WADI MUSA - "I will not stop selling souvenirs to tourists," 10-year-old Zekra said.
Despite her young age, Zekra is the main breadwinner for her family, spending most of her days holding a box filled with postcards of Petra to sell to tourists passing through the ancient Nabataean city.
Zekra said she comes to Petra every day from her village of Um Sayhoun, around three kilometres away, to sell her wares, sometimes rushing after school to reach the Petra Archaeological Park in time for the noon rush of tourists.
“I don’t like school, I only go there to attend the art class,” she said, adding that from her days peddling souvenirs she has picked up English, French and Spanish.
“My father has a donkey; he brings it here every dayة In the morning I come with him in his truck, but at night I either walk home, or hire a donkey or a car, whatever is available.”
Zekra is one of hundreds of children who live in Um Sayhoun, a village near the Rose Red City of Petra, who spend up to 10 hours a day at the site trying to convince tourists to buy postcards, rocks and homemade jewellery.
Many village residents are of the Bdoul tribe, who used to live in the ancient Nabataean city until the early 1980s, when the government moved them from the sandstone caves into concrete houses in the modern village.
Eight-year-old Fatima said she, too, comes back to her family’s old stomping grounds in order to put food on the table.
“My father does not work and I want to help him,” she said while holding a box filled with stones taken from the Petra Archaeological Park.
“I collect these stones with my father and come here every morning to sell them,” the Um Sayhoun resident said, adding that she sells around 10 stones for JD1 each every day.
Although she goes to school during the morning, Fatima said it is her time at the park that she enjoys most.
“I don’t like school. During the school year, I finish my classes and come here directly,” she said.
Despite the presence of government-run schools near Um Sayhoun, the excitement and money-making opportunities of Petra are temptations that many local children, whose families struggle to make ends meet, fail to resist.
“I left school a long time ago and will not go back,” said Rashid, leading a donkey into the ancient city.
The 14-year old said tourism is his career, something he would not give up in return for an education.
Other children, however, said that although they attend school, they intend to go to Petra when they graduate to earn money as guides or peddlers like their parents before them.
“I finish school and come directly to Petra to find tourists looking for donkey rides,” said nine-year-old Abdullah, adding that he cherishes the opportunity to meet people from different cultures and learn other languages.
Although selling trinkets may seem harmless, according to Maram Freihat, a researcher at Al Hussein University in Maan, working in Petra is physically taxing on children.
“Children here work under difficult circumstances due to the hot weather and the long working hours, but they cannot resist the money,” Freihat told The Jordan Times.
She added that this type of work encourages some children to leave school and sell souvenirs or guide tourists full time, citing figures from a recent survey that show that some 400 children work in Petra as vendors or animal guides.
She noted that the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Bayt Al Anbat Centre for Development and Tourism Awareness in Petra on 240 working children indicated that 89 per cent of them are male, and the majority of them are in the 7-12 age bracket.
Approximately 58 per cent of them work as vendors, while 31 per cent guide animals up the park’s mountains and monuments.
Of the total surveyed sample, 20 per cent are illiterate, 70 per cent left school to work in the tourism sector, and 71 per cent are subject to physical and psychological abuse.
According to other studies conducted recently in the area, more than 60 per cent of working children in Petra are unable to read and write. An estimated 85 per cent of children work on a seasonal basis, returning to school only during the low tourism season in the winter.
Under the Labour Law, employers are prohibited from hiring children under the age of 16, while those between the ages of 16 and 18 are banned from working in potentially hazardous jobs.
According to official figures, there are over 32,676 working children in the Kingdom.