goats to browse around, and often they caught rabbits. When we were a bit older we took a gun with us, and hunting was part of our everyday life. A good dog would bring back a rabbit alive and it was for us to kill it. Sometimes we didn't: my father insisted that we release any very young animal, and any female with babies, unless we needed meat badly, and (we were lucky) that didn't often happen. A female hound could run down a rabbit when it was about 6 months old, a male wouldn't catch one until it was a couple of months older. Of course any time my father or we went out on camels, they would always come with us, and were ready to hunt any time they smelt a trail".

"And now?" I asked.

"We don't have time to hunt now, we work with tourists and we are nearly always in the village. We just don't keep Salukis any more in Wadi Rum. They have to live in the desert, they need to run a lot, and it isn't really possible when there are people around. I don't think there are any in Dissieh either. Some people in Humeima (about 50 kilometers away) keep them, but always in the desert. They don't have many tourists there and hunting is more important for them. Mostly they take them with cars to hunt at night".

"Does anybody around here breed them? Could you find one if you wanted to"

"Not seriously, just when a bitch has puppies. And yes, I expect I could find one if I tried," he said confidently. "I would ask around, put the word out, and somebody would call me within a few days. Almost certainly there are quite a few in the desert to the north of here".

"So it is possible to buy one?"

"A puppy, yes, surely. Count on anywhere around 200 to 500 dinars. A grown, trained animal, I don't know. The owner would have be offered quite a large sum and to need money a lot. A trained Saluki is a hunting partner, not just an animal" he explained. "Not exactly like a child perhaps, but getting on that way".

I have in fact seen a Saluki hunting at night, and it was a beautiful sight. The hound was a sort of grey brown colour which looked silver in the moonlight. When he caught a scent, he turned into a silver streak - it was difficult to realise just how fast he was going. It seems rather a pity that this part of Bedouin life is disappearing from the desert.

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Some Bedouin customs and traditions


Links to Wadi Rum references and information in this site :

Introduction - Sleeping in Wadi Rum - Getting there and away again - What to see there - prices and tours (including horses and camels) - some longer trips in 4x4 - Reliable contacts and guides - "ripping off" - Nature Reserve - Trekking, hiking and climbing : short notes- - Trekking in Jordan - Riding around Wadi Rum - Camels and camel trekking - Tours of Wadi Rum - Wadi Rum climbing information - Climbing "El Habla"

Tourist Map of Wadi Rum - Satellite map of Wadi Rum - RSCN Map of Wadi Rum - Out of doors in Jordan : detailed maps of Wadi Rum

There are also several pages of photos of Wadi Rum in the Photo Gallery
and a number of stories about the
Bedouin who live there in the section "Meet the people of Jordan"