It’s flattering to be a woman travelling in Jordan. Everywhere I went – whether I was walking along the streets or having dinner at a restaurant on my own – friendly local men would come up to me and welcome me to their country.
“Ahlan Wa Sahlan!” they would say with a big smile. I had never felt this welcomed as a tourist. They would ask me where I’m from and how long I would be in Jordan.
I remember looking into the dreamy Kohl-rimmed eyes of one Jordanian Bedouin who lived in a desert cave in Petra. At his home, he told me, there are a million stars at night and the sunrise is amazing. He invited me to Petra and insisted that I stay at his cave. There will be a desert party with a Bedouin dinner for me, he promised. It would be fun and he would even show me around Petra.
It all sounded very tempting. I took his number and told him that I would call him if I do make my way there.
A week after that conversation, I checked into Valentine Inn in Petra, his number still in my journal. The fatherly receptionist pointed to a thick scrapbook on the counter. I picked it up and couldn’t believe what I saw: Pages after pages of handwritten letters from women warning female travellers to never accept the invitations of a Bedouin man.
“Don’t stay at their desert cave,” they pleaded in shaky letters. I could almost hear the tremor in their voices as they wrote, again and again, not to trust those men.
All of the women’s stories started on the same innocent note as mine. Wooed by the romantic promise of a magical night under the stars in a desert cave, they accepted the Bedouin’s invitation. They imagined it to be an amazing adventure for their books. Where else would they get the chance to stay at a desert cave?!
It was indeed, they recalled, a magical evening. There were food and drinks, sunset and songs, the Milky Way, and merrymaking. The Bedouin man introduced his friends and family, there was a big party, and it was a lot of fun. The desert was breathtaking at night.
Then, the Bedouin man would start flirting with the women. Sweet nothings were whispered. The women were told that they were beautiful, that they were special, and that he loved them. He was handsome; dark Kohl-rimmed eyes with long, wavy hair underneath his headscarf. He looked like Captain Jack Sparrow or Johnny Depp – in fact, they all looked like Johnny Depp. One notorious Bedouin named Ahmed even called himself Johnny Depp!
The women were swept off their feet and fell head over heels for the handsome Bedouin. That night, they had sex in the sand.
The next morning, he extorted her for money. Sometimes, the extortion came subtly, weeks after she has returned home and their romantic liaison had progressed to a long distance relationship. They would talk on Skype, Facebook, and WhatsApp – all while he wooed another woman in the background. There were promises of marriage and a good life together in Jordan. His mother missed her dearly.
Slowly, he would start asking for money. He needed it, his donkey died, his mother had to go to the hospital, and many other emotional excuses to get money from her.
Some women had even more distressing stories about the night turning sour. “He became aggressive after drinking.” “He drugged me.” “They sexually assaulted me,” “He and his cousins raped me.”
One couple was invited to dinner at a desert cave. The boyfriend was drugged while the Bedouin and his friends had their way with the girlfriend.
Besides Petra, these cases of Bedouin Casanovas have also been reported in Little Petra, Wadi Rum, Wadi Musa, and other Bedouin villages.
The business of cheating women for sex and money is just that – a business. Sometimes, entire families are involved in the scam and lie for each other. Unfortunately, a fair amount of love-struck woman believed the sob stories and voluntarily sent money to their Bedouin boyfriend via Western Union, effectively fuelling the business.
The socio-cultural impact that tourism is having on Jordan is worrying. Yet, the government is not acknowledging it**. According to Bezness Alert, the Jordanian government is aware of these traps but is unwilling to act on it. They do not want to tarnish Jordan’s image of being a peaceful Middle Eastern nation, especially not since Petra is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. These scams are now an open secret within the Jordanian community.
It is this lack of action that has spurred the community to take things into their own hands. That’s why Valentine Inn made that scrapbook, and why sites like Bezness Alert, Stop Scamming in Wadi Rum and Stop The Petra Bedouin Women Scammers Facebook page have popped up.
Frustrated with the bad reputation the scammers have created for the otherwise-friendly Bedouin community, these online platforms are warning travellers by getting victims to share their stories. They also publicly name and shame the scammers, telling women the specific men to avoid, and who they can trust.
To be perfectly honest, I felt safe when I was travelling in Wadi Rum and Petra. In fact, I have fond memories of friendly and helpful Bedouins. One even let me ride his donkey for free (not a euphemism) when he saw how tired I was hiking under the hot sun. I had Bedouin guides, and I chatted with some Bedouin men who invited me to their cave, but none of them acted untowardly when I politely rejected their invitation. But this story could have had a very different ending if I had called the Bedouin man I met instead of checking into Valentine Inn.
The Johnny Depp Love Scam only poses a threat if we are gullible and naive enough to fully trust strangers. As women travelling alone, we have to balance our sense of freedom with a grip on knowing when to toe the line. Think with your head and not just your heart. A strange man invites you to sleep at his house, in a cave, in the middle of a desert. Remember what we were taught as children: Never accept candy from a stranger.
For more information and victim stories, we recommend reading Stop The Bedouin Romance Scam In Wadi Rum & Petra and this Facebook page.
**UPDATE (27 June 2016):
We received a response from the Chairman of the Jordan Federation of Tourism Associations, Michael Nazzal that the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism had taken action and closed down the scam six years ago (2010). We are thankful for his response on the issue. However, this writer’s personal experience in Jordan as described in the article took place in September 2012. Sources cited in this article are also fairly recent, with the oldest website referenced dating back to 2013. The three Facebook pages referenced, Stop the Petra Bedouin Women Scammers, Stop the Bedouin Romance Scammers In Wadi Rum And Petra, and Safety in Petra – Bedouin Romance Bezness, all have current and ongoing discussions about the issue.
Jordan is a beautiful place that everyone must visit once in their lives. However, we at Zafigo believe that in any country and place, issues that affect women travellers should be highlighted. We have requested the Ministry of Tourism for clarification on the matter and are awaiting a response.