Skip to main content

Sapien Stories: Bedouins of the Middle East

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

The Ultimate Animal Herders

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Bedouins as the Arabic-speaking nomadic communities of the Middle Eastern deserts, living in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Badia means desert in Arabic, Bedouin, the dwellers of the desert. Bedouins are Arab Muslims and their recorded history goes back to 2500 BCE, much before the advent of Islam. The livelihood of Bedouins has been as animal herders because the only livelihood option in the deserts they lived in was livestock rearing. Though modern life has turned many of these communities into urbanised and sophisticated societies, the Bedouin culture is strongly adhered to in their major centres.

They have been a country on their own, nomadic and borderless, but after the First World War, compelled to be the citizens of the modern nation-states that emerged in the Middle East. It is curious to note that the Bedouins are usually classified based on the animals they rear and herd. They are mainly the camel tribes of the Syrian, Arabian and Sahara deserts, the sheep and goat tribes of Jordan, Iraq, and Syria, and the cattle tribes of the southern part of Arabia and Sudan. There is also another categorisation that put some communities under the tag of noble tribes, supposedly descending from the Qaysi (northern Arabian) or Yamani (southern Arabian) Arabs and all the others who claim no such ancestry and live under the patronage of the noble tribes. This second group comprises manual workers and craftsmen. Bedouin tribes such as Aeneze used to be purely nomadic and stayed in the cultivated areas only in spring and summer. Certain others such as Ahl el Shema’l and Arab el Kebly had been settled tribes who live near their farmlands. Many of the modern-day Bedouins work in the military, police, construction industry and the petroleum sector.

Bedouin Women

Water, Pastures and Wars

The quest for water is the central theme of Bedouin life around which all other lifestyle choices are anchored. The search for water and grazing lands is the raison d'être of their nomadic lives. This is why their tents happen to be mobile camps and for the same reason, they cannot do much agriculture and live a frugal life with minimal material possessions. The Discovery of water by some miracle or luck to save the lives of the people is a common stream of narrative in the Bedouin lore. Many times the Bedouins had to go to war to get possession of a water source. No wonder, in the Bedouin version of Arabic, a watering-place is a metaphor for battle. There is a Bedouin saying that “March sustains the crop or March destroys it”, alluding to the crucial rainfall that might happen or not in March.

Wars between different tribes, blood feuds between different groups, and raids they carried out on enemy tribes were the other reasons for constant movement. Sumerians talked about the desert tribes as tent-dwellers and barbarians who did not know a house or a city. In the 7th century CE, the most ardent volunteers to be the voice of Islam, the new religion, were the Bedouins. As Islamic warriors, they migrated to different parts of the Middle East-Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa-and settled there.

Bedouin Social Structure

A number of Bedouin families constitute a clan and a number of clans form a tribe. There would be traditionally demarcated areas for each tribe to graze their livestock. The water sources inside these areas were not to be used by other tribes. If an outside tribe takes water from a well within the area of a tribe, that will be considered a declaration of war. Such was the value of water as it amounted to the single factor deciding life and death, especially when there is a drought. One should understand this miserable situation before one judges these people for their history of violence. Though we have a tendency to glamorise tribal people, worldwide, tribal life, in reality, has been a constant struggle for a share of the limited resources and the limited means that existed to access them. The triumphant civilisations that we see today are those that emerged from the successful tribes, who survived in this struggle, mostly by violent means. Modern society cannot deny its violent past even if we try to hide it behind all the sophistication that we assume we have.

A Photo from Late 19th Century of a Bedouin Man

The Early Inventors

Children of the majestic rivers such as the Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, and Jordan, the Bedouins had been part of the region that we call the cradle of civilisation and the Fertile Crescent or in other words, the ancient Mesopotamia. The world owes Mesopotamia for the crucial discoveries of the wheel, glass, mathematics, coins, alphabets, calendars, and irrigation. Sitting in the present, all these inventions might seem trivial as we now consider only quantum computing, robotics, or AI as advanced technology but their foundations were laid in the elementary science that lies in a wheel or an alphabet.

Bedouins in Bible

Genesis depicts the ancestors of the Israelites as nomads residing in the land of Canaan. Exodus and Numbers, two other books of the Bible, say that these people fled from Egypt and lived in Negev, Sinai and Transjordan. The Israelites finding water in the desert after their exodus from Egypt is described in the Bible in the following words,

Well up, O well- sing to it!

Well that headmen dug

That good folk burrowed with their staffs

And from the desert [gave us] a gift (Num. 21:17-18)

Modern Bedouin Tents in Petra and Inside a Tent

The Traditional Life of a Bedouin

In a traditional setting, the Bedouins consume homemade bread and milk, wear full-length gowns irrespective of gender, ride camels and donkeys, and use household items such as animal skin pouches for carrying water and for churning milk. Hand-crafted wooden bowls and metal pots bought or bartered complete their home utensil collection. Sugar, tea and coffee will be the only food items bought. Parts of their tent will be woven from goat hair. Their lives did not change for a thousand years or so because of the unchanging weather and geography in which they live.

Loss of an Inheritance

Nomadism has been the crux of Bedouin existence for a time unknown. A modern life deprived them of this essence, this unique way of life. The common rangelands where they herded their animals were nationalised by the governments, which also encouraged them to settle down and lead a sedentary life. Nowadays, only a small percentage of Bedouins are nomadic.

Scroll to Continue

Bedouin Migration

The rural Bedouin tribes still migrate with seasons. In the northeastern parts of Negev, they migrate close to the wells of Bir Mashash, Bir al-Milikh, and Bir Arara in summer and when the heat subsides, they lead their livestock to the fresh pastures of the mountains near the Dead Sea. In the southeastern Sinai region, the herders move near the wells surrounding the Gulf of Aqaba in summer, and after the rainy season, again migrate to the Ijma plateau. It will be wrong to say that the modern-day Bedouins practice pure nomadism. Researchers have called their lifestyle semi-nomadic. Winter cultivation and summer herding in the ever-shrinking pastures is more or less the life reality of the semi-nomadic Bedouins.

Bedouins of Egypt

Ma’aza Bedouins live near the Nile River in the Eastern desert of Egypt and are the few pure nomads that remain among the different tribes. This Bedouin region is marooned on the western and eastern sides by the flood planes of the Nile, Red Sea, and the Gulf of Suez. Upon this rugged land, where the climate in summer is scorching and dry, the Bedouins live as pastoral nomads, moving their livestock up the mountains and back to the planes, as weather and seasons change. When the rain comes, as infrequent as it is, sheep, goats and camels gallop in herds of hundreds along the streams and rivulets that climb down eager to meet the rivers. The occasional flash floods and rains transform the landscape magically with sprouting vegetation and greenery. Ma’aza means, the goat people, their God before Islam being Ma’iiz inn al Jamal, who was revered as a goat that is the scion of the mountain. Community life is based on many related households coming together in camps and sharing the daily chores between them. This enables them to spare adult men to be away with the herds for many days in succession.

Food Habits

The adventure travellers of Arabia have noted down the food habits of Bedouins and here is a peek into those desert food items. According to the travellers, it’s a one meal per day regime and usually, the main meal is eaten after the evening milking of the goats and the camels. Unleavened bread is the major component of any meal. A metal sheet called Saj is used to cook the bread. Meat is served with wheat or rice and will be daubed with molten butter or animal fat. Dried shrubs, roots, and camel dung are used as fuel. Dates, used both fresh and dried, are supplementary food that is also a crucial element of surviving in the desert. It is a food that is easy to carry and preserve and provides good nutrition even when there is nothing else to eat. Coffee or Kahwa is the most important drink and is enjoyed with other members of the community. Game animals such as lizards, hawks, and gazelle add flavour to the menu of Bedouins.

Discovery of Oil that Changed Bedouin Life Dramatically

The discovery of oil fields transformed the Bedouin life from frugal to super-rich in the short span of a single generation. In his phenomenal autobiography, Out of the Desert: My Journey from Nomadic Bedouin to the Heart of Global Oil, Ali Al-Naimi describes how oil transformed his life, work and vision. Born in 1935 in the deserts of today’s Saudi Arabia, he belonged to a nomadic Bedouin family that wandered around in search of water and pasture. In 1938, US excavators discovered the rich oil reserves of this region. When Ali was 12, he began to work as an office boy in a US oil company, Aramco. He got an opportunity to continue his education while working and after studying geology at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, he took his master’s from Stanford University. In 1984, he became the first Saudi Arabian president of the very oil company he began his career with as an office boy. Soon he became the Saudi CEO of the company which was then renamed Saudi Aramco. In 1995, Ali became the oil minister of Saudi Arabia. His autobiography opens with the following words,

I can still clearly see our family’s black tents huddled together on the sand. As a young boy, I never let them out of my sight. Those tents and the large connected families they sheltered were the centre of my universe. Beginning when I was four, my stepbrother Mohammed and I were sent out each day to tend to the family’s lambs. We kept the flock of as many as 150 close to our desert camp. Even so, we often came home with one or two fewer than we had started out with at daybreak.

After a few days of this, my uncle on my mother’s side took charge. ‘Ali, I think there’s a wolf that is eating your lambs.’ I thought he might be right, not that I could count, or read or write.

It was in 1938 that a different kind of well became the well of elixir for Bedouins as Max Steineke, an American geologist in his relentless search discovered an abundant reserve of crude oil, one of the oil wells his team was digging, well no.7. This well was later renamed by the Saudi King Abdullah, the Prosperity Well.

Glimpses of Old Bedouin Life

Here are some photos of the Bedouin life from the end of the 19th century. These are from the Library of Congress Archive.

References

Bedouin, britannica.com.

Mesopotamia, Christine Mayfield and Kristine M Quinn, 2007. Teacher Created Materials Publishing.

Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness, Joseph J Hobbs, 2010, University of Texas Press.

A Bedouin Century, Education and Development among the Negev Tribes in the 20th Century, Aref Abu-Rabia, A. Abu-Rabia, 2001, Berghahn Books.

Bedouin Culture in the Bible, Clinton Bailey, 2018, Yale University Press.

Arabian Travellers’ Observations of Bedouin Food, Philip Iddison, Food on the Move: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1996, Prospect Books.

Out of the Desert: My Journey from Nomadic Bedouin to the Heart of Global Oil, Ali al-Naimi, Penguin Books Limited.

Vanishing in the Desert, Traditional Bedouin Culture Lives Online, Isabel Kershner, The New York Times.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

Related Articles