Last Updated 22 Feb 2022

Bedouin Communities

Category Culture, Marriage
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The term 'Bedu'in the Arabic language refers to one who lives out in the open, in the desert. The Arabic word 'Badawiyin'is a generic name for a desert-dweller and the English word ‘Bedouin’ is the derived from this. In ancient times, most people settled near rivers but the Bedouin people preferred to live in the open desert. Bedouins mainly live in the Arabian and Syrian deserts, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and the Sahara Desert of North Africa.

There are Bedouin communities in many countries, including Egypt, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq in the Middle East and Morocco, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya in North Africa. Altogether, the Bedouin population numbers about 4 million. The Bedouins are seen as Arab culture’s purest representatives and the Bedouins continue to be hailed by other Arabs as “ideal” Arabs, especially because of their rich oral poetic tradition, their herding lifestyle and their traditional code of honour.

The Egyptians refer to the Bedouins as 'Arab', but Bedouins are distinct from other Arab’s because of their extensive kinship networks, which provide them with community support and the basic necessities for survival. Such networks have traditionally served to ensure safety of families and to protect their property. The term 'A'raab' has been synonymous with the term 'nomad' since the beginning of Islam. The Bedouins are recognized by their (nomadic) lifestyles, special language, social structures and culture. Only few Bedouins live as their forefathers did in camel- and goat hair tents, raising livestock, hunting and raiding.

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Their numbers are decreasing and nowadays there are approx. only 5% of Bedouins still live as pastoral nomads in all of the Middle East. Some Bedouins of Sinai are still half-nomads. Bedouins have different facial features by which they can be distinguished from other Egyptians and also they generally dress differently. The Bedouin men wear long 'djellabaya' and a 'smagg' (red white draped headcover) or 'aymemma' (white headcover) or a white small headdress, sometimes held in place by an 'agall' (a black cord).

The Bedouin women usually wear brightly coloured long dresses but when they go outside they dress in an 'abaya' (a thin, long black coat sometimes covered with shiny embroidery) and they will always cover their head and hair when they leave their house with a 'tarha' (a black, thin shawl). Traditionally a woman's face was hidden behind a highly decorated 'burqa'ah' but this is now only seen with the older generations. The younger generations cover their face simply with their 'tarha' (shawl).

The Bedouins have a rich culture and their own Arabic ‘Bedawi’ language, which has different dialects depending on the area where they live. In former days they emphasised on the strong belief in its tribal superiority, in return to the tribal security – the support to survive in a hostile environment. 'The Bedouin' is aristocratic and they tend to perceive the Arabian nation as the noblest of all nations, purity of blood, way of life and above all noble ancestry. They often trace their lineage back to the times of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and beyond.

The first converts to Islam came from the Bedouin tribes and therefore (Sunni) Islam is embedded and deeply rooted in the Bedouin culture. Prayer is an integral part of Bedouin life. As there are no formal mosques in the desert, they pray were they are, facing the Ka’aba in Mecca and performing the ritual washing, preferably with water but if not available they ‘wash’ with sand instead. 'The Bedouin' is generally open-minded and interested in what is going on in his close and far surroundings since this kind of knowledge has always been a vital tool of survival.

At the same time, the Bedouins are quite suspicious and alert keeping a low profile about their personal background. Modern Arab states have a strong tendency to regulate their Nomadic lifestyle and modern society has made the traditional Bedouin lifestyle less attractive, since it is demanding and often dangerous, so many Bedouins have settled in urban areas and continue to do so. The Bedouin people are faced with challenges in their lifestyle, as their traditional Islamic, tribal culture has begun to mix with western practices.

Men are more likely to adjust and interact with the modern cultures, but women are bound by honour and tradition to stay within the family dwelling and therefore lack opportunity for advancement. Today unemployment amongst Bedouin people is very high. Only few obtain a high school degree and even fewer graduate from college. However, for most people the word Bedouin still conjures up a much richer and more mysterious and romantic image.. THE ORGANIZATION OF BEDOUINS SOCIETY Until today the 'clan organization' is the basis of the Bedouin society.

Every 'Bayt' (tent) represents a family and the connected families form a clan ('Aela'). All members of the same clan consider each other as of one blood ('Dam') and the spirit of the clan demands unconditional loyalty to fellow clansmen. A number of kindred clans form a tribe ('Qabilah') with its own land. The clan is represented by an elder or the eldest, choosen by its members, who is powerful but has no absolute authority. In major affairs he must consult with the tribal leader: The 'Shaykh'.

In most of the Bedouin tribes, the leaders (Shaykhs) are picked for their wisdom and judgment. In others, such as the Allegat and the small Hamada tribe, leadership passes from father to eldest son. You could say, that the Bedouin is a born democrat who meets his 'Shaykh' with respect but on equal base... The 'Quabilah' is a union of extended families and is the major family unit. It is a kinship structure of several generations that encompasses a wide network of blood relations descended through the male line.

In the past, the 'Quabilah' provided its members with economic security and protection (land, labour and water are tribal property), but today with the loss of the Bedouin’s traditional livelihoods, the 'Quabilah' is less able to fulfil all these functions but it still serves as a major source of identity, psycho-social support and social status. The 'Bayt' and the 'Aela' are the basic social and economic unit of the Bedouin society, but the leaders of these units generally form a council of elders, directed by the head of the 'Quabilah'.

The smallest family unit of parents and children and the tribe are closely bound by extensive mutual commitments and obligations, such as 'Hamula', the bringing of gifts. This social network of the Bedouins is underpinned and maintained by a deeply ingrained system of values and expectations that govern the behaviour and the relationships of the members. In practice, age, religious piety, and personal characteristics such as generosity and hospitality, set some men above others in the organization of the group. The 'Shaykh' traditionally exercises authority over the allocation of pasture and the arbitration of disputes.

His position is usually derived from his own astute reading of the majority opinion. He generally has no power to enforce a decision and therefore has to rely on his moral authority and the concurrence of the community with his point of view. In a sense, the Bedouins form a number of 'nations. ' That is, groups of families are united by common ancestry and by shared territorial allegiance. The exploitation and defence of their common territorial area is effected through a universally accepted system of leadership.

For centuries, these "nations" of Bedouin tribes and their leaders operated in the ecologically and politically shifting landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa. Only in the course of the twentieth century has their traditional flexibility and mobility been checked. Factors foreign to their universe have damaged the territorial mainstay of their societies, necessitating the adoption of new bases of identification with their 'nations' and its leaders. THE KEY VALUES The key values of the Bedouin society are harmony, kinship solidarity, honour and hierarchy.

The Bedouins emphasize cooperation, adaption, accommodation and family cohesion. Individuals are expected to show loyalty and responsibility to the collective, to place its good above their own and to follow the rules and commands of those above them in hierarchy. The Bedouins have a collective attitude to just about everything: work, money, family, feuds; you name it and the Bedouins will take a collective position because of their highly developed sense of community and tribal loyalties. Family comes first, second and third; for them blood is definitely thicker than water.

Their strict code of honour dictates proper behaviour for all members, men, women (see:  MARRIAGE AND FAMILY  ) and children and to live according to its (many) rules, like a healthy person always stands up to greet an older person, they always greet all starting with the person on their right hand and moving on against the hands of the clock to the rest, they always start serving the person on their right hand first (even if this is a child) and then the rest moving against the hands of the clock, etc. Breaking any of these rules means real trouble.

The (semi)nomadic lifestyle is demanding and that's why the children are expected to assume a considerable amount of responsibility in order to help their families survive. Although modernization has changed their lifestyle somewhat, emphasis is placed on teaching children to carry on traditional ways of life and the advancement of modern technology is so far not considered important to children’s education. 'The' Bedouin people are known to be very polite and honest. They prefer not to say bad things or be the bearer of bad news. MARRIAGE Marriage for Bedouins has both religious and social significance.

From an Islamic perspective, marriage legalizes sexual relations and provides the framework for procreation. From a social perspective, it brings together not only the bride and groom but also their families. Women are protected in the Bedouin code of honour. A man who is not closely related to a woman is not allowed to touch her in any way, not even so much as to brush his fingers against hers while handing her something. To do so is to dishonour her. Likewise, in some tribes, if a woman brings dishonour to herself, she shames her family because honour is held not by individuals but by the whole family.

The loss of a woman's honour, her 'ird', is extremely serious amongst the Bedouins. Bedouin men and women enjoy the freedom of choosing their partner. Nevertheless,parents can put sufficient pressure on their children to arrange their marriage. If there is no father to speak for the girl/woman, a brother or other male relative will speak for her. If a male from the family doesn’t agree with the choice of a spouse for his daughter, sister or even cousin, he is able to stop the wedding according to Bedouin Law.

There is an engagement period for about a year or more, during which the Bedouin boy/man can visit the girl/woman at her family (and most rarely they will be alone) where they can talk, share views and expectations and get to know each other. If the engagement does not work out, the ending of the engagement should be done in a way, that there is no shame or blemish on the other (family). Therefore pressure from parents or family should be handled very careful and tactful. BEDOUIN FAMILY he three-generation extended family is the ideal domestic unit.

Although this group, averaging between nine and eleven persons, may sleep in more than one tent or in more than one house, its meals are generally taken together. The newly formed nuclear family of husband and wife tends to remain with the larger domestic unit until it has sufficient manpower and a large enough income (herd) to survive on its own. On occasion, a combination of brothers or patrilineal cousins will join forces to form a single domestic unit. Children and infants are raised by the extended family unit.

Parents, older siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all take part in the rearing of the young. By the age of 6 or 7, the child begins to take on simple household tasks and soon thereafter becomes a full working member of the family. Adolescence is hardly recognized; by the early teens, at the age of 16 or 17, the individual is accepted as a full member of Bedouin society. The Bedouins are patrilineal. Their names consist of a personal name, the father's name, the agnatic grandfather's name and the great grandfather's name.

Women retain their name and father's family name unchanged after marriage. There are distinctive terms for kin on the mother's side and kin on the father's side. All terms indicate the sex of the person designated. The smallest residential unit ('Bayt') is named after its senior male resident. However, unlike settled peoples, most Bedouins are also members of larger patrilineal descent groups which are linked by agnation to form even larger lineages and sometimes even tribal confederations. RELIGION AND TRADITIONS

The Bedouins (and Muslims in general) variously believe in 'Jinn' (the presence of spirits), some playful and others malevolent, that interfere in the life of humans. 'Hasset' (the envious, evil eye) is also very real to the Bedouins and children are believed to be particularly vulnerable. For this reason, they often had protective amulets attached to their clothing or hung around their necks. In Islam the existence of ogresses and monstrous super naturals is postulated, known as 'Maleika Al Ard' (Kings of the Earth) and Bedouins believe they are sometimes met by lone travellers in the desert.

There is no formal clergy in Islam and no centre of 'priests'. Every Muslim has its own direct relationship with Allah. Bedouin societies have no formal religious specialists. They traditionally arrange for religious specialists, called 'Shaykh' or 'Sjeikh', from adjacent settled regions to spend several months a year with them to teach the young to read the Qur’an. A rural or settled religious specialist that Bedouins seek out for curative and preventative measures is called a 'Gatib'. This is not the same as the 'Hakim', which is a Bedouin doctor/healer is, who specializes in herbal and traditional healing. ) In addition many Bedouins tend to have ceremonies and rituals including elaborate celebrations of weddings, ritual naming of newborn infants and the circumcision of children (boys universally, girls frequently but this is less common nowadays because in the mosque is preached that this is in contradiction with the teachings of the holy Qur'an). According to Islam Bedouins ritually slaughter a goat or a sheep when a child is born.

Bedouins call this 'Foo-ela' and their family is invited to eat the prepared meat together. Bedouins of southern Sinai who are influenced by Sufism (Islamic mysticism) also celebrate the Prophet's birthday and carry out 'pilgrimages' to the tombs of (local) saints. They only worship Allah and these journey's are more important to consolidate the ties to the tribe and the tombs serve as a meeting place. Death and traditions Islamic tradition dictates the practices associated with death. The body is buried as soon as possible and always within 24 hours.

Among some Bedouin groups, an effort is made to bury the dead in one place ('Maghebr'), although often it is impossible to reach it within the strict time limit imposed by Islamic practices. Funeral rites are very simple and Bedouins mark their graves with exeptional simplicity, placing an ordinary stone (or unmarked board) at the head of the grave, where family regularly place a fresh leaf of a palm tree. When they visit the graves, they take off their shoes and say a prayer, after which they sit around the graves and eat fruit.

Children playing around the cemetery always get a (sweet) treat from the visitors. Healing HOT SAND BATH They put their selves in the sand when theyfeel pain in their bones or the whole body, to let the sand lick the pain and bad fluids out of the body CAMEL MILK The Bedouins take camel as their friend. They have Camel Milk to cure diseases like Hepatitis C, stomach pain, sexual disability, digestion and immunresistancy. Half il bar are herbs from the desert cleaning the kidneys Handal is a kind of fruit from the desert we put for some time under your heel. It helps against rheumatism.

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