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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 :).
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.