ALTERNATE NAMES: Bedouin
LOCATION: Deserts of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt
POPULATION: 4–5 million
The Western term Bedouin is actually a double plural; in the Arabic language the people we know as Bedouin refer to themselves as "Bedu" (also plural, but for simplicity it will be used here as both singular and plural). The definition of who is and is not a Bedu has become somewhat confused in recent times, as circumstances change and the traditional nomadic life of the desert herders has had to adapt. Generally speaking, a Bedu is an Arab who lives in one of the desert areas of the Middle East and raises camels, sheep, or goats. The Bedu traditionally believe they are the descendants of Shem, son of Noah, whose ancestor was Adam, the first man (see the book of Genesis, chapter 5, of the Bible).
The Arabian Peninsula historically has been the crossroads for trade as well as war. Bedu tribes often took strangers into their system and offered them the tribes' full protection and identity, thus intermingling with other peoples. Bedu are considered the "most indigenous" of modern Middle Eastern peoples, meaning they lived there before anyone else. The first appearance of nomadic peoples in the Arabian desert can be traced back as far as the third millennium BC .
Bedu territory covers the Arabian deserts of the Middle East, including parts of the modern states of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. Their entire range extends almost 1 million square miles (over 2.5 million square kilometers)—about the size of western Europe. The exact number of Bedu living within this huge territory is unknown, but it is probably only about 4 to 5 million (the entire population of the Arab nations combined is about 300 million). It would be as if the population of London or New York City were living scattered all across Europe—the population density is around 2.5 persons per square mile (less than 1 person per square kilometer). Probably no more than 10 percent of all Bedu still live in a purely traditional way: nomadic camel herders who follow the scattered, sporadic rainfall to find grazing for their animals, live off the products of those animals (milk, meat, hair, and skins), and use them as their sole form of transportation. (This article primarily focuses on the nomadic Bedu.) Life for the other 90 percent of the Bedu is similar to that of other urbanized Arab peoples.
The desert environment is harsh and does not lend itself easily to the support of human life. Much of the Bedu territory receives only 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain per year, and those 4 inches are scattered and unpredictable. Temperatures can go as high as 122° F (50° C) in the shade during the summer months, and as low as 32° F
(0° C) during the winter. At night, the temperature drops dramatically, plunging as much as 86° F (30° C) from daytime temperatures. The beginning of summer is often heralded by violent sandstorms and scorching winds.
The Bedu recognize four or five environmental seasons which vary in length depending on the amount of rainfall. In a good, rainy year, spring can last as long as six weeks (during February and March), whereas in a dry year there may be no spring at all, with winter simply shifting right into summer.
Despite these harsh conditions, a great deal of life animal and plant life manages to exist in the desert. The Arabian deserts are not all sand, although they do boast the highest sand dunes in the world (with some as high as 600 meters [2,000 feet]). Within Bedu territory are mountains, rock outcroppings, gravel and stony plains, wadis (dry riverbeds, which can become sudden torrents during a heavy rainfall), and stands of scrubby bushes or trees. A few days or weeks after a rainstorm, the desert floor is transformed into a carpet of grasses and brilliantly colored wildflowers. The Bedu travel in search of these green places in the desert.
The Bedu speak Arabic, but it is a very rich, stylized Arabic dialect (regional variety of a language). Bedu Arabic is somewhat comparable to the English of Shakespeare's day. As in all societies, the language is filled with words that pertain to the details of their life, making distinctions that are difficult for others to comprehend. The Bedu have many words for desert, and the differences between them are hard to define in English. A badiya is something open and uncovered—country in full view. A sahra is a vast open space that is generally level, defined in contrast to a "settled" area. To a non-Bedu, both these terms seem to describe the same sort of terrain. But to a Bedu, the distinction is clear. The Bedu also have many words for water, a scarce resource in the desert.
The two main types of Bedu folktales are realistic stories involving the familiar Bedu way of life, and fantasies that tell of love and include a woman as a main character. These two types of folktales generally fall into three categories: raiding stories, which celebrate heroism, strength, and courage; love stories, which describe the emotional highs and lows of star-crossed lovers and struggles to overcome obstacles to true love; and stories about thieves of the desert, which tell of robbery, murder, and treachery.
Some Bedu are superstitious, putting great stock in amulets and charms, lucky numbers (odd numbers are usually considered lucky), and spirits. Stones and designs in jewelry are believed to have magical qualities. Triangles, which represent hands, called khamsa , ward off the evil eye, as do blue stones such as turquoise or lapis lazuli; red stones will stop bleeding or reduce inflammation. Children, especially boys, are protected by charms hung around their necks or ankles and with ear studs containing what they believe are magical stones. Animals that prey on the Bedu's herds (such as wolves and wildcats) are considered the embodiment of evil, and in southern Arabia the camel is believed to be the direct descendant of the spirits of the desert.
Bedu are now Muslim (followers of Islam). At one time there were Jewish and Christian tribes, but none of them survive today. For the most part, Bedu do not follow Islamic duties and rules strictly. Given the Bedu's desert environment and demanding existence, many Islamic rituals are difficult to practice in the same manner as elsewhere. For example, ritual dry washings are utilized when there is insufficient water. The hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) is an important ritual for the Bedu, and most parents take each of their children on his or her first pilgrimage at the age of seven or eight. Some Bedu construct a place of prayer, called a masjid or mashhad , shortly after setting up their tents by enclosing a small piece of land with pebbles. The morning and noon prayers are usually considered the most important of the five daily prayers of Islam.
The most highly regarded Islamic festival among Bedu peoples is Eid al-Adha , the "feast of sacrifice," when the Bedu sacrifice a camel or sheep from their herd to commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. Since Islam uses a lunar calendar, the dates for Muslim holy days change each year on the Gregorian calendar.
Many Bedu do not fast during the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which Muhammad received his first revelations—celebrated by complete fasting from dawn until dusk each day of the entire month). Therefore, the festival of Eid Al-Fitr (a three-day celebration to break the fast at the end of Ramadan) has little meaning. Bedu also do not pay much attention to the celebration commemorating Muhammad's birthday or his flight from Mecca; in fact, some Bedu do not even know the dates for those holy days in any given year.
Some Bedu tribes require that when girls reach puberty, they must cover their hair and wear a mask or veil over the face when in public (whenever anyone but immediate family is present). Girls look forward to wearing these head and face coverings as a sign of maturity, and many design them so as to be alluring and provocative. They use their masks and veils to flirt.
Two things shape the interactions of Bedu people—the Arab tradition of hospitality, and the Bedu code of honor, or sharaf . These customs have been shaped by the extreme conditions of desert nomadism. Survival as small groups of wanderers in the harsh desert required tremendous cooperation. A guest fed in one's own tent today may be the one who can provide food tomorrow. Passersby traditionally exchanged formal greetings with the families in the tents they passed, and were asked for any news. The polite reply was to say one has no news or only good news. The passersby were then invited into the men's side of the tent for coffee and tea, served in a ritual way. (It is still considered polite to drink at least three cups before wobbling your glass to show that you do not want it refilled.) Guests were assured of food and shelter for three and one-third days, and then protection for another three days after leaving the tent, that being considered the length of time it takes for all traces of the host's food to pass through the guest's body. Anyone who even exchanged greetings, whether they came into the tent or not, was considered a guest entitled to the host's protection for the customary three days.
Women are protected in the Bedu code of honor. A man who is not closely related to a woman is not allowed to touch her in any way, not even so much as to brush his fingers against hers while handing her something. To do so is to dishonor her. Likewise, in some tribes, if a woman brings dishonor to herself, she shames her family because honor is held not by individuals but by whole families. The loss of a woman's honor, her ird , is extremely serious among the Bedu.
Another important element of Bedu honor is as-sime, giving up something so that a weaker person will benefit. Children are trained in the code of honor and tradition of hospitality from a very early age. By the time they are seven or eight years old, boys and girls know well what is expected of them and can behave with adult dignity when called upon.
The traditional Bedu live either in tents made of woven goat hair, known as a bait sharar (house of hair), palm-frond shacks called barasti, or in the shelter of a few bushes or trees, on which they may drape blankets for more protection from the wind. Bedu adapted to more modern customs live more settled lives in villages, or take advantage of technological items such as portable cabins.
A tent houses an extended family of around ten people, and it is divided into at least two sections—the men's side, or alshigg ; and the women's side, or al-mahram . Cooking is done and possessions are stored on the women's side, and guests are entertained on the men's side. The men's and women's sections are divided either by a woven curtain called a sahah or gata'ah , or by a wooden mat called a shirb held together by wool woven around the canes in geometric patterns. These tent dividers are frequently beautiful works of art.
Bedu families stay close to their permanent wells during the dry summer months, then migrate to better grazing areas during the winter. The Bedu can travel as much as 1,600 miles (3,000 kilometers) or more in a year. Traditional Bedu ride camels. Some modern Bedu have acquired trucks and other four-wheel-drive vehicles to replace the camel as transportation. Each tribe has its own territory, or dirah , but as modernization encroaches on their range, the Bedu have had to cross over each other's territories. However, each tribe still knows its dirah and the boundaries of those of other tribes.
The life of Bedu in oil-rich Arab nations is not quite as extreme, as tanker trucks often bring water to outlying areas. Mobile medical units have made Western medicine more available to the Bedu, but most only turn to them when folk medicine fails. Traditional Bedu beliefs held that physical health is related to the actions of spirits and devils. The Bedu traditionally put red-hot coals to their skin to open a door for an evil spirit to exit the body at a place where it was causing trouble (such as between the eyes in the case of headaches). Herbal medicine (teas, poultices, etc.) is widely used, as are charms and amulets. If all else fails, including folk and Western medicine, the Bedu may turn to sahar , practitioners of alternative medicine who have been outlawed by most of the governments in the area but who continue to provide their services.
Bedu society is based on complicated lineages that govern the formation of tribes and family clans. Bedu introduce themselves by giving their name, then naming two generations of male ancestors, and then stating their tribe: for example, "Suhail son of Salem son of Muhammad of the Bait Kathir." Women are also known as the daughters of their fathers and grandfathers, and they keep their family names even if they marry into a different tribe.
Bedu live in extended families made up of paternal cousins. A group of families who are related to each other make up a fakhadh (literally, "thigh"), which means a clan "of the same root" or "part of the whole." A group of fakhadhs constitutes a tribe, called a kabila or ashira , though these words may also refer to subsections of a larger tribe. Tribes vary widely in size and are constantly changing through marriage or territorial needs for grazing. A small tribe that has to move into the territory of a larger tribe to feed its herds may become absorbed by the larger tribe. Later, if the original small tribe has gained enough members and/or wealth, it may strike out on its own again.
Every group of Bedu has a sheikh , or leader. The sheikh always comes from the same family line within each group, but it is not necessarily the oldest son who takes over when the father dies. The post is given to the male family member most qualified for the job. A sheikh leads by mutual agreement, not by absolute will, so all members of the group must respect the sheikh in order for him to lead them effectively.
Marriage is more of a social contract among the Bedu than a love match. The bride and groom are usually first cousins. Women marry between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, while men marry between the ages of eighteen and thirty. The wedding is essentially a process of customary negotiations after which the bride is escorted to the groom's tent. Divorce is just as simple: a man simply states in front of witnesses that he wants a divorce. A woman can initiate a divorce by moving back to her parents' tent. If she refuses to return to her husband's tent with him, he will grant her a divorce. Siblings are very close to and protective of one another; brothers fiercely guard their sisters' honor.
The primary article of clothing for both Bedu men and women is the dishdasha , a long gown worn by most Arabs that covers the body from the base of the neck to the wrists and ankles. Men wear the dishdasha as an outer garment with baggy trousers called sirwal underneath (some modern Bedu men now wear sweatpants instead), while women wear the dishdasha as an undergarment beneath a larger, looser dress called a thob , which is almost always black. Women also wear baggy trousers, which are tight at the ankle and embroidered, under their dresses. Bedu men wear some sort of headcloth, the design of which varies from tribe to tribe. In most tribes, adult women wear veils over their hair and either veils or masks on their faces. Both men and women use kuhl (kohl, a black powder made from lustrous antimony) to accent their eyes. It reduces glare from the harsh desert sun and is believed to help repel flies as well. Bedu traditionally walk barefoot.
Women love jewelry and wear a lot of it; they may also wear the family's wealth as jewelry (which will then be completely safe since, according to the code of honor, women cannot be touched). Older women may have tattoos, which were believed to enhance their beauty, but that tradition is dying out, and very few younger women wear them. (It is considered effeminate for a man to have a tattoo.) Men wear silver or gold belts with elaborate curved daggers called khanja strapped to them. Belts designed for carrying bullets are now popular, and nomadic Bedu men are rarely seen without their rifles.
Bedu cooking emphasizes quantity rather than style. The traditional Bedu diet consisted mainly of camel milk, drunk cold or hot, boiled with bread, or cooked with rice. Meat, usually goat's meat, was an occasional luxury. Bedu along coastal areas also eat fish. A thin, flat bread is cooked over the fire on a curved metal sheet. The Bedu also hunt for meat to supplement their diet. They traditionally used trained falcons captured in the fall and released in the spring to hunt desert hares and foxes or migratory birds. Many Bedu hunt with a Saluki, a breed of dog related to the greyhound. Although herding dogs are considered unclean and are never allowed to enter the living area, Salukis are treated with a great deal of affection and live in the tent with their masters.
Traditional Bedu education consists of training in the skills necessary to live the life of the nomadic desert camel herder. It takes years to learn how care for a herd of camels and a family in the harsh desert environment. Although some Bedu parents are beginning to provide a more formal education for their children in schools, this makes it difficult for those children to learn important desert skills, such as hunting, ropeweaving, camel herding, camel riding, camel milking, camel breeding, camel tracking, and the rituals of entertaining guests for Bedu boys; and weaving, embroidery, cooking, cleaning, setting up and taking down camp, tent-making, and herding for Bedu girls.
Reading and writing are not very essential for traditional Bedu society. However, reading the Koran (or Qur'an—the sacred text of Islam) is very important, and there are always some members of the family, including women, who must know how to read and write. Bedu can recite poetry and tell stories by memory, however, and recognize all of the hundreds of wasm— camel brands of their own tribe and neighboring tribes. They can also interpret the signs left on the hard desert ground by people and animals who have passed that way.
Poetry is considered the highest art in Bedu society; it is the outlet for emotional expressions otherwise restricted by the code of honor. The rabab , the one-stringed Bedu violin, is often played to accompany the recitation of poetic verse. Other literary genres, all oral, in the Bedu world are the qissa (folk tale), qasid (ode), riddles and proverbs, the murafa'a (pleading one's case before the magistrate), and the discussions of the majalis sessions (gatherings of family to pass on wisdom and traditions to the younger members).
Herding camels during the winter migration is a full-time job for at least two family members, and usually requires two others part-time. Men and boys do most of the herding, but if there are not enough sons to do the job, teenage girls will help. In a family with no sons, daughters take on all the work, including herding, entertaining guests, and driving the vehicles (if they have any). Setting up and taking down camp is the women's job, along with cooking, cleaning, weaving, and sewing. Pregnant women generally work right up to the time of delivery, and then go back to work as soon as possible after giving birth. Nomadic Bedu life is full of chores: collecting firewood, filling water drums, obtaining and preparing food, taking camels to pasture in the morning and bringing them back to camp at night, milking the camels, moving camp, and making and repairing tents and clothing.
Many Bedu have given up full-time nomadic herding to take on wage-earning jobs. In many Middle Eastern countries, Bedu men are an important part of the military and are well paid. In Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the armed forces are composed almost entirely of Bedu. In Israel, they serve as trackers and game wardens to protect endangered desert species.
Nomadic Bedu do not have much time for sports, but they do enjoy camel-racing. They train their camels to trot (run by picking up alternate feet, rather than both feet on the same side). This makes them easier to ride at high speeds. Hunting is done purely for sport by wealthier Bedu, though it is a necessity for poorer families.
Their harsh nomadic way of life prevents the Bedu from having much time for recreation. Winter is the most sociable time for the Bedu, with many clans and tribes gathered in good grazing areas, rather than stuck by their isolated wells in the dry summer. At night, they gather to recite stories in verse around the campfire. Other times, the women may sing to the men in an informal performance called a summejr .
Bedu women weave sheep's wool, goat or camel hair, or cotton into textiles with geometric designs, sometimes including stylized representations of everyday objects such as coffee pots, scissors, or camels. The Bedu traditionally put no border on their designs. They let the design go all the way to the edge of the cloth to represent the infinite horizon of the desert. Natural dyes were traditionally used, producing muted earth tones, reds, and blues. They are difficult and time-consuming to make, so many Bedu women now purchase commercial dyes that create brighter colors.
The modern creation of national borders and the sprawl of cities and cultivated areas into the desert has reduced the Bedu's range and forced many to become only semi-nomadic, settling in villages for part of the year and returning to their herds in the desert for only a few months. The Bedu lost their biggest vocation and source of much of their wealth and power when trucks and airplanes replaced camels as the main transport in the Middle East. Bedu parents often settle near villages to take advantage of available public education for their children. The children then are separated from their ancestors' traditional lifestyle and can no longer survive in the desert, so they must take wage-earning jobs.
These changes have altered the traditional Bedu way of life and threaten their existence as a distinct people.
Jabbur, Jibrail S. The Bedouins and the Desert: Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East . Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Keohane, Alan. Bedouin: Nomads of the Desert . London: Kyle Cathie Ltd., 1994.