This is an extract from the travel diary I kept during my escapades in the Middle East in the summer of 2009 – I recently found and read it again while clearing out my room, taking me back to those places and people that touched me on my travels; reminding me of where I had been. But also reminding me of where I am now, and of how things have progressed since. This entry in particular struck me as resonating with current developments in the region – not because of any revolutionary spirit, but because of a sense of inescapable and unpredictable change that is affecting this part of the world…
Early morning in the Jordanian desert.
Golden rays of sunlight seep silently through the cloudless sky: a stream of light trickling into the barren landscape transforming the blue-grey hue of dawn into a spectrum of red, orange and brown. Dark shapes scatter the horizon, throwing long shadows across the sand as they rise effortlessly out of the empty plain: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Sticky in the suffocating heat, I squint blindly into the rising sun as a ball of red dust meanders its way towards me, the hulking silhouette of a rusty 4×4 barely distinguishable through the enveloping sand. With an exhausted groan, the stricken vehicle comes to a sputtering stop just metres from where I am standing, and a set of tobacco-stained teeth leer at me invitingly from the driver seat.
Saleem says he is twenty five, but I suspect he may be older. Either that or a lifetime love-affair with caffeine and nicotine has persevered to paint his teeth yellow and turn his breath sour. Nevertheless, he is a helpful and willing guide – encouraging me to scramble up precarious gorges and sheer rock faces with nothing but yet another cup of chai to gratify my desiccated body. Across the plains, the burnt-red sand is criss-crossed with a network of dust-trails, kicked up by other decrepit vehicles as they speed confidently through the desert landscape.
These are the Bedouin, the native people of the Wadi Rum, who have sacrificed their nomadic lifestyle in order to cater for the growing number of tourists flooding their homelands. This dry earth, these scorched and blistered lands, is as much part of their culture as the camels and sheep they depend upon; and their expert knowledge has been invaluable in guiding others safely through these desolate and arid plains.
But even this is beginning to change. As I sip tooth-achingly sweet tea in the shadow of an imposing rock face, another vehicle emerges from the haze. Sleek and silver, it looks outrageously extravagant as it sweeps across the sand to park alongside one of the Bedouin’s rusting hulks. The tinted windows are fully wound: Air conditioning. Saleem shakes his head sadly.
“This driver from Amman. Not Bedouin. They rich tourists, they pay driver from city. This is bad for business.”
He spits dramatically in the sand as the other Bedouin nod their voiceless agreement. They have seen first-hand the irreversible changes taking place within their community. Even in their own home, these traditional people are being continually marginalised by the rising tide of modernisation.
The car door opens and four immaculately dressed tourists emerge from the gleaming machine. They pick their way gingerly across the hot sand, take a few token photos, and retreat hastily back to their air-conditioned refuge. By the time Saleem has poured me another cup of tea, they are already on their way; leaving nothing in their wake but a rising cloud of red dust, and a battered community desperately struggling to hold onto its roots.