The Bedouin, the original Arabs, are the Arabic speaking nomads of the Middle East who have proudly maintained their pastoral way of life over thousands of years, the vision of the family, their camels, their herd of goats are firmly planted in our minds. From the Arabian Peninsula, their original home ,they spread out into other neighboring and fertile lands in their never ending search for water sources, pasture and plunder. They now live in the desert regions of all countries between the Arabian Gulf (Persian Gulf) and the Atlantic.

Traditional Bedouin culture reminds us of the Old Testament stories of the Patriarchs. Through the Islamic conquests it has infiltrated the cultures of all Middle Eastern groups and they and their lifestyles are regarded as a model by all Arabic speaking people. Throughout their long history, desert Bedouin have survived on their herds. They controlled the desert trade routes, escorted caravans, and provided them with guides and drivers. Bedouin, settled, semi-settled and nomadic, now comprise less than 10 percent of the total Arab population.

Since Lawrence of Arabia first captivated the west with his romantic image of the noble desert Bedouin there has been a growing interest in this people and in their culture accompanied by many misconceptions and clichés.

According to Arab tradition they are descendent from two main stocks. The first settled in the mountains of Southwestern Arabia (the Yemen), and claim descent from Qahtan, (Yoktan of the Bible) and became known as Yemenis. The second settled in North-Central Arabia, claimed descent from Ismail(Ishmael) and are called the Qaysis.

Even now every Bedouin tribe still claims descent from one or the other group. There are also “ancestorless“ vassal tribes living under their protection who make a living by serving them as blacksmiths, tinkers, artisans and entertainers. Bedouin lifestyle involved migrating with their herds in search of pasture, supplying their produce to the oases markets, raiding the settled communities and the trade caravans that crossed the desert and levying tolls from them.
There was no private ownership of land as each tribe held its pastures and water sources communally. Bedouin society is characterized by a fierce loyalty to family, clan and tribe.
They have a rigid code of honor in which the chastity of their women is very important and which includes hospitality and generosity. In some places, until quite recently, the Bedouin had remained completely out of touch with the outside world. The Bedouin of the southern Sinai region, the poorest and most isolated of all, had to learn to make do with whatever little they had, and it was very little, or move to a more sedentary way of life. Through trial and error, they learned where to build their dwellings, where and how to tap underground water depending on the geological formations of the area, how to cure themselves using plants and shrubs of the High Mountain Range and how to protect themselves from other invading tribes. Now, they too are experiencing the influence of the west, beginning with the Israeli invasion of their culture after the 1967 occupation of Sinai. This continues today with the growing tourist industry.

Poetry was and remains their greatest artistic attainment. Their poems celebrate heroic deeds of the tribe and its warriors and are recited around the camp fires. They are passed down orally from generation to generation.

At the turn of the 7th century, Muhammad had succeeded in converting most Bedouin tribes to Islam. After a brief rebellion his successor, the Caliph Abu Bakr, reunited them, and this new unity, coupled with the missionary zeal of their new religion, their continuous search for new water sources and a desire for plunder, motivated their expansion out of the Arabian Peninsula. (Arabs & Islam )

The Bedouin had made a deep and lasting impression on all nations subjugated by the Arabs, coupled with the conviction that their lifestyle was the model for all Muslims at all times. Bedouin culture infiltrated local customs and tradition in all the conquered areas, and Arabic became the main language of the Middle East, supplanting Syriac, Greek, Copt, Persian and Berber.

Because they are often on the move, the Bedouin traditionally had few material goods, their main possessions being their animals and their tent. The Bedouin are excellent trackers, recognizing animal and human tracks and are able to find their way without compass or map in the desert. This made them valuable as scouts for various armies.

The largest social unit amongst the Bedouin is the tribe (Qabila) which is divided into clans. Each clan owns its own wells and grazing grounds and it was the raiding unit of past generations. Clans are divided into family groups (Hayy) or (Khamsa) which consist of all those related back to five generations (having the same great great grandfather in the paternal line). The Hayy is the herding unit, its member families camping together most of the year. It is divided into kin groups, (extended families), which consist of the relatives through three generations. The kin group is responsible for all its individual members in matters of morals and honour, including blood vengeance.
Bedouin society is patriarchal, all members of a tribe claiming descent by male line to a common ancestor. The Sheikh as leader of the tribe has considerable power but is limited by custom, precedent and advice of the council of tribal elders. He is elected from a noble family, any member of that family being eligible for the position when he dies.

The Bedouin have kept their lifestyle through the centuries, controlled by a strict code of rules. It stresses the values of loyalty to the tribe, obedience, generosity, hospitality, honor, cunning and revenge. In the past they spent much time raiding, hunting and war in the pursuit of which they were capable of enduring severe physical hardships. Today smuggling often is a substitute for these forbidden ‘manly’ activities.

In Sinai and the adjacent deserts there are around 100 large tribes of 1000 members or more. Some tribes number up to 20,000 and a few of the large tribes have up to 100,000 members. Sinai. alone has between 10 and 13 different tribes, of various sizes.

After the January 25th revolution in Egypt, representatives of all the tribes met in Wadi Watir, near Nuweiba in south Sinai and issued a unified statement addressing their needs, concerns, and support for the revolution

 

 

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