After Tomorrow: The Modern Bedouin
By Carl Gough
Photos by Toufic Beyhum
Toufic Beyhum and Carl Gough spent two months living with the Bedouin of Petra, Jordan. They stayed in the village, interviewing and filming everyone they could for the documentary entitled ‘After Tomorrow’. The Bedouin used to live in the caves within the ancient city of Petra until they were relocated by the government into a nearby purpose- built village in 1985. The signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in the early 90s, as well as the listing of Petra as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, have led to a tourist boom in the region which has changed the lives of these Bedouin forever. The men have a constant flow of foreign girlfriends and wives, and alcohol abuse has started taking root in the community, yet their Bedouin spirit remains as strong as ever through their unmatched hospitality and laid-back view of life.
Mahmoud is a 28-year old Bdoul Bedouin. He works in Petra as a qualified tour guide,an expert on Nabatean history and architecture. He is married to his sweetheart from the village and has beautiful 8-month old twins. He is one of 18 children, by far the most responsible and, since his father’s death the year before, has assumed most of the disciplinarian duties in his family. He smiles often and has a heart of gold. But today he is down. “Man, it’s everything, I don’t know. It’s too hot, I had two German tourists today – they tip me nothing, as usual. And I miss Habu, you know? I tried to call him but he didn’t pick up. I tried to call Scotch, but he didn’t pick up either. It’s just one of those days.”
Mahmoud’s best friend, also named Mahmoud but known by everyone as Habu, or Abu Belgique, moved to Prague two weeks before to live with his wife. A tall, imposing man, it’s his big-hearted smile that provides the wattage of his enigmatic presence. On his firstday amongst Prague’s architectural wonders, Habu visited the zoo. “Man it was amazing! Gorillas, elephants, bears! Not just donkeys and camels anymore.”
Scotch is the third point of their friendship triangle, a laid-back Bedouin with long hair and kohl painted carefully around his kind eyes. Scotch works at his older brother’s bookstore in Petra, selling a book they produced themselves, for 10 Dinars a copy. The success of their venture has ensured Ghassem, Scotch’s older brother, a mansion in the next village. And Scotch is currently plotting his escape to Italy for a couple of months of partying with a girl named Tatiana. He speaks fluent Italian, even local dialects, pickedup entirely from tourists. “I love Italy, but I’m scared I will die there. Maybe it’s because I party too much! But when I die I want to here in Petra. It’s my home.”
Before Habu left Petra, the three would spend most evenings together, away from the craziness of their village, Umm Sayhoun. They would drive out to the quiet of Little Petra. There they would cook tea on a fire, barbeque chicken, smoke, and maybe sneak a glass of Arak or two if the occasion called for it. And the occasion was called for often in the weeks before Habu left.
They don’t hang out as much now. “Habu was like the glue, you know?” says Mahmoud. “He kept us together.” Habu’s brother Mohammed has joined the gang, keeping their missing friend’s spirit alive. Mohammed is a qualified Civil Engineer, but has switched to studying tourism. After graduation, he plans to transform tour operation. But exams are almost over, and it’s time to hang out with friends. It’s the Bedouin way.
The Bdoul Bedouin who live in the village of Umm Sayhoun once lived in the caves within Petra, the ancient city now inhabited by 3,000 tourists a day. Most of the shabab (‘lads’) in their late twenties were born in caves. Mahmoud tells a tale of how he once almost crawled off a cliff but was saved by his father at the last second.
After moving to the village, the children started attending school: “It was more strict back then”, says Habu, whose father was a teacher, “Not like now where the kids are crazy.” Despite the mild rigours of school, the boys all worked from an early age, either in Petra or up on the high grazing lands on the surrounding mountains. Mahmoud’s brother, Ahmad, is an affable and handsome individualist, unfortunately often found to be in the middle of whatever trouble the shabab get themselves into. He occasionally drives up to watch the goats drink from a high mountain spring. “Most of us, we used to work up here, with the goats. It’s peaceful. You sit and make tattoos on your hands. It’s very boring, but it’s nice. I miss it.”
Others climb the corporate ladder within Petra, starting off selling rocks, then postcards, then donkey and camel rides, eventually working in the shops or becoming tour guides and operators. Johnny Depp (real name Ahmed), the self-styled lothario of the village, is in his early twenties. He carries his tall, slim frame with tranquil calm and confidence.This week he’s with two tanned Spanish girls. He takes them out on long camel rides, camps with them under the stars in Little Petra, invites them to dinner with his family. The girls trail along happily, enjoying their brief peek into a life of romance and adventure. When asked if the girls pay for their food and donkey rides, he answers: “Of course. I tell them, this is business.” Then he smiles cheekily. “But sometimes they want pleasure too.” Johnny Depp has a range of sayings for every occasion. ‘Happy life, no wife’ is a particular favourite.
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