Bedouin - Sociopolitical Organization

In a sense, the Bedouin form a number of "nations." That is, groups of families are united by common ancestry and by shared territorial allegiance. The exploitation and defense of their common territorial area is effected through a universally accepted system of leadership. For centuries, these "nations" of Bedouin tribes and their leaders operated in the ecologically and politically shifting landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa. Only in the course of the twentieth century has their traditional flexibility and mobility been checked. Factors foreign to their universe have damaged the territorial mainstay of their societies, necessitating the adoption of new bases of identification with their "nations" and its leaders.

Social Organization. Bedouin society is organized on the basis of a series of real and fictive overlapping kin groups. The smallest unit is generally agreed to be the bayt (minimal lineage). Numerous buyuut, claiming descent from a common ancestor, form a fakhadh (maximal lineage). Theoretically, each male household head in a bayt or the larger fakhadh is the equal of all the other adult males. In practice, age, religious piety, and personal characteristics such as generosity and hospitality set some men above others in the organization of the group.

Political Organization. The buyuut are the basic social and economic units of Bedouin society, but the leaders of these units generally form a council of elders, directed by the head of the tribe. In some larger tribes with more centralization, the fakhadh head is linked to a subtribe (ʿ ashiira ) leader, who comes immediately under the direction of the head ( shaykh ; pl. shuyukh ) of the tribe (qabiila). Thus, traditional chains of command link the individual groups ultimately to the shaykh. He traditionally exercises authority over the allocation of pasture and the arbitration of disputes. His position is usually derived from his own astute reading of the majority opinion. He generally has no power to enforce a decision and therefore has to rely on his moral authority and the concurrence of the community with his point of view.

Social Control. In the small-scale, exclusive communities that constitute Bedouin society, face-to-face (as opposed to anonymous) relations are of paramount importance. The concepts of honor and shame are thus a constant preoccupation and, to a large extent, serve to control the social behavior of individuals. Sharaf (honor), which is inherited from the family, has to be constantly asserted or vindicated. A man's share of honor is largely determined by his own behavior and that of his near agnatic kin. Sharaf can be subject to increase or decrease, to development or deterioration, according to the conduct of the person and his kin. There is an exclusive term, ird, for the honor of the women of a kin group. This is used only in connection with female chastity. Ird differs from sharaf in that sharaf can be acquired or augmented through right behavior and achievement, whereas ird can only be lost by the "misconduct" of the woman; once lost, it cannot be regained. At the community level, the threat of jalaaʿ (expulsion) as punishment for a grave social offense tends to be regarded with great seriousness.

Conflict. In the past, most tribal conflicts revolved about the rights to scarce pasture and water resources. Numerous tribal campaigns were once fought to acquire or defend pastures and watering holes. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, the centralized political authority of the modern nation-states in the region has successfully pacified the Bedouin tribes.

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