Tents don’t have locks

Bismillah Rahman ar-Raheem

We have a little house now, but when I first lived here it was in a long, wide, traditional hand made Bedouin tent. I dearly miss our first home but we are not totally without now. Most Bedouin (and us) who live in houses still keep a tent next to the house, as they never feel quite at home in a room. So we have a little tent next to the house for sitting, and for my husband to receive male guests in.

The light in a well made “bait shahaar” is special. A kind of warm dappled cosyness. As the sun moves across the sky the light and temperature changes inside and where you sit changes according to the time of day, and year. The daily life inextricably linked to the natural rhythms of the sun, moon, temperature. In the summer the sides are opened so the wind can move through, and water is sprinkled on the sand (to cool down the space). In the winter the sides are brought down, sewed up, and often sand dug over the edges to keep the wind out.

I am not a person that likes change, but living in our tent I had the feeling of being nomadic within the space of the tent. All the time the arrangements were changing. Where best to sleep, where best to sit, one side in the morning, the other side of the tent in the afternoon. Even where we made the fire for cooking had a life of its own, travelling inside the space of our goat hair tent. A continuous slow daily, hourly, change. It was good for me.

Now in the house I resolutely arrange our room the same each day. My husband combats my un-Nomadic-ness and every 4-6 months makes material changes (close up this doorway, open a doorway there, change the tent outside, make a covered area outside for sitting and so on), so even in this small stationary area of land I have the feeling of movement. Living in an organic space. I always used to grumble about never getting surprises, well now I get them all the time. Be careful what you wish for!

It often doesn’t occur to outsiders how to approach a black “bait shahaar” Bedouin tent, or an unlocked house, when all your life you have had a closed or locked door to knock or a bell to ring. Suddenly you find yourself with a tent in front of you, and what should you do? Well if you sit back quietly and watch the people who live in these tents you will observe some very strict and beautifully respectful rules being played out.

It is funny how normal and safe I feel at home despite there being nothing physical preventing people from entering (we have a little house but the door has no lock). Actually the seriousness of peoples respect for others space here is far stronger than a physical barrier.

  • Firstly when walking to the house, you have to call out, clear your throat or make some other kind of noise, walking loudly or similar. You should not approach quietly or suddenly make a noise.
  • Three attempts to call out and receive a response should be made (with a reasonable wait in between to be sure they have heard or are not praying – they cannot respond to you). Then if no-one has answered and come to the tent flap, or called out to you to come in, you should leave. This is a beautiful Islamic manner that gives people the right to their own space.
  • Men should never enter into the womens area (unless they are family and explicitly invited there). There is a mens side to the tent and the womens side to the tent. The mens area is where guests are formally received and is usually left tidy, and ready for guests, and is more open than the womans side.
  • If there are no men at home when someone calls on arrival, the lady of the house/ tent will simply not reply, or send one of the children to say baba (Dad) is not home, the person would then leave and come back later. If the man was close family like her husbands father, she would welcome him in, provide tea, food etc as needed.
  • Bedouin culture is very much a social, and communal one, but in the case of approaching people at home in their own space it is very structured and respectful. These beautiful manners are all following guidance from Allah (swt) and an important part of Islamic religion, and manners.

I will use this opportunity to have a grumble on my soap box. Four times now I have been sitting quietly at home in my room, and a male tourist has come quietly & initially unseen into my house, uninvited, without knocking or calling out. Please tell me this is rude in any Culture!  In all cases they were Western men from the UK, Italy, and U.S.A respectively. I caught one taking pictures of my kitchen (not for its beauty believe me!) – what is that about. I have never had a woman tourist do this (my theory is they get so bombarded in the media about how to behave & dress abroad and in the Middle East particularly they seem to be a bit more sensitive to these things). Men you also need to be aware so don’t think being a man in the Middle East means you can do and go where you want. The movements men make here are equally restricted to the movements of women. The men are restricted in the sense of which houses they can visit, and where they can go within those houses.  It amazes me because here women are in control of who sees them or who doesn’t see them, so for a man to enter uninvited into her private space it is not okay in the slightest.  It is like going into a dressing room where someone is changing, or going into the bathroom with someone without permission. Her space in her home is where she relaxes and she should not be worrying about random men wandering in.

Please, please, please be a responsible tourist and when you are visiting a local person anywhere in the world do not think it is okay in any shape or form to wander around peoples houses alone without being invited/ shown. If the house is not locked it does not mean you can go where you like.

Being respectful of others way of life (whether you agree with the way or not) will help you to connect with them as people, because they will feel that respect from you and then you will be welcomed with open arms, Insha’Allah.

Subhana Allah (glory to God) the world is a wonderful, fantastical place.