Tourism and Representations:
1Of Social Change and Power Relations in Wadi Ramm
The area known as Wadi Ramm is a steppic and mountainous region located some 40 km to the northeast of the Jordanian Red-Sea port of Aqaba. It is populated by several Bedouin sub-tribes whose members started sedentarising at the end of the 1970's. In 2001, the settlement, or village of Ramm numbered roughly 1‘200 inhabitants that mainly lived off tourism, while comparatively few families lived in tents and raised livestock. Following the fast pace of tourism development in Jordan, the number of foreign, mainly European visitors to Wadi Ramm rocketed from a few dozens a year 3at the beginning of the 1980‘s, to 70‘000 in 1996. Within this relatively short period of time
corporate and government players in the local and international tourism industry have changed several times Wadi Ramm‘s marketing image. From a region where activities related to adventure tourism could be undertaken, Wadi Ramm was made into a heritage and folklore site, and finally declared a nature preserve under a World Bank assisted tourism development plan. This evolving commercial representation has nevertheless kept one constant component: Wadi Ramm has been advertised as ―the Jordanian desert‖ inhabited by nomadic Bedouin. On this image, Ramm‘s inhabitants were never formally consulted. At the local level, touristic representations of the place and local culture have played an important yet understated role in the process of socio-economic change that has accompanied the development of tourism. In particular, they have become the symbolic objects of a significant contest over economic supremacy, territorial ownership and identity.
Since the ground-breaking work of J. Urry (1990) on the "tourist gaze", numerous anthropologists have dealt with issues of representations in tourism. In their overwhelming majority, they have been concerned with three main topics and/or with their interconnection. One is the construction of the touristic image of the place of destination. Another is the clash between tourists' representations and their actual experience. A third approach questions the process by which reality in the place of destination (as tourists expect to experience it) is modified to have it fit its touristic image. Meanwhile, there have been much less attempts at studying how individuals in a host population react to the globalised, stereotypical, touristic representations of the place they inhabit and of their
1 Paper published in S. Latte-Abdallah (dir.) Représentation et construction de la réalité sociale en Jordanie et Palestine, Institut
français du Proche-Orient (IFPO), Beyrouth et Amman, 2005. Thanks to Mauro Van Aken for his critical reading of an earlier version of this paper.
2 Géraldine Chatelard is a social anthropologist and historian of the contemporary Middle East holding a doctorate from the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. Her main research interests are the politics of tribal, religious and national identities, the various aspects of mobility (migration, displacement, nomadism and tourism), and contemporary Jordan in a broad perspective and regional context. In addition to several articles, she is the author of Briser la mosaïque. Les tribus chrétiennes de Madaba, Jordanie, XIXème-XXième siècle (CNRS, Paris, 2004), and she co-edited
Jordanie : Le royaume frontière (Autrement, Paris, 2002).
3 As a result of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, 1996 was a peak year for tourism in Jordan. Even since that date, the number of foreign tourists to Jordan as well as to the region as a whole has kept decreasing following the resumption of instability in Israel/Palestine, the World Trade Center bombing and the subsequent crisis over Iraq. The economic situation of Wadi Ramm‘s inhabitants as described in this paper has changed markedly since the last episode of fieldwork undertaken to write it in October 2001. Tourism has almost come to a standstill and is no more the villagers‘
major source of revenues. As a result, several families that were settled have gone back to live in tents and have resumed livestock rearing.
4culture as these representations bring about local social change. Taking the approach of social and
cultural anthropology, the aim of this paper is to look at how various representational systems and modes interact with each other when the logics of international and national tourism development come to meet the vernacular versions of place and identity. This process is studied by describing, analysing and criticising the power struggle between competing representations of place and local culture in Wadi Ramm, an area not as desert as Western visitors expect it to be, inhabited by a Bedouin community not as ―traditional‖ as portrayed by the tourist media and whose inhabitants harbour their own ideas about place and group identity.
I. Tourism, Bedouin and ethnography: systems of representation and power relations
Representations and power in tourism
Tourism can be defined as a particular form of capitalist industry which does not only sell commodities but worlds of meaning and experience marketed by creating specific, idealised representations of the place of destination, and in particular of its cultural and natural features. The "gaze" is at the centre of the tourist's experience, as J. Urry (1990, 1995) convincingly argued, and tourist destinations are chosen to be gazed upon because there is an anticipation of intense pleasure, either on a different scale or involving different senses from those customarily encountered. R. E. Wood (1998) further points at tourism as oriented towards the experience of difference in a domesticated, packaged form, and primarily structured and evaluated by aesthetic criteria. As C. Ryan (2000) has shown in the Australian context, even ecotourism, which claims to enhance tourists' awareness of ecological issues, often constitutes more of a hedonist than cognitive experience, a fact I. Munt had already provocatively questioned in the title of his 1994 article: "Eco-tourism or ego-tourism?".
The tourist gaze, in its anticipation phase, is constructed, developed and sustained through a variety of non-tourist practices, in particular the consumption of such written or audio-visual media as films, newspapers, TV programmes, tour operator's brochures, web sites, magazines, records and videos (Urry 1990). Pictorial or written media all frame reality in one way or another, therefore simplifying and often stereotypifying it. Moreover, they create representations that do not always correspond to what tourists experience on the ground and want to take back home in the form of their own filmic or pictorial representations. Disappointed customers may then come home complaining about the gap between the product they have bought and the one they were sold. If widespread, dissatisfaction may have a negative impact on the tourism economy in the place of destination by preventing other visitors from coming as the reputation of a good or bad "holiday spot" is also largely created by word of mouth or, today, the Internet. The various agents in the tourism industry thus have a vested interest in making sure that the experience they sell corresponds to the tourists' expectations, that is to the mental representations those have of their destination before they take the trip. If this is not the case, an adjustment has to be made, either by re-framing the existing reality to present aspects that were previously excluded from the various media and to make them desirable, or by acting on aspects of reality in the place of destination so as to render them more congruent with their touristic representations. In the latter case, the tourist gaze assumes an obvious performative dimension, i.e. a capacity to translate phenomenological aspects into pragmatic and topographic realities.
While M. Mowforth and I. Munt argue that "tourism is a way of representing the world to ourselves and to others" (1998: 1) because it has become one of the main channels shaping Western world views, D. Harvey also suggests that the "eye is never neutral and many battles are fought over the 'proper' way to see" (1989: 1). In the activity of tourism, competing representations, and
4 For some attempts, see Evans-Pritchard 1989; King, Pizam and Milman 1993; Erb 2000; Joseph and Kavoori 2001; several essays in Picard and Wood 1997.
interpretations, of the visited place and population are at play not only between various actors within the First World but also with agents in the destination countries of the Third World. To quote M. Mowforth and I. Munt at length:
"(...) tourists interpret and represent their experiences in ways that may be fundamentally opposed to
the experience of those being visited; and these interpretations and representations will differ
between different types of tourists. Even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have
a particular geographical imagination of the Third World. Their representation of tourism and
sustainability may also differ sharply from those of local communities in the countries where the
policies of these supranational institutions are applied" (1998: 7).
Acknowledging the performative dimension of representations and the dynamic of competition between different representational systems leads to consider the power relations between the various actors involved in the tourism encounter. It can be argued that, in the context under study, power relations between some of these actors are fundamentally unequal because of the huge economic imbalance between, on the one hand, Western tourists and the local Bedouin, and, on the other hand, Jordanian public institutions and various transnational agencies such as large international tourist firms or the World Bank who finances tourism development in Ramm. This imbalance results in unilateral dependency of the Bedouin upon the rents extracted from the tourists, and of the Jordanian State upon resources generated by private and World Bank investments in the tourism sector. The Bedouin are particularly dependant, whose social fabric would otherwise be disrupted as they would have to migrate to town in search of hypothetical jobs at a time when roughly 25% of the Jordanian labour force is unemployed in the aftermath of the IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Plan, and after the economy has had to absorb the man-power that came back from the Gulf following the 1991 war (Brand 1992). As for the Jordanian regime, that has made economic redistribution a condition of its survival, it has very few other alternatives than to rely on international donor and development agencies to promote economic growth in a country devoid of natural resources, under-industrialised and shaken by the sharp decline in remittances and aid since the late 1980's (Ibid.; Luciani 1990; Schlumberger 2002).
Despite this statement on the structural imbalance of power between the players involved in tourism in Wadi Ramm, I follow Bowman who warns that "By presenting the 'host' as a victim to whom the 'guest' does things, one perpetuates the modernist assumption that non-western peoples are objects upon which western projects are inscribed" (Bowman 1996: 83). To solve the apparent contradiction between these two interpretations of power and domination, De Boeck (1994) proposes that the key binary categories in post-colonial theorisation like hegemony and resistance, or the state versus the civil society, be complemented with aspects of localised strategies of adaptation, accommodation and collaboration as dynamic interaction acting both at the local and global levels. This approach seems particularly adapted to tourism as it is an activity substantially shaped by brokers or middlemen (Cohen 1985) who are located both in, and across, the First and Third Worlds. Their necessary mediation implies a rethinking of the relation between such binary categories as the tourists and the locals, donor agencies and recipient states, international investors and rentier economies.
As Bowman shows in detail in the case of tour guides in Israel/Palestine (1991), brokers come to play a major role in shaping touristic representations and perceptions of a place, mainly in constructing or sustaining the gaze and in making sure that tourists' experiences meet their expectations. These brokers are numerous and their mediation is more or less direct, i.e. more or less obvious for tourists. Those whose action is less directly visible are public sector agents such as planners, politicians, decision-makers in the government-operated tourism sector, private sector investors and large international firms, supranational agencies such as the World Tourism Organisation, the World Bank, the UNESCO, etc, but also the producers of touristic written and pictorial media. On the other hand, tourists in organised tours, who account for most of the visitors
to Jordan, have a transactional relation with a tour operator at home, and sometimes have direct contact with employees in a travel agency. During their tour, they are accompanied by a tour leader, generally of their own nationality and in any case not a local of the country visited. For the tourists, the tour leader personifies the tour operator and provides group leadership, but the best part of his/her role is to deal with the local service providers during the tour and solve problems. Tour leaders are a first category of direct brokers mediating between tourists and the country they visit. They themselves depend on other levels of mediation: in Jordan, most tour leaders speak English, not Arabic, and heavily depend on their local, Jordanian licensed guides to act as middlemen (there are very few women in the profession) in a series of circumstances where the vernacular language or cultural codes are needed. Most of the time, it is through that multi-level mediation that tourists enter in contact with other brokers such as bus drivers, hotel and restaurant staff, vendors in souvenir shops, etc.. Jordanian law requires that a licensed guide accompany any tour group above 9 people that makes use of commercial transport (coaches or mini-buses). The vast majority of tourists who visit Jordan therefore get their main verbal/enacted representation of the country they visit though licensed guides who produce a variously rich and coherent narrative of geography, history, culture, religion, society, economy and politics. This is if the guide speaks their language. Otherwise, the tour leader will have to mediate a more or less comprehensive translation in which s/he will have scope to interfere with the system of representation. As in European 19th Century literary accounts of travels to the Levant (Moussa 1995), multi-level mediated communication, and not direct involvement in social interaction with the local population, then becomes the main way in which tourists apprehend local reality and perceive it.
In Jordan, as I will try to make apparent later, a number of binary power relations between direct and less direct brokers, and between brokers and non-brokers (in particular between some Bedouin and some tourists, or Bedouin as a group and government institutions) are less unequal and less rigid than the ones described above. It is precisely because of this flexibility that negotiation is feasible and that local representations of place and identity can/could be mediated to global actors such as the international tourism media or the World Bank. Bedouin, I will argue, have some scope for contesting the external imposition of social and ecological changes derived from tourists‘ or World Bank's representations but only to a limited extent and not through direct confrontation.
Popular, national and ethnographic representations of the Bedouin
5If the anthropology of tourism in the Arab Middle East is still in its early stages, ethnographies of
Bedouin societies have a long tradition behind them. Ever since the days when Europeans started venturing inside the Levantine mainland and Arabia, the Bedouin have always been part of the picture (Pouillon 1996). Being recurrent characters in Orientalist writings, the Bedouin have been subject to scrutiny and documentation by Western travellers, scholars, and colonial officials with an ethnographic aim and, often, a political agenda: recording differences, categorising, and then controlling (Said 1979). In turn, these descriptions have fuelled Western popular representations of the Bedouin that have shifted from the cruel to the noble savage as entire areas were "pacified" by colonial rule (Brahimi 1982; Moussa 1994). Up to the 1950's, Bedouin and other nomads were described and studied by focusing on particular selections of cultural features, such as nomadism, land use, feud, kinship and leadership organisation maybe because these features are more easily written down, sketched or mapped, and certainly because they are all related to land and social
5 Apart from a rich literature on Israel (in particular Bauman 1995; Stein 1995), anthropological approaches to tourism in the Middle East are limited to Palestine (Bowman 1991; 1996) and Egypt (Mitchell 1995; Cole and Altorki 1998; Behbehanian 2000a and 2000b). More generally, the Middle East's limited part in the global economy of tourism (roughly 2% in 1997) is met by a comparable neglect in edited volumes or in specialised academic journals. Jordan has just started getting some attention, with studies that either explore the economic potentialities of tourism development (Barham 1998; Kelly 1998), or look at socio-economic or socio-political effects (Shoup 1995; Hazbun 1998, 2001a and 2001b; Brand 2000, 2001; Gray 2002).
control that the new States under colonial rule were attempting to exert in Bedouin-populated areas. More recent scholarly works on the Bedouin have been concerned with issues of change and modernisation brought about by the advent of the independent states that have tried to control nomadic people by forcing them to settle less through coercion and more through development 6projects. But the scholarly accounts and analysis of the ecological and technological changes in the steppe, and of the socio-economic transformations affecting Bedouin communities, seem to have only little influence on the way non-specialists continue to view the Bedouin. Historically represented as "primitive" or "exotic", they continue to be read within this context when new modes of popular representation are employed, be they literary, filmic or pictorial. The Bedouin are therefore still largely viewed as nomadic and unaffected by social change or technological modernity, all the more because this primitiveness is now infused with positive qualities in the post-industrial First World. In coming to a Bedouin area, supposedly a desert, tourists hope to find a lost paradise unspoiled by Western industrial and technological civilisation.
Like Europeans or North Americans, most non-Bedouin Arabs also harbour a vision of the contemporary Bedouin as primitive. More often than not, this image is loaded with contempt, and Bedouin are thought to live in areas that look like hell, not paradise. In the Arab Middle East, still running after "progress" and "development", post-industrialised views are not a general sociological trend but eccentricities expressed only by a few, self-proclaimed "Westernised" members of the "urban elite". On the other hand, Bedouin are not exotic because there is not enough distance between them and non-Bedouin. Both groups are close neighbours in contiguous and interpenetrating geographical spaces, they have always been in social interactions, and there is social mobility between groups, though usually unidirectional when nomads settle, move to town and lose 7their Bedouin identity after two or three generations. Most settled Arabs even say they have
Bedouin ancestry, but ancestry is the keyword here. Actual Bedouin are considered somewhat of a socio-developmental anomaly. In the Middle East, since the most ancient times, central powers and settled urban populations have conceived of nomads as a threat to civilisation (Briant 1982). In that line, the 20th Century ruling elite and the urban middle-class easily appropriated the vision of British and French Mandate officials, adapting it to the nationalist credo, and "declared nomadic pastoralism a backward way of life antithetical to social and national development" (Mundy and Musallem 2000: 1). From the late period of Ottoman rule to modern independent Arab states, the aim of the central powers has been to control territory, settle the Bedouin and, at a later stage, modernise them though education and projects of economic development devised by international experts who shared the same vision (for the late Ottoman period see Rogan 1999; for modern Jordan see Bocco 1989, 2000; Bocco and Tell 1994). Now that at least three generations of Jordanians have been subjected to state-driven urbanisation and schooling, the vast majority of them can be considered as being from urban or other form of settled background. To most of these people, Bedouin who still live in the steppic areas, the badia, are not romanticised characters but an
uneducated, backward social group to be modernised.
As a consequence, modern pictorial representations of the Bedouin in a country like Saudi Arabia, for instance, are rare and attempt to conceal overt signs of what are considered improper behaviours and values not in line with the state-promoted vision of Islamic orthodoxy and the accompanying version of soci-economic modernity (Pouillon et Mauger 1995). In Jordan, on the other hand, printed images of the contemporary Bedouin are frequent in a variety of contexts as this group of
6 See Mundy and Musallam (2000) for an updated bibliography on social change among the Bedouin.
7 This is not to say that history and social change go in one direction, from nomadism to urbanisation. On the contrary, all studies of the longue durée in the Middle East, or other areas of the world where nomadism is a recurrent social form, point at long-term, alternate cycles of nomadism and sedentarisation. But this view is that of specialised scholars, and is not held by others either in the West or in Arab countries. The current cycle people experience/record/recall is a move towards ever more sedentarisation and urbanisation.
the population has come to embody part of the national character of the country (Layne 1994). But these images are stereotypical, emphasising only what are viewed as the positive values inherited from the nomadic Arabs: in particular, hospitality, generosity and honour, that is a social and ethical legacy any Jordanian citizen can claim for him/herself through imagined Bedouin ancestry, and not by actual belonging to what one would deem an "underdeveloped" group.
Part of the current paper is an attempt at producing an ethnography of a Bedouin community that does not represent Bedouin in a stereotypical way, neither romanticising them nor treating them as objects to be developed. If one is to look critically at the power-laden relations between, on the one hand, systematic, universalistic, rational, Western (or Western-inspired) knowledge and representation systems and, on the other hand, loosely codified, contextualised, non-rational forms of local knowledge and world visions (these being ideal types), then one should be careful not to compose an ethnography that objectifises the local agents and contributes to the "growth of [their] ignorance", as Hobart has warned in his anthropological critique of development (1993). In particular, ethnographies should be careful not to be other items of hegemonic knowledge such as the various World Bank sponsored reports or pieces of tourist literature. These represent Bedouin as ignorant and backward with a negative or positive interpretative contend, therefore making them appear as legitimate objects either of socio-economic engineering or of neo-orientalist, romanticised thoughts. Both are instances of domination which inscribe projects and desires upon Bedouin as an objectified social group. The Bedouin's own perception of the space their inhabit and of their collective identity, and how they represent the space they inhabit, their identity and their culture in the context of tourism, merit as much attention as the representation systems of economically more powerful strangers. This paper is an attempt to discuss critically how the relationships between various representation systems work in practice in Wadi Ramm, at least as this author understands them to.
As any ethnography is a way of "writing culture", in the words of J. Clifford and G. E. Marcus (1986), stylistic choices made to compose the written narrative are no less innocent than pictorial images. In these last years, anthropologists have become more and more aware that a diversity of representational modes and devices is needed in response to various critiques of conventional ethnographic representation. Bowman argues that social and cultural anthropologies which claim to examine other cultural systems from "within" and subsequently to translate those world views into terms which render indigenous interpretations comprehensible to the "outside" without effacing their alterity, should generate ethnographies of tourism which allow readers to "see" what tourism and its effects look like to the people who host and accommodate it (Bowman 1996). The ironic tone adopted at times in the following text is an attempt at rendering one of the ways in which the Bedouin in Wadi Ramm coexist with the expression of post-industrialised Western culture. As in other similar contexts (see below), and as far as it could be observed, humour and self-irony are permanent features of the rural Bedouin society in Jordan. Bedouin make wide use of these rhetorical devices when they feel that their honour (and therefore their social standing/status) is threatened by forces that are too powerful to resist directly. In Wadi Ramm, Bedouin use humour when touristic representations shake their own perception of social reality, a reaction which recalls that of the Native Americans described by D. Evans-Pritchard (1989) who analysed how members of that group expressed identity and alterity in front, or behind the back, of the Anglo-American tourists who visit their reservations. Another comparison can be drawn with the amused reaction of the Sinai Bedouin S. Lavie has confronted with their ethnographic representations as produced by Israeli scholars (The Hajj, Lavie and Rouse 1993).
II. Producers and consumers in the tourism industry: representations, expectations, experiences and readjustement.
The area of Wadi Ramm is a small part of the Hisma basin described by geography text books as a vast depression extending from the border with Saudi Arabia (and beyond) to the south of the Petra basin. It composes the northern part of the Hedjaz and the Arabian Peninsula and possesses very particular geological features that laymen can best understand, and already mentally construct as a romanticised landscape, by reading an American tour operator's brochure: there, "dramatic colorful thsandstone mesas rise to heights above stretches of golden or pink fine sand". 20 Century
archaeological works, undertaken first by British Mandate scholars, have shown that since ancient times the area has been a major communication route linking the Levant and the Southern Mediterranean with the centre of the Arabian peninsula and Yemen. At some times, it was inhabited by nomads, at other times by a more settled population or a combination of the two. A few European travellers, Mandate officials and, more recently, anthropologists have written about the area as constituting part of the territory of the Howaytat tribe, one of the largest Bedouin groups in southern Jordan. History books mention that the tribal sections inhabiting the region of Wadi Ramm rallied behind Sharif Hussein of Mecca in the Arab revolt against Ottoman occupation during World War I. For the Western public, this episode is best remembered because of the part played by British Colonel T.E. Lawrence who gained his name Lawrence of Arabia, left a remarkable literary account of the revolt in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and was the object of the famous 1962
film by David Lean of which many scenes were shot in Wadi Ramm.
Yet, First World tourists do not generally chose to come to Jordan with Wadi Ramm in mind. Rather, the famed rock-carved Nabatean city of Petra is the focus and highlight of their visit to the kingdom. As stated above, Wadi Ramm only started being systematically marketed and developed for tourism during the last decade. Beyond the circle of Western and Japanese tourists who have been to Jordan or are planning to, the area is almost unknown and mention of its name does not conjure up mental images, as is the case, for instance, with the Algerian Hoggar for the French public or the Arizona desert for the North Americans. As a survey this author conducted among 8European and North American tourists in Wadi Ramm shows, the overwhelming majority (94.2%)
get an idea of Wadi Ramm either as they peer through tour operators‘ brochures in view of choosing a destination, or through travel literature once they have already decided on visiting Jordan. A minority has seen David Lean‘s movie Lawrence of Arabia (9%). Yet, before preparing or taking their trip, half of those are not aware of a connection between the film and the place, while the other half remembers (or rather was made to remember through TV documentaries or travel literature) that some episodes of the film took place in Wadi Ramm. A very small number (1,3%) have actually read T.E. Lawrence‘s book and may come to Wadi Ramm with specific images in mind other than the touristic ones. The various media used for promoting or marketing tourism therefore play an essential role in constructing the image of Wadi Ramm visitors have in mind when they come to the place.
Images of a silent and empty desert
8 In November 2000, I conducted a random survey of 151 Western visitors in the village of Ramm. At the end of their tour of Wadi Ramm, visitors were handed a questionnaire either in English or French. The questionnaire included multiple choice close-ended questions on (1) the origin and (2) the age of the respondents, (3) their way of travelling (organised or individual), (4) the length of their stay in Wadi Ramm, (5) the type of activities they had undertaken there (site-seeing, camping, hiking, taking a Jeep, riding a horse or a camel, rock climbing), (6, 7, 8) their encounters with Bedouin (how they identified them as such and in what circumstances they met), (9) the sites they had seen in the desert, (10, 11) the places they had seen in the village, if any, (12, 13, 14) their previous knowledge of Wadi Ramm and when and how it was gained (before or after deciding to visit Jordan; through guidebooks, documentaries, travel magazines, the Internet, literary works, feature films, climbers, hikers or horse-riding clubs or magazines, etc.). Open-ended questions were also asked about (15) the idea respondents had of the place prior to their visit, (16) how they would describe the place after their visit, (17) whether they would recommend others to visit it and why. Besides statistical data collected from the survey, additional qualitative data had been gathered at different times over the previous 3 years through a number of informal interviews with tourists before, during or after their visit of Wadi Ramm.
In guidebooks, travel magazines, tour operators' brochures, leaflets from the MTA or JTB, their electronic versions on the web, TV documentaries, etc., Wadi Ramm is presented in stark contrast with busy modern Amman, the capital of Jordan, or with historically significant Petra. Wadi Ramm is "a timeless and empty place", a definition that befits Western fancies of the desert. Travel literature and films give little written or oral description of the natural environment other than deeming it a "desert", briefly detailing the area‘s geological features and sometimes comparing it to
the Sahara‘s Tassilis or to Monument Valley which posses similar sandstone formations. The various media generally leave it to images to speak for themselves.
In whichever media, print or film, the most frequent images of Wadi Ramm are those of the landscape. They generally are variations on the same theme and show wide, unspoiled stretches of pink or orange sand with dramatic looking mountain ridges in the background. One brochure from an American tour operator, which does not feature illustrations of Wadi Ramm, states that: "All around, there is emptiness and silence. In this immense space, man is dwarfed to insignificance". Defining and showing Wadi Ramm as a desert implies the absence of permanent human presence, an unspoiled nature, a mineral landscape and a silence propitious to spiritual elevation. In line with the booming trend of "adventure" tourism, it may also suggest wilderness and danger: "As in any desert, a British guidebook says, keep an eye out for scorpions and the occasional snake. (...) Do not challenge the desert alone, as getting lost there could become a dramatically serious matter".
In this desert landscape, close-up pictures indicating human presence are of three types. The first represents Bedouin men or boys in what is implicitly presented as their "traditional" costume, i.e. a white robe and a chequered red and white head-dress, most of the time preparing or serving coffee or playing music. The Bedouin black goat-hair tent is also frequently shown, sometimes with camels nearby. Another favourite is the Desert Police mounted on camels, wearing khaki robes and chequered head-dresses, and armed with daggers. All or some of these elements may appear in conjunction. Objects or artefacts of modern technology are systematically avoided. The second set represents Western rock climbers, hikers or campers. In this case, photos or films might include a Jeep, and modern camping or climbing equipment. Bedouin are rarely around, and if so only in the background. The last type signals ancient human occupation by showing images of rock engravings or archaeological ruins.
Through these various sets of images, the potential or actual visitor can easily distinguish several worlds, realities, and temporalities sharing the same desert space: that of an ancient people of primitive artists, builders and settlers, that of the "traditional" Bedouin, and that of the "modern" Western visitors. In all three cases, human occupation is presented as temporary: either bygone and part of history, or nomadic as with the indigenous people and the passing Western visitors. Geographical determinism is suggested: the climate shapes the land, which, in turn, dictates its rule over man‘s presence. "Desertness" thus becomes the primary feature of the place. Even for those
tourists who have not been exposed to visual material, the written media, the Western tour leaders and the Jordanian licensed guides have prepared the way by repeatedly calling Wadi Ramm a desert.
Discarded images of change and human occupation
Even if pictures of tourist facilities such as the rest house and adjacent camp site are sometimes featured, the same media rarely describe and never show images of the village of Ramm itself, a recent Bedouin settlement set right in the middle of the valley (wadi) of Ramm. There, roughly 1000 locals live in unfinished grey concrete houses surrounded with electricity poles, scattered litter and occasional skeletons of disused cars. Almost every house has a satellite dish on the roof and a huge antenna rises above the village to allow for using mobile phones. Some Bedouin still keep a black goat-hair tent pitched in the backyard as is common is the settlement process of nomads, but the
few camels tied up around houses were bought only recently to rent to tourists. Bedouin, for their part, prefer to drive Jeeps for their private use and, when they to go about the village, they may put on Western clothes just as much as they may wear the traditional robes depending on their mood, on the social circumstances or, more prosaically, on what is clean in their wardrobe.
Except in relation to the accommodation, transportation and leisure activities of the tourists, the travel media avoid showing signs of Western-style modernity and change either in the village or in the desert. Equally, they display no images of the numerous goats out of which Bedouin still make a good part of their living. In the valleys and the mountains, they are to be spotted potentially anywhere or detected by the dung and innumerable footprints they leave on the sand. In what is represented as an "empty and silent " desert numerous other signs of modern man‘s presence are to
be found: occasional litter, recent rock graffiti, countless criss-crossing tracks of Jeeps, Bedouin passers-by who listen to Arabic music on their cars‘ radios or Jordanian tour guides who speak loudly on their cellular phones even quite far from the village. Not to mention other tourists hiking, climbing or on camel back and the distant fires of their campsites at night. On the other hand, for reasons that will be explained later, camps of nomadic Bedouin are becoming rare these days, even more so in the areas frequented by tourists.
The search for exotica, and in particular for experiencing the desert, is closely related to the processes that have produced Orientalism in writings and the visual arts (Said 1979). The operators in and around the tourism industry build upon existing stereotypical representations of the desert for marketing purposes and avoid mentions of change, modern technology and even of human presence, implicitly reducing the Bedouin to natural, unchanging elements in an "empty" environment. The few guidebooks that do mention the village lament its ugliness and advise avoidance.
The desert challenged
Yet, there is almost no way visitors can avoid being exposed to at least the brief sight of the village. Collective or individual tours to the desert generally start from the rest house located at the entrance of the village. Bedouin Jeep or camel drivers wait for clients next to the rest house and have to lead visitors alongside their settlement before "entering" the desert. Even if for no more than two minutes, this view is imposed once more on visitors as they come back to the rest house and the impression they get is rather unpleasant, as expressed in many answers to the survey.
This disagreeable feeling could probably be quickly overcome and forgotten if the tour to the desert was living up to tourists' expectations. But it is far from being always the case. For a variety of practical reasons, the main sites that have been identified by the MTA as of interest to tourists are located within a short distance from the village. As a consequence, the area frequented by tourists in the desert is not very wide (roughly 15 km x 20 km) and can become relatively crowded during the high Spring and Autumn seasons when up to 300 visitors go back and forth daily from one spot to the other by Jeeps, on camel-back or on foot, sometimes queuing up to see the most popular — i.e.
recommended in every guidebook — rock inscriptions. Total quietness and emptiness are hard to
find while one is never very far away from a human presence, at little risk of getting lost and frequently reminded that modern amenities are close at hand.
In strict climatic terms, Wadi Ramm is not a desert but an arid steppe (the badia, in Arabic) where
annual rainfall, though scarce, allows for goat and camel husbandry, episodic dry farming is specific areas and permanent human occupation even if only on a nomadic basis (see Sanlaville 2000 for a climatic introduction to the Arabian steppe). Greenish bushes spot the sand floor and small trees grow near the mountain feet where rainwater streams down. Rainwater is also naturally collected by the sandstone rocks and wells up when reaching their granite base, thus forming a continuous line of
springs with accompanying greenery along the slope of some mountains. These touches of vegetation, together with the herds and footprints of goats, are other reasons for surprise (if not disappointment) from the part of numerous visitors who expect a more strictly mineral landscape with just a few camels here and there. They keep looking for unspoiled stretches of sand like those represented on the pictures they have seen. But photos always show the same couple of dunes taken from different angles since they are the only ones of the sort to be found in the area. Some elderly Bedouin remember that David Lean himself, when shooting scenes of his movie, had bushes uprooted to match his idea of a desert.
Tourists have paid for seeing a specific landscape and experiencing a particular atmosphere. Reality falls short of meeting their expectations and many of them feel deceived. They voice their disappointment locally to tour guides, to the tourist police or to the representative of the MTA and, back home, to the travel agencies where they have bought their trips. Some even write letters to travel magazines, others express their feelings on the Internet, on their homepages or in specialised travellers chat groups. This new media, where some also post their own pictures of the reality in Wadi
Ramm, is becoming a major source of information for tourists of the younger generation. One such visitor, who kept an electronic diary of his trip to the Middle East in the Spring of 2000, denounced "the fallacies of the desert experience" in Wadi Ramm and put what he entitled two "alternative pictures" on his web site. One shows the same great landscape in the background but with a large litter bag torn open in the foreground. The caption identifies the litter as produced by tourists but disposed of by their Bedouin guide in the middle of the desert. The second picture shows large and deep tyre tracks on the sand, and the author comments that one should as well not dream of "going off the beaten tracks" when in Wadi Ramm.
Growing disappointment with the product sold as "the Jordanian desert" may translate practically by a drop in individual travellers visiting the area while touring Jordan or by Western travel agencies removing Wadi Ramm from their programme. Even before the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, the number of tourists visiting Jordan had regularly increased every year until the new outburst of violence in Israel/Palestine that started in Autumn 2000. Before that date, there was also a constant increase of foreign visitors in Wadi Ramm, as figures of the MTA show. Nevertheless, officials in the Ministry or in Wadi Ramm, Jordanian travel agents and the local Bedouin involved in tourism that were interviewed for this study in 1998-1999 were all aware that some Western tour operators had decided to shorten their tours of Jordan by removing the visit to the desert, a fact that could be checked by looking at their brochures. This move had measurable financial consequences for the various Jordanian travel agencies located in Amman or Aqaba, for the tour guides, for the hotels in Aqaba where most of the tourists in organised tours are accommodated after their one-day trip to Wadi Ramm, for the rest house in Wadi Ramm that is also a major local service provider and broker, and, of course, for the Bedouin working in tourism.
Organising the Bedouin experience
As stated before, parallel to images and experiences of the desert, the various operators in the tourism industry have used representations of the traditional Bedouin as another marketed item. Describing how touristic representations are translated into tourists‘ experiences of Bedouin culture in Wadi Ramm does not necessitate an introduction to the past or current Bedouin way of life. Rather, it is more useful to give some details of the various non-Bedouin brokers and middlemen that have designed the "Bedouin" product and organise the experience of visitors.
Large Jordanian travel agencies are located in Amman, or, to a much lesser extent, in Aqaba and Wadi Mousa, the town neigbouring the site of Petra. They are owned by urban Jordanian businessmen and staffed by no less urban employees, including tour guides. They either design their