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Bedouin Tour Guide Loses His House After Jordan Closes Borders During The Pandemic


Few places on Earth have been left untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. It's even hit the Jordanian desert. NPR's Jane Arraf tells the story of a Bedouin who worked as a tourist guide in the ancient city of Petra, a man who has now lost his home in the upheaval of the global pandemic.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Suleiman Mohammad sits cross-legged and grinds wheat for his chickens. It's a stone wheel that moves around a steel peg hammered into the rock. The tourists he normally takes around the ancient city of Petra would probably enjoy it. But he's not doing it for the tourists. He's doing it because he can't afford to buy chicken feed.


ARRAF: Selling a few eggs is the only income he and his wife have since the country closed its borders two months ago. Unable to pay rent on their home, they moved to a tent outside of town.

SULEIMAN MOHAMMAD: It's a free land, and I am living still. What we have, it's enough to eat. Some people they come to share the food, to share the stuff. And we're still alive.


ARRAF: There's a huge rooster, his leg tied with a piece of rope so he doesn't wander and get eaten by wolves; a few chickens in a pen and goats grazing near the road. The three donkeys he uses to take tourists up to monuments high in the hills are near a spring eating grass so he doesn't have to feed them.

Normally in this season, he would make up to $1,000 a month, particularly if there were American tourists who he says are more generous. Because he works for himself, with no tourists, he has nothing. Mohammad is in his early 40s, from one of the Bedouin families that lived in the caves of the ancient city of Petra. He never had the chance to go to school because it was too far away.

MOHAMMAD: The Bedouins, they afraid, you know, something happen for you on the way. They decide - they say, OK, no school.

ARRAF: He worked instead. He learned English from the tourists. And he actually married a Swiss woman and moved with her to Zurich.

MOHAMMAD: In the beginning, it was nice because first time I see nice thing, green, you know, everything. But I cannot stay more than one month.

ARRAF: He missed the land and his people. He came back and married Azziza Ali. They've been together for 16 years. Their tent is made of black goat hair, open on the sides. A car battery charges the phone and powers a light bulb. They have to bring water here by donkey. To make tea, his wife has to gather sticks and light a fire. Mohammad says he likes being outdoors. His wife, not so much.

AZZIZA ALI: (Speaking non-English language).

ARRAF: "Our circumstances changed," she says. There was no way they could pay for rent and water and electricity. She says she hopes this tent is temporary - until the pandemic is over and the tourists come back and she can go back to a house.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, near Petra, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.