The Wisdom of Suleiman

Every day when I leave for work, my mom packs my lunch. Even though I work alone, she packs a lunch for two. I might meet someone along the way who has nothing to eat, and this way, we can eat together.

I met Suleiman, a Jordanian Bedouin, on a weekend of hiking in southern Jordan. Suleiman lives in the middle of two very different worlds, as a Bedouin living a traditional semi-nomadic life with his family herding animals and as a tour guide for hikers traveling through southern Jordan’s desert mountains. I asked him if he liked his job as a tour guide. “No” he said looking down at the ground. After a pause or two, he looked up with a dry smile, “I love it.”

While guiding hikers and tourists on anything from a leisurely walk around the local ecolodge to multi-day hikes over desert mountains while sleeping under the stars, Suleiman tells those who walk with him about desert life. He describes plants and animals. He tells you what kind of wood is best for cooking or to burn to keep away insects. He shows you how to make “Bedouin soap” using ground up bits of plants and a small amount of water. He describes the mountain, the spring or the wadi, which all function as his second home when out with his flock. But mostly, Suleiman talks to you about life, about local Bedouin values and beliefs, and encourages you to take with you photos and lessons alongside a people who have lived this way for thousands of years.

As you walk, you learn that he isn’t just telling stories. He actually carries extra food with him. And when you happen upon a stranger out in the desert, he invites you to live out his stories of Bedouin life for yourself.

There is a family in this place who had 150 goats. The rains came very fast, and the water rushed through the wadi. The water washed away all 150 goats, and the family was left with nothing. How will they eat? How will they make money? And all of the animals? They died. This was very sad. The families in the area gathered together and one family gave 10 goats and another gave 20. At the end of the day, the family who lost everything had 180 goats. People who live in nature, we rely on each other to survive.

The deserts in Jordan aren’t always dry. If you hike, as we did in the spring, you’ll find the wadis between the mountains in full bloom. But a short climb up a mountain or hill will reveal vast areas of gray and brown, of dust and rock. The months ahead will see no rain, and soon, water for Bedouins and their animals will be scarce. Months of hot sun on dust and rock make the rains of winter a welcome and dangerous sight. Floods come quickly with the power to wash away anything in their path. As we were walking, Suleiman gave us a long explanation for how to cross rushing flood waters – always with a stick to check the depth, always 45 degrees into the current when crossing, and never when the water is at or above your knees. For him, this information was a matter of life and death, and they’re among the earliest lessons you learn as a child in the desert.

The rainy winters can bring disaster for any family. Unlike those of us living in developed economies, in this place, insurance, savings, or public disaster assistance don’t really exist. Flooding, drought, pestilence, or disease can wipe out a family’s livelihood at any time. The only way to live in such a place and the only way to adequately mitigate risk are to do so together as a community, relying on neighbors and friends. But they don’t lament. The difficulties of living there and the necessities of living together are a point of pride. They speak as if believing the desert to be a blessing rather than a curse because the desert forces the Bedouin to live together.

If I told you to walk over there and move that boulder, you could not do it. Even if you could, it would be very difficult. You might hurt yourself. But if all of us went over there we could easily move the boulder anywhere we wanted. Sharing burdens, this is what we believe.

Come over here. Place your hand over your heart. See, I am placing my hand over my heart. It is the same heart.

Suleiman wasn’t just proud of the world in which he lived and the people with which he shared it, Suleiman believed, as taught to him by his mother and father, that all people share a common dignity and a common humanity. Our hearts are the same hearts.

No doubt, a universal, monotheistic faith teaches him this, believing in a god who is creator and judge of all things. To an outsider, a counter-intuitive reality emerges when talking to Suleiman. He greets outsiders with warmth and hospitality displaying great pride for his home and his culture while also showing an unexpected curiosity about the places from which his guests call home. When Suleiman discovered that I studied religion and formerly worked as a priest, we had a long conversation about religious movements in America, particularly the theology, background and practices of Mormons. But while outsiders are treated with warmth and hospitality, and while he believes that all people share in one common humanity of dignity and worth, Suleiman is Bedouin, and you are not. Nor can you ever be one of them. For an American, whose civic and cultural identity is wrapped up in the myth of a people bound by a civic idea rather than ethnicity or religion, Suleiman’s belief in shared humanity while living in a community whose membership is closed off to the rest of the world due to birth is jarring.

Yet again, he seems to live between two very different worlds. Though for Suleiman, this is a natural fact of life. We may share the same heart, but Bedouin and American are forever separated. As Suleiman says:

Your fingers and your face. Look, they are very close, but they are not the same.

Everybody in the desert gets stung by the scorpion. I have been stung 5 times. This is why I’m so dangerous.

Standing at cliff on near the peak of a mountain, Suleiman reached down for a rock, looked at us out of the corner of his eye and said “Watch. Listen.” He sidearm threw an oblong rock with a odd snapping motion upon release. The rock loudly buzzed like a drone as it sailed into the wadi below. I’d never seen anything like that. As we sat eating lunch, he entertained himself by throwing rocks making them buzz or throwing one as high as he could trying to hit it with a second rock.

I guess shepherds have a lot of down time and rocks are never in short supply, because he was the best thrower of rocks I’d ever seen. If he had to face up against Goliath with a handful of rocks, I’d bet on the skinny shepherd every time.

I told him I would try. I failed. Miserably. I tried a second time. “Wow. I’ve never seen someone get so close on their second try.” It took me a minute to realize it, but he was making fun of me. He gave a wry side-smile and continued doing so for about 5 minutes. He continued to tell us jokes through lunch, usually about everyday things – goats, scorpions, or tea. I don’t often meet Jordanians who can so easily slip into dry, sarcastic humor, which relies on a level of personal comfort, cultural knowledge, and a mastery of English and non-verbal cues, and I certainly don’t share those skills with them. Suleiman learned this while living in the desert, as a shepherd, and occasionally guiding around western tourists after he was well into his 20s.

He told us he was often alone, but never lonely. People in cities are surrounded by people but talk to no one. He was often the only person for miles when with his flock, but he spent every day with his family while talking and sharing meals with shepherds he would meet in the mountains. Conversation and rock throwing were often his only forms of entertainment; he practices both everyday with stranger and friend alike. No wonder he’s better than me at both. I always thought I was pretty good at throwing rocks.

There are venomous snakes here in the desert. Most people think you need to fear the large snakes, but this isn’t so. The old snake knows that if he bites you, he should only use a little venom. If he uses it all, he must wait a few days to make more and will then have to wait to eat. The young snake doesn’t know this. The old snake is smart. Be afraid of the young snake.

Look out at that mountain over there. How many goats do you see? There are 80 goats and a man on a donkey. We spend our whole lives outside looking into the distance. Some people spend all of their lives inside looking at a screen. Bedouins have better eyesight.

Suleiman pointed out a flock and a shepherd in the distance. “Oh yeah, I see them.” I didn’t. We started walking. As we neared the shepherd I pretended to see 20 minutes prior, we heard a loud voice from the north. It was a second shepherd was with his flock about a kilometer or two away shouting in our direction. Suleiman elbowed me with a smile, “Bedouin cell phone.”

We stopped. One shepherd would shout. There would be a long pause. And the other would respond. Suleiman shouted too. I couldn’t follow along in Arabic except for a few words. When westerners shout to each other from far away, we tend to draw out our words and use short phrases followed by pleas to repeat ourselves. These guys were shouting in paragraphs and doing so quickly. I guess shouting over multiple kilometers is something that you learn in the desert. Normally, being a bystander to people shouting at each other far off in the desert would make you fairly uncomfortable, but they weren’t arguing. They were negotiating.

After a few minutes of shouting, Suleiman laughed and told us to come along. We walked ahead to meet the shepherd. The man to the north got on his donkey and raced over to us as fast as he could. As we arrived, an older shepherd was preparing tea. The negotiation was to find out who would have the honor of hosting the foreign hikers and Suleiman. The second shepherd arrived and jumped off his donkey. To my surprise, he was about 13 years old, alone all day in the desert with animals – which was probably most of his family’s assets.

The two shepherds were very interested in us, especially because we could speak a little Arabic, and they were excited to present us with our tea. My mom packs my lunch. Suleiman pulled out some food and gave it to the 13 year old boy. He wanted us to see him do it. He wasn’t showing off his morality. He was demonstrating how to be hospitable. The older shepherd was out by himself, but of course brought along at least 6 tea cups so that all could drink together. Who when planning to spend all day working by themselves hiking mountains brings 6 glass tea cups just in case they run into 5 strangers?

As we were preparing to leave, Suleiman leaned over to us and asked us if we had any food. “Give some to this man and the young boy. This is a nice thing to do. Everybody will have something.” I had some nuts and fruit that I packed for our journey. I shared with them as they held out their hands. They ate, smiled, and walked away. It was the strangest feeling, as if I was back in my old church sharing bread and wine with those who gathered for a common meal.

Now when I hike, I try to bring extra food. Who knows who you might meet along the way?

Be careful about who you marry. Some people bring more problems. I would never marry a woman my family didn’t approve of, even if I loved her. The family name is important. She could be nice. She could be beautiful, but beauty doesn’t last forever.

People who live in nature feel the effects of climate change more. And often these people didn’t do anything to change the climate. Some people even control the exact temperature of the inside of their home. We live in the heat, and we live in the cold. But now, there is no more snow in Feynan. We will live with this.

Bedouin shepherds are having a difficult year in the region. While Amman received a very large amount of rain, southern Jordan didn’t receive very much, making cultivation of plants and finding water for family and animals quite difficult. The price of goats has been falling as locals are increasingly competing against imports of cheap, foreign meat, especially from southeast Asia. The Bedouins complain that rain patterns are changing and the winters and summers are growing warmer. “I live outside”, Suleiman said. “I know when the weather is different.”

The fact that a Bedouin shepherd was guiding foreigners on goat paths was evidence enough that Suleiman’s world is changing. Feynan Ecolodge, where he works part-time as a guide, works to support locals and have a minimal impact on the land. We arrived to Feynan on foot after a long hike from a neighboring nature reserve. But to return (a long uphill climb), Feynan arranged for a Bedouin to drive us in his 4×4 truck. Shepherds are finding work as guides and as a transport service between caring for animals. If you want a longer hike to Petra, they can arrange a Bedouin to come along with a donkey to carry your bags.

Even though the area is remote and rough, Suleiman’s family and his neighbors are still there. Like generations before him, he’s raising animals and welcoming strangers, though now he probably does less of the former and more of the latter. He’s not just a product of a traditional life, he’s working to defend it and to share with outsiders the lessons and wisdom learned from a life spent in the desert mountains under the stars.

More than any other lesson from Suleiman, a visitor learns a sense of the hospitality of the people in this remote place. They learn that it isn’t just a matter of morals or tradition. Hospitality and kindness are how Bedouins survive in unforgiving terrain with unpredictable weather in a rapidly changing world. It has made them into adept farmers and herders, resilient survivors, and excellent guides and hosts in a new tourism industry. It’s a hospitality born out of necessity, but practiced with joy for those who brave the long journey. A great love for the land and a genuine curiosity for outsiders is, surprisingly, even more incredible than the beauty of the wadi, the shepherds fields, and the desert sky.

Everybody is different. This is a good thing, otherwise the world would not be so interesting.

*Special thanks to Loren for taking photos when I forgot my camera in our hotel room.  Suleiman took one of the photos.  Oh this button right here?  Thank you.  Is that how cameras work?

**If you’re interested in hiking here, check out Wadi Dana Eco Camp and Feynan Eco Lodge.  Bring food for two.

***Please note, these are paraphrases from Suleiman, not direct quotes. I wasn’t hiking with a pen in hand. He was memorable, so they’re fairly close.

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