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Two Jordanian men costumed as Nabatean guards stand watch at Petra

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A Tale of Two Camps: How Jordan Learned from the Past to Help its Refugees

By Alex Lo

Perhaps no nation other than Syria itself has taken on more of the challenges and responsibilities brought upon by the ongoing refugee crisis than the State of Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom, ruled by the benevolent monarchy of King Abdullah II, has welcomed an estimated 1.4 million displaced Syrians since the start of the Civil War. However, this influx of refugees is not the first or even the second to pass through Jordan’s gates in the modern era. Jordan has been the subject of significant international attention for its reception of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees fleeing their homelands as a result of Israeli independence in 1948. However, there lies a third group of displaced persons with a story far less told than that of the Palestinian or the Syrian refugees. They are the members the Al B’doul Bedouin tribe, a vibrant community of a few thousand semi-nomadic people who once inhabited the historic caves of Petra until their forced relocation in the mid-eighties by Jordanian officials attempting to prevent encroachment on the site. Although the Al B’doul were resettled in Jordan under significantly different conditions than the Syrian refugees – with the critical variables of time and population fully under Jordanian control; it is evident that the Jordanian government reapplied the lessons they learned managing the B’doul to today’s refugee crisis.


The story written within Petra’s caves and cliffs encompasses politics, crises, modernization, ethics birthright, and rebirth. My first exposure to this rich history was in summer 2016, in which I first visited Petra.


Once past the entry gates, my tour group began its trek deep into the site, following a trail cut into a natural gorge used by the ancient Nabateans that responsible for the site’s construction. The Jordanian sun is unrelenting, and thankfully, the cliffs bordering the gorge offered a much-appreciated respite from the heat. The checkered headscarf I had purchased upon arrival in Jordan, although surprisingly effective, could only do so much.


A small army of young children wearing little more than ripped trousers and worn shirts hassled tourists to buy trinkets and souvenir booklets while their parents looked on hopefully.


Dreadlocked young men with rough skin darkened by the sun offered rides on horses and camels through the gorge, their eyes concealed behind a thick layer of eyeliner. I would later learn that these men and children were most likely members of the Al B’doul Bedouin tribe.


The trail, known as the Siq, darted through narrow passageways, as our guide pointed out the clay pipes lining one side of the trail that brought water into the ancient city. As we turned the final corner of the trail, a glimpse of a familiar site came into view, obscured by the cliffs only allowing a sliver of the monument ahead to be seen. It was a façade I remembered so vividly from the many repeated viewings of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on Saturdays growing up, the Al Khazneh temple, known to Westerners as “The Treasury”.


Petra is much more than the iconic Treasury; the city is spread out over one hundred square miles of historic land, with both Nabatean and later Roman sites accessible to visitors. However, until relatively recent times, Petra hosted more than tourists. Within its caves and monasteries lived the Al B’doul, whose history in Petra stretches back nearly two centuries. Similar to the Nabateans that once took refuge in the canyons and mountains surrounding Petra, the Al B’doul tribe surrendered their nomadic customs for new lives in the rose-red city’s caves.


Historian Piotr Bienkowski, conducted research on the Al B’doul caves just prior to their relocation to Umm Sayhoun, a purpose-built city for the B’doul relocation. Bienkowski claims that the living conditions of the Al B’doul in Petra may have closely mirrored those of the Nabateans who inhabited the same “simply adapted caves.” The Bedouin caves, while “spacious”, were only “modestly furnished”. Spring water, for example, needed to be brought to the dwellings by hand. Available natural resources on the site, along with small agricultural plots sustained the tribe. Despite their humble appearances, according to Bienkowski, the caves served as “testaments to B’doul ingenuity.” For instance, researchers observed that the B’doul had constructed a “shower in a stone-built extension attached to [a] cave, with the water running off into a specially cut underground cistern.”


The 1985 relocation to Umm Sayhoun, a village overlooking Petra, brought major changes for the tribe. “There was nobody left [in Petra],” says Abu Ismael, a B’doul interviewed by Al Jazeera. Historian Christopher Angel describes the relocation as a “swift transformation” as the tribe’s new “lifestyle” was more “conventional.” Members of the tribe, such as Abu Lafi, a watchman interviewed by Al Jazeera claim that the move, suggested by Jordan’s King, had appeal. According to Lafi, it was to be “a place where we could have houses and schools with electricity and paved streets.  He said it would be better there. We agreed”


The settlement of Bedouins, according to Angel, has been a popular policy throughout the Middle East. Despite a “romanticizing” of the nomadic Bedouin lifestyle in Middle Eastern arts and entertainment, resettlement, according to Angel has generally been viewed positively by most Jordanians. Resettlement allows for greater governmental regulation, under which Bedouins can be “counted, and contribute to other aspects of the nation and national identity including […] national plans for development.” However, such integration does not come without the expense of lost cultural traditions which cannot be replicated in “urban settings.” Angel argues that traditions such as “goat herding,” or “taking “herbal medicines” are today seldom practiced by younger members of the community.


The Bedouins I encountered at Petra, wearing their dark eyeliner and riding horses, camels and donkeys through the rocky desert terrain certainly seemed to project the image of a nomadic lifestyle. However, in contemporary times, according to historian Cynthia Wooten, the B’doul only maintain a façade of their nomadic lifestyle, “[hiding] their new ways of life from tourists, […] [they] are literate and increasingly have university-level education, and are becoming like Europe people.’’  


As the government-financed home of the B’doul, Umm Sayhoun represents the culmination of Jordanian efforts to construct a permanent home for over a thousand Bedouins. Angel, who also studied the urban planning of the city notes the dramatic course of development, which “began as simply a village of unpaved roads, [and] simple […] concrete brick structures” and has transformed into a bustling town “filled with paved roads, streets, and parking areas lined with cars […]  ice cream and food stores, services, artisanal shops, auto shops, a pool hall, and even a travel agency.”

When the B’douls are contrasted with the Syrian refugees, the lessons reapplied by the Jordanians to achieve success is the resettlement of displaced populations are clear. Today, “at least half of all refugees settle in non-camp areas, including cities, villages, informal tented settlements, and shantytowns” due to the greater opportunities that these settlements provide for services and employment, according to geopolitical analyst Shelby Culbertson. In the case of the Syrian refugees, living in Jordanian cities has made possible both increased access to services and a more independent lifestyle. Despite these efforts, some of the refugees remain skeptical. “If the still low, how can we survive? How can we pay for rent?,” asks Abu Moatamen, a Syrian chef interviewed by The Guardian, signaling that  economic issues are a significant obstacle to integration.


In the construction of Umm Sayhoun, Jordanian officials worked hand in hand with Bedouin community leaders in order to outline the policy changes beneficial to growth. This same process is occurring today in the Syrian refugee settlement efforts through the interaction between “host communities,” local officials, international organizations like USAID, and the refugees themselves. The reliance of the refugees on services to provide for basic needs such as utilities or education has encouraged greater cooperation between the refugees and locally-based groups. Concurrently, the interaction between neighboring displaced Syrians and their Jordanian hosts has sometimes resulted in strengthened bonds, with numerous examples of communities coming together to support refugee families. Local businesses too have played their part in integration by offering new jobs to Syrians.


The measurable success achieved by the B’doul today was not achieved by accident. By analyzing the examples set by the members of the Bedouin community and their governmental representatives, future policymaker may be able to develop a roadmap for integrating displaced individuals into society. The benefits to the host state of successful integration cannot be ignored. According to Ben Connable, an analyst for the RAND Corporation, while Jordan faces significant challenges such as unemployment, budget deficits, and security concerns, the influx of Syrian refugees offers tremendous opportunities for growth. Politically, Jordan can both promote its goodwill to the world through its hospitality towards the refugees and strengthen ties with states offering humanitarian aid. Economically, the Jordanian economy may be “stimulated” by the increased population and larger labor force. Similar economic and political benefits have already been recorded with the integration of the B’doul, and the success of the B’doul today may be reason for optimism in the bleak world of refugee management.


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