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Who are the Bedouin?

The Bedouin are a people of nomadic heritage living all over the Middle East. Historically, they lived primarily as nomadic pastoralists, driving herds of goats, sheep and camels between sources of water and grazing in their desert homelands, living in tents and using their close knowledge of the natural world to survive. The word Bedouin derives from the Arabic bedawi, which refers to an individual Bedouin man; a Bedouin woman is a bedawiyya and bedu is the plural. All have their origins in the word badia, which denotes the wild arid deserts of Arabia in which they spent most of their time. In Arabic, the word bedu is used mostly by settled peoples in referring to the Bedouin; the Bedouin of Egypt and the Sinai typically refer to themselves as El Arab, or The Arabs. When they use the word bedu it is usually in reference to nomadic peoples they regard as having a different, non-Arab ancestry to their own, such as the Beja people of southern Egypt or the Tuareg and Amazigh peoples of North Africa. Ashiri meaning tribal or ruhaal which denotes mobility are terms Bedouin use for themselves in some other regions. Wherever they are, the Bedouin generally call people of the settled world felaheen, which literally means famers; irregardless of whether they practise an agricultural way of life or not. The meaning of all these words continues to evolve but this broad usage remains intact, revealing key frames of reference in how the Bedouin self-identify. Over the last century Bedouin society has seen an extraordinary change, with many groups exchanging a nomadic pastoralist life for a more settled, village-based existence; nevertheless, nomadic pastoralists remain in the desert and whether living a more nomadic or settled existence all identify as Bedouin and are together re-shaping what it means to be Bedouin today.  

Bedouin tribes 

Whilst the settled world has long been grouped into nations and states, the tribe is the broadest unit of organisation in Bedouin society. Tribal groups have been present in the wider region for at least the last few millennia and the tribe remains an important social block today. Each Bedouin tribe has its own ancestry and history and many have a distinct dialect and a unique tribal culture too. Smaller units known as clans exist within a tribe, which are in turn divided into still-smaller family groups. Sources of authority exist at each level but the tribe as a whole is overseen by one leader, known as a Sheikh. Bedouin tribes each have their own territory, whose borders were typically set long ago and which are usually demarcated by obvious natural features such as a wadi or mountain chain; these territories can be small or gigantic in size - sometimes covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometres - and it was by migrating within them and using their resources a tribe's members would collectively survive. Tribes sometimes came into conflict with eachother; other times, they cooperated, sharing resources or forming alliances. Whilst the region is in some ways divided tribally, tribes identify as groups of a common people called the Arabs; whatever their differences, the similarities between them are bigger, with each tribe sharing not only an Arab ancestry but a broadly similar dialect, a religion, a common Bedouin law regulating everything from theft to hospitality and conflict resolution along with a nomadic past and sometimes present. Bedouin society is changing today with traditional law, sources of authority and identity being slowly eroded but tribes remain important, shaping Bedouin identity at every level across the region. 

The Bedouin Nation

The Bedouin are a people united by a language, religion, law and most importantly, a nomadic heritage and culture to which most remain strongly attached today. Whilst most tribes trace their roots to the Arabian Peninsula the Bedouin are now dispersed widely across the Middle East, living everywhere from Oman to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and beyond. Bedouin tribes are found in more southerly parts of Africa from Sudan to Eritrea too, where they still keep their old Arab culture and traditions alive. As a people for whom mobility was at the heart of life the Bedouin had the skillsets and know-how to move great distances and it was through many centuries of migration that their widespread presence was established across the region. The Bedouin were amongst the first peoples to convert to Islam when it emerged in the Hejaz 1500 years ago and several tribes joined the Islamic Conquests of neighbouring regions after the Prophet Mohammed's death, which constituted one of their first major movements out of Arabia. Over the following centuries Bedouin movements were driven by many other factors, from drought to blood disputes within a tribe, bigger conflicts between tribes and sometimes just the simple hopes of finding a better life with more water, grazing and other resources. The Bedouin gradually established new tribal territories by moving for these reasons, of which many remain in place today. With the formation of new states and the realigning of the Middle East's modern political borders in the last 100 years many of these old Bedouin territories stand bisected today, with single tribes often divided between different nations. The Bedouin are a transnational people, separated by borders but united by a common heritage and identity. 

Modern times

Bedouin society has seen great change within the last century or so; perhaps more than in any other chapter for at least the last 1500 years and some might argue longer. There has been a large scale shift away from the age old nomadic pastoralist way of life to a more settled existence in villages and towns. Only a minority of Bedouin still live the traditional lives of their forebears today. Environmental change, the undercutting of the desert caravan industry by modern transportation, the push-and-pull strategies of national states who view the Bedouin as easier to control when sedentarised, along with ever-changing views within the Bedouin community itself about the best kind of life to live in a new era has driven this switch. For whatever reasons it has come about, settlement amongst nomadic peoples is never a simple relocation in space; it represents a switchover between two entirely different ways of life, with a powerful reconstituting influence on their traditional economies, societies and cultures. Nevertheless, whilst many Bedouin have abandoned the mobile desert existence for a more sedentary one in villages few live as most settled people do. Many Bedouin families still keep herds of animals, grazing them around their homes. Some return to the desert with their animals for springtime. Many have 4x4s, through which they retain a more modern kind of mobility and most retain a strong sense of connection to their desert homelands. Traditional knowledge and skills are not being used as before and many are undoubtedly being lost for this reason, perhaps irreversibly; nevertheless, other elements of Bedouin culture from tribal dialects to dress, poetry, music, cooking, laws and customs of tribal identity are staying more intact. The Bedouin remain proud of who they are and the frames of what it means to be Bedouin are being reconstituted. 

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