Page last updated at 20:49 GMT, Friday, 22 May 2009 21:49 UK

New ideas for Jordan's traditional Bedouin

Bedouin woman milks sheep
The traditional Bedouin way of life has continued for centuries

By Sylvia Smith
BBC News, Jordan

An old Bedouin herdsman dressed in traditional robes and headdress is standing facing Mecca as he finishes his early morning prayer. In a rough enclosure to one side, the ewes that will soon be lambing are feeding from a trough.

Their soon-to-be born offspring will be providing milk, food and wool for the next few years. It looks an idyllic scene - man living in harmony with his environment.

But ask the younger members of Khalaf's family about this image of rural perfection and they will tell a very different story.

Prince Hassan talks to the Bedouin
Prince Hassan (centre) wants to extend collective land ownership

For them, living in the Badia or semi-arid desert area covering about 90% of Jordan, has become harsher with each passing year. More than a quarter of the families who live there still travel to find pasture for the greater part of the year.

They have lived in this harsh environment for many centuries, stubbornly clinging to their traditional way of life.

This land is a vast desert area that stretches from Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter through to the Sahara.

Although the Jordanian Bedouin have always herded sheep and goats, factors outside their control have conspired to edge this way of living dangerously close to extinction. War in Iraq and a closed border with Saudi Arabia combined with prolonged periods of drought, have severely reduced the amount of pasture available for grazing.

Permanent settlements

"Some years ago I had to sell off the majority of my herd," Khalaf complains. "I sold them over the border in Saudi Arabia for the Eid El Kebir feast. But I did not get a good price because the cheap imported New Zealand lamb ruined the market."

Mohammad Shahbaz and bedouin man
Mohammad Shahbaz (right) backs up science with religion

Khalaf had to pay for feed for many months of the year, something he could hardly afford. The government's initial reaction to the crisis was to create more permanent settlements so they could get services to the tribes.

But the uncle of Jordan's King Abdullah, Prince Hassan Bin Talal, came up with a wide-ranging plan to help the Bedouin remain free. The scheme, known as the Badia project, gives herders increased income and hope of yet further improvement to the health of their flocks by recognising that religion is the bedrock of life in the Badia.

Mohammad Shahbaz, who runs the Badia project, relies on the Koran to back up scientific suggestions.

Modern techniques such as artificial insemination of sheep have to be used, but with widespread illiteracy and suspicion of change, Mr Shahbaz's team rely on the faith of the Bedouin.

If you are a Bedouin, national borders don't mean anything
Prince Hassan Bin Talal

Salim Al Oun is one of the field workers and originally comes from a Badia village. "The Friday prayers are a good time to tell people how to conserve water and protect remaining trees," he says.

"The whole village is gathered together. The local imam uses that opportunity to detail instructions given in the Koran on taking care of the land. The mosque was used in that way - for giving practical advice in the time of the Prophet."

Desert sheep being milked by Bedouin man
The Bedouins' way of life is under threat

Compounding the Badia Project's tentative steps in presenting farming and eco-principles in the context of a religious duty, the Chief Justice and former Minister of Al Awqaf, or Religious Affairs, Ahmed Hlayel believes that the waqf should be used to fund greater environmental awareness.

"The Prophet was explicit in encouraging what we now call environmentalism," he explains. "This means waqf money can help the Bedouin live in harmony with their land. We are drawing up the financial instruments to allow this."

Prince Hassan goes one step further: "If you are a Bedouin, national borders don't mean anything. Collective ownership is what's recognised. And there's a lot of logic in the Badia tribal delineation of land. On that logic you can impose a co-operative spirit."

Unique environment

The Prince even talks of trans-boundary movement as being the touchstone of pan Arabism. He says that the nomadic tribesman is not a narrow nationalist and he believes extending the benefits of Badia Project innovations to neighbouring countries would help solve some of the region's problems.

"The Muslim concept of 'haema', of protected areas, could easily stretch into the other nations that border Jordan," he says.

"Zakat or religious tithes is one of the five pillars of Islam and could be used for this purpose. With all the Muslim nations in the region contributing to the fund, it could unite that part of the Islamic world in conserving their unique desert environment."

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