Ecotourism successes: 4. Recycling a Jordan Village

Posted: 10 July 2001

Author: John Rowley

Recycling a Jordan village "Some people recycle paper and bottles. In Jordan they have managed to recycle a whole village." So said the British environmental campaigner, David Bellamy, announcing early in 1997 that Taybet Zaman near to Petra in Southern Jordan had won the British Airways global award for achievements in cultural heritage and environmental preservation. John Rowley went to investigate. Mark Edwards took the pictures.

Winding down the Taybet Mountains from the Desert Highway at night, the village of Taybeh appears like a swarm of fireflies in the darkness. All around the crescent of hills are the lights from recently built concrete houses; below them on a circular promontory are the more concentrated pinpricks of light from Taybet Zaman, or old Taybeh, now restored as a five star tourist resort.

Seen from the same perspective in daylight, the old village is nearly invisible: just a scattering of small flat-roofed single-storey sandstone dwellings, like a walled medieval settlement, almost lost in the lap of the encircling hills, a natural part of the stony brown landscape.

The old village

One man with a special interest in the transformation of the old village into a tourist hideaway is the 52-year-old former Mayor of Taybeh, Abu Firas. Grey haired, chain smoking and the father of six boys and two girls, his Nabatean ancestors came to this place some 120 years ago from the Hejaz, or Western Arabia. They were, he explains, nomadic farmers who, like most dwellers in this harsh land, collected sandstone blocks and rubble to build winter shelters for their goats, donkeys and sheep and for themselves. In spring and summer, all would journey with their tents into the upland pastures for better grazing.

By mid-century, the family owned a number of adjoining stone dwellings, each with a space for animals, and a second room for family members to sleep. The rooms were small, their size dictated by the lengths of juniper wood which held up the flat roofs. The walls were up to two feet thick. There was a door, but few if any windows, and these, very small. The houses were built to be secure in summer from any curious intruder.

By then some families had built a new system of courtyard dwellings, providing more permanent and roomy shelter. And at the centre of the circular jumble of streets and houses was a garden of olive trees. All around, under a Mediterranean blue sky were the fields and hills, with ancient tracks, eroded soils, and stunted trees - and in the distance the sacred mountains of Petra. CourtyardA recycled courtyard, Taybet Zaman© Mark Edwards/Still Pictures It was a lovely place, but crowded and unhygienic, without sanitation or running water. Infant and maternal mortality was high. The nearest town with a school, health centre and shops was 20 miles away at Ma'an, accessible only by horse or donkey. Families lived on a diet of yoghurt and butter, houmous (chick peas), figs, tomatoes, bread and occasionally meat.

Then, in the 1950s, came the metalled road, higher up the hillside. Families had grown bigger and the pressure to move into more modern houses, with more space, better access and modern conveniences saw the beginning of a move out of the old village. By 1960, it was almost deserted as a living community and completely abandoned by 1980, except for three or four families who rented space there.

There was much debate about what to do with the old village. The local council suggested knocking it down and replacing it with a cemetery. Abu Firas had another idea. Inspired by his experience with the Queen Alia Foundation which worked on income generating projects for Bedouin and local women, and by rumours of negotiations for developing another similar site in nearby Wadi Mousa between the old Nawafleh village owners an a local tourism investor.

Restoring the village

His further investigation led him to Jordan Tourism Investments (JTI), a Jordanian company which had recently renovated part of the Abujaber family estate in Yadoudah outside Amman and turned it into a series of restaurants and craft shops which was, and is, a highly successful enterprise. Kan Zaman, as it is called, is another late 19th century solid stone settlement with great Romanesque arches, cool and fragrant with flowers and spices - and famous for its local food dishes.

"We had gained a lot of insight into how to do this sort of conservation, and we were motivated at Kan Zaman by the fact that the place was a part of the family history - and that my father placed great sentimental value on it" says Yazid Abujaber, Managing Director of JTI. "As we worked, our ideas became more creative. We found that we had a lot of plans which we could not put into effect at Kan Zaman, and which have now gone into Taybet Zaman.

"One of the key principles behind the new project was to make a partnership with the local community. Only that way could we expect their support over the long term."

After a good deal of talking, agreement was reached for the many owners of the property - some of them children, and some owning just a fraction of a building - to retain their ownership and to rent the land and buildings to the operating company on an escalating lease renewable every five years, according to the level of inflation.

Local benefits

The investors were to give priority to hiring the local people of Taybeh for the construction work and to pay six per cent of the net operating profit to the owners. Eventually, 360 rent contracts were signed involving more than 150 land owners, including one with the village council which has 18 per cent of the rent shares. Around 200 local people were involved in the construction work.

To make sure that local people would also benefit over the long term, and that they had the necessary skills to work in an international hotel, the company opened a vocational training centre in Amman for young people from the community. As a result, 125 of the 171 employees come from Taybeh village and all but a handful are from the surrounding area. They include 35 administrative staff and every sort of job, from public relations officer to guards and labourers.

A couple of owners were not willing to rent their property, but were eventually persuaded to do so. So how do the villagers feel about things now?

"Some people are very happy to see grandfathers' house restored - to have kept their roots together" says Yazid Abujaber. " Many houses had no roofs and would have been lost completely. Some may say they are not happy that we took over the property, but I think they are bluffing. They see their property restored, they have a good job and a permanent home. I really believe that so far the social impact has been wonderful. It has certainly done more good than anything else. If it had not been for the project, many local people would have had to find work outside, in the army or in the police, or other work in Amman or in Aqaba. They would have lost their cultural roots."

There is no doubt that partly as a result of Taybet Zaman, Taybeh village as a whole has had a new lease of life. There has been a fourfold growth in building activity, land prices have gone up fivefold since the early 1990s when the work began, and the village can now boast a restaurant, a new boutique, a supermarket and a bank, as well as a new three-storey mosque for which the locals raised 300,000 Jordanian Dinars (or some $450,000). The single schoolroom in a village house belonging to Abu Firas' parents. has now been replaced by six schools. The population has gone up from 3,792 in 1991 to 4,279 reversing the usual trend of out migration from remote rural villages such as this.

Abu Firas himself has no doubts. "I am proud to see people using my old house" he says, "very proud." He does not see that old traditions are being challenged by mixing with visitors from all over the world. "We are an Islamic community, and we have a tradition of hospitality." What's more, the aspirations of the young people are changing. Only 40 per cent of the village is now involved in farming. His own eldest son is training to be a lawyer, another is on a vocational course to do engineering maintenance at the hotel, a third is taking the local GCSE exam.

Yasine Sadiat expresses the view of a young employee. One of 12 children, and now aged 23, he has risen through the hotel ranks to become Assistant Head Waiter. "A lot of my friends work here" he says. "We see it as a good opportunity to learn languages and to meet people.

"We still have sheep, chickens, goats and a donkey at home, but my father has a shop and someone else keeps an eye on the animals. My ambition? To improve my English and to climb higher up the hotel ladder."

Another group of employees have formed themselves into a social committee to provide voluntary entertainment to the guests in the Bustan, or village square, where once Abu Firas' father's olive trees grew. (Today there are fig trees and roses in the square, as well as a herb garden and olives). The young waiters dress in black trousers and belted tunics, with Bedouin headresses and perform the traditional villages dances - the Dabkah, Samar, Jofieh and Dahieh - to the music of the ou'd (lute), flute and tablah.

Their leader, Mahmoud Rawdieh, who works in the kitchens says he has no difficulty in recruiting performers and no shortage of engagements outside the hotel, at local weddings and festivals, as well as at the hotel.

Preserving culture

Credit for creating a holiday village, with every modern amenity, that still catches the simple beauty of an earlier world, must go to the team who planned, designed, built and now manage Taybet Zaman. A key member of that team is the chief architect, Leen Fakhoury, who has put her university teaching job in vernacular architecture to amazing effect. "We did not want to compromise on the authenticity of the village," she says. "We wanted people to have an experience of the real village environment, to retain the pattern of the buildings and of the internal space, with the thick walls and local stone for tiling and stone pathways. We wanted to project pockets of green, but to keep the harshness of the regional style."

Inevitably, there is something false in this fantasy world of the shopping souk, the Turkish bath and the photographic gallery where guests can dress up in Arab gear for their holiday snaps. But the craft skills are real, and the food is local.PotteryWorking at a potters wheel© Mark Edwards/Still PicturesThe water is processed and re-used to grow the tomatoes and cucumbers, and to water the new olive groves on the old terraces. Even the olive oil soap is locally made, and wrapped in recycled paper. And with only 105 rooms in 10 acres, there is space enough to quietly enjoy the old stones and the dry desert air.

Walking through the Bustan, down through the sandstone paths and the low honey-coloured walls to the swimming pool in the early morning, in this ancient landscape and with the last of the cocks still crowing in the morning sunshine, it is difficult to find fault with this attempt at high class conservation.

Leen Fakhoury, in a paper for UNESCO*, sums up the argument like this: "A few intellectuals may consider the re-use of the almost discarded part of the old village as an invasion and severe transformation of the traditional essence of the village," she writes. "But many others appreciate it, as an opportunity to bring back a new use for a deteriorated fabric and an opportunity for a sustainable tourist development, advocating the cultural heritage and the natural resources of the village."

But perhaps the last word should go to the Director of Archaeology at the next site being developed by JTI, the owning company of the deserted village of Nawafleh, just outside Petra. There Dr Khairieh 'Amr has found evidence of continuous habitation dating back to the Nabateans who built the ancient city of Petra 2,000 years ago. She has also dug up a Nabatean stone olive press, proving for the first time - and contrary to the writings of the Greek geographer, Strabo - that the Nabateans did cultivate olives. Now the press forms part of the museum that features in the new village, as at Taybet Zaman.

"Wadi Moussa (the Valley of Moses) used to be such a pleasant little place," she says. "Now, with the tourist boom so much of the valley has been turned into hotels and concrete. It is a real pity. Environmentally it is much more sound, to me, to use the existing buildings rather than to build new ones - especially when the new ones are usually so horrible."

*Culture, Tourism & Development, The Case of Jordan, 1995, the World Decade for Cultural Development, UNESCO.