Tradition preserves a place for camels in Jordan's desert forces

Published December 7th, 2014 - 05:00 GMT

Hitched up in the sandy lot by the police station, next to the four-by-four trucks and the dune buggy, is some other important equipment for enforcing the law in this parched and forbidding desert valley: eight surly and perpetually masticating camels.

Six of the towering beasts are saddled up regularly for patrol by the local police to reach rugged areas or to show off for tourists. The other two are thoroughbred racing camels, males, kept around to provide another kind of service.

“Any resident who wants to bring his lady camel by can come,” said Kayed Nasser, a handler in the station’s camel unit. “It’s a free service that we provide to citizens.”

This is the local station of Jordan’s Royal Desert Forces, a 4,000-man-strong branch of the national police force that is responsible for monitoring and patrolling the sparsely populated desert areas that cover four-fifths of this Middle Eastern monarchy.

The force is descended from a camel corps founded in the 1920s, when Britain, which had a mandate to rule the area, separated the region of Transjordan from Palestine. The force evolved after Jordan’s independence in 1946, relying more heavily on trucks and surveillance technology. Today, the camel patrols are a small, but still important, part of the Royal Desert Forces’ efforts to catch smugglers, track down stolen cars and keep family feuds from turning murderous.

The force’s officers hail from Jordan’s Bedouin tribes, meaning they know how to operate in the desert and how to navigate the intricate social codes of the hundreds of thousands of Bedouin who live in those areas.

“The child of the city does not know how to interact with the Bedouin who live in the desert,” said Captain Enad Al Jazi, a Bedouin and the deputy chief of the Wadi Rum station.

“We do,” he said, although he now spends more time in a four-by-four truck than on camel-back.

Much had changed, Al Jazi said, since the days when the deserts lacked roads and phone coverage and when officers did multiday camel patrols carrying only lentils, flour, lard and powered milk — sleeping with their camels around wood fires.

Now, Jordan’s army staffs most of the borders, and Al Jazi and his men work in trucks, or by cellphone.

One afternoon, a colleague called to tell him that four officers had been speeding in the desert when they got a flat tyre and flipped their vehicle. All were unharmed, so Al Jazi dispatched a crew in another truck to retrieve them.

Later, his officers caught some Bedouins hunting without a licence. They confiscated the poachers’ rifle, wrote them a court summons and released a falcon they had trapped and a pigeon they were using for bait, Al Jazi said.

He and his men spend little time in their boxy white police station, preferring to drink tea and gossip with the Bedouin who come by to visit in the red and black tent pitched on the lawn.

The camels rest nearby. All have names as well as official government numbers branded into their necks, like licence plates.

The station’s officers acknowledge that technology has largely made the camels unnecessary, but say that the force of tradition keeps them there.

“They are the heritage passed down from our grandparents,” said Nasser, one of the camel handlers. “And we love them.”

© Al Nisr Publishing LLC 2021. All rights reserved.

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