In legend at least, the policemen of the past were often romantic figures: Texas Rangers quelling lynch mobs with a glance, Canadian Mounties tracking their man by canoe and dog sled, and - less famous, but equally colorful - Jordan's Desert Patrol guiding their camels across desert sands to save stranded travelers.
Today, sadly, much of the romance has vanished. The Rangers drive Chevy's, the Mounties use snowmobiles and the Desert Patrol spends more time in jeeps - and sometimes helicopters - than on camels.
In Jordan, it is true, there are still traces of the old days. The Desert Patrol, on occasion, still sends its famous Camel Corps into regions where even Land-Rovers have trouble, and at special ceremonies the desert police, in their dashing uniforms, still lead the parades. But as the desert changes, so too does the role of the desert police. The day of the last patrol is approaching.
Formally named Shurtat al-Badiya - the police of the badiya, the desert regions of the Bedouins - the Desert Patrol was first established in 1931 when Prince Abdullah of Trans-Jordan decided it was time to end the tribal raiding and constant turmoil that was typical of the time. As that, then, was a formidable undertaking, Abdullah shrewdly recruited the sons of tribal shaikhs and - just as shrewdly - clad them in uniforms derived from traditional tribal dress: the striking garb still worn today. Together those moves helped give the police instant prestige and legitimacy among the Bedouins.
In those days, and for years afterwards, that prestige was crucial. With a beat of 25,000 square miles - more than two thirds of Jordan's territory - the Shurtat al-Badiya could rarely impose its will on the tribes. Its strength, more often than not, was in its reputation, and as the years went by that reputation grew.
Like the Mounties - the Royal Canadian Mounted Police - whose scarlet tunics became a symbol of law, order and safety in some 300,000 square miles of Canadian wilderness, the Desert Patrol became a symbol of justice and help in the desert. Equally striking - in khaki robes, blood-red belts, crossed bandoleers, silver daggers and red pistol cords - the desert police soon won the respect of the Bedouins by rescuing lost tribesmen, bringing water to livestock and settling disputes on the spot - most often by invoking Koranic and traditional principles passed down from generation to generation.
By 1980, however, the role of the Desert Patrol had begun to change. In earlier days, for example, its mobile police units had to patrol the big oases where, each season, up to 1,000 Bedouins with their herds converged - places like Burga in northeast Jordan. The site of a natural reservoir, Burga will fill up, and remain full for three years, after heavy rains.
In the last five years, however, a prolonged drought has left Burga bone dry - thus accelerating the movement of Bedouins into towns and cities. Even if it fills up again, the old gatherings will be smaller, as Bedouins, after sampling the easier life of the towns, decide to stay on.
Indeed, according to Lieutenant Colonel Anbar Dahash, head of the desert police, the drought is wiping out the traditional nomadic life of the Bedouin. "Because of the drought," says Colonel Dahash, whose father fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab Revolt in World War I, "there is less food and water for the animals and that means the entire basis of life in the badiya is threatened."
"As a result," he continues, "I'd say 15 to 20 percent of the Bedouin population moves into the cities every year now. Ten years from now there will not be any real nomadic Bedouins."
According to a study made by a team of professors from the University of Jordan, Colonel Dahash is right. The study concluded that the country's population of nomadic Bedouins has dwindled from 220,000 in the 1950s to a mere 60,000 today. And Colonel Dahash estimates that there are now 300,000 Bedouins living in villages and cities, many of whom have, with the assistance of the government, settled down permanently. They have been lured to urban life, he believes, by the attractions of schooling for their children, medical care and a life that is much easier than the demanding life of a herdsman in the badiya.
As a result, the desert police now face different challenges. Today, for example, they have few, if any, tribal disputes to quell or moderate. Instead, they are much more likely to receive calls for help from stranded motorists or be sent to help a family needing medical assistance. And in these situations pick-ups and jeeps – and helicopters provided by the military - are far more valuable than camels.
Actually, says Colonel Dahash, today's services more closely resemble those provided by urban rescue squads than by the Mounties. Patrolmen rescue lost sheep as often as people, and on some occasions have even transported whole herds to waterholes. In addition, they can sometimes provide instant communications across the huge, still-desolate badiya by radio; some motorized patrols and permanent outposts are linked directly with urban centers.
"We used to spend much more time helping stranded Bedouins," Colonel Dahash says, "but today most Bedouin families own their own jeeps or pick-up trucks, so they can move around the desert more quickly than they used to in the days when they had only camels."
On the other hand, the desert police still function as an investigative police force too. In 1978, for example, Shurtat al-Badiya had to deal with three murder cases, 14 cases of rape and 39 thefts. By western standards that’s an astonishingly low crime rate, of course, but in addition the force also arrested 198 smugglers - one arrest involving a chase across the eastern desert in pursuit of a truck carrying 10,350 cartons of cigarettes destined for Jordan's increasingly consumer-oriented markets.
That smuggler, as it happened, surrendered meekly, but as bullet-riddled pick-ups parked near police posts testify, not all the smugglers are as cooperative.
That smuggler, as it happened, surrendered meekly, but as bullet-riddled pick-ups parked near police posts testify, not all the smugglers are as cooperative. Traditional shoot-outs between the smugglers and the Desert Patrol are by no means uncommon.
The desert police have also modernized their approach to whatever disputes still occur in the desert. These days such disputes usually involve land demarcation or contested water rights, and although the police sometimes invoke the traditional principles, more often they refer the problem to a recognized qadi, a religious leader trained in the Shari'a, the law of Islam derived largely from the Koran. More flagrant offenses, such as murder, are referred to Jordan's criminal courts.
Today, too, it is not enough to know the desert to qualify for acceptance. Recruits, should they be illiterate, are taught to read and write and must take the same three months of traifiing that an urban policeman does. Recruits must also take a course in desert work and older officers are required to attend special training courses with their counterparts in urban police units; this is to enable the Patrol to maintain close coordination with the entire national police force. Today they even take courses in such elements of criminology as photography and fingerprinting.
In a sense, therefore, the "Camel Corps" - as the whole Desert Patrol is affectionately called - is becoming an anachronism. Like the Mounties, they lead parades, their gleaming insignia pinned to their traditional red-checkered kaffiyas, or pose graciously for the odd visitor who makes his way to the old forts they still maintain as outposts in the desert.
But while it is true that the 1,000-man force has changed substantially - its herd of 150 specially trained camels is now down to 40 - the spirit of the past still stubbornly survives. Despite modern technology, there are still some areas where only camels can go and there are still some skills that no one but the Bedouin has ever mastered. As one consequence of this, the Desert Patrol still recruits exclusively from the sons of the desert - partly from tradition, but also because only they can survive, let alone function, in the desert.
A few years ago, government pay scales began to lag behind those of the private sector and the reservoir of recruits began to dry up. It was the perfect time to change the tradition, yet Jordan refused to do so. Instead, the government increased pay scales and continued to recruit their patrolmen from the Bedouin tribes which originally provided them - and undoubtedly will until the last patrol has been ridden.
Rami Khouri, formerly Managing Editor of The Jordan Times, now free-lances in Amman, where he is editing one book on Jordan's Bedouins and writing another on agricultural development of the Jordan Valley.