Bedouins of Wadi Rum: {Profile: Zidane Attayak Ali Zalabea}

IMG_3819I meet Zidane Attayak Abdullah Zalabea on the outskirts of the small village of Rum, the Bedouin town synonymous with the Wadi Rum area [for non-Arab readers: Wadi means valley]. He’s got this crooked half smile on his face as we get into his car, which he’s named Shakira.  The reason for naming it [her?] this particular name becomes evident in just a few minutes. As we hit the powdery sand dunes on the way to the base camp, the car and its passengers, bounce accordingly. He turns to me and says with a grin, “Shakira’s dancing.” I have to move a massive speaker system already riding shotgun in order to sit down; the 4×4 has one rear-view mirror on the driver’s side, a set of frayed wires dangling below the driver’s wheel for hot wiring, and a fuzzy pink blanket draped across the dashboard for when it gets too hot. Shakira’s obviously a trooper.


Shakira, Shakira.

Zidane’s been a mountain guide for several years now, his business is called Bedouin Roads. “I like to show the people my desert. Touring, hiking, camping, scrambling, climbing, all the activities for tourists that we meet in Wadi Rum here. I’m very happy to do that and to meet new people all the time… I decided [to be come a mountain guide] in high school. I wanted to do climbing activities with tourists, all of the activities with tourism. Why? Because I love to see different cultures and all these cultures that come [through] and all of the different people. They mix with my culture and then I show them my desert. I decided that because everyone who comes [is] happy, you know?”

Zidane, 26, has shoulder length hair that begins wavy and descends to his shoulders in large loopy curls. If he gave a shit abut contemporary fashion this would be considered a man-bun; his hairstyle is  accompanied by a beard, of course. For most of the time we’re together he’s wearing dark shades. His camo-pants are synched up at mid-calf and he sports scandals with thick rubber bottoms. He’s not big, but he has obviously wiry and muscular arms and legs from ascending summits. Essentially, he looks like a climber. “When I was like 15, I started to try rock climbing. I started to go into the mountains when I was really young, 6 years old, and after that it was like a hobby for me, you know? I loved it… I started rock climbing like 15 years ago with some tourists. They took me with them to climb and they didn’t believe it wasIMG_4029 my first time climbing.” He’s not lying about the latter bit, the guy’s like an ibex when we go up Jebel Burdah, a famous mountain in Wadi Rum which features a 300-meter high natural rock bridge.

Zidane’s an extremely easy guy to get along with. I really only decided to find a guide for climbing in Wadi Rum so I didn’t end up like James Franco in that one movie with all the hours. I’m studying abroad; I don’t have that kind of time to spare, nor to lose an arm. But I’m glad I stumbled upon his website, not just because of his easy-going personality, but because Zidane’s a native of Rum, he’s a Jordanian Bedouin. Camping with Bedouins in this country is the only way to do it. “With theIMG_3768 Bedouins, when you come with somebody [from Rum] it’s a different experience, they’ll know the area very well and he’ll share his culture with you. It’s more than just someone who will just come for business and for the money, you know? When you come with me, I’ll show you my desert, my place, and make fire and food with you. It’s different from somebody who knows nothing.”

By ‘someone’ who knows nothing,  Zidane’s talking about his main competition, tourist companies from outside Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is the largest natural protected area in Jordan and it spans over 50,000 sq. kilometers of mountains and desert on the Jordanian-Saudi Arabian border. Naturally, it gets a lot of tourists: hikers, climbers, campers or just people who dig riding camels. These outside touring groups have become a cancer to the Bedouin community in Wadi Rum, which depends on  tourism money.


Wadi Rum stars

The outsiders are often international tourism businesses and have a lot more money to spend in order to make sure they’re the first result seen on Google. “People become rich, you know, they make a lot of money from making business {advertisements} with other people and take our business. We are not rich like them to pay to be first on Internet [searches]. Now, with the money, you can be first on the Internet, so it’s not nice. But, you know, for us, I like it to be a full experience. People have the experience with us, they give us excellent reviews about everything we do here and they feel that it’s more interesting from the money.”

It’s another reason I’m glad I found out about Zidane’s website. My timing for this trip was in some ways perfect.  An NGO group actually just helped him with re-designing his website in order to keep up with the competition. The Bedouin community in Wadi Rum has been suffering economically for some IMG_3886time now. The Jordanian Bedouins are the indigenous group in the area, and given ownership of the area by the government as a token of thanks for assistance against the Ottoman Empire in the Great Arab Revolt in 1917. If you don’t know anything about the history, do yourself a favor and go watch Lawrence of Arabia. The way Zidane sees it, this is his land, and these outside touring groups need  regulation. “The government should come and stop these people who take the business from us. The big camps come in with a lot of money and do things [like] open bars, they’re not allowed to do that it’s not legal, you know, they should stop that. Sometimes, you find with people who have the money, they have IMG_3753.jpgthe power too, you know… It’s a shame, it’s our land since a long time ago, we work here.”

The Bedouins are a largely independent and scattered population; many in Wadi Rum are actually nomadic. They have little political representation in the Jordanian government, or any government in the Middle East or North Africa. But Zidane has plenty of opinions concerning the government’s treatment, or lack thereof, of the people of Rum. “We don’t need much help except with the business… They should take care of the village more… there’s [often] no water, no electricity; it’s not a good life for the people that live here. The government doesn’t take care of them you know, they just take the money from here… Wadi Rum is one of the famous villages in Jordan, you know, it has a many IMG_3871people coming in and visiting. They should make the village an example, you know, it’s a nice village. Especially because the village brings a lot of money for the government. This is our government, but they don’t take care of that.”

It’s a vital aspect of eco-tourism that is often overlooked. While environmental consciousness is a vital principal to follow when visiting any foreign area, particularly a nature reserve such as Wadi Rum, it’s important to also make sure that the community indigenous to that area benefits from outsiders coming to visit. The specifics Zidane gives me on problems in the Rum village are shocking. “They promise, but they’re lying, lying all them time. Lying, for example, about doing things for the village that they didn’t do. They say, ‘we will help,’ [but] they don’t help, you know? [They say] ‘We’ll stop these people from IMG_3925.jpgoutside that make these big camps’ then they don’t do. They didn’t do that, and they didn’t fix the village. The streets are broken, and people don’t have enough water… and the electricity breaks too. You see people digging in the streets to take water from the pipe, because they don’t get enough water, so they break the streets. People fall in and get hurt sometimes, old people that want to go to the mosque early in the morning or at night.”

We camp on the summit of Jebel Burdah. Zidane tells me that this has been a slow time for his business. He likes being a guide; he’s been all over this area of Wadi Rum and  tells me
that he knows all of the good routes. The way he says it, it IMG_3784.jpgsounds less like a boast and more like a fact. But if things continue the way that they have  for the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, the future for professional guides like Zidane is uncertain, and local experts are one of the economic cornerstones for this community. “I want to make my business more strong, and have more guides for scrambling, hiking and climbing,” he assures me. “I wouldn’t want to bring someone in who knows nothing here”

In addition to interviewing and writing about Zidane,  I agreed to get footage of him for some additional free advertising for his business while we climbed.  Below is a promotional video for Bedouin Roads. 



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