The Bedu

Asian Geographic - - West Asia -

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

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