A House into which the Wind Blows

Bedouin Oral Literature from Wadi Rum, Jordan

The village of Dissa in the Wadi Rum desert of southern Jordan is beautiful—towering mountains of jagged rock cut harshly by wind and sand, and sloping dunes of radiant pink and orange sand. Dissa is home almost exclusively to the Bedouin, the most direct descendants of the original nomadic peoples who populated Transjordan, and who still identify foremost by their tribal ancestry. Despite the visible effects of modernization, including cell phones and a remarkable pervasive commitment to university education for both boys and girls, the community in Dissa retains many distinctive characteristics of their past nomadic life. While Jordan’s modernization is increasingly altering the traditional desert life of the nomadic Bedouin tribes, their rich oral tradition of stories, poems, and songs is one method by which they preserve remnants of a culture that is progressively altered. In November 2006, I spent several weeks living with the Al-Zawaideh tribe in Dissa to collect stories, songs, poems, and proverbs from their distinctly Jordanian-Bedouin oral tradition. I was honored to be welcomed into their homes and am indebted to their generosity, as well as assistance with audio and textual documentation and translation. What follows are a few of the works they so graciously shared with me. 

If my heart were a stone

Oh my family, I miss you

If my heart were a stone it would drop down to meet you

Oh you tree on top of the mountain

The gazelle is sleeping in the hot hours of the day, the sound of the rain knocks against the trees

Oh woods on the top of the mountain

She is very beautiful, all the men track her steps like wolves following the goats

Song shared by Malihah Al-Zawaideh in Dissa, Jordan, November 2006. Translated with the assistance of Najah Al-Zawaideh and Rima Akermawi.

The Bedouin Girl and The Prince from Damascus

A young prince from Damascus was traveling in the desert when he caught sight of a very beautiful Bedouin girl and fell in love with her. The prince asked her father for her hand in marriage, and the girl’s father agreed, so the prince took her back to Damascus with him. They lived in a magnificent palace, and he gave her fine clothing and expensive jewelry. By and by, though, he was walking outside the palace when he heard the girl singing to herself:

A house, into which the winds blow / is better to me than a fancy palace

And the packs of dogs barking on the road / are better to me than a sweet, tame cat

And wearing an aabaya and sleeping well / is better to me than wearing fine chiffon

And eating a single piece of bread / is better to me than eating an entire loaf

The prince realized that the girl was not truly happy with her life in Damascus. He loved her and wanted her to be happy, so he took her back to her father in the desert. The prince gifted her with more fine clothing, camels, and other wealth, and they parted ways peaceably. The Bedouin girl returned to her previous life in the desert and the prince to his life in the palace because he loved her enough to let her go.

A traditional story, shared by Ali Al-Zawaideh, in Dissa, Jordan, November 2006. Transcribed by Najah Al-Zawaideh and translated with assistance from Ali.

If I tell you the secrets of my heart

Salam speaks these words from a heart

which is as turbulent as the sea when it is rough

Because I have many things tossing inside my heart

my hair is becoming grey

I am striving to find the way to reach this girl

who bewitched me with her eyes

It’s as if she kills me with a knife

and shoots me with a gun

Shattering my bones

so that I can no longer stand

My saliva is dry and sour

and my lips are chapped

If I tell you the secrets of my heart

maybe you will see 

everything written on my face

I love the young girl

with small breasts

She is like a roan mare

who runs at the front of the herd

No one is like the girl that I love

she is like the highest, brightest stars

Poem by Salam Sabah Al-Zawaideh, shared by him in Dissa, Jordan, November 2006. Transcribed by Salam Sabah and translated with assistance from Harb Al-Zawaideh.

Song for the Wheat Harvest

Collect the crops, don’t be concerned that the stalks are tall

Thrush many bundles, remember that you are gathering these crops for the sweet girls

We are the enemy of the crops and we will conquer them

My scythe is excellent, it shines when I clean it, its name is Abu Ruza, I brought it from Gaza

The stalks are very tall

We must lift up our feet and work hard

This pretty girl is for the shepherd, not for you, so just focus on your work

Song shared by Khadra Al-Zawaideh in Dissa, Jordan, November 2006. Transcribed by Najah Al-Zawaideh, translated by Harb Al-Zawaideh.

The Poet’s Wager

Bedouin poems always begin by describing the beauty of camels, the desert, and nature. Yet one time, a Bedouin man dared his friend to write a poem that did not describe any of these typical topics. He challenged the poet to write a poem just about coffee. The man of the house had a beautiful sister who lived with him in his tent. "If you succeed," the man of the house announced, "I will give you my sister in marriage." In love with the sister, the poet agreed to the challenge:

Please pour the coffee three times for each guest and be generous

When you roast the beans on the fire, do it slowly, but do not let them burn, and

everyone nearby will smell this delicious scent

Then you must place the beans in the mortar and grind them; all people love this sound of the pestle pounding the beans

The pot is white as a mushroom, and when one pours coffee from it, the

stream of liquid from the spout looks like the curve of a smile

The coffee should be a color between brown and red, like blood flowing from a wound

The man of the house realized that the poet was very clever and would surely win the bet. So he summoned his sister and asked her to dress in her most beautiful clothing and then come before them. The man of the house hoped that the poet would be so dazzled by the girl’s beauty that he would not be able to concentrate and would allow his composition to wander from the topic of coffee. When the poet saw the sister, he was filled with love for her, but he continued to recite his poem:

I miss my lover, and I wish that I could drink coffee with her at this moment When we sit together, it’s as sweet as picking a rose from the bush

The man of the house accused the poet, saying, “You are not abiding by the rules of the challenge. You are describing a lover.” Yet the man of the house recognized that the poet truly loved the girl, so in the end, he gave his sister to the poet in marriage.

Story told by Muhammad Al-Zawaideh in Dissa, Jordan, November 2006. Transcribed and translation assistance from Najah Al-Zawaideh.

Bedouin Lullaby

Ya, ya, seven camels we corral like a caravan for him

Those people who wish bad things upon my child,

may these bad wishes go back to them

Shared by Khadra Al-Zawaideh in Dissa, Jordan, November 2006. Transcribed by Najah Al-Zawaideh and translated with assistance from Harb Al-Zawaideh.

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