The Bedouin (Arabic: Bedouins, ‘desert dwellers’) are Arabic-speaking pastoral nomads in the South-West Asia (Arabia, Iraq, Oman, Syria, Jordon and Yemen), and North Africa.
They are estimated to constitute about one-tenth of the total population of the Middle East. They are mainly associated with camel herding in desert areas, although many Bedouin in more favourable grazing areas also tend sheep, goats, cattle and horses.
Nomadic pastoralism is a successful form of animal husbandry earned out in extensive areas of arid and semi-arid harsh climates. The success of nomadic pastoralism depends on the flexibility and mobility of the herders themselves, and their deep knowledge and efficient management of the environment.
There are numerous tribes in South-West Asia and North Africa who practice pastoral nomadism. The northern part of the Arabian Peninsula is occupied by Bedouins, who are almost exclusively dependent on camel breeding and move from place to place in search of fodder and water.
There are about one million Bedouins in the peninsula of Arabia. They occupy fairly well-defined tracts of coarse grassland (bam ad) which affords permanent vegetation and water-holes in the hollows.
Occasionally, they enter into the true sandy desert (Nefud) or the rocky country (hand) for short season pastures in good years or while passing to other pastures beyond.
The nomadic pastoralism is quite typical in the north-western parts of the Arabian Peninsula between Syria, Palestine and Hedjaz. The Rub-al-Khali (The Empty Quarter) between Oman and Nejd in southern Arabia is also inhabited by a few small Badawin tribes.
The Bedouins, the occupants of al-Badia (the desert), practise a different type of economy. For nine or ten months of the year, they remain in the interior on arid pastures.
Camels are the essential beasts of the Badawin. Sheep and goats are kept only occasionally and in small numbers and the horse is the only other animal of importance.
At the height of the summer drought alone do the Badawin converge on the settled country in order to save their beasts from starvation, and to replenish their stores for the next sojourn in the interior by trading their surplus livestock for grain, clothing, and weapons?
Some of the poorer Bedouins rarely leave the semi-desert pastures, but they assemble during the summer drought round the few surviving water-holes.
Such groups are entirely dependent on others for a scanty supply of trade goods, and their herds are reduced by the limited resources of grass and water available in the summer.
The Bedouins belong to the mixture of South-West Asia and Mediterranean races and resemble very much to the Egyptian and Syrian peasants.
Generally, they are five feet and four inches in height and lightly built. They have a long, narrow face with prominent nose, dark eyes and hair and a pale complexion.
The group of tribes has known collectively as the northern ‘Anaza’ who control the steppe lands between Aleppo, Damascus and the Hauran Plateau on the west, the Middle Euphrates on the east, and the Shammar Mountains in the south are the most powerful Bedouins of Arabia.
They comprise nearly 20 thousand tents and own in all over half a million camels. These tribes by no means form a close-knit group. Among them, rivalry and enmity are almost as common as alliance, while a faction within a single tribe may break away to form an autonomous unit.
The largest and the most important of the Anaza tribes is the Ruwala of about 3,500 tents. They occupy the eastern part of the Anaza territory and extend from the tributary villages east and south of Damascus at the north-western end of Sirhan depression, which they visit in summer, to the borders of the Nefud and the northern-most oases of Central Arabia. Occasionally, they wander up to the Euphrates villages.
The Bedouins adopt a circular pattern in their migration. In September, they leave the villages in the west to pass the winter moving slowly in scattered groups over the pastures of Hamada. In spring, there is a general migration southward to the fringes of the sandy desert of the Nefud.
The herds pass to the west and south along this interior belt of scattered pastures towards the oases of Teyma, striking north and west again in early summer to travel along the water-holes in the Sirhan depression.
If the year is bad they may break up into small groups and scatter still more widely, and larger numbers will then work their way along the eastern borders of the Nefud.
The seasonal movements and number of tents and camels in any one part of the country depend on the period and duration of the rains, which are never precisely the same in any two years.
The climax of the hot season in August and September, when the Ruwala Bedouins are forced out of the pastures to the villages, is one of the parching heats.
At this parching weather, gusty winds whip up dangerous sand-storms during the heat of the day, and rain never falls. But in the autumn as the heat dies away, some slight moisture is borne eastwards from the Mediterranean Sea, and from October to middle of winter light rains are expected.
The autumn rains are critical for the revival of perennial plants. If the rains are poor and there is a danger of failing pastures, the women of the camp form a procession which goes, singing a rain prayer, from tent to tent, headed by ‘the mother rain—an effigy consisting of a woman’s robe.
The winter season, especially December and January, is severely cold; hoar frosts are common and snow may fall. In the summer, all vegetation withers, the land becomes desert and the annual return to the settled lands must be made.
While camping and moving from one place to another, the requirements of the camels are also taken into consideration. Although a large number of tents may congregate round the tribal Sheikh, the Ruwala Bedouins do not wander in large bands and the tribe is but rarely united. The more widely they are scattered over the scanty pastures, the more secure are their resources.
Thus, they migrate from pasture to pasture in a number of small bands of fifty or a hundred, each independently by seeking grass for its own beasts. When the grasses in one place fail, scouts are sent out in the most likely direction to find the nearest water-holes and fresh pastures available.
In the hot-dry season, they congregate in larger groups around water sources on the desert margins, especially in the vicinity of towns and markets. Some groups make annual migration of as far as 1,000 kms (600 miles) in each direction.
The Bedouins of the northern side control richer pastures and have more frequent access to large towns than many of those farther souths who have smaller herds and are dependent on small interior oases.
The economy of the Bedouins is largely dependent on camel. The essential virtues of camel are that it can survive for days without water and it can store in its hump a reserve of fat on which it can live for many days if pastures are dried.
If the vegetation is green and fresh a water-hole is to be visited but once in a month; even if parched grass and salt bushes are to be had it can go nearly a week between watering.
Strong fat cattle can be co-axed into drinking as much as sixty or seventy quarters of water before setting out along a route on which wells are few.
The camel is the fundamental source of wealth, for not only does it supply food and valuable materials, but it is the only important marketable thing that the Bedouins have. Sold to the traders or to peasants in oases markets, it pays for the weapons, clothing and auxiliary food supplies that are carried into the desert. Camel is a status symbol too.
While the rich Sheikh may own a thousand head, even the poorest herdsman endeavours to maintain a few beasts of his own. The majority of camels are yellowish-brown or grey, but white camels are the most highly prized as they are always conspicuous.
A Badawin camp is usually pitched within a short distance of a water supply most central for a wide range of pastures. If surface water is not available, wells are cleared out or fresh ones dug, and the watered hauled up in camel hide buckets is poured into leather troughs. Wells of a hundred and more feet deep are found in the inner desert.
When the pastures are close at hand, the herdsmen go out daily, each riding at the head of his own camel, singing the song he has taught them to recognize and follow.
When hundreds of camels are converging on the camp at sundown the herd’s man’s song is indispensable, for the beasts easily stray and wanders aimlessly when lost.
At night they are hobbled, and the herders sleep among them. But, as the closer pastures are grazed down, the herds must move farther afield and may remain away from the camp for days and even weeks at a time.
Camel milk is the main food for months. The daily food of a Badawin is meal cooked in sour camel’s milk, to which bread and meat are added only when guests arrive. It is drunk fresh and sour and is stored, but neither butter nor cheese can be made from it. The camel alone can travel long distances and carry burdens in the desert.
With its long legs it covers the ground at four miles an hour when travelling slowly, and a good riding camel, when pressed, will travel a hundred miles in a day, while a pack camel, with full burden, will do at least half as much. Camel hair is the raw material for ropes and weaving, and the hide for bags and bottles.
Males are kept only for stud purposes, since they have much less endurance, are less docile, and above all neither yield milk nor bear young to increase the herd.
Horse is another important animal of Bedouins. It is used for short and swift raids. Its maintenance demand constant care in an environment which is much too severe for it. The horse needs green grass, grain and must be watered once in a day.
On journeys when the water supply is uncertain, water for the horses must be carried on camels. Moreover, horses cannot travel long distances.
In short, a horse requires more care than a child and usually gets it. In time of stress the barley left in the store bags is fed to the horse not to the household.
The ownership of a horse is a symbol of status. Male colts are thrown away at birth. A mare would be worth at least ten camels, while a young breeding mare might be exchanged for anything from fifteen to thirty riding camels.
As with the camels, white is the most prized colour, and a white mare is the proper mount for a chief at festivals. The women and slaves of the house are expected to devote themselves to the feeding and grooming of the horse.
During winter, they must be protected from severe cold and in summer sheltered from the heat; always they must be guarded against theft.
In all, they cause endless trouble and are a constant source of temptation, friction, bickering and bloodshed; but they are, nevertheless, a great pride and joy.
During the migration, the camp site is decided by the chief of the dominant group of kinsmen in the band. The Bedouins scorn to camp in a circle who thus Endeavour to protect their stock by herding them at night inside this compound of tents.
Each tent is made from a number of long strips of goat hair cloth about two feet wide, usually bought from village weavers and sewn by the women of the household.
The usual tent cover is rarely more than ten yards long and about four yards wide. The cover is supported by three or four pairs of poles and held by long ropes. The tent of a chief may be considerably larger. It is divided into two unequal parts with a cloth; the smaller third is reserved for the owner and his guests, the larger two-thirds being occupied by his womenfolk, children, slaves and stores.
The main cooking hearth, set between three flat stones, is in the women’s section. In the tent there are few carpets to sit and sleep upon, cotton quilts and camel hair pillows for warmth and comfort.
As stated at the outset, camel milk, barley, dates and mutton are the main ingredients of Bedouins food. The Bedouins take little food until the evening.
A lick of salt or a gulp of milk on rising, and a further drink of milk fresh or soured taken about mid-day, must suffice until the meal at sundown, when a paste of dried dates, some roasted grain or baked flour and more rarely meat are taken. Meals are prepared by women and are taken in their company except when guests are present.
When March to a new pasture begins, the camp is to be struck. The stores are loaded and the tent is let down. The chief and the fighting men ride ahead on the soundest riding camels.
The main body of pack camels, led by slaves, the litter camels on which ride the women and children and the herds all follow close behind. About ten to fifteen miles is covered in a day before the camping is done.
The Badawin society blood relationship in the male line is fundamental. All the tribesmen of the Anaza group consider themselves to be ultimately related in this way, while the divisions of a tribe which habitually camp together will consist almost entirely of a few groups of related kinsmen.
A man’s kin ranges from his great grandfather to his great grandson. The kin in the broad sense of a clan or house is a group descended from the same paternal ancestor, which usually remain together to form the whole or a close-knit part of a camp.
Each may often be distinguished by the colour or pattern of its cloaks and headgear and the decoration of saddles and bags. A collection of such kinds forms a camp unit and recognizes an immediate chief or Sheikh, who is a member of the dominant kin.
Among the nomad Bedouins, mixture of blood is exceptional and is regarded as a disgrace. Where the Bedouins have settled in agricultural lands, intermixture on a wide scale has taken place.
The life of a Badawin camp is not one of peaceful migration from pasture to pasture. It is punctured by raiding expeditions—small and large—against enemy tribes and their herds. Powerful tribes invade the traditional territories of weaker groups, attempting to drive them out and to steel their beasts.
In dreaded years of severe drought, raiding and invasion of pastures is a matter of life and death; and hostility has a real economic foundation. During the better periods, however, raids do not cease. These are undertaken not merely for the lust of possession but many a times for the sheer satisfaction.
The thrill of success in a well-planned attack, the prestige of victory over long-standing rivals, the fear of disgrace if an attack is not met, repulsed and rewarded with counter-attack, these are powerful motives in the perpetuation of hostilities.
Hostilities usually develop from trivial beginnings—an assertion of superiority, the temporary trespass of pastures or petty theft of animals.
These are met by attacks on the only wealth of the offenders—their herds of camel and mares. Such raids may be initiated by an individual or by the camp as a whole under a recognized war leader.
Minor raids by a handful of adventurers may be made by camel, or even on foot, during moonless nights; but larger expeditions are carefully planned and will involve up to half the fighting strength of the camp under a commander who has acquired a reputation for skill and bravery.
Where raid and counter-raid are always likely and any trespasser can be attacked on sight, travel, save in large parties would appear to be dangerous in the extreme.
But a number of customs and practices accepted by all tribes afford some protection to the individual and serve to make travel across a number of tribal territories possible.
A traveler is usually very welcomed. He affords an unexpected break in the monotony of the many months of herding, and he brings news of events in the outside world to the members of small isolated camps; moreover, the provision of protection and safe conduct of a traveler is felt to be a display of power and authority and a sign of assured control of the territory occupied.
To attack or plunder a man who has the countenance of one’s kinsman or chief is as serious as murder. The protector sometimes accompanies travelers to the limits of the territory over which he offers protection. To refuse this countenance is a disgrace; it destroys the reputation for courage, independence and generosity.
The arrival of a stranger at the camp is often the occasion for great competition in offering hospitality; for the host acquiring prestige in addition to the presence of his guest.
The guest is welcomed until sunrise of the fourth day after his arrival, that is, until the third daily meal has been eaten and digested; after that time he should not stay, but his safety is guaranteed for an equal period after he has left or up to the distance of about one hundred miles.
Though agriculture is regarded with contempt and aversion by the Bedouins and is resorted to for a livelihood only when they lose their herds by a pest or find their pasture lands seriously curtailed, nevertheless nomadism yield such a precarious and monotonous subsistence that it is not infrequently combined with primitive agriculture.
They grow date palms, barley, maize, fodder, melons, beans and vegetables in the oases or wherever water is available for irrigation.
In oases, agriculture is predominantly intensive. Gardens and orchards tend to prevail over field tillage. The limited soil and water resources must be used to obtain the maximum production.
In the oases, the village is always built on the slope, because the alluvial soil in the basin is too precious to be used for house site.
The Bedouins have typical character. Occupationally, they are herdsmen, chronically fighters and politically conquerors. They are the descendants of Abraham, Lot, and Ismail.
The necessities of guarding the pastures, which are only intermittently occupied, involve a persistent military organization.
The nation is a quiescent army, the army is a mobilized. It carries with it flock and herds. Constant practice in riding, scouting, and the use of arms, physical endurance tested by centuries of exertion and hardship, makes every nomad a soldier.
Cavalry and camel corps adds to the swiftness and vigour of their onslaught, make their military strategy that of sudden attack and swifter retreat, to be met only by wariness and extreme mobility. In the opinion of Herodotus, “the nomad’s whole existence breeds courage’s.
The independent, hazardous life of the desert makes the Bedouins the bravest of mankind, but the settled Arabs of Egypt and Spain lost most of this fighting quality”.
The daily life of the Bedouins is a learning school for military organization. In the evening, the flock and herds are distributed with system around the camp to prevent confusion. The difficult part of a well-ordered march, of making and breaking of camp, and of foraging is practiced almost daily in their constant migrations.
The usual order of the Bedouins march could scarcely be surpassed by an army. In advance of the caravan moves a body of armed horsemen, 5 or 7 kilometres ahead, then follows the main body of the kafila mounted on horses and camels, then the female camel and after this the beasts of burden with women and children. The encampment of tents with the places for men, arms and herds is also carefully regulated.
Spirit of Independence among the Nomads:
The nature made necessity of scattering in small groups to seek pasturage induces in the nomad a spirit of independence. The Badawin is personally free.
The power of the Sheikh is only nominal, and depends much upon his personal qualities. Political organization is conspicuously lacking among the Bedouins, who say “we are a people without head”.
The title of Sheikh is an empty one. Customs and usages are their rulers. Nature everywhere postpones, obstructs, and jeopardizes the political conquest of arid lands.
The prevailing poverty, monotony and unreliability of subsistence in desert, as well as low industrial development, necessitate trade with the bordering agricultural lands. The Bedouins buy flour, barley, coffee and clothing, paying for them largely with butter and male colts.
They bring horses, cattle and sheep to the city of Kuwait at the head of the Persian Gulf to barter for dates, clothing and firearms. They also sell lambs, raw meat and goats.