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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 November 2007, 11:27 GMT
Togetherness: Bedouin family ties
By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jordan

Ilaya: I wouldn't be able to live without my sons and daughters
There's something other-worldly about parts of the Jordanian desert. A bit like stepping back in time.

Here in the wilderness, Bedouin families live as they have for centuries - tending sheep and goats, sleeping on the floor in tents, far from the national water or electricity grids.

The al-Rimthal family is headed by matriarch Ilaya. Dressed in traditional black with fine tattoos on her cheeks, chin and forehead, her face and hands are thoroughly weather-beaten.

She welcomes us to her home. A tent roughly half the size of a basketball court. There are small children everywhere, it seems.

We older people prefer to keep the family together. And I think it's because of us that the family does stay together
Ilaya al-Rimthal
"My grandchildren," IIaya proudly announces. But when I ask her how many there are exactly, she has trouble remembering. During the course of the day, I counted at least 13. Ilaya's four daughters and four of her six sons live with her.

Their tent is divided into two sections. The first is for receiving guests. Bedouin hospitality is legendary. The second is the family's communal kitchen, living, dining and bedroom.

There is no furniture but foam mattresses and blankets are stacked into a corner of the room during the day.

"We eat, sleep, work and pray together, right here under one roof," Ilaya told me.

"I wouldn't be able to live without my sons and daughters around. Our life is good because we're together. The men feed and milk the animals and fetch the water. My daughters and daughters-in-law share the chores, clean the tent, grind the coffee, cook the meals. And me? I bake the breakfast bread every morning."

Fear of separation

Ilaya is baking as she chats to me. She sits on the floor behind a gas-lit oval, stone-like structure. She throws dough at it and we're invited to eat the piping hot flat bread with home-made goat's cheese.

Bedouin family
Bedouin are an extreme example of the tight-knit Mid-East family
Her daughters are busy around us, looking after the smallest children, singing Bedouin folksongs to them about heroes galloping through the desert.

"This is the life we choose and that we've always known," says Ilaya. "We Bedouin don't like to be separated.

"I want my family together always. In the modern world, elderly parents are left on their own. People carry their troubles by themselves on their shoulders. Not us."

Bedouin communities are an extreme example, but tightly-knit families are the norm across the Middle East. In fact, families aren't just close, they are a lifeline.

People depend on their relatives, not the state, if they are poor, sick or unemployed.

On its website, the Jordanian Department of Statistics describes the family as "the basic social unit for the individual because it represents the source of protection, food, shelter, income, reputation and honour".

Not just in the desert or rural communities either. More than 40% of Jordanians live in the capital, Amman.

Financial help

One of the few members of the al-Rimthal clan who live in the city is Faris. He works on the Jordanian stock market, quite a contrast to his desert upbringing.

But his earnings are spent on the family. He visits them almost every day.

Faris drives a Mercedes, but still keeps his hand in with the camels
We met Faris as he pulled up to his mother's tent in a shiny Mercedes, wearing a crisp white cotton robe, sporting a glitzy watch.

"The family bond is an ancient tradition for us," he told me.

"That's how we're brought up. Even when I'm working in Amman, my roots follow me there and always pull me back.

"Modern life offers a lot in terms of material things but family always comes first. I've been helping to provide for them financially since my father died."

Later, watching from her tent as Faris and his nephews teased the family's camels, Ilaya wondered out loud: "We older people prefer to keep the family together.

"I think it's because of us that the family does stay together. Maybe if the young people were left on their own, they would live alone."

Still, the trend across the Middle East is for continued close family ties among the old and the young. Religion and widespread traditional social values make it likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

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