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PETRA, JORDAN: Becoming One More Bedouin

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Read The Backpacker

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on August 14, 2009 with No Comments

the treasury


 “Your new name is Wardah!”

It was 6:30 a.m., and the sun was starting to come out, lightening the rugged and sheer mountains surrounding the Jordanian village of Wadi Musa, about 80 kilometers from the Dead Sea. This narrow valley is close to the enigmatic ancient city of Petra, built in the first century BC by the Nabataea’s people, one of the ancient Arab tribes of southern Jordan, Canaan, and Arabia.

Trying to avoid hordes of tourists, I had awakened as early as possible to be the first to arrive in Petra. Despite the extra effort, tour groups were already flooding the site’s welcome center, getting their tickets and organizing their days. I walked faster and passed the crowds, attempting to be the first at the Siq (or “the shaft”), the main entrance to Petra’s magnificent monuments and temples.

 While walking through the lonely, dark, and narrow passage that plunged deep into the solid walls of sandstone rocks, I suddenly felt like Indiana Jones about to discover a secret treasure. The gorge lead to Al Khazneh, also known as “the Treasury” built by the Nabataeans, one of the oldest civilizations. Slowly, this outstanding monument carved into the sandstone cliff revealed itself to the eyes of the visitors at the end of the gorge, flaunting its charm as if no time had passed since it was put there!

I stood in front of the most photographed and emblematic landmark in Petra, almost hypnotized. The construction didn’t seem to have the same effect on the locals in a nearby souvenir shop. Instead of looking at the Treasury, they couldn’t take their eyes from the narrow passage as they awaited the arrival of the tourists to whom they could sell maps, turbans, “antiques,” and items that proclaimed, “I love Petra.” The exquisite masterpiece of Roman-Hellenistic architecture retains details of the original designs and fragments of the sculptures that once stood there. It is still uncertain what the Treasury really was; some believe it was a temple, others a royal tomb.

Following the recommendation of a local, I went straight from the Treasury to the Monastery, which is one of the farthest points from the main gate. I would stop at all the historical sites on the way back.

To get to the Monastery, I had to pass through the heart of the city of Petra. As I walked away from the Treasury and followed the route to the center of the ancient civilization, I stumbled upon a massive theatre at the foot of the mountain. A few steps away, the Street of Facades exposed its giant, rose-colored canyon walls lined with elaborate tombs and temples. This road lead to a valley that opened into a vast plain—the hub of this ancient town—where local Bedouins eagerly waited for visitors needing “transportation services.”

“You want to ride on my Ferrari?” asked a young boy with a glowing smile and beautiful hazel eyes, offering a donkey ride to the Monastery.

“Need a taxi? Give you good price! Very very cheap!” a chubby man with a turban said in his thick Arabic accent, pointing at his well-groomed horses.

“No, thanks”

“I also have good camels.” He continued to pursue me, but I preferred to walk the steep and zigzagging path into the rugged mountain that lead to the Monastery.

Even bigger than the Treasury, the huge façade of the Monastery was about 45 meters high. The Monastery, carved deep into the wall of the mountain, included a soaring doorway that allowed light into the large chamber inside. 


Bedouins ran a restaurant carved into the rocks in front of the shrine. These desert-dwelling Arab tribes are spread throughout most of the region. Although Bedouins were originally nomadic herders from the desert, in recent centuries most of them have settled in various nations across the Middle East. Some of the Bedouins in Petra still live in ancient caves, but there is also a “Bedouin village” nearby.

“You are our first customer! Want some Bedouin tea? Please sit!” A Bedouin wearing a hat and jeans invited me to rest on cushions spread on the cave’s chilly ground.

His name was Khaled. He introduced me to Mohamed, also known as “Jamaica,” who had chosen the name himself because he loved Rastafarians and Bob Marley. Covering her hair with a pink scarf, Badria, a beautiful 18-year-old Bedouin girl with almond-shaped hazel eyes and glowing white teeth joined us.

“Bedouin life is very simple, but we are very happy,” Khaled said, sipping the fresh-made “Bedouin” tea prepared by Jamaica. “Our tribe is like a big family, you know. We all know each other.”

As I listened, I couldn’t stop staring. The Bedouins’ dark, tanned skin contrasted with their enigmatic hazel eyes. When they looked at me, I wondered if they could read my deepest thoughts. Their gaze was intense and mysterious, reminding me of the captivating and expressive faces in India that were still etched as clear pictures in my mind.

“You look a bit Bedouin!” Jamaica said, as if he had also been analyzing my features.

“Wait a moment,” said Khaled. “Follow me.” We went to Badria’s shop next door. Khaled took a little black bottle in his hands, opened it, and carefully put a bit of the contents on his eyes as if it were eyeliner.

“Are you putting on makeup, Khaled?” I teased.

“Daniela, this is not makeup! We Bedouins don’t have sunglasses, so we use this for protection from the sun,” he said, laughing. “Come here!”

I approached him. Khaled put some of the black paint around my eyes, trying to make me look “more Bedouin.”

“This is almost gone, but when you come back to Petra, I will have a full bottle for you!” Khaled said excitedly.

We walked back to the cushions.

“Now you are one of us!” said Jamaica.

“Your new name is ‘Wardah’! It means flower,” Khaled said. “My name means King . . . King Khaled.”

with the bedouins

Khaled claimed that his dad was sort of the sheik of the Bedouins in Petra. Teasing, he said that although he was the king, Badria was the queen, because she was the boss around there.

So, Khaled was the King, Badria the Queen, Jamaica a Jordanian Rastafarian, and I a flower! We laughed while tourists sipped tea nearby, looking at us as if they were wondering, “Why’s that foreigner hanging out with the Bedouins?”

It was time to continue exploring Petra. I went to pay for the tea and some postcards.

“No, no, no! You are no a tourist! You are now a Bedouin, a friend. This is our gift to you, Wardah. Come back to Petra again and stay longer,” Khaled said. Badria and Jamaica nodded.

“My brother is on the view point, and my mother is on the way to the High Point if you need anything. Tell them you know me,” Khaled added.

From that moment, Petra started feeling like home.

Hiking to the view point, I could see deep gorges, Wadi Araba, and arid mountains. Mohamed, Khaled’s cousin, welcomed me. I would later realize that everyone seemed to be Khaled’s cousin or have a family connection to him.

“Bom bom, please bom bom!” A little Bedouin girl followed me down the steep hill.

It broke my heart that I didn’t have chocolates for her. I didn’t even have protein bars, which I usually carried with me on trips and which have been my “back up” gift for nomad kids in Uzbekistan and young monks in Laos.

I took off a monkey keychain that came with my Kiplin bag and put it in her little hand, hoping that would make up for my lack of candy.

Smiling, jumping, and shaking the keychain, she walked away as if she had a big treasure in her little hands.

At the bottom of the steep mountains, a small museum and an old fort—that looked more like a house with flowers and a fire than a fortress—were carved in the sand rock.

“Want postcards?” A young Bedouin boy approached me while I was walking down the staircase of the Great Temple, littered with column drums still standing over 2,000 years after it was built. He held out some battered postcards.

“I got some already, but thank you!” I responded.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I am from Venezuela!”

Espanol?” the boy said with a smile. “Hablo Espanol, un poquito! Welcome to Petra!” he continued. “Take this.” He handed me a postcard.

His name was Mohamed, and he was thirteen years old. He had a beautiful tanned face, a sweet smile, and hazel eyes.

“Can I take your picture?” I asked.

“Yes! Si!” He struck a pose, showing me his glowing white teeth.

I was going to show him his portrait, but instead, my camera showed the photos I had taken at the Monastery. 

“He is my cousin!” Mohamed said with a big smile, pointing at Khaled.

“Khaled, Badria, and Jamaica are my friends! They just christened me Wardah!” I said, smiling. I continued walking, and he walked next to me.

“Mohamed, I don’t need a guide,” I said, just in case he was thinking of walking with me to later charge me for his “services.”

“No, it is okay, Wardah. Business is not good today. I walk with you,” he said, not caring whether I wanted his company or not.

We were walking toward the Petra Church, an ancient, Byzantine-style temple dated from the fifth and sixth centuries that contained remarkably preserved mosaics of exotic animals and geometric designs.

On the way there, a tall and thin Bedouin boy with long, dark locks jumped on Mohamed’s back. His name was Jazid. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he always had a smile on his face. Mohamed made fun of Jazid’s attempts to speak English to me.  Jazid ended up joining us as well.


We ran into an old man with dark skin and a thick moustache. A white-and-red checkered turban covered his head. Mohamed started talking with him.

“I told him that you are friends of Khaled,” Mohamed said. He introduced me to the old man, whose name was also Mohamed!

“Please let me take you on my donkey—no charge, you friend of Bedouins,” Old Mohamed offered.

I am not very big into donkey rides, and I tried to kindly refuse the offer by saying that I was a strong girl, and I could walk.

“You drink camel milk? I am strong man, I drink camel milk! Me, three wives. Much camel milk,” Old Mohamed said with pride. “No problem, every morning, camel milk. No Viagra, only camel milk. I want a fourth wife!” he said with a suggestive smile.

“Don’t look at me! I have a boyfriend!” I said, laughing. “You have enough wives, mister!”

“Boyfriend drink camel milk?” he asked.

“No, but he is a good boyfriend! He has no problems!” After all, he was an imaginary boyfriend, so what kind of problems could he have?

“Viagra?” Old Mohamed insisted.

“No Viagra. Young and healthy!” I responded.

“Wardah, take donkey please,” Old Mohamed said.

I looked at Little Mohamed, and he nodded agreement. I couldn’t be rude to my hosts. 

Little Mohamed helped me get on the donkey. I was riding to the Petra Temple followed by my Bedouin entourage: Little Mohamed, Old Mohamed, and Jazid.

After looking at the mosaics, I wanted to go to the top of a mountain for a better view.

“Little Mohamed, you don’t have to come all the way up with me,” I said, although, at that point, I had grown fond of him.

“No problem, Wardah. I go with you. I have nothing to do, so I prefer to walk with you.”

“Okay, but please, if you are tired or you need to do your business, do not worry about me. You promise?” I said. I don’t consider myself a motherly person, but I felt sort of protective of Little Mohamed. I felt proud that he spoke English so fluently and that he was so confident. I wondered what his life would be like if he had more opportunities beyond selling postcards in Petra.

“We will take you to the best place to see Petra,” Little Mohamed said, while Jazid nodded.

with little mohamed
“Okay, my little Bedouin son. Show me Petra!” I said. Little Mohamed gave me a huge smile and stood straight and proud.

We began our hike up the steep path.

Little Mohamed and Jazid had become my new friends, my bodyguards, and my guides, and soon they became my hair stylists! They were concerned about my “Bedouin look”!

I had the name. I had the eyes. But something was still missing! Little Mohamed took off his own scarf and wrapped it carefully on my head to protect it from the sun. “Beautiful!” he proclaimed.

“Now you look more Bedouin!” Occasionally, Little Mohamed asked me to bend back so he could retouch the black turban.

Jazid didn’t speak much, but he was always smiling. Although he was 17 years old and much taller than Little Mohamed, Jazid behaved like a kid, jumping from one side of the road to the other, scaring sheep, and singing his heart out while Little Mohamed made fun of him and led the way.

I had no idea where my two young companions were taking me. At one point, the road disappeared, but we kept walking forward. There was no one around except us. Although I was alone with them, I was not afraid. I trusted my Bedouin boys. I was actually thankful they were with me because otherwise I would have been very lost or would have never found the extraordinary view point for the Treasury we would soon reach.

When we finally arrived, we sat on the edge of the canyon and looked down at the Treasury. There was something magical in seeing the gigantic monument from above. The tourists looked like little dots moving around it.


Little Mohamed and I relaxed, while Jazid stood on his head, proudly showing us his “yoga” abilities. Then, we all hung out for a while, appreciating the ancient monuments and imposing mountains around us.

Salaam!” someone said. We all turned.

A Bedouin wearing a long black robe and a brown turban approached us. He had deep hazel eyes, a black beard, and a mysterious face. He was probably in his mid thirties. His name was Ali.

“Come with me. I want to show you something,” Ali said. He told the boys to wait for me, but I wasn’t going anywhere without my Bedouin boys!

I looked at Little Mohamed and Jazid as if they could protect me. I wasn’t certain of Ali’s intentions, but I remained calm. Maybe he genuinely wanted to show me something, but he was not just another kid. I preferred not to take the risk.

“Thank you, Ali! But it is getting late, and we need to keep going,” I said confidently.

Little Mohamed and Jazid came quickly to my side.

The mysterious Bedouin disappeared between the rocks, as if he had been some sort of ghost.

We descended the mountain, laughing and running down the steep stairs. Jazid’s donkey was at the bottom.

“Please, Wardah,” Jazid said, ceremoniously showing the way to his donkey.

I had to jump on the donkey again as Jazid and Little Mohamed walked by my side. They then took me to some old ruins hardly visited by tourists—they weren’t even on the map! We ran into more Bedouins who lived nearby.

Walking on the uneven and rocky road, Jazid twisted his ankle. I told him to jump on the donkey, but he didn’t want me to walk. I was worried about him; he was bigger than Little Mohamed but seemed so fragile.

We made it to Kazeh, where there were about eight hundred carved tombs.  And then, we went on to Urn Tomb, also known as the Royal Tombs, built high on the mountain’s wall. The Corinthian Tomb stood next with a worn façade that resembled the ornate front of the Treasury.

After our steep hike and long walk, I invited my young entourage for a drink in a cafe.

“What do you guys want?” I asked.

“Whatever you have, Wardah,” said Little Mohamed.

Mohamed and Jazid were the only local customers in the little cafe. With their big smiles and glowing eyes, I could see they were excited to be enjoying what was usually a place reserved for tourists.

After a quick drink, we continued on to the High Place, a point at the very top of a mountain where religious ceremonies used to take place. We had to climb about seven hundred steps to reach the top. Little Mohamed came with me, while Jazid took another route that allowed him to ride the donkey.

On the way up, Ahmed, a short 20-year-old Bedouin, started hiking alongside us. He was wearing a black hat, a white sweater and some lose camouflage pants that made him look probably bigger than what he really was. From the moment I saw him, I had a bad feeling. Little Mohamed had stopped talking.

“Many Western women marry Bedouins,” Ahmed said.

“I’ve heard some stories about it,” I said, mentioning that my boyfriend was supposed to come on this trip with me but couldn’t make it due to work. To emphasize my story, I showed Ahmed a photo of my British friend Jamie, who had traveled with me in Dubai. 

“I think I saw him here before, with another girl,” Ahmed said.

“That’s not possible. He has never visited Jordan.”

When Little Mohamed and I sat at the edge of a canyon to see the panoramic view, Ahmed sat with us, leaning closely toward me. Little Mohamed had a tense expression on his face.

“Do you want to come to the Bedouin village with me after sunset?” Ahmed asked me.

“No, thank you! We actually need to go,” I said.

Little Mohamed and I walked away.

“I don’t like him, Wardah. He is no good,” Little Mohamed said, a look of concern on his face.

“I didn’t like him, either, Little Mohamed. I had a bad feeling, too.”

Free of Ahmed, we walked higher up the mountain, where rainwater had collected in a large pool near an altar where priests made sacrifices.  Finally, we found our smiling Jazid waiting for us at two soaring obelisks carved out of solid rock. From there, the view down upon the Royal Tombs was spectacular, especially at that precise moment—the sunset had just begun. As it got darker, we headed back down the mountain.

Jazid said he had “parked his donkey” nearby just in case I wanted to ride it on the way back. But the stairs were so steep that I actually thought it was safer to go down on foot.  So I told him I preferred to enjoy the walk, although in reality my feet were sore and asking for mercy. Jazid went down on the donkey, while Little Mohamed kept me company.

“Wardah! Could you come to the Bedouin village? I want you to meet my mom and father,” Little Mohamed said as we approached the bottom.

Part of me wanted to meet Little Mohamed’s family, but it was late and I didn’t know how I would get back to Wadi Musa from the Bedouin village, especially after dark.

“Thank you, Mohamed. You are a good boy. You are my Bedouin son. I am happy to have explored Petra with you and Jazid. I promise I will send you the hundreds of photos we took together today. I will send them to Badria, okay? I won’t forget about you!” I gave him a strong hug.

“Please take this from your Venezuelan mom.” I tried to put some money in his little hand.

“No, no, Wardah! I don’t want money. You are my friend. Just come to meet my family,” he said. I knew he could use the money to get a new pair of shoes or a sweater, but he was absolutely insistent. I could see his eyes watering.  

“Don’t be mad at your Venezuelan mom, Little Mohamed. Come here. Give me a hug,” I said, carefully putting the money in one of his pockets.

I thanked Jazid and little Mohamed and walked away. When I turned back, my young Bedouin entourage was waving at me.

“Bye bye, Wardah!” shouted Little Mohamed as I disappeared among the rose-colored mountain walls.

A pink sunset was slowly vanishing on the horizon and falling into the reddish sandrock mountains that hid one of the most magnificent and mysterious historical sites I ever visited.

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