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Election Bypasses Jordan’s Nomads

November 3, 1997

QATRANA, Jordan (AP) _ Not far from the Desert Highway that cuts across some of the most barren land in Jordan, the Azazmeh tribe lives in tents knitted from goat hair.

Around their camp, pale brown dunes and brittle ground peppered with jagged stones and thorny brush stretch to the horizon. Nearby lies an oasis where the tribe’s 11 families grow tomatoes in the summer to eke out a living.

When the rest of the country votes Tuesday to elect 80 members of Parliament, the nomadic and independent people of the Azazmeh will stay away.

Meanwhile, the government on Monday made a final appeal to Jordanians to vote in the polls that are being boycotted by the main opposition party and its allies.

Mazen Armouti, the chief election spokesman, said 10 more candidates have withdrawn from the race, lowering to 525, including 17 women, the number of contestants for the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament.

The elections are the third since King Hussein allowed democratic reforms in 1989. In 1992, he legalized political parties that had been banned since a 1956 leftist coup attempt.

Jordan’s biggest opposition party, the fundamentalist Islamic Action Front, and eight small pan-Arab nationalist groups are boycotting the polls to protest against government policies, including the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

Armouti said polls will be open for 12 hours from 7:00 a.m. (0500 GMT). Results are expected on Wednesday, he added.

But the campaign rallies, election banners and slaughtering of sheep by candidates for luck have not reached this remote camp, which is too caught up in the daily struggle for survival to worry about what is happening in mainstream society.

``Nobody came and told us to vote. Anyway it is of no benefit to me. We are a forgotten people,″ said Salim Abou Sadah, 43, sitting outside his low tent on a stained cotton mattress while flies buzzed around spilled food on the ground.

Nearby, his wife, Fauzia, waved her hand lazily to shoo the flies covering an infected eye of a half-naked, 2 1/2 year-old toddler, Mohammed, the youngest of their eight children.

The Azazmeh tribe is among about 5,000 Bedouins still roaming Jordan’s desert with their goats, sheep, camels and donkeys. The number of Bedouin, Arabic for desert dwellers, is estimated at 190,000, about 5 percent of the country’s 3.8 million people. But most have settled down with jobs or to cultivate crops.

Sadah and his tribe, however, represent a larger reality in Jordan. They are among 1 million Jordanians who live below the poverty line _ estimated as earning less than 119 dinars (dlrs 178) monthly _ many untouched by King Hussein’s efforts to develop a modern, vibrant economy in his desert kingdom.

Sadah has only heard of the neon-lit shopping plazas, well kept streets and white stone buildings of the capital, Amman. His only contact with the outside world is when a trader comes in a pickup to buy his tomatoes or when he goes by donkey each week to get provisions in Qatrana, 5 kilometers (2 miles) away.

When winter comes next month _ perhaps bringing snow _ Sadah and his tribes people will pack up their tents _ called beit al-sha’ar, or ``house of hair,″ from their camp 85 kilometers (50 miles) south of Amman on the Desert Highway stretching to Aqaba.

They will sling their mattresses, clothes and utensils on donkeys and march north to a place where firewood is available. For generations, that has been the cycle of life for the Azazmeh.

In a bid to settle nomads, the government says it provides education, housing and health clinics to the Bedouin but adds that some tribes prefer their centuries-old lifestyle.

Not so, said Sadah, the tomato grower. He would like to have a stone-and-cement home and send his kids to school. But he said the government never helped him. He earns about 30 dinars (dlrs 42) a month, just enough to feed his family.

``My kind of life is the lowest among humans,″ he said.

Like others in his tribe, Sadah has never seen a television, is illiterate and does not own a single piece of furniture. His seven by five meter (yard) tent is divided into a bare area where he meets with other men, and the living quarters where he and his family sleep on the ground next to the firewood cooking area.

The Bedouins’ traditions exemplify the tribal structure of Arab society where the clan is the center of social life. And while many settled Bedouins are active in politics _ and courted by candidates _ tribal loyalties remain paramount despite Jordan’s efforts to develop a national identity.

Ahmed Oweidi Abadi, an independent Bedouin candidate, criticized the tribal influence in politics, but also played the tribal game in his own election campaign.

``This is not good,″ he said when asked about tribalism’s influence. ``Once you think of yourself only as a tribe, it is a disaster for Jordan.″

But when he campaigned in an area near Amman dominated by his own tribe _ Jordan’s second largest _ he made this plea to the male-only audience sipping dark Arabic coffee:

``My victory is for you in the first place, then for the tribe and finally for Jordan.″

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