Scattered across the Arabian Peninsula, the nomadic Bedu, or Bedouin, tribes formerly eked out a marginal existence amid one of the world’s most hostile natural environments, surviving in the depths of the desert by a combination of camelraising, goat-herding and inter-tribal raiding – a lifestyle founded on a complex network of tribal allegiances, intimate knowledge of the local environment and extraordinary levels of physical resilience.
The Bedu are Arabs and desert nomads who hail from and continue to live primarily in the Arabian Peninsula, Middle East, and North Africa. They have traditionally lived in the arid steppe regions along the margins of rain-fed cultivation and often occupy areas that receive less than five centimetres of rain a year, sometimes relying on pastures nourished by morning dew rather than rain to provide water for their animals.
They regard themselves as true Arabs and Arab culture considers the Bedu people to be “ideal” Arabs due to the purity of their society and lifestyle. Bedus speak dialects of Arabic and are related ethnically to citydwelling Arabs. Their territory stretches from the vast deserts of North Africa to the rocky sands of the Middle East.
Most Bedus are animal herders who migrate into the desert during the rainy winter season and move back toward the cultivated land in the dry summer months. Bedu tribes have traditionally been classified according to the animal species that are the basis of their livelihood: Camel nomads occupy huge territories and are organised into large tribes in the Sahara, Syrian, and Arabian Deserts. Sheep and goat nomads have smaller ranges, staying mainly near the cultivated regions of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Cattle nomads are found chiefly in South Arabia and in Sudan, where they are called Baqqarah.
Because Bedu populations are represented inconsistently in official statistics, the number of nomadic Bedus living in the Middle East today is difficult to ascertain. But it is generally understood that they constitute only a small fraction of the total population in the countries where they are present.
These nomads move from place to place, tending flocks of goats, sheep and camels. They tend to live on the fringes of deserts, where they can find enough fodder for their animals, and they pasture their flocks where they can find plants. Bedus eat dates and milk, yoghurt, meat and cheese from
animals and trade wool and hides for other goods such as tea and foods they might want. In lowland areas camel breeding has traditionally been the primary economic activity. In the highland areas, raising sheep and goats is the dominant activity.
Camels, in particular, have numerous cultural and functional uses, and are regarded as a “gift from God” as they have been the main food source and method of transportation for many Bedus. In addition to their extraordinary milking potential under harsh desert conditions, their meat is occasionally consumed. As a cultural tradition, camel races are organised during celebratory occasions, such as weddings or religious festivals.
Bedu people tend to be small and thin. One reason for this is that food is scarce in the desert, and being thin helps get rid of body heat.
Explaining the appeal of the nomadic life, one Bedu told National Geographic:
“You are free. You have a relationship only with your animals. The only relationship more important is with Allah.” Calmness and patience are valued traits in the desert and the Bedu submission to fate has been a cornerstone of their Muslim faith.
Sun and sand protection is the primary objective with Bedu clothes. Bedu garments can be wrapped around the wearer to keep the sand and sun out. Each tribe member dons clothes to indicate locality, social position and marital status, usually through embroidery on their cloak, headdresses, jewellery and hairstyles worn on special occasions. Each tribe has its own distinctive designs.
A typical Bedu male wears a white cotton foot-length, long-sleeve shirt; an aba (a long khaki ankle-length sleeveless
“It is customary in some Bedu tribes for a host to smear blood from a slaughtered animal onto of the mouth of his guest in a show of hospitality.”
robe); and a red tasseled sash. Sometimes they wear a dagger in their belt. Women wear dark clothes and a kerchief held in place with a band of folded cloth. Red is usually worn by married women while blue is worn by unmarried women. Loose cloaks are worn for special events and these often feature embroidery around the neckline, sleeves and hems. Veils are often connected to a turban and are decorated with silver coins. Some Bedu women wear a niqab, a mask-like veil that reveals only the eyes and neck and has a narrow ridge that runs down the middle of the face.
The number of true nomadic Bedus is shrinking. Many are now settled and most Bedus no longer rely on animals. Centralised authority, borders and the monetary system have undermined their traditional way of life. Roads have decreased their isolation and increased contact with outsiders. Radios and television have brought new ideas and exposure to the outside world. The oil industry has changed the lives of many Bedus, who have to deal with oil fields, trucks and other vehicles and machines in areas that were once only desert. However, they still maintain ties with their nomadic kin and retain the language and other cultural markers that identify them as Bedus.
Bedus who have adapted to the modern world retain their tribal loyalties and code of honour. Today, many Bedus in Oman commute between their desert camps and their jobs in the oil fields in pickups and SUVS; water is brought to their camps in trucks; and children go to boarding school. While Bedus continued to move their herds of camels and goats several times a year to new pastures, they no longer depend on their animals for survival. Some Bedus in the desert watch television powered by batteries, and some have car phones and satellite television, and use ATM machines.
Bedus can be found in the mountains and deserts of Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Egypt, amongst other places. Tours are available, and often hosted by “modern” Bedus who have adapted into city life, but whose hearts still reside in the dunes, amongst their tribes.
Iranian-french photographer Reza Deghati, on expedition for National Geographic, once said: “I have been shooting pictures for 35 years and have travelled in 107 different countries, but nowhere have I enjoyed greater warmth that I experience among the Bedouin. Exhausted after a long day driving... you’d approach a tent, and suddenly someone would appear with a coffee and a beautiful carpet to sit on – yet they’d never ask you who you were or where you’re from. I sometimes wonder if the rest of us have forgotten such values.”
Bedus are expected to boil their last rice and kill their last sheep to feed a stranger. Whenever an animal is slaughtered for a guest, it is ritually sacrificed in accordance with Islamic law. It is customary in some Bedu tribes for a host to smear blood from a slaughtered animal onto of the mouth of his guest in a show of hospitality.
Hospitality is regarded as an honour and a sacred duty. Visitors who happen by are usually invited to sit and share a cup of thick, gritty coffee. Guests are ritually absorbed into the household by the host. If a conflict occurs, the host is expected to defend the guest as if he were a member of his family.
The Bedu subscribe to the notion that even if an enemy appears in their tent, they are bound to feed him and protect him with their lives.
BELOW Many Bedu are adapting to modern ways, like Westernstyle clothes, but tribal loyalties are still paramount