en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 31, Number 3May/June 1980

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Last Patrol

Written by Rami G. Khouri
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

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.

On Patrol
Written by Tor Eigeland

On a sunny but chilly afternoon at the 'desert police station in southern Jordan, Captain Ghazi Dughayyim of the Desert Patrol, a driver, and three policemen armed with rifles, pistols and daggers piled into a blue Land-Rover. For reasons of his own, the captain had suddenly decided it was time to patrol a certain region, and with one impatient shout had gotten us underway.

We shot off in a southerly direction, bouncing and veering sharply and frequently to avoid bushes, bumps, rocks and deep, loose sand, the policemen in the back, Bedouin trackers all, calling directions to the driver to keep him out of trouble in the difficult, roadless terrain.

Now and then, when we stopped to check unusual tracks and footprints, I was able to focus on the magnificent scenery of mountains and desert, but most of the time my eyes were riveted on the track ahead; born hunters, my excited companions seemed to insist on a bone-rattling, brain-busting ride.

At one point, spotting a lone figure walking in the desert miles from anywhere, we raced after him and stopped. As the patrolmen knew him, and he them, we exchanged greetings and dropped him off near his tent several miles on.

As we drove, I learned that the captain, somehow, expected to find smugglers; close to the border this region was known for its smuggling. Minutes later, when we came across the tracks of a lone vehicle, it began to look as if the captain's instincts were right: the tracks were those of a Toyota pick-up truck that had just passed here, heading for the border.

Shouting back and forth to each other, the patrolmen picked up the Toyota's trail and, no more than 15 minutes later, spotted the smoke of a small fire in the distance. Then we saw the truck parked, indeed a Toyota, and some men. There was mounting excitement. Was it friend or foe?

The excitement, however, quickly subsided. The men were people the trackers knew; they had come to fetch firewood, very plentiful in this area. I felt somewhat let down.

Since we had stopped anyway, the patrolmen decided to make tea and, since they had a fire going, to bake some bread in the glowing embers before resuming the patrol.

By then, late in the afternoon, the light of the sun had turned a warm, yellowish red and Captain Dughayyim decided to turn back to Wadi Rum - the great scenic valley described so vividly by Colonel Lawrence. Along the way he sent his trackers off on foot to the right and left into difficult, mountainous terrain where smugglers, or anyone else who preferred to avoid the police, might hide. The jeep would then move on through the open areas, and wait for the trackers.

We were in the middle of a narrow valley, waiting for the last of the trackers to reappear when, suddenly, a single shot shattered the silence. Two of our trackers who were outside the car instan thfdropped to a kneeling position, their rifles at the ready, and carefully scanned the surrounding valley. For a moment or two, the tension was tangible, but then the last of the trackers appeared behind us, running with a loping gait, and the patrolmen relaxed; apparently he had fired to attract our attention. He had spotted the tracks of two young camel-thieves with two camels. He knew they were thieves because they were obviously trying to stay out of sight, taking a difficult, tortuous route - and any good Bedouin tracker can tell whether footprints are those of a man or woman, young or old, and even - according to legend - whether the woman is pregnant.

After conferring rapidly with the captain, the policemen started out on the tracks of the thieves at an easy, slightly crouched run, the captain and I following in the Land-Rover. By then the sun had slipped behind the wadi's towering cliffs and, except for a deep red glow on the horizon, there was little light. But the trackers, still running, seemed to have no trouble seeing.

After about 20 minutes, the trackers stopped to confer with the captain. Their breathing was not even heavy but, apparently out of consideration for me, and against my protests, they decided to suspend the chase till the next day. First though, they gathered a huge pile of dry brush and wood and set fire to it.

I stared at them in surprise. Against the blackness of the nigh t the great blaze could be seen from miles away. Wouldn't this warn the thieves?

Why, yes, replied the captain, explaining that it was a traditional way of telling the thieves that the police were on to them. "Anyway" he said confidently, "tomorrow we'll catch them'.'

And they probably would have. But at dawn, as the patrolmen prepared to close in, a tremendous windstorm blew up, followed by torrential rains that washed out all the tracks. The patrolmen shrugged, returned to the jeep and continued the patrol...

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the May/June 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1980 images.