WADI RUM, Jordan – Our four-door pickup truck is falling apart at every seam. It’s mostly white, with splashes of dried orange mud on the body near the rear of the tires. It has suffered dents and scratches, is peeling paint in places, and the rear fender looks like it’s been bashed in at the center. The wheels lack hub caps and the windows are so grey with dirt we can barely see through them. To call this vehicle dilapidated would be an act of charity.
Our driver, meanwhile, is a short, but strangely handsome Bedouin man, presumably Muslim. Most Jordanians are. He wears a traditional tribal grey robe under a waist-length jacket, red-and-white patterned head scarf, and stern expression that makes me wonder if he’s ever had reason to smile in his life. He’s at least in his 30s, I surmise. His skin, the color and texture of my aged, dark brown leather boots, is surprisingly clear and clean-shaven, save a close-cropped mustache. He cuts an exotic figure, making it difficult to take our eyes off him.
Perhaps, also, because his narrow eyes are penetrating through us suspiciously.
“Trust,” my local guide, Murad, explains, “is of utmost importance to the Bedouin. A man’s word means more to them than anything. They trust that if you say you are going to do something, you will do it, because that is how they live. If they promise to do something, they will do it because they want to earn your trust. But you, in turn, must also trust them.”
Which is precisely what we’re doing – trusting him to take us where I want to go. And where this light-skinned, Christian Westerner dressed like Robert Redford’s Denys Finch Hatton wants to go is somewhere the bemused Bedouin farmer probably never could have imagined.
“Low samaHt (Please) … I have money,” I tell him in a mixture of English and limited Arabic, “to buy food for your animals.”
His nob tells me he understands. He gets behind the wheel. When I grasp the passenger’s side door handle, it takes a few tugs before it jerks open. The interior panel slips loose and nearly falls off entirely. I’m convinced that if I’d yanked any harder I might have ripped the door right off.
Accompanying us is the Bedouin’s much more gregarious cousin, with whom he shares a strong resemblance. He speaks heavily-accented, broken English, which he had to learn because he operates a camel-ride business for tourists visiting Wadi Rum, in the southern Jordanian desert.
“You like truck? Only best for our guest!” he exclaims with a self-conscious giggle.
I toss my backpack on the filthy floor of the passenger’s seat and climb inside. The doorframe creaks on its hinges as I cautiously pull it shut by grasping the lower end of the window frame, which, of course, is conspicuously missing a window.
With that, we’re off, speeding across the soft, reddish-orange sand to find the nearest paved road that leads directly into “town,” such as it is. That’s where the warehouse is located, Murad tells me, the one that supplies local farmers like this man with food for their animals.
The buoyant Bedouin businessman uses camels raised by his quiet cousin (and other families in their tribe) to take adventurous visitors to Jordan on Instagram-worthy rides through Wadi Rum’s ghostly landscape, setting for several Hollywood movies, including the most recent Matt Damon film, “The Martian.” While the travelers usually leave laughing and grinning ear-to-ear, the experience is seemingly less enjoyable for the camels themselves.
So, we at Nutmeg decide to take the opportunity to ease their burdens a bit.
Once on the paved main road, we drive maybe a mile through a population center flanked by several small, one-story structures, mostly business of one sort or another. Telephone poles and palm trees vie for real estate as well. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for anything remotely resembling a warehouse, so, I’m startled when the driver pulls off to the left side of the road.
The four of us pile out of the pickup and I shoot Murad a quizzical look.
“This is the warehouse,” he responds in answer to my silent question.
It’s hardly what I’d call a warehouse. I’ve seen backyard sheds in the United States that would dwarf this cinderblock edifice. The rusted metal door, and some of the cement blocks, have Arabic text scribbled on them in red spray paint. Spare tires sit on the makeshift roof to weigh it down and prevent it, I imagine, from flying away during a sandstorm. A graveyard of white pickup trucks occupies the land directly to the left.
We duck inside to find two windowless rooms – an antechamber and a larger space in the back. On the floor in the front room sit several large white bags. In the back room, more of the same, plus several bales of long green grass, stacked floor to ceiling.
“Barley,” Murad tells me, pointing first to the bags, then the bales, “and clover.”
The Bedouin feed this to their camels and other livestock, including sheep and goats.
The businessman cousin is trying to convey to me the differences in size and cost before asking me which I prefer.
“Whatever you think is best,” I insist. “I trust your judgment.”
I have to repeat this a couple more times, with Murad providing an Arabic translation, before he is satisfied.
“I have 250 dinars (approximately 350 US dollars) to spend,” I add. “Get whatever you think your cousin’s animals will need most.”
There is much back-and-forth with the “warehouse” manager before an agreement is brokered.
“We will take 13 sacks of barley,” Murad informs me, “and 15 bales of clover. We will load it in the back of the pickup and deliver it right now to one of the families. We will then have to come back to pick up and deliver the rest, because it will not all fit.”
On the way to there, I ask how long this purchase will last the farmers. Murad says that because it is springtime and there is still a decent amount of grass in the nearby fields, Nutmeg’s purchase will last a month, perhaps six weeks. The farmers, he explains, will feed their animals as much as they can in the fields and store what we’ve bought, using it sparingly until the heat of summer burns off the grass.
Five minutes away, we pull into the verdant backyard of a cinderblock housing development. Goats are calling out to us from behind a penned-in enclosure. The Bedouin’s relatives come streaming out of the house, smiling joyfully at the windfall that’s being unloaded from the pickup.
I crouch down in front of the goat pen and one of the animals sticks its snout through the bars to lick my hand gently. They seem to understand, too, that they’ve been given an unexpected gift.
When Murad opens the gate, the giddy goats race to the clover and begin munching.
“He will let them enjoy this for a few minutes,” says Murad, “before storing it for later.”
The smiles on the faces of the family members confirms what Murad tells me next.
“These people are overwhelmed by this generosity. They are poor people, as you can see, and this will help them immensely.”
Our driver approaches, and I extend my hand.
“Shukran jazeelan…is’salaam alaykum (Thank you very much…Peace be upon you).”
The Bedouin clasps my hand, and that’s when I notice it. A tiny smile cracks his heretofore stone-faced visage.
“Shukran (Thank you),” he responds. “Wa alaykum is’salaam (Upon you be peace).” ETS