”Be polite and just eat it”, I thought to myself as I was handed a piece of jameed, a rock hard cheese made from strained yoghurt. I was lying on a mattress in a Bedouin tent in southern Jordan, and Suleiman, a local farmer, was crouching over a fire and brewing some sweet tea in a delightfully old-fashioned iron kettle. I was trying to appear at home. Ahmed, a local guide from the nearby Feynan Ecolodge had prompted me to lie down, explaining that the Bedouin would think I wasn’t relaxed if I sat up. It was also important to curl my legs back so as not to show my feet to the hosts. However, I wasn’t quite sure what the correct etiquette was for baby goats. I was in the middle of teaching Suleiman’s grinning children the numbers in English from 1 to 10, but an adorable doe-eyed kid goat, annoyed at my intrusion, was busily head-butting my right shoulder, while another was happily chewing on my shoelaces. Noticing my discomfort, the children grabbed the goats by the front legs and hoisted them up for a cuddle.
‘What do you think of the jameed?’ Ahmed asked. I hadn’t actually tried it as its appearance – it looked like yellow-stained pieces of chalk – was distinctly unappetising. Plucking up some courage, I took a small bite and an explosion of parmesan strength and intensity burst over my taste buds. ‘Wow that’s strong stuff !’, I replied.
‘It goes really well with tea’, Ahmed said, with a tone of encouragement. Right on cue, Suleiman poured me a glass and handed it over with a smile of expectation. I had the odd feeling that I was undergoing an initiation ceremony and that the jameed was a test of my Bedouin credentials. Politely, I took another bite followed swiftly by a swig of tea. Ahmed was right; the intense saltiness of the cheese perfectly complimented the sweet tea and I was soon happily nibbling away at this unexpected gourmet treat. Ahmed and Suleiman looked relieved and we settled down to enjoy the cool late afternoon breeze wafting down from the starkly beautiful mountains. Feynan Ecolodge is set in the heart of the Dana Biosphere Reserve, one of six nature reserves run by the Jordanian Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Established in 1966 by King Hussein, the RSCN was one of the pioneering Green movements in the Middle East and in its early years was heavily involved in rescuing animal species such as the Arabian Oryx that had been hunted to near extinction. In 1975, Jordan’s first wildlife reserve was created as a safe breeding haven for these endangered species. By the time the Dana Biosphere Reserve opened in 1989, the RSCN had become increasingly interested in involving local communities in conservation projects. With the rise of nature tourism in the 1990s and ecotourism in the 2000s this provided a golden opportunity for income-generating schemes in impoverished parts of the country.
As I sat sipping tea in Suleiman’s family camp I witnessed a good example of how local families benefit from the RSCN tourism projects. Suleiman’s wife had been busy kneading dough on a circular metal tray. She shyly invited me to watch how the traditional Bedouin unleavened bread shrak was made. Taking a small round of dough, she neatly patted it into a circle and then began deftly throwing it from hand to hand to thin it out before expertly slinging it onto a sajj, a domed bread griddle. In just twenty seconds one side was cooked, and after flipping it over the whole cooking process was done in little more than a minute. Needless to say my attempt was far more laborious and my sausage shaped shrak came off the griddle resembling a deep pan pizza base rather than a wafer thin pitta. Suleyman’s family cooked all the bread for Feynan and one of his sons dutifully trotted off down a dusty track to deliver the hot bread to the restaurant (my pizza base having been discreetly removed from the batch).
The Ecolodge, which was built by the RSCN in 2005, was the first of its kind in Jordan and its Green credentials are impressive. Fully solar powered, the lodge has a three-day electricity storage capacity for back-up in the unlikely event of prolonged spells of cloudy weather. Electricity use is restricted to the kitchens, bathrooms and office and at night the arabesque style lodge is transformed into a scene from The Thousand and One Nights, with dozens of locally made candles. Water is sourced from the nearby Wadi Dana springs, and in chilly weather the lodge is heated using jift, a waste product from olive pressings. All the staff members are recruited from local Bedouin families and, while hiking with the guides, you’ll gain fascinating insights into local life and customs. Earlier on my trip I’d learnt the importance of goats to the Bedouin when an unfortunate nanny goat had leapt to her doom in front of our car on the busy Desert Highway that links Jordan to Saudi Arabia. ‘Sheep are sensible but goats are always trouble’, my exasperated guide
Mohammed had sighed. He then told me that, regardless of who was to blame, it was always customary for the driver to stop and offer 200 Jordanian dinar to the shepherd. However, as the Bedouin are famous for their good nature, it was rare they ever accepted the money, and they were more likely to invite you back to their tent for a glass of tea to soothe your nerves. At Feynan I went out hiking with Ahmed, a local lad who had grown up in a Bedouin tent and spent idyllic childhood summers in the summer pastures high up on the Dana Mountains. Our first stop was a fascinating Bronze Age copper mine set amidst rocks, streaked with malachite green. The landscape was dotted with windblown white broom bushes. Ahmed stopped by one and told me that when he was a child his grandfather would pound up piles of white broom leaves and prepare hot poultices whenever the goats injured themselves. From the copper mine, we headed along a beautiful, dry river gorge lined by magenta oleander trees. In the fierce afternoon heat, turtle doves were cooing in the foliage and the sweet scent of the flowers hung heavily in the air. ‘We call oleander “goat shampoo”’, Ahmed told me and explained that the leaves are poisonous and act as a very effective insecticide. To rid goats of lice and ticks, the Bedouin boil up vats of oleander leaves and when the leaves cool the Bedouin immerse the goats making, sure they keep their mouths clear of the toxic brew. Pointing out another humble-looking shrub, he laughingly told me that the Bedouin burn the seeds and when the smoke wafts over the goat herds it acts as a powerful aphrodisiac! This biblical landscape was a veritable goat’s medicine cabinet. Following a crimson sunset spent sipping sage tea by a camp fire, we headed back to the lodge for dinner. The food at Feynan is locally sourced and all vegetarian. It’s rather difficult to read the buffet labels while squinting in the candlelight, but the slow-braised vegetables, dips, pastas and pilavs are all absolutely delicious. After dinner there is very little to do in the lodge other than head up to the rooftop patio and lay down on mattresses to gaze at the stars. All the guides at Feynan are keen amateur astronomers and when I arrived on the roof, Ahmed was busy setting up the lodge’s new 10” Meade telescope. He then began pointing out stars with a laser pen and traced lines along Ursa Major and Minor to explain how the Bedouin navigate by night in the desert. He then pointed the telescope towards the Hercules constellation and invited us to take a look. There, millions of light years away, I could clearly see a cluster of hundreds of galaxies forming a sparkling sphere. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But the pièce de resistance was when Ahmed turned the telescope towards Saturn. It was fully illuminated by the sun, with its rings lying at a jaunty angle. It was the first time I had seen this magnificent planet close up. To share this moment with the hospitable Bedouin in this remote and beautiful mountain nature reserve was a truly unforgettable experience.
[note] Fact Box For more information about the Feynan Ecolodge visit www.feynan.com. For more information on Jordan visit uk.visitjordan.com [/note]