Petra’s Bedouin are Fake?!

I turned in my senior paper this morning, which means I can turn to the other assignments facing me down. For instance, I’m writing a research paper about the Bedouin of Egypt’s Western Desert. While researching for this paper, I learned that I, as a tourist in Petra, Jordan, had been duped. I spent January 2012 as the youngest college student in a class about Islam and governments team-taught by a powerful religion professor and a powerful political science professor. My friends and I kept having amazing interactions with the Bedouin living in the national monument that is Petra: we conversed with Bedouin over free tea, took free and paid camel and horse rides, climbed ancient routes, watched a Nabataean military drill, found old tombs echo(!), marveled at the stone’s colors, and learned new ways to tie head scarves.

My research now informs me that tourism has also “commoditized the image of the Bedouin,” while tourists “now provide an audience,” in front of whom the Bdul “perform their Bedouin identity.” The film Lawrence of Arabia “influence[s tourists’] preconceptions about Bedouin,” as do literature and images produced by government and private tour companies about “exotic Jordan” in which Bedouin mounted on camels and in full regalia with daggers and rifles “appear to be the only people of Jordan” (Layne 1994: 102 quoted in Wooten 1996: 64). Within Petra, tourists encounter “Bedouin motifs” in decoration, “Bedouin tents” where they can drink “Bedouin tea” and smoke water pipes, and “Bedouin mensifs” or huge plates of rice topped by a whole goat or sheep. Bdul and other non-Bedouin Jordanians are inventing new “traditional” art, including sand-bottles filled with ribbons of colored sand and other items for sale. Bdul have set up black goat-hair Bedouin tents as shops for selling souvenirs and where one can “buy Bedouin hospitality.”Although never much involved with camels, a few Bdul have brought camels onto the scene at Petra as a kind of  “revival of tradition.” Although presented as “authentic” and believed to be so by tourists, most of the material items of this presentation are new acquisitions related to tourism-at least among Bdul (Cole 2003). 

I remember seeing much of what these passages describe. My classmates and I had been duped into believing that the “Bedouin” we experienced was a reflection of an ancient culture. There must have been Bedouin present, but Bdul values, traditions, and historic culture are different than the pan-Bedouin identity assumed by the consumers of culture at Petra. Also, the specifics of Bdul culture didn’t control the interactions between Jordanian sellers and the international tourists visiting Petra. I realized that international tourists, by ignorant consumption, aggravated the cycle cementing these “Bedouin” into a role created for Jordanian national economic purposes. I had been one of these tourists. Have you?

Cole, Donald Powell. “Where have the Bedouin gone?” Anthropological Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2003): 235-267.

Wooten, Cynthia Allison. “From Herds of Goats to Herds of Tourists: Negotiating Bedouin Identity Under Petra’s Romantic Gaze.” PhD diss., American University in Cairo, 1996.


About landje03

A passionate outdoor educator, I hold a degree in anthropology. While not a salaried academic, I pursue various thoughts stemming from my experiences and their intersections with others' experiences. I also love to start conversations, so comment if anything tickles your fancy.
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2 Responses to Petra’s Bedouin are Fake?!

  1. Yes, I’ve been a tourist there. I didn’t get any tea, but have pictures of little kids and cats. Amazing structures there. Led by my niece who lives in Aman, we didn’t get much historical detail fed to us. Maybe she thought we knew it already or could look it up.

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