A Reflection on Time and Bedouin Culture

An Excerpt From Schuyler Pals’ Blog: Travel With Pals


Time is not infinite. It stretches neither to an eternal beginning, nor an eternal end. Time is a commodity. It is measured and weighed—sectioned off and filled till it brims over with work, play, and self-improvement. Humanity constantly loses time, wastes time, or kills time. What if time were a living entity? Time like an ouroboros reflects in upon itself and infinitely reproduces more of itself. Our ordered arrangement of time breaks down, for an infinite commodity cannot be arranged in coldly defined spaces.

In this state, time seamlessly morphs into the propensity for relationship. Fruitlessly we, time’s murderer, attempt to force the organic force into a strictly held framework. Events must run like clockwork, because that ensures the best use of our time. Isn’t using time wisely the highest status of self-reliance and maturity? Still, our individualistic self-reliance misses the point. Just because we can line in a modicum amount of self-sufficiency does not mean we exist outside of a nexus of relationships.

A couple of weeks ago my Middle East Studies Program went to visit Petra. It was the first experience I had with Bedouin culture. Bedouins are the nomadic Arabic Tribes that criss-crossed the Arabic Penninsula for centuries, and their culture was so untied to our concept of the modern nation state that a Bedouin reportedly said, “I did not know the nation of Jordan existed until I joined the army”. This mentality has changed, in part, over the half a century, but the deep cultural distinctions to the Bedouins at Petra still exists. They have houses in a village nearby—to keep Petra mostly for the tourists—but the Bedouins still live primarily in caves and party in the desert.

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The current culture holds modernity and traditional values in tandem. Western rap, hip-hop, and R & B stream from their smart phones as they take tourists up and down the mountains surrounding Petra on their donkeys. Their stands littered throughout the ancient city of Petra marking the cayenne colored scenery with distinct moles in an otherwise blemishless landscape. They offer tea, sometimes at a price, and a place to sit to chat for a while, even if they just want to sell you something.

I spent two days touring Petra and interacting, albeit briefly, with Bedouins. The best sense I can give for the culture is the longing in Chris McCandless, the college graduate that Into the Wild is based on. Perhaps even the Nihilistic radical departure from materialism and consumerism found in Fight Club. Although, their chic smartphones sat in front of me. I admit this is how I relate my experience to their culture and life; it is probably not how they might describe themselves. Yet, it seemed as if their cosmological view flowed from a river carrying a live and let live ethos tucked away in a sleepy desert.

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But this live and let live mantra extends beyond a quaint philosophy and quiet deserts to the cacophony of bustling Middle Eastern cities rooted in polychronic time. The fluidity of polychronic time slows life’s pace to the relevance of the person sitting in front of you creating a symbiotic relationship between Bedouin mantra and polychronic time, which sustain one another blooming into the importance of people and relationship.

Contrary to Kantian ideals of the free and independent individual, we live in a nexus of relationship. One, which only ever expands letting in more people and more relationships to life—in all its forms—the further you get away from the center. No one lives in complete isolation. No matter how reclusive a person becomes they are a part of the main. God has been peeling back my layers and making me uncomfortable. Showing me nuance after nuance to relationships’ importance.

God, Himself, does not live in isolation but in the Trinity’s perfect relationships. Each personhood in the Trinity is distinct and separate from the other, yet in their perfectly intimate relationship they are one. They know and love one another infinitely and thus can be one with one another while yet entirely distinct from one another. Their identities are their own, yet are shaped and influenced by the others.

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In a more finite way, each of us is distinct with each other, and in a finite way we can begin to understand one another. This is the beauty of relationship; it has the ability to unite people to move and shape their identities. Relationships expand individuals’ perspectives and help them empathize with each other. When problems arise in the messiness of life, it is impossible to conceivably do justice to the full humanity and the potential of the person you are in conflict with, but relationships allow us to begin this process. They help to peel back the layers to the heart of the individual enough to do justice to them in regards to our relationship with them.

Relationships are at the heart of Christianity and the Trinity. When God declared a relationship with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelites, He made a covenant with them, not a contract. A contract remains rooted in the original agreement. It is inflexible to the development of the parties involved, but a covenant relationship bends and morphs to meet the needs of the parties involved. It is scandalous because it demands the relationship take precedence before all else.

If you look at the Old Testament, you see a common chain of events occurring: Israelites become oppressed, they cry out to God, God hears and rescues the Israelites. This is so radical because this thread always starts out with the Israelites abandoning their covenant with God and God bringing turmoil upon them, yet God redeems Israel every time and it is counted to God as justice.

I have found that learning to love and appreciate people from any spectrum reveals far more about my own sinfulness and desperate need for a graceful and merciful God than any other spiritual vocation. Perhaps then, it is not so strange that in the midst of seeming contradictions of modern technology contrasted with the Bedouin’s ageless culture and lifestyle, I found God deeply in tune and in love with relationship.

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