A Little Story … Of Camels, Culture, and Jordan’s Bedouin

Unrelenting Indian sun bounced off the yellow sand, sneaking under my hat and slowly tinting my skin red as I cautiously posed next to my camel for a photo-opportunity. Before my brain even registered the aggressive nip Krishna the camel aimed in my direction, my guide intercepted, creating a needed wall of safety between me and my camel. Minutes later, as I focused the camera and zoomed in on Krishna I caught a shot of the camel spitting and jutting his head at my cousin—clearly she had gotten to close.

The novelty of the experience propelled me happily enough through my two hour ride and I left India still loving the look of camels, those huge lips, eyelashes, and long gangly legs, all angles and awkwardness, but not so much the animals themselves. They just didn’t seem to rate on the friendly-meter and certainly didn’t come close to “loving” creatures.

***

Nearly two years later, I furrowed my brows and gazed out the window of my air-conditioned car at the sun-bleached sands of the Jordanian desert stretching on either side of the highway. Sedate brown and beige camels were dotted across the desert for miles, all walking and munching on the sparse olive-green grasses daring to sprout from the dry earth. Behind these camels a lone figure, head wrapped in a faded red keffiyeh scarf, treading a slow, measured and solitary path across the barren landscape.

A Bedouin man tending his camels.

A Bedouin man treks across the desert after his camels in Jordan.

A Bedouin man treks across the desert after his camels in Jordan.

His slow pace, a pace echoing his nomadic ancestors, a direct contrast my modern car whizzing across the stretches of highway dissecting Jordan. My car slowed down when Rami, my driver, noticed my fumblings. A quick snapshot before the moment passed. And then we barreled onward, toward Wadi Rum desert where I was assured I would find more Bedouin, more camels, and yes, answers to feed the bubbling well of questions forming in my head.

Captain’s Desert Camp, Wadi Rum, Jordan

In desperate need of coffee after stowing our bags, Jodi and I met our guide, Ali, inside the giant dining tent at the Captain’s Desert Camp; it was an off time of day we were quite the sensation as Ali introduced us to the servers, workers, and other guides. The workers began making our coffee when I noticed an impish man trying to get our attention with emphatic gestures toward the tent’s back window; our curiosity sufficiently stirred, we couldn’t resist looking.

Camels!

Say cheese! Smiling camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Say cheese! Smiling mom and baby camel give a good-natured pose for the camera.

Not just one camel either, but four! Two knobby-legged tiny, awkward little baby camels playfully nipped at their mothers in a patch of sand at the rear side of the enclosure.

Skipping with joy, I propelled myself out the door behind Shabula, the impish man exited to show us his prides and joy. Caution was my first instinct as we neared the camels, my experiences in India flickering warnings—surely these mother camels would be doubly aggressive with protective instincts on high alert, right?

Shabula shows love and care with his camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Shabula’s baby camel returns his affection with a love nip in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Without a hitch in his step, or even a moment to warn the camels, Shabula greeted the closest mother camel with smiles and affection, before angling left and calling the four week old camel over to us like it was merely a goofy little puppy.

He showered the baby camel with affectionate hugs and invited us to come for a snuggle and a kiss. Up for most anything, I stroked the baby camel’s soft curly hair and planted one on him.

Shabula let's me pet the 4 week old baby camel at Captain's Desert Camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan.Moments before I got a smelly kiss from the baby camel! Wadi Rum, Jordan

Those ten minutes spent in the sandy enclosure can only be described as frolicking with the camels….and who would have ever thought you could do that?! Shabula’s genuine affection and love for each camel filled the enclosure and his interactions highlighted some of the core philosophies of desert life.

The Bedouin: Respect and Generosity

This is the point where I cop to knowing very little about Bedouin culture before I arrived in Jordan. The Bedouin are, in the simplest terms, desert inhabitants. And with a bit more to it, the Jordanian Bedouin are traditionally and culturally nomadic camel-raising tribes living in the Badia, a semi-arid desert covering 80 percent of Jordan.

Wide open spaces in Wadi Rum, Jordan

The wide open spaces in Wadi Rum, tinted orange by the setting sun, Jordan.

The Bedouin I met throughout Jordan were adapting to modernity and many were now semi-nomadic, settled near schools, and raising goat and sheep in addition to camels. Our desert camp was an intriguing experience because of the direct access to the culture, the ability to ask my very specific questions. Many of the guides and workers are first generations from the fully nomadic lifestyle of their parents, and their culture is still imprinted on them.

Talking to our guides, taking tea inside their family tents, and observing behaviors and protocol throughout our Bedouin interactions highlighted two prominent aspects of Bedouin culture: respect and hospitality.

Making fresh coffee over the fire at a Bedouin tent near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

Making fresh coffee over the fire at a Bedouin tent near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

Every interaction, every new fact and facet fit into this cultural framework. Respect for the family unit, traditions, and their animals. Shabula cared for his animals, respected them, and honored the camel as integral to his life. During my visit to a Bedouin community in Wadi Feynan , Abu Abdullah respected his family unit with grace and friendliness as he warmly invited us to tea while kindly asking to photograph the community respectfully.

He protected his cultural customs, while also displaying the absolute Bedouin hospitality; throughout the hour we spent in his tent we were offered numerous glasses of traditional tea and coffee; an offer that would be made to any visitor as a direct and unshakable Bedouin custom.

So, What Makes the Difference

I started this musing with reflections on my camel experience in India largely because the disparate experiences are a hiccup in mind when I witnessed the Bedouin’s  cultural respect for their animals. I never knew camels could be sweet and affectionate, but there was Shabula, not the exception, but rather a close and accessible example.

Shabula takes a tender, affectionate moment with his camel in Wadi Rum, Jordan

An early morning nuzzle from one of the camels on our sunrise ride in Wadi Rum.

To understand the Bedouin better, the camel is a logical starting point. Camels play a pivotal role in how nomadic tribes are able to actually traverse such vast open and inhospitable spaces. I have this picture in my mind of every clichéd Hollywood film set in the desert: of course the camel is there, and a local tending the camels. I’ve long known camels equal deserts, but why is something I’ve never bothered to ask before. Why is the camel better than, say a horse?

Mommy camel at the Desert Tent Camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan

A happy mommy camel at Captain’s Desert Tent Camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Asking that questioned yielded a long litany of reasons why camels may just be the most highly evolved animal on earth today. The have physiologically adapted to an extreme environment and several camel characteristics are unique only to this animal and prove the role of evolution:

  • Camels store fat for food/energy in their hump (not water).
  • Their super long eyelashes and sealable nostrils evolved to combat sand.
  • A camel’s body has a totally unique water usage system for cooling the animal, circulating blood cells and and ensuring it can’t actually over-hydrate (like humans can!).
  • Certain breeds can carry as much as 900 lbs on their backs (though it’s rare for them to carry this much).
  • The Bedouin use every part of camel, but especially rely on mother camels for protein-rich milk.

That’s why a camel rocks in general; for the Bedouin, the technical details are secondary to the function, they may not have known that camels have evolved with oval-shaped red blood cells rather than circles to facilitate blood circulation, but they did know they could take off into the desert for weeks without exhausting the animals (and yes, I wikipedia’d that fact :).

Vast vistas of Wadi Rum, Jordan

Vast Jordanian vistas looking out over the deserts the Bedouin regularly traverse with camels, fire, and family.

The relationship between Bedouin and camel trumps most others–the animals are the cornerstone reason behind their cultural traditions. Without a camel, often called the “Ship of the Desert,” humans didn’t (and maybe even still don’t) have an effective way to live and cross open desert. The bottom line comes down to respect the camel for the fundamental survival of the Bedouin lifestyle and culture.

***

A woman at the desert camp in Wadi Rum summed it up, the Bedouin live for three simple things: family, fire, and camels. Each one of these tenants is honored and respected and the results were visible as I talked with Bedouin guides, tribes, and when I dreamed up a whole life story for that lone Bedouin figure trekking through the desert, making his way back to his campfire and family, camels in tow.

, , , , ,


18 Responses to A Little Story … Of Camels, Culture, and Jordan’s Bedouin

  1. soultravelers3 July 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Sweet! We loved the camels in Jordan but we also loved them in Morocco. Our 10 year old especially LOVED the baby camels in Wadi Rum!  If the owners/caretakers are kind to the animals from birth, the animals are usually a lot sweeter. ;) That imprinting works on humans too. ;) 

    • Anonymous July 4, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

      Good point Jeanne, it does work with humans too! And I’ve made a mental note
      to commune with the camels in Morocco when I make it there; when they’re
      loved they’re just irresistibly cute, camels and kids alike :-)

  2. Erica Kuschel July 1, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    Somehow I never thought of camels as lovable creatures but I have apparently been proven wrong. I still find llamas to be cuter though. :P

    • Anonymous July 1, 2011 at 8:13 pm #

      Hah! I’m not budging…did you see that photo of them smiling?! ;-) I do
      like llamas too though, plus llama is just more fun to say, so they have
      that…

  3. Nomadic Samuel July 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    This was a fascinating read.  I really enjoyed the facts you shared about camels along with your stunning photos.  My camel safari just outside of Jaisalmer, India was totally unforgettable.

    • Anonymous July 1, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

      I had really hoped to make it to Jaisalmer when I was in India, but my visit
      there would have coincided with the Holi festival, so I passed it up last
      time. Would love to go do a camel safari there as well though! Cheers and
      thanks for stopping in and sharing :)

  4. Akshaye July 1, 2011 at 5:43 am #

    Wow!! lovely post on this amazing creatures…never in the history,somebody has written on camel…a perfect five star article….as far as indian experience is concerned, i can say that its not the animal but the caretaker who is responsible…..luved the pic of deserts at the Bedouin and mommy camel….

    • Anonymous July 1, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

      Thank you Akshaye! While researching them I was really amazed by how they
      have adapted and evolved – amazing creatures indeed. Good to know that some
      of the other camels in India, with different owners are kinder, I’ll have to
      give it a try again when I go :-)

  5. The Travel Chica June 30, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    Love the smiling camel picture.  So cute!  I need to add riding a camel to travel to-do list.

    • Anonymous July 1, 2011 at 3:46 am #

      How is not already there?! Definitely add it, and even better if you go to
      Jordan and do it there where there are friendly camels!

  6. Audrey June 30, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    When we first arrived in Jordan, Reine told us, “Our camels are polite. They don’t spit.” We all got a good laugh, but you know what? When we got to the camels at Wadi Rum they were really polite and friendly! Not like other camels we had seen in other countries. I think you’re right about how this has something to do with the respect of the Bedouin for their camels and relationship they build. 

    Also, I think we might have run into the same woman at the camp and had a similar conversation. Was she from Australia and living out there for six months? She came out with us to watch the stars.  

    • Anonymous July 1, 2011 at 3:46 am #

      Hah! She didn’t tell me that, so it came as a total surprise :) As for the
      woman, yes, we definitely met the same one, Leila from Oz, she joined us on
      our sunrise camel ride and breakfast right before we left and was able to
      answer a lot of questions (and share some insight as a Western woman in the
      camp) – she was as fascinating as the rest of it all!

  7. Tyler Woychyshyn June 30, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Great facts about the camels. I am ignorant here and while camels seem to be the Bedouin’s livelihood, are they subsistence herders or are they doing things for cash?

    • Anonymous June 30, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

      It used to be entirely subsistence, maybe trade if they needed. As the times
      change though, the camels we had were a bit of both, subsistence but they
      were used for tourists to take camel rides too.. :) A harmonious way for
      the Bedouin to enter tourism while still keeping old customs methinks!

  8. Anonymous June 30, 2011 at 1:16 am #

    Wow! Did not realize the camel milk had that much going on with it – when I
    read up on it I saw that Bedouin will often go into the desert and only live
    off the camel milk for weeks – which is amazing and shows that they knew
    just how well-rounded it was nutrition-wise. I will have to read up on the
    studies and work their doing!

    Thanks for sharing all those great camel facts, I had a feeling this post
    would pique your interest! :) I was so impressed by the experience I had
    with the animals in Jordan this year that I will be seeking out more camel
    time in future travels. Cheers and thanks Phil!

  9. Phil Paoletta June 29, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    YES!! What a wonderful post! The writing, imagery, and the CAMELS. Camels are indeed incredible creatures. Here are a few more facts: they can drink 30 gallons of water in about ten minutes, they can lose 40% of their body weight and still survive, when they walk on sand their pad-like feet actually expand, kind of acting like snow shoes and they can drink salt water. 

    A lot of really interesting stuff going on with camel milk right now. It’s been found to be a whole food, with more vitamin C, iron and protein than cow’s milk. It’s also high in imunoglobins and low in fat. It has anti-bacterial properties and it has shown a lot of promise in treating both diabetes and autism. Check out http://www.camelmilkforhealth.com/symposium.php for more on this. Or check out the facebook group ‘healing with camel milk’ for a lot of first hand evidence. Some of the stories are incredible. Also check out whattookyousolong.org – they are doing a documentary on camel milk around the world right now (“Hot Chocolate for Bedouins”). I know the people behind it and they are an incredible crew. 

    Great post Shannon! 

    PS Kirk, camels will only spit on you if you are acting rude

  10. Bluegreen Kirk June 29, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    You always hear the negatives about how mean or rude camels are but clearly they love being loved and giving it in return.  I guess for all others you have to be watchful of the spitting.

    • Anonymous June 30, 2011 at 1:14 am #

      The well-cared for ones don’t spit if you’re being respectful was my
      conclusion! It was actually a huge revelation for me to find these animals
      so kind and cool, I see more camel fun in my future travels :)

Leave a Reply