How to lead Bedouin Workers and not come off as a Jerk.

How to lead Bedoin Diggers and not come off as a Jerk

Jordan has participated in digs in the Middle East, Europe and Canada.  He can be reached at jrharbour@gmail.com.  He currently runs a history podcast called Twilight Histories which has a time travel theme.    

By Jordan Harbour

Jordan (L) and Adil (R)

If you find yourself on an archaeological dig in the Middle East you may very well be put in charge of a group of Bedouin laborers.  This is a tough gig.

The Bedouin are a nomadic dessert people.  They herd camels. And they certainly don’t have the concept of the 9-5 job.  Although they’re portrayed as fierce warriors in Lawrence of Arabia, the Bedouin are mostly a happy, jolly people who love to laugh and enjoy the shade of a good tent.

I met the Bedouin when I excavated a Roman fort at Al Humayma in Jordan.  It was hot.  And the Bedouin laborers we hired for the job didn’t want to work.

With the stress of deadlines and an oppressive desert heat, many of the Western archaeologists got frustrated with their workers.  Polite ‘Canadian’ suggestions turned to harsh words then to shouts.  One day there was a full scale rebellion and the Bedouin put down their tools and walked off the job.  This threatened to end the season and perhaps the future of the excavation itself.

If you’re excavating in the Middle East you don’t want this problem!  Here’s how to get your Bedouin laborers to working for you while having a great time…

    Focus on Having Fun – It’s hot in the desert.  And the Bedouin know better than to spend all day slaving in the sun.  They’d much rather find a cool spot in the shade and tell jokes.  If you can learn their humor they may choose to come out of the shade and put in some man hours just to see what funny things you’ll do next.  Give wheel barrow rides.  Or try digging with a bucket on your head.

    Learn Their Songs – In the morning, you’ll hear the Bedouins’ haunting songs floating over the horizon as they drive up in their trucks.  The Bedouin sing all day.  If you sit down with one of the best singers and ask him to teach you his songs, you’ll be a huge hit.  Laborers will clamor to your square.

    Share Your Food – Lunch is an important part of the Bedouin’s day.  It’s a chance to sit in a circle and share stories, jokes and songs.  Everyone comes with some food and one of the elders divides it up.  Show up to your workers’ circle with some canned fish, hard boiled eggs and bread.  Sit with them.  They’ll welcome you… and when you get up to work they’ll all follow.

    Join Chai Breaks – Tea is a fact of life for the Bedouin.  One moment they’ll be working, the next they’ll be hiding behind the spoil heap sipping hot tea and telling jokes.  If you try to stop chai breaks, you’ll lose.  Let them have their breaks.  If you join them, you can control when the breaks end by standing up and getting back to work.

    Offer Respect to Elders – There is a strong hierarchy amongst the Bedouin.  You may have an old man on your team who hardly works.  That man might be a respected head of a very large family.  Find out who are the heads of families and pay them the respect they deserve.  If you win a family head, he will keep the younger men in line and make your life a lot easier.

    Don’t Sweat It – When it all boils down, you’re not going to get much work out of your Bedouin laborers.  It’s simply not worth getting upset over this fact.  Relax, try your best and accept what they give you. Remember to keep things in perspective: you’re excavating ancient ruins and hanging out with nomadic tribesmen all day.  That’s pretty cool.

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