deutsche Version
Contemporary Arab Artists from the Middle East
The Jordanian Desert
Bedouin, satellite dishes and mirrors of stone

Amjad Nasser
Intifada, Islam, desert, identity, remembrance, violence
Picture Gallery
Writing as an autobiography of the soul
Is writing an adequate alternative to despair?

Procreation and Ambivalence
A Sky so Close
Paths through Literature and Exile
Thoughts on Music from the Orient
Imagining a Different Future
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 1
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 2
Amjad Nasser
In his travelogues, the London-based Jordanian poet and journalist Amjad Nasser draws on a literary genre that has its roots in the ninth century Arab world, reinventing and revitalizing it for his own writings. The following extract is taken from "The Jordanian Desert", written after a visit to his homeland in 2000. It was originally published in French in the Paris Institute du monde arabe magazine QANTARA.

In those days, I only needed to cross the international highway down which the coaches and packed trucks rolled into Jordan or on to Iraq and the Arabian Gulf, and I had already taken my first steps into a desert, empty of people and trees, stretching to the Iraqi border in the east and the Saudi border in the south. At most, you could run into the Jordanian air force base at Mafraq and army units or desert patrol forces posted out at specific points in the desert—after all, this has always been a popular place for smugglers. But this doesn’t mean you won’t come across the tents of the Bedouin who belong, or are kin, to branches of the Anza, Ruwala or Ahl al-Gabal tribes, as they journey from the Syrian desert near Palmyra right down to the Nagd in Saudi Arabia, crossing these strips of the Jordanian desert. A landscape opens up—as far as the eye can see—covered with volcanic basalt rocks like mirrors of stone. It is an area that stretches from Syria down to the country around Mafraq and is called Al-Harra (the scorching land), probably because of the way the rays of the blazing sun are reflected by the smooth surfaces of the volcanic rock.
It was this image of Mafraq and the surrounding desert I had engraved on my mind before I left Jordan, around 25 years ago. But today, the international highway doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. That was the road that made Mafraq into a major crossroads and an inevitable stopover for travellers who had already passed through Jordan on their way from the east and the north. When the road went, so did the trucks and the coaches and the exhausted travellers that had tumbled from them to regain their strength on the shabby service area, or the boys rushing to bring them sandwiches and locally made fizzy drinks without even bothering to brush away the flies or wipe the dust off the bottles. The never-ending hubbub of Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese dialects has also vanished, along with the Turkish drivers and their impressive moustaches, and the vehicles with foreign number plates, which the boys used to argue over endlessly, trying to agree on the country they came from.
Now the road has changed its route completely as the desert to the east of the international highway has been perforated by power and telephone masts, schools, medical surgeries and police stations, creating an ordered network that allows no escape. It’s a network people managed without for hundreds of years as they moved across the desert or established their homes around wells and watering places changing as the seasons changed. For in those days, the Bedouin organised their lives around other networks, shaping their relationships to their social world and their natural surroundings. They had their own special knowledge, their own traditional medicine, principally based on herbal remedies, and their own laws ordering their own world. But when the modern state materialized there in the 1920s, little by little it imposed borders to the nomadic life, heralding the end of the desert myths. Bedouin tribes formerly bound only by their own customs and allegiances found themselves tied to new agreements and systems they could neither defy nor disown (...)
The desert is no longer a place where a person can be lost forever, vanishing without a trace—just a desert. And the Bedouin, once journeying from place to place, living in their “houses of hides”, are no longer real Bedouin now that cement, personal records and local authorities have bound them indivisibly to particular places on the earth. Since then, they have villages, fields, and livestock, like the cows they never would have owned in their nomadic days. In the meantime they also have cemeteries, though, they just used to bury their dead wherever they were, since everything is a part of ‘God’s land’.
There are still Bedouin journeying through the Jordanian desert. Some of them are allowed to cross three borders—the Saudi, the Iraqi, and the Syrian—enabling them to continue living in the traditional way, just as they did before there were national boundaries, nationalities, administrative regulations, and passports. A few of the Bedouin travelling around this area even have more than one citizenship, though they disguise it with the same shrewdness they use to master the challenges of the desert. (...) What really counts for them is the fact they are Bedouin and belong to a particular tribe. (...)
Visitors to the Jordanian desert shouldn’t be shocked, or imagine they have stumbled into some weird surrealist scenario, when they find American or Japanese pick-ups parked in front of the nomads’ traditional tents and discover satellite dishes pointed skywards to receive the constant babblings of Arabian TV channels that have mushroomed unchecked. It’s no surprise either, in this isolated world, to hear the droning of generators as they pump power to those electrical appliances the Bedouin have acquired as a puzzling paradox to the stillness of their own environment. Similarly, you might easily encounter a shepherd, carrying a mobile and busily telephoning friends rather than clutching the reed pipe used to amuse his ancestors in the long, lonely days far from any human contact, side by side with a she-camel, a herd of sheep, and dogs you can hear barking a kilometre away but—before you’ve hardly come anywhere near them—they make off into the distance.

From the German by Andrew Boreham

Author: Amjad Nasser