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Bedouin culture

The Bedouin lived most of their collective past in the wilderness and every part of Bedouin culture, from their language to their laws, their cooking, art and music and their moral codes, religious customs and beliefs shows an adaptation of some kind to their environment. The nomadic civilisation of the Bedouin is one of great depth, richness and antiquity that has outlived all the settled empires at its sides, but it is entering a period of major transition today with many Bedouin groups exchanging the mobile desert life for a more fixed, sedentary existence. Alongside a widespread abandonment of the mobile pastoralist way of life, the redrawing of the political map and the formation of modern nation states across the Middle East - each of which has its own national identity, level of economic prosperity and a different government policy towards its Bedouin communities - has created another new context in which the Bedouin world continues to evolve. Although they stand in a period of change Bedouin communities have typically held on strongly to their own, distinctive identity and culture wherever they live. The Bedouin of Egypt still regard themselves very much as Bedouin, seeing the Pharaonic heritage of Egypt as something foreign. In Jordan, many Bedouin communities remain similar, with tribal identities often trumping national ones. Bedouin from different countries will usually have more cultural reference points with eachother than they will with settled peoples in their home states. Hikers on the Bedouin Trail cross between regions, countries and continents and will find differences in Bedouin tribes along the way; similarly, they will find major commonalities and may feel in many ways they have remained within the same nation. This is what might be called the Bedouin nation of the Middle East. 

Poems, proverbs & epics

Mobility was a survival necessity for the Bedouin and nothing was recorded on materials that would weigh them down. Bedouin culture was recorded and transmitted in almost entirely verbal form and it was artworks of the spoken word, from poems to proverbs, songs, stories and legends that became its greatest treasures. The Bedouin have an especially rich tradition of poetry and poems were composed by men and women of every tribe, alluding to everything from love and death to the beauty of the natural world, personal and tribal identity, miscarriages of justice and current events. Poems were shared widely around the campfires and in other social settings and were sometimes composed to transmit messages between tribes. One of the great Bedouin poets of contemporary times was Anez Abu Salim of the Sinai's Tarabin; he spent many years in jail but continued to compose his poems in secret, recording them on cassettes that were smuggled in and out and heard at large Bedouin gatherings. Bedouin culture is also rich in proverbs; short, usually-rhyming truisms communicating guidance in every area of life. The greatest literary epic of Bedouin origin tells of Abu Zeid; a tribesman of the Bani Hilal who left Arabia to migrate across North Africa in the Middle Ages. It has long been a classic of the Arab World with a reach beyond Bedouin circles, recited by poets from Cairo to Damascus and beyond. Overlaying the Bedouin landscape is also a rich tapestry of memories, stories and legends. Some tell of tribal history and battles. Others recall miracles, journeys and deaths. Common too are supernatural legends telling of everything from jinn to whispering rocks to ill-fated caravans whose passing is still heard in the night.  

A travelling people

Whether scouting faraway pastures, migrating with their herds, hunting, foraging or carrying messages over the desert, the Bedouin have always been a mobile, travelling people. Bedouin culture grew to ensure movement would always be protected because without it there could never be a Bedouin way of life at all. Customs around desert travel were observed universally by every Bedouin tribe and to break them was not just punishable by Bedouin law; it would forever ruin the honour of the perpetrator and damage the name and standing of his tribe. Whatever the relations between their tribes, if two Bedouin came together as travelling companions on a journey they were bound by tribal law to protect each other. Once a venture had been started a bond existed between companions that brought them arguably even closer than fellow tribesmen, lasting until the end. Hospitality was considered almost sacred in Bedouin culture and a strict set of customs grew around its handling. A host was expected to provide anybody who arrived at his tent in peace with the best hospitality his means allowed for a minimum of three and a third days, during which time asking questions about his guest's tribe and journey was forbidden. Hosts were duty bound to provide guests with sustenance, shelter and protection and this would hold true even if host and guest were from two warring tribes. One legend tells of a Bedouin Sheikh who, honouring the age old traditions of desert hospitality, welcomed a traveller to his tent whom he knew to be the murderer of his nephew. He kept his guest safe from his fellow tribesmen, before furnishing him with his finest camel and facilitating his successful escape back to the safety of his own tribal homeland. 

Bedouin beliefs

The Bedouin tribes of Arabia were the first peoples to convert to Islam when it dawned as a new faith in the Hejaz around 1500 years ago. Islam has long been at the heart of Bedouin life but its practice in a more isolated, remote wilderness setting saw it develop on its own unique lines, often integrating unorthodoxies. Many Bedouin tribes built small, simple tombs for local holy men known as walis. These tombs were the focus of both annual tribal gatherings and personal, private visits in which appeals were made to the holy man for his protection and sometimes intervention in earthly affairs. Bedouin tribes who relied largely on fishing along the Sinai's northern coasts once made annual offerings to the so-called 'Men of the Sea' with the 'Mother of Rain' another supernatural figure some tribes are known to have appealed to in times of drought. Alongside spirits such as jinn - which are mentioned in the Quran - other supernatural beings were believed to exist by some too, including a female figure known as a ghoola, who could be malevolent or kind or a mix of both. Superstitions were widespread too with many Bedouin once avoiding journeys during periods of the month when certain stars aligned and some once wearing amulets and charms to ward off curses and evil magic, which it was believed other humans could inflict. Many of these beliefs and customs have their origins in pre-Islamic times and sit squarely outside conservative Islam as it is preached today. As the Bedouin settle and turn to other sources for guidance on religious practice their beliefs are becoming more mainstream and the more unorthodox customs above have been largely abandoned. Nevertheless, some are still present and can be seen in tribes across the region today. 

The Bedouin future

The Bedouin are the heirs of a nomadic civilisation of great antiquity; guardians of a way of life passed down from the earliest twilight chapters of our human past to the present. Whilst most other peoples of the Middle East adopted a sedentary existence in previous millennia the Bedouin chose to remain in the desert, showing a remarkable capacity for adapting their mobile pastoralist way of life to new challenges and opportunities. Whether it is seen as a good or bad thing or perhaps a mix of both, it can be said with little doubt the Bedouin stand at a major crossroads in their history today. Whilst some Bedouin still maintain the traditional nomadic pastoralism of their forefathers most have exchanged the desert for a more fixed, sedentary life; this represents not just a change in location but a wholesale switchover from a way of life practised for many millennia to one that is almost entirely new in their community. Settlement is re-setting a relationship with the desert wilderness that shaped every element of their culture. The Bedouin are becoming more closely integrated into modern states that oversee everything from education to healthcare, military service and rights to travel and the same technology changing every culture in the world is changing theirs too. Whilst many parts of Bedouin culture have survived their transition to a new, fixed setting relatively intact other parts of it from the knowledge of the natural world to the practical skillsets needed to thrive within it have been more vulnerable to loss. The Bedouin are aware of the change happening and the best that might be hoped for is that they will be given a true choice to decide which way they want to go, with real, practical ways to support their nomadic pastoralism offered alongside settlement.

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