Why Wadi Rum is this Young Bedouin’s Second Home

A look at Jordan's dramatic desert-scape, also a Hollywood hotspot, through the eyes of a Bedouin who takes tourists on rollercoaster-like safaris.  
Wadi Rum
Atallah Zawaideh started taking tourists on Wadi Rum safaris when he was 15. At 25, he is familiar with every bend, so much so that the desert is now his den, and he often turns up here on starlit nights. Photo by Abhishek Hajela.

Wadi Rum is Atallah Zawaideh’s second home. Which dunes to bash, which points to show off, he’s in on it all. He’s seen Matt Damon shoot for The Martian here, and this is where “Amirrr Khhwan” refused a selfie with him. “He said ‘I’m working, so it’s dangerous. Maybe next time’,” the 25-year-old Bedouin remembers, seemingly still dejected. Raging and taming his 4×4 across the sandy and dramatic 220 square kilometre expanse is a feat he’s aced. Confidence has, of course, come with practice and perseverance. He started at 15. The desert is now his den.

Wadi Rum has its fair share of touristy hotspots. There is the century-old rock carving in which the Lawrence of Arabia looks exceptionally flat-nosed, and then there are the sixth-century B.C. camel inscriptions that were etched by the Nabatean Arabs migrating from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. But Atallah likes to unwind here by himself. “Nights are best. Stars, moon, barbecue, dancing… very good,” he says, insisting we stay back. But ours is only a 2.5-hour daytime safari. So en route to our camp—Wadi Rum has 28, “from minus one to five star” in my guide Isam’s words—I decide to ditch the jeep’s open back and sit next to Atallah. Minutes ago, the shy Jordanian had led me and some Chinese tourists through dabke, a celebratory Arabic folk dance. Dwarfed by hulking boulders resembling “melting ice cream” from centuries of submergence, we had moved back and forth in a file, hands joined, feet crisscrossing.

“I love dabke,” Atallah says, rummaging through the glovebox to show me some CDs. Now that his village Dissa has Wi-Fi and his cell phone is 4G-enabled, he downloads and dumps music on pen drives too. “An Australian tourist put me on Facebook. One American lady helped me make Instagram account,” he says. “I showed them Bedouin life, they showed me technology.” Smart trade off, I joke.

He’s travelled to Egypt, Saudia Arabia and frequents Aqaba to shop. “But my heart is in Wadi Rum, sister” he says, getting off the jeep for his solo shot. “I won’t leave it for million dollars.” Interactions with foreign tourists have made him more articulate, more worldly. It shows and he knows it does. After retying his headscarf with utmost precision, he dusts the sand off his creaseless grey dishdasha, adjusts his fake wristwatch and poses like a pro, strolling away in the silence and stillness of Wadi Rum.

  • Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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