PETRA AND WADI RUM, Jordan — There are plenty of reasons for female tourists to visit the Middle East. Two of the new seven wonders of the world are here. Christians, Muslims and Jews alike can visit hundreds of holy sites. The Red Sea offers some of the best diving in the world.
And in the deserts of Jordan and Egypt, women looking for no strings attached sex can find a host of exotic sexual encounters with Bedouin men willing to offer their services.
Hidden in the heart of the Holy Land, desert vacation spots like Petra and Wadi Rum are acquiring a reputation among Western women as an idyllic spot for a casual romance with men who hail from the local Bedouin tribes.
While only a handful of women come to these places explicitly looking for sex, most guides and Western women who have indulged say that the charm of these desert locales takes many women by surprise, and even those who weren’t looking for a tryst may find one. This is far removed from the scene in more renowned destinations for "female sex tourists," like the Caribbean and coastal Africa, where women openly exchange cash and gifts for encounters with local boys and men.
The culture of casual sex and Western-style dating often creates internal conflicts for the Muslim Bedouin guides and can put Western women in uncomfortable situations. It’s also created a climate where both guides and female tourists uninterested in sex or a relationship find themselves burdened by unwanted advances.
What happens in Jordan is far from the extremes of women’s sex tourism found in places like Jamaica and Kenya and Senegal, where women reportedly “rent” men for a set period of time. However, the kingdom is developing a reputation as a destination for women looking for an exotic rendezvous. Jo Magazine, a prominent local magazine, ran a cover story last summer, online sites like Escape Artist Travel have listed Jordan as a female sex tourism destination, along with Southern Europe, the Caribbean Basin, Kenya in Africa, and to a lesser extent Central America, the South Pacific and Morocco. According to Escape Artist Travel, women's and men's sex tourism are two absolutely different phenomena, in that women do not go to bars and sex shows to find new partners.
A handful of academics have researched the topic. Jessica Jacobs, a research fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London has studied the issue and published several articles on the topic. More than being just about sex, Jacobs said the experience appeals to women on a number of levels.
“It’s about the moment, the connection to nature, exhibiting a sense of freedom and experimenting with gender identity, doing things that they’re not particularly judged for because no one from their own particular society is there to see them,” she said.
In Jordan, for the most part sex tourism for women takes the shape of something much more akin to a vacation fling. Most often, a Bedouin guide takes a woman out for an overnight camping trip in the desert. Then, as the locals say, the desert moon has a certain effect, and regardless of whether the woman has come to the desert looking for sex, relations are had.
Some women then get involved in long-term relationships with guides, some get married, or some pay a discounted rate for the trip and continue on with their tour.
It is extremely rare for a woman to offer money for sex, and there are only an extremely limited number of cases where women — usually over 40 — become involved with young Bedouin men and, as part of the unofficial bargain, buy them cars or perhaps pay their rent.
Though this might not sound much different than any other traveler’s tryst, according to SexTourism.net, a website offering advice for male and female sex tourists, this is generally how sex tourism plays out for women around the globe. While men usually just want sex, the site explains, “Female sex tourists on the other hand are more interested in having a holiday romance or fling — which may or may not result in sex. Women rarely pay for sexual or romantic encounters with men during sex tours — however there are a small number who seek the services of male prostitutes or ‘gigolos’ when abroad.”
Still, many Bedouins downplay the extent to which women are coming to the desert in search of sex or inadvertently happening upon it when they arrive. When asked if he’d heard of Western women on the prowl for Bedouin men in Petra, one local joked that if they were out there, please point them in his direction.
He says he is happily married and faithful to his Saudi wife. He sells jewelry in Petra and says he has visited more than 20 different countries. What he’s seen in Petra doesn’t strike him as all that different than anything that happens in exotic destinations all over the world.
“Pretty much anywhere you go it’s the same: People on holiday want to have fun,” he said.
When these romantic encounters happen in the Middle East though, this type of exchange can be especially problematic as sex outside of marriage remains a serious taboo — for Muslims and Christians alike. What happens on desert camping trips defies hundreds of years of tradition and often reinforces negative stereotypes about Western women’s tendency toward promiscuity.
Mary, an American who lived in Jordan for two years and who also asked that GlobalPost not use her real name, dated a Bedouin guide in Wadi Rum for a year and a half. While she had no regrets about her relationship, she advised other Western women not to have a fling while in Wadi Rum.
“In the Middle East they have this opinion of Western women that they are very loose, and all of their suspicions are coming true in Wadi Rum. Women definitely aren’t making a good name for themselves down there,” she said.
Many women new to the region say it is difficult to immediately see the cultural divides that can create problems. For example, Pia, an Italian who had worked in Jordan for several months before traveling to Petra on vacation, admitted that she was still “ignorant."
“I went there just like I was in a Western country,” she said. When she fell for her Bedouin guide, he admitted that he was in a relationship with another woman who had returned to Italy. He said, however, that he was in an open relationship and that he was free to date.
“The Bedouin men give you the impression that they are free and have the same mentality as Western people. They tell you, ‘I am not like other Arab people, we are free.’ … Of course, it’s fake, it’s a lie.”
Pia said she discovered this when she got into a quarrel with another guide because she rejected his advance. As revenge, the slighted guide sent her phone number to the other guide’s girlfriend back in Italy. Pia stopped her flirtations with the guide after that incident. Later, she said she called his girlfriend in Italy and learned that the woman was paying his rent and planning to give up her acting career in Italy to move to Petra for him. The guide told Pia that his main reason for keeping the relationship with the other woman was because she paid his rent.
Walking the canyons of Petra, it’s not uncommon to see many foreign women swoon over the local men. At Love Lion, a snack shop in the ancient city of Petra, a young, female tourist from the U.S. approached a Bedouin man. “Excuse me,” she said, embarrassed. “But you have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. Can I please take your picture?” The vendor already had a serious girlfriend in Portugal.
Many Bedouin men have little modesty about their appeal to women.
“There’s the cowboy in the American movies and he knows how to ride horses very well and deal with nature. He’s something different than the city man. In the movies, women fall in love with this man and maybe have sex with him in the end of the movie,” said Saleem Ali, a tour guide in Wadi Rum. “Bedouin men are pretty good looking, they climb very well, they ride horses and camels very well, and they know how make tea and cook, and deal with nature. So it’s not the fault of the girl that she falls in love with the man. It’s nature.”
In an essay Jacobs explains that Western women tend to see Bedouins as "real" men who fit neatly into “traditional stereotypes of masculinity.”
When Anne, an American who asked not to use her real name, went to the Western desert in Egypt for the first time, she said it was difficult not to become smitten.
A study abroad student in Egypt at the time, she was living in Cairo, one of the most polluted, crowded cities in the world. As in most Arab cities, it’s often difficult for Westerners to cross the cultural divide and immerse in the local culture. For Anne and many of her friends, the Egyptian oases provided both an escape from the city and a way into the local culture.
“It was so romantic to go out and be in the White Desert and I guess it was a little bit of trying to integrate too,” she said. “It’s just such a beautiful place and [the guide] knew where he was going, he was so confident, so there was that. But for some other people, it was just fun for them.”
After spending a year in Egypt where she had a casual relationship with a Bedouin guide whom she came to consider a close friend, and working for two years in Jordan, Anne said that she’d met many young women who'd had a desert fling. On a camping trip of all girls, she said, it would be very normal for at least one girl to hook up with one of the guides.
“It’s fun, and if you’re not dating anyone else then why not? You’re spending all night with these people, if you were going out to a club and you ended up spending all night with someone, I mean, chances are something is going to happen,” she said, adding: “They cook you dinner, too. It’s pretty nice.”
During one of his first trips as a tour guide, Suleman Zalabeh said he was startled when a European woman began making out with another guide in front of him. Three years later, Zalabeh, now 21, said he’d had sex with more than 25 tourists. He recently got engaged to a local woman and said he'd stopped having relationships with other women and that his wife didn’t know about his past.
Although Zalabeh enjoyed most of these encounters, looking back he said he now felt conflicted. “I’m not proud of these things,” he said. As a Muslim, he said he felt some remorse for having sex outside of marriage.
According to Attayak Zalabeh, manager of a tour company in Wadi Rum, experiences like Suleman Zalabeh’s are common. Most guides begin working when they are 18 or 19 years old, a prime age for sexual experimentation. After several years, they get married and shortly move into management jobs where they spend less time working directly with groups in the desert.
As a young man, Attayak Zalabeh, now in his mid-30s, had several relationships with foreign women. Now married, he said he advised his young employees against doing as he did.
“If you are a guide, you find out it’s true [that you should avoid relationships with foreign women]. As a guide, it’s not good to try to go with women, because it’s not good for business,” he said, explaining that if a tour guide is busy focusing on one woman, they neglect the rest of the tour group and create unhappy customers. More importantly, he worried about young men getting sexually transmitted diseases and violating their commitment to Islam.
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