Bedouin - History and Cultural Relations



Agriculturists and pastoralists have inhabited the southern edge of the arid Syrian Steppe since 6000 B . C . (Fagan 1986, 234). By about 850 B . C ., a complex of oasis settlements and pastoral camps was established by a people known as "Aʿraab." These Semitic speakers were the latest in a succession of farming and stock-breeding societies. They were distinguished from their Assyrian neighbors to the north, however, by their Arabic language and by their use of domesticated camels for trade and warfare. These Aʿraab were the cultural forerunners of the modern-day Arabs. They carried out a caravan trade with their camels between southern Arabia and the large city-states of Syria. By the first century B . C ., they had moved westward into Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula and southwestward along the coast of the Red Sea. The creation of a powerful Islamic state in western Arabia in the middle of the seventh century A . D . gave a dramatic impetus to Arab expansion. Thousands of Arab Muslims—many of them Bedouin—left the Arabian Peninsula to settle in the newly conquered lands around it. As a result, the bedu/hadar distinction was reproduced in those Arabized territories where such a regional division of labor was ecologically and geographically practicable.

Bedouin societies are always linked to other nonpastoral societies by economic, social, and political relations. In the local context, a "Bedouin" is a regional specialist in livestock breeding whose closest social and political ties are with his pastoral kinsmen. The sedentary Arab, by contrast, places less emphasis on relations with genealogically distant kin. During periods when premodern states were weak and large-scale irrigated agriculture declined, some settled cultivators increased their reliance on breeding of small stock and moved into Bedouin social circles. In modern times, strong centralized authority and the monetarization of the rural economy have prompted some Bedouin to seek wage labor in cities and become sedentary. Regardless of their occupation and residence patterns, however, they remain culturally Bedouin as long as they maintain close social ties with pastoralist kin and retain the local linguistic and cultural markers that identify them as Bedouin.

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