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Keeping Order in a Serene, Severe Place

Camel-mounted desert police in Jordan -- Bedouins with ties to the land -- endure despite the loss of traditions.

June 08, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

WADI RUM, Jordan — Using pickup trucks and camels, the Bedouins of Jordan's legendary desert police patrol a vast sea of pink sand and mountains in one of the most remote precincts on Earth.

With the officers' red-and-white-checked head scarves flying in the wind, the blue trucks speed past the towering stone pinnacles that T.E. Lawrence -- Lawrence of Arabia -- dubbed the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The vehicles fishtail in the deep sand as mountains rise up on both sides of the valley like enormous teeth from the desert floor.

Despite the magnificent scenery, it's a routine patrol for a unit that still holds a special place in Jordanian history. Organized and trained in 1930 by British Capt. John Bagot Glubb, the Bedouin desert police began life as a border force protecting the then-emirate of Transjordan from raiders and keeping order among competing tribal interests.

Drilled in the British way of war, the force soon merged with the fledgling Arab Legion and proved itself repeatedly on the battlefield, repelling marauding Wahhabi Muslim fanatics from what is now Saudi Arabia, toppling the pro-Nazi regime in Iraq in 1941 and defeating the Vichy French government in Syria.

But the glory days of the Bedouin police units are long past. The Arab Legion became the Jordanian army and the desert force went back to policing.

Nowadays they no longer charge into battle on camelback; instead they track smugglers sneaking in bootleg cell phones from Saudi Arabia.

They also help foreign tourists like the cocky Dutchman who professed great facility with camels and ended up heading straight for the Saudi border when he couldn't turn the animal around.

Or the young Spanish woman who yearned to live with the Bedouins and ended up horribly sunburned and dehydrated after two weeks in the desert.

Then there was the local man, known for his cruelty to animals, who was kicked to death by his camel.

"We have a saying that if you beat a camel or don't feed it, the camel will keep this in his memory," said Maj. Hassan Zeben, deputy commander of the desert police in the Wadi Rum region of southern Jordan. "And he will look for a chance to get revenge. This is what happened."

The desert force, which patrols an area of 1,364 square miles running from the Red Sea port of Aqaba up along the eastern border with Saudi Arabia, still recruits Bedouins almost exclusively. They are considered the best prepared through their upbringing to operate in such hostile terrain. They can also maneuver within the delicate world of tribal relations, where the slightest insult can lead to upheaval.

"This whole area is tribal, so you must be very diplomatic so as not to offend anyone," said Zeben.

Like the desert police, Jordan's Bedouins have undergone enormous change in the last two decades. Children are going to college and many do not return. Tents are giving way to drab concrete houses. In some areas, the houses have tents tethered to them as Bedouins try to bridge both worlds.

Like most of his men, Zeben was raised in a tent but later moved to a house.

"My father kept a tent tied to the house. He said a concrete house has a door, which shuts people out, and a tent has a flap that is always open. When he died we put the tent in storage and now take it out only for weddings."

But some traditions haven't changed. The desert police still carry out long patrols clear to the Saudi border.

"I prefer a camel to a truck," said Saleh Howeitat, riding atop a richly adorned beast. "They can move easily over the rocks, easier than a car."

Howeitat, whose last name signifies one of the largest tribes in southern Jordan, said he couldn't imagine a life outside the desert. "I am like a fish in water here," he said, grinning. "I would die in Amman." As Howeitat plodded off on his camel, a small truck arrived carrying police in tan uniforms and Bedouin headdresses. The patrol picked up a passenger and sped into the unmarked wilderness.

By repeatedly changing direction, they avoided getting bogged down in sand as they blazed a path to a narrow crack in the mountains. As they neared, a lone tamarisk tree emerged in a shady grotto.

"This is Al Kazaly," said 1st Lt. Ahmed Badareen. "Many tourists get stuck here."

The police walked up a narrow defile, past ancient carvings of gazelles in the stone walls and 3,000-year-old Nabatean script.

The place was empty; no tourists, just a few crows. The men left, heading for a drink of water at Ain Lawrence, or the spring of Lawrence.

Much here relates to T.E. Lawrence, the English commander who led a successful Arab revolt against Ottoman rule during World War I. He called this place "Rum the magnificent," a land that was "vast and echoing and godlike."

Today Ain Lawrence is merely a black hose carrying cool water from the mountain. The officers drank, then wandered over to a Bedouin tent and politely approached the open flap.

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