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Jordan Tribe Isolated From Election

November 4, 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. The tribe’s 11 families eke out a living growing tomatoes at a nearby oasis.

When the rest of the country votes in today’s parliamentary elections, the Azazmeh will stay away. Campaign hoopla doesn’t stretch this far and even if it did, the Azazmeh are too busy struggling with daily survival to bother with elections.

``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 on a stained cotton mattress outside his low tent.

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

The Azazmeh tribe is among Jordan’s estimated 190,000 Bedouin, Arabic for desert dwellers. Historically a nomadic people, most have settled down to cultivate crops or take up jobs. About 5,000 Bedouins still roam Jordan’s desert with their goats, sheep, camels and donkeys.

Sadah and his tribe also represent a larger reality in Jordan. They are among 1 million Jordanians living below the poverty line _ earning less than $178 monthly. And they are among the 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 main contact with the outside world is a weekly donkey ride into Qatrana, two miles away.

When winter comes next month, Sadah and the others will pack up their tents _ called beit al-sha’ar, or ``house of hair,″ _ from their camp 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. Next summer, they will return to the land they cultivated last season or move to another place if the lease gets terminated. 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. He would like a stone-and-cement home, and he wants to send his kids to school, but he said the government hasn’t tried to help him. He earns about $40 a month, just enough to feed his family.

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

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.

Ahmed Oweidi Abadi, an independent Bedouin candidate, criticized the tribal influence in politics, but played the tribal game in his 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 sipped coffee and campaigned in an area near Amman dominated by his own tribe _ Jordan’s second-largest _ he told his all-male audience: ``My victory is for you in the first place, then for the tribe and finally for Jordan.″

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