When I began my photographic
journey in 1992, one of my dreams was to meet the fabled camel
herders, reputed to graze herds of over 100 camels. After
months of fruitless search, I was told that they had moved to
Wadi Araba. I hired a Bedouin guide and went in search of the
great camel herds, but in vain. On the way back, the guide
mentioned that an aunt of his was taking care of her new-born
goats in the nearby mountains and asked if we could stop to
see her. Since I had nothing else to occupy my time, we drove
to the foot of the mountains, from where we had to scale its
steep side in order to reach the side entrance of the cave.
It was here that I met Torfa, a proud Ammarin woman. Her cave
was unique in that it was divided into three compartments: one
for the goats, another which served as a kitchen, and the
third which served as a living area. Despite the presence of
the animals, the floor of the cave was remarkably clean, and
Torfa had even contrived a form of terrace in front of the
cave. When asked why she lived so far away, Torfa admitted she
liked living alone, away from people, because they talk too
much. What she needed in terms of food and supplies, her son
brought to her during his weekly visits.
The following year I searched for Torfa. I found the cave, but
not the occupant, who was back with the tribe at that time of
year. I learned later that she stays in the caves only in the
winter months (January through March), when it was warm in the
caves and cold outside. In summer, there is less vegetation on
the mountain and so she travels to Heesheh, located east of
Petra, where she lives in her tent.
On this particular trip, I met instead Hamda, an older Ammarin
woman whom I immediately recognised from my visit in 1992. To
prove to her that I knew her, I reminded her of how she was
saved by other Bedouins from the flood in 1992. Only then she
did accept me as a friend and allow me to take photographs of
The following June, I searched again for Torfa and found her
at Heesheh. Although it had only been a year and a half since
I had seen her, the harsh desert had aged her beyond her
years. It was shocking how much tired and old she looked.
Because of the sun, her skin was much darker and her body,
hunched with age. I could only stay one night in her
hospitality, since she was moving to find a better grazing
area the following day.
It was not till 1996 that I finally succeeded in solving the
enigma of Torfa. Visiting her cave in March, I found her
herding her goats a usual; but this time she acknowledged me
as a friend and told me her story.
Her full name is Torfa bint Saleh, daughter of Saleh and
granddaughter of Abdullah. She was born in Heesheh, along with
the rest of the family. She is not sure how old she is,
perhaps around 70 years. She has given birth to 8 children, of
whom four died (2 boys and 2 girls) and the other four (3
daughters and one boy) survived. All have since moved away
except for one of her daughters, who helps her herd her
Torfa was married a long time ago to a soldier. For Bedouins
at that time, the military meant the good life, since it
provided money, clothes, food and privileges like heath
insurance for the family. After he finished his term of
service he enrolled in the PLO. One day after the war of 1967,
he crossed wadi Araba on a mission, but a land mine went off
under his foot, destroying his leg. He was captured by the
Israelis, given medical treatment (a prosthetic leg) and then
imprisoned for five years. Upon his release, he returned to
Torfa for one year before he died.
Today, Torfa continues to herd her goats and sheep, some of
which she tends for her brothers and sisters who live in the
city. She carries water to the cave from the valley below on
her donkey, and depends on her brother for a weekly subsidy.
She is getting old, though, and the climb to her cave is
becoming increasingly difficult. With her usual dignity,
mingled with some sadness, she says that this year or the next
will probably be her last visit to the mountain.