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Photo Matson Collection



The Bedouin way of life has always fascinated strangers. As it remained nearly unchanged for at least more than 1,500 years, travelers of past centuries from the west were fascinated when they realized that it gave them a vivid picture of the life in the times of Abraham and the Old Testament (Burckhardt, Glubb, Lawrence, Bell, Doughty, Raswan, Blunt, Guarmani and many more). This archaic life brought to life for them the Biblical stories they had known since childhood. That has also been one of the main factors for the author to raise his interest in this subject. But there are more reasons to learn about Bedouin culture: Bedouin culture is an essential tool to understand the Arab people, the Arab language and the whole society of the Middle East, from the beginning of its history until today and in the future. The Bedouin society is much older than Islam, and reaches back many centuries BC. The culture of these nomads mainly relies on oral tradition and information on it is mostly based on outside sources. First written accounts from Arabia itself came from the poets of the pre-Islamic era, the so called “Golden Age”, also named the “Time of Ignorance”, that is only from a rather young time. For former times we have to be content with non-Arab sources.


The importance of Bedouin culture is summed up by the high regarded Syrian ethnologist Jabbur: “The life of the Arabs has strong roots in nomadism. Even today the Arab sedentary mentality is firmly bonded to that of the Arab Bedouin. Hence, anyone trying to study the situation of the Arab world and to understand the peculiarities of the Arab mentality and the distinguishing features of Arab life must return to the source of these traits and features in the desert and Bedouin life. The Arab does not know himself, or understand his unique qualities…, if he does not know that the way he lives has its roots in the desert. The tribal spirit, and proceeding from it, family solidarity, ambitions of group leadership, personal inclinations and disputes over access to authority and leadership - all these and other matters trace their origins back to the organization of the tribe and to the influence of Bedouin life. Likewise, many Arab customs and conventions originate in well known Bedouin traditions still followed today. Among these are issues of vengeance, honor, hospitality, boasting, derogation, generosity, the sanctity of the guest, chivalry and bravery” (Jabbur). We have to stress, that understanding of the Bedouin background is not only essential for foreign people, but also for the Arabs themselves. Therefore it will also be of great help for those interested in the horse of the Bedouin, especially for the breeders of this old race, both from Arabic and western background. 

Bedouins in Arabia Deserta in 1503


Italian traveler Ludovico Di Varthema accompanied the hadj pilgrimage starting from Damascus in 1503, disguised as a Mameluk. His eyewitness account is the earliest known by the author on Bedouin society from an outside perspective and it will be cited in detail here: “... And there we remained three days, in order that the merchants might provide themselves, by purchase, with as many horses as they required. In this Mezeribe there is a lord who is named Zambei (probably Zäabi or Ez-Zaabi, the patronymic of the principle Arab family in this district), and he is lord of the country, that is to say, of the Arabians; which Zambei has three brothers, and four male children, and he has 40,000 horses, and for his court he has 10,000 mares. And he has here 300,000 camels, for his pasture grounds extends two days´journey. And this lord Zambei, when he thinks proper, wages war with the Sultan of Cairo, and the Lord of Damascus and of Jerusalem, and sometimes, in harvest time, when they think that he is a hundred miles distant, he plans some morning a great incursion to the granaries of the said city, and finds the grain and the barley nicely packed up in sacks, and carries it off. Sometimes he runs a whole day and night with his said mares without stopping, and when they have arrived at the end of their journey they give them camels´milk to drink, because it is very refreshing. Truly it appears to me that they do not run but that they fly like falcons; for I have been with them, and you must know that they ride, for the most part, without saddles, and in their shirts, excepting for some principle men. Their arms consist of a lance of Indian cane ten or twelve cubits in length with a piece of iron at the end, and then they go on any expedition they keep close together as starlings. The said Arabians are very small men, and are of a dark tawny colour, and they have a feminine voice, and long, stiff, and black hair. And truly these Arabs are in such vast numbers that they cannot be counted, and they are constantly fighting amongst themselves. They inhabit the mountain and come down at the time when the caravan passes through to go to Mecca, in order to lie in wait at the passes for the purpose of robbing the said caravan. They carry their wives, children, and all their furniture, and also their houses, upon camel, which houses are like the tents of soldiers, and are of black wool and of a sad appearance.

“…We halted upon the said mountain. The next day, early in the morning, there came 24,000 Arabs, who said that we must pay for their water. We answered that we could not pay, for the water was given by God. They began to fight with us, saying that we had taken their water. We fortified ourselves, and made a wall of our camels, and the merchants stood within the said camels, and we were constantly skirmishing, so that they kept us besieged two days and two nights, and things came at last to that state, that neither we nor they had any more water to drink. They had completely surrounded the mountain with people, saying that they would break through the caravan. Not being able to continue the fighting, our captain consulted with the Moorish merchants and we gave them (the Arabs) 1,200 ducats of gold. They took the money, and then said that 10,000 ducats of gold would not pay for their water, and we knew that they wanted something else besides money. So our prudent captain arranged with the caravan, that all those men who were capable of bearing arms should ride on the camels, and that each should prepare his arms. The morning having come, we put forward all the caravan, and the Mamelukes remained behind. We were in all three hundred persons, and we soon began to fight. One man and one lady were killed by bows on our side, and they did us no further harm. We killed of them 1,600 persons. Nor is it to be wondered at that we killed so many of them: the cause was, that they were all naked and on horseback, without saddles, so that they had a difficulty in turning on their way.”


The picture drawn by Di Varthema more than 300 years earlier to most other eyewitnesses is a correct prescription of the predatory and warlike customs of the Bedouins and their nomadic society. The figures he relates may be questioned and seem exaggerated, but still his observations hold true in all other aspects: The camel is the most important economic factor, and raiding and plundering the second. The role of horses for raiding and war is described, as well as their dependence on the camel. Di Varthema witnesses the badu custom of defense: hobbling the camels and using them as a rampart. And he finally observes the shortcoming of Bedouin war-habits, attack from full speed, making it difficult to change directions. Most interesting is also his mentioning of a lord, or sheikh, who had been able to bring such a great number of Arabs under his command that he even dared to challenge Damascus, Jerusalem or Cairo. It would be interesting to have further details on this lord Zambei and his realm. The following pages will give a closer look on the life and the customs of the Bedouin society that did not change for such a long time and still influences the Arab world today. We will start with the the social structure of the badu world. 


Settlers and Nomads


Musil writes: “The Bedouins divide human beings into hadar / hazar, those living in permanent houses, and ´arab, or those dwelling in moveable camps. Arab, therefore, is the name given throughout the desert to the inhabitants of the black tents only.” The first are divided into karawne (indiviual karwani), never leaving their permanent dwelling, and ra`w (or ra`jje), changing from permanent dwellings to moveable tents during the rainy season. “After the sowing of crops in the autumn, the ra`w leave their villages and with their flocks of goats and sheep make their way into the steppe where they dwell both in black goat´s-hair tents and in gray tents of cotton fabric. At the end of April and in May, when the harvest is near, they return from the steppe to their houses.” “The Arabs consist of Bedouins and swaja / shawaja (or sujan). The swaja have two things black, black tents of goats´hair and flocks of black goats and sheep. These flocks do not permit them to go into the interior of the desert. They are limited to the territory where there is abundance of water and where annuals grow every year. They encamp on the edge of the desert and are therefore known as ruhm ad-dire, relatives of the (people of the) settled country; they do not undertake extensive raids, razw / ghazzu, and they acknowledge the supremacy of various Bedouins, to whom they pay a tax for protection, khuwa. The Bedouins are Arabs who breed camels exclusively, or at least in the main, and for ten months dwell in the interior of the desert, jesarrezun. At the end of June they go to the edge of the desert, jerarrebun, dwell among the settlers until the middle of August or the beginning of September, provide themselves with grain, clothing, and weapons, and then return to the desert again.” “On the edge of the desert a constant increase or decrease of the population can be observed. If the government guarantees complete security of life and property to the inhabitants of the towns and villages, the herdsmen of goats and sheep are transformed into active farmers; on all sides they build cottages, hamlets come into existence, and the ra´w and swaja become peaceful settlers. They entrust their goats and sheep to the care of various clans of Bedouins, who do not go back to the open desert but remain at the borders between villlages and settlements and are themselves transformed into swaja. If there is no strong government in the populated regions, security of life and property disappears and there follows a decrease in population. The permanent house is exchanged for the moveable tent; the farmers become swaja. The former settlers, however, never become real Bedouins, because the actual Bedouins will never acknowledge them as equals. The term Bedouin is, hence, much narrower than the term Arab. In the view of the Rwala not all inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula are actually Arabs. Only those are Arabs who dwell in moveable tents. Not all the Arabs, however are Bedouins, but only those who spend the greater part of the year in the interior of the desert and who breed mostly camels. The Rwala are recognized by all tribes as being true and pure Bedouins. They are ba´idin az-za`na wasi´in at-ta`ana, they have very extensive territories and drive their enemies far away from their camps. They are ahl as-snan w-al-e`nan, warriors on horseback, for they are able both to wield the spear and to manage horses.” (Musil) In opposition to this standpoint of the Rwala Bedouins, other tribes, especially in central Arabia, also regarded those branches as badu that had settled down, like the house of Rashid of the Shammar, or the house of Saud of the Anaza tribes of Nejd. (Rasheed, Glubb)

The Tribal Order


“The tribe (qabila) is considered as an important concept sociologically because it is a cultural notion invented by people under conditions of fragmentation, dispersion and constant threat of attack.” (Rasheed)


Jabbur even claims that “Bedouin life was governed by a particular tribal order. The natural configuration of the Arabian peninsula, surrounded by seas and sands on all sides but the North, and the fact that it encompasses one race of mankind speaking a single language, would suggest that the inhabitants of Arabia all combined together to form a uniform whole. The real situation, however, was otherwise. Since ancient times, and continuing until the 1950´ s, there had been regional conflict among the various tribes, and this too continues until today.” This still holds true in the 21st century. The problem is that the tribes (or other groups) are at the same time reason for fragmentation as they are a means to deal with negative aspects of such fragmentation


The Family: the Foundation of Tribal Order


Jabbur states that “the foundation of tribal order was the family or humula/hamula. The highest aspiration of the Bedouin was to be the father of many sons. He could become more powerful through them, and pride himself in them when they grow up to form a large family of which he was the master (rabb). Then when the children married and the family became larger, the eldest grandfather became head of an extended family, or shaykh/sheikh of a small clan descendent from himself. If, by virtue of his noble-minded generosity, wealth, and courage in battle, he was able to gain the devotion of another family of his relatives and the respect of its members, he became shaykh of a larger clan. Among the Bedouins, then, the tribal order was their political order - known as long as the Bedouins of the desert have been known. According to this system, peoples divided into tribes, the tribe into clans, the clan into sub-tribes, the sub-tribe into sections, and the section into extended families, until which we reach the nuclear family and its single head - the foundation of the tribal order.” The Bedouins did not have a fixed nomenclature for the sub-clans and sections, “but they were accustomed to subdivisions of this kind. The names used for it differed with the variant usage of certain tribes, one thus finds such terms as humula, ashira, badida, and qabila/pl. qabayil and fakhd/pl. fukhud“ (Rasheed). In most cases in which they were few in numbers, one saw the members of the individual clan living together in one place, migrating and camping together, and searching for water and pasturage together. To lead them they had one shaykh - the one with whom they took refuge when misfortunes stroke, their commander (aqid) in wars and raids, and on many occasions their judge. Some tribes might have become large and gather around a great shaykh, as did the Rwala and their allies from the tribes of Anaza when they confirmed Nuri al-Sha´lan as shaykh in the days of First World War. “Those different tribal sections were units of different size and political importance. Qabila and ashira were political units whereas fakhd/afkhadh, humula/hamula, and bayt/beit were economic, camping and residential units . The biut (pl. of beit) were in most cases incapable of existing on their own due to their small size and inability to defend themselves solely on their limited manpower. The seize of its herds were sometimes insufficient to maintain the well-being of the beit, which remained tied to its lineage (hamula). The lineage pooled its resources and herded the animals together, although it did not own pasture and water. Several lineages were joined together to form a maximal lineage (fakhd), which was the major herding camp. It had control over its resources and herds and owned pasture and wells in the tribe´s territory. The maximal lineages were parts of the ashira and whereas they were economic units, the ashira had political importance” (Raseed).


Jabbur explains: “The tribe (qabila) branched out into clans (ashair) and the clan into sub-clans (butun), sections (afkhadh), or sub-groups (bada´id), as some called them, down to the nuclear family: the foundation of tribal society. The Bedouin´s sense of solidarity was thus directed, before anything else, to the tribe.” Above the tribal solidarity there was also an intertribal solidarity called ashab (Oppenheim), which was granted between allied tribes.

Descent-Group Solidarity - the ibn amm Principle


“This special tribal order obliged the members of the tribe to commit themselves to each other through the bond of common descend (ibn amm), which, as we have already mentioned, had an important psychological influence on them. It is from this that there arose that intense group feeling for the tribe, a sense of solidarity that was enjoined by life in the desert and had become the foundation of tribal society for the Bedouins” (Jabbur). But “only blood relationship on the father´s side bestows the right of eben al-amm / ibn amm” states Musil. It happened also that one member left his original tribe and sought protection and refuge with some other tribe; “his loyalty was thereupon owed to the latter. He may have sought refuge with one of that tribe´s members, and if this man protected him the refugee proffered his loyalty to him and his kinsman, rather than to his own tribe” (Jabbur). But Musil stresses that even then the ibn amm principle was not abandoned, and gives the following example: “Zbe´an eben Hasman of the Sirhan tribe had encamped with the Rwala for more than thirty years (in 1909). He married a Rwala woman, and his sister Maha`married Prince Sattam, to whom she bore a son, Trad. Zbe`an undertook warlike expeditions and raids together with the Rwala, he wore their costume, his sons speak like the rest of the Rwala, and yet they still belong to the Sirhan. Their kin, or ahl, is not with the Rwala, but with the people of the Sirhan. The paternal blood relationship, ´amam, and not the maternal relationship, hwal, forms the kin, ahl. If one of the sons of Zbe´an were to kill one of the Rwala, he would have to seek refuge with his ahl, the Sirhan, and the blood of the Rweili would have to be expiated with blood of a Sirhani. Kinsmen on the father´s side are more often needed than those on the mother´s side. The former give muscular vigor and power, the latter wombs; amaleh `asabe w-hwaleh arham.”


A connection by blood relationship, ibn amm, had consequences: It was prohibited to bind a captured thief, or to attack after midnight or shortly before sunrise, which is the most favorable time for resting. The blood price was fixed at fifty camels, a mare and armed equipment (Musil). In the view of the Rwala, “all the tribes and all the clans of the Aneze / Anaza, both the southern and the northern branch, have a common father and therefore are their beni al-amm, their paternal cousins. The southern Aneze comprise the tribes from which are descended the Ab-al-Hejl, Eben Sabbah, Eben Saud, and various clans of the Kahatan and Muntefez.” The northern Aneze are the Dana Muslim (Weld Ali, Rwala) and Dana Bisr (Sba´a, Fed´an, and Amarat) (Musil). “The blood relationship, beni al-amm, at the wish of the chiefs, is sometimes granted to clans who are not related by blood and who derive their origin from quite different ancestors”, (barrani, or adjnabi). “Then it is the duty to protect each other´s neighbor, kasir, guest, zejf / daif, or fellow traveler, hawi, even though he should be their actual enemy. It is likewise their duty to acquaint each other with the movements of hostile tribes. In reality such a friendship has no value if the chief do not pay heed to it. If the member of one of these tribes kills a man of the other tribe, he does not pay the blood price amounting to fifty camels, such as is the custom with beni ammeh, but only seven, as in the case of unrelated tribes, adjnab” (Musil).


Al, Ahl and Feriz


“Generally the word al (house of, annotation by the author) denotes the same as beni or eben / ibn, its meaning being larger than ahl. Feriz is the name given to a group of kindred descended from the same ancestor; a feriz is also wider than the ahl. The ahl (kin), is a group fixed in relation to the individual only, a man´s kin differing from the kins of his father or son (although all three kins in this case would include many individuals in common). It comprises his descendants to the third generation - that is, his sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons. It also includes his ascendants to the third generation - that is, his father, grandfather, and grand-grandfather and the descendants of these ascendants to the third generation from each. Descent is reckoned through male lines only. Second cousins are the most remote collaterals that may belong to one´kin. … The ahl of a Rwejli protects him from injustice and suffers for his guilt. The representative of this blood relationship is likewise known as ahl. This representative, that is the ahl in the narrower sense of the word, is usually either his father, the uncle, or the eldest brother.… In its broader significance ahl denotes distinct tribes that are generally united for their mutual protection. Thus it is possible to speak of the Ahl al-Djebel, by which are understood the various tribes of diverse origin that encamp in the Hawran mountain range. Ahl al-dire are the inhabitants of various villages who never leave their territory, Ahali-l-Kerak are the various tribes forming the population of the town of Kerak, and so on“ (Musil). For settled folk the term `ajle / `ajla is used, meaning a family with its own house and hearth.

The Meaning of Asil


"Furthermore the Bedouin is immeasurably proud of the purity of his ancestry, which he guards and treasures. For him only the Bedouins are asil /pl. asayil (of pure blood, literary from the root, asl). The belief in the uniting and binding power of the blood is deeply rooted in his nature... this explains the deep bond between the Bedouins and their family and tribe. ..Beyond the confines of their own tribe, the acceptance of asil is the common characteristic that binds all Bedouins together..." (Oppenheim). The animals bred by the Bedouin, i.e. their camels, salukis and horses, were quite naturally also termed asil, a sign of the strong bond between man and beast in the harsh struggle for survival in the desert. “The badu often had elaborate genealogies defining their ancestors and lines of descent which they located in a distant past. These genealogies were ideologies of descent invoked to justify their high status arising from their links with ancient Arab tribes. They emphasized their asil (nobility) and the purity of their origin uncontaminated by contacts and marriages with outsiders. In their oral poetry, they had images of themselves as pure Arabs of traceable and unmixed origins, an asset which guaranteed superiority vis-a-vis other groups, especially the hadar -who were considered to have lost the purity of descent, or to have had no noble descent at all” (Raseed).


In consequence, Rasheed claims, “there were asil badu, a group consisting of the camel-herders, like the Shammar, the Anizah/Anaza, the Dhafir, Mutair, Harb and many other tribesmen. Their nobility of origin, coupled with their military superiority which their camels guaranteed in raids and tribal battles, granted them the highest position in the status hierarchy. The sheep- and goat-herders were also badu, but inferior to the asil badu as they lacked the means to demonstrate military supremacy and often placed themselves under the protection of strong camel-herders” (see also the brother right or khuwa). But on the other hand, strong and camel-herding tribes without noble descent (for instance the Howeitat or Sherarat) were not accepted as asil , and at the same time small tribes could retain their asil status also after loosing political influence (like the Tai, Oppenheim). This could be seen in the marriage patterns of the asil badu, as it was always honorable to marry off one´s daughter to a poor, but asil badu rather to a wealthy sheep-herder or merchant or farmer. The same applied to the sons. 

Tribal Territories


Each of the large tribes in Bedouin society had territories (dira / pl. dir) which were recognized as its own. It did not trespass beyond these territories, and were it did so it would have be subject to attack. These lands were acquired by virtue of its strength, and it maintained control of them by virtue of its strength: when a tribe weakened, a stronger one would incorporate the weaker tribe´s territory into its own (Jabbur). We find many examples of this in Bedouin history (see that chapter and also the chapter on the Bedouin tribes). Just one example: In the Syrian desert the Mawali were followed by the Hsana and later by the Rwala. If they camped in the settled lands they normally did not so on agricultural land without the consent of the owner, and in that case for a limited time. In later Ottoman times the tribes even engaged in helping bringing in the harvest with their camels (Oppenheim)

Approximate limits of the major Bedouin tribes at the beginning of the 20th century (adapted from Brown, Schiele and Oppenheim)


The Bedouin Family

Photos Carl Raswan


“The tribe was responsible for its members, and likewise the family in particular for its sons. The master of the household (rabb al-bayt) bore the primary responsibility and was the highest authority to which to refer. In this system sons grew up according to the traditional customs inherited from their fathers. They were imitators of their father´s example, and the traditions enjoined upon them respect for the master of the family, who in some tribes attained such standing that he holds absolute authority over his sons and would not be held accountable even were he to kill one of them. One saw the Bedouin in general holding fatherhood in deep respect and reverence, esteeming old age, and obeying their elders. The rabb al-bayt thus had the first and last word; his order admitted of no dispute, and all were obliged to obey him. In times past it was he who went on raids and provided for his family, and his standing increased in proportion to his power, courage, noble minded generosity, and descent. But this did not mean that the master of the family ruled as a despot or without taking the opinion of his family. In reality, if his wife was a sensible woman he consulted her in most of the matters he decided. Similarly, if his sons had reached the age of maturity and had become men, they could well participate in many of the decisions he took. But the general custom was that the last word belonged to the elder men of the family so long as he remained rationally competent. His decisions prevailed in the raising of his sons, and if one of them did something wrong his father reprimanded him, but rarely beat him, especially when he had become a boy of over ten years of age” (Jabbur).


“If the people of the tribe wanted to move from one place to another in search of water or pasturage or in fear of a powerful band of raiders, they gather around their sheikh and deliberate. When they decided to move their camp (rahla/pl. rahalin), they fixed a day for this and the head of every tent notified his household to prepare for departure. Then on the morning of the appointed day, they watch the tent of the sheikh. When they see that his household was beginning to strike his tent for departure, the rest of the tribe followed. When they reached the land where they were going to camp, they waited until the sheikh had selected a place to pitch his tent. Then the tribe spreads out around him and the master of every household selects a place for his own tent.


“The mistress of the household was the woman who was in charge from a practical standpoint. She was, first of all, the person who was entrusted with the task of pitching the tent. The man selected the location and she did the work: sometimes she and her daughters finished the task by themselves, at other times she had the help of the herdsman or her sons. She pounded in the tent pegs, tied the guy ropes to them, then spread out the tent and raised it on the poles. It was she who stoke the tent when the tribe departed, and she who stitched the panels together to make the tent. And it was her responsibility to gather camel dung and other things as fuel for the fire, to prepare the food, and to perform other services the household required, like weaving or sewing. If they had no herdsman for the camels, she frequently walked with them to water them. She filled the water-skins with water from the rain of flood pools, or from the springs, and carried them to the tent on her back. Despite all this she was not burdened, as some of her village sisters were, with the execution of heavy and difficult tasks, except for the carrying of water. And also her husband, especially in young marriage, assisted her in many of her tasks.


“The Bedouin woman had few prerogatives which were hers by right. The most important of these was that she could receive a guest in the absence of her husband and is regarded as the master of the household while he is away. It was also she who names the children (see above), and with only rare exceptions this was a right that was hers alone. If the time arrived for her to give birth, her neighbors and relative assisted her. If the tribe was on the move, she remained with one of her relatives behind and caught up the pack train later. If it happened that she was traveling only with her husband and sons, she did everything that was required by herself, tied the baby´s umbilical cord herself, mounted the camel, and proceeded with the others. Most Bedouin women carried her children on their backs while they walk” (Jabbur). Also, as Jabbur points out, the Bedouin women had the right to name her children and thus acted in accordance with the earliest eras of Old Testament tradition, where the wives normally give the names and in most cases depending on the occasion or circumstances in which the birth occurred. Bedouin women named her son Sahl (smooth, easy) if her delivery was a routine one, or Suhayl if the star of Canopus (Arabic suhayl, the time of the beginning wanderings back into the desert) was ascendant, or Matar (rain) if it was a rainy day, or Za´al (anger) if she was upset with her husband. Musil reports of the title ahl al-bejt or ra´jet al-bejt for the wife of the tent-owner or the wife of his brother, the whole tent being under her control. 

Photos: Matson Collection



Nomadic life made it easy for women to intermingle with men, so Jabbur, and the Bedouin women was not kept isolated as her settled sister in the towns or villages. Thus she was familiar with the men of her clan. This held more true for the Bedouins of the north than for some of the south. Concerning marriage, a woman´s first cousin on her father´s side (ibn amm) had the first right to marry her. In the book Genesis of the Old Testament we see a very similar custom to marry within the family, with Abraham and Sarah, and also Isaac and Jacob, who took their wives from the daughters of their uncles (Genesis 24: 4, and 29:5). And also we find a similar custom for the brother in law in the Mosaic law, where he had the obligation to marry the widow of his brother (Deuteronomy 25: 5, Ruth and Boaz, Matthew 22: 24 f.). With the Bedouin, if neither the first cousin nor his brothers had any desire to marry their cousin, then she was freed from this restriction and the cousin had to make it clear that he had relinquished his right so that she would have the freedom to marry whom she wished. If a woman did not want to marry her cousin, she asked her cousin to give up his right. This he could do so, especially when he was not interested or was offered a present from the suitor who sought her hand. If the cousin did not consent, she was never able to marry someone she loved unless she ran away with him. In such a case her connection with her tribe is severed and the cousin could avenge himself on her, if he wished to do so. The right of the cousin excepted she was usually free to love and marry whomever she wished. Most marriages among Bedouins were thus marriages of love - even between cousins - in which the young man and woman came to a mutual understanding beforehand. The pride prices varied depending on the tribes and on the families of the bride and the groom. But among the Bedouins of the north they were generally not excessive. It was customary for the groom to give the bride´s family a camel, which was usually kept for her, so that if she returned divorced to her family, the camel remained hers (Jabbur). “Divorce was the right of the man only, but he did not have the right to insult or abuse his wife. If he was not happy with her or her disposition he divorced her, but were he to beat her he would be subject to reproach. Also, if the husband abused her it is permissible for her to leave his tent and return to her family until the two reconcile or he divorces her. Until he did so, it was not permitted for her to marry someone else. Because of their poverty there were not many Bedouins with numerous woman, although there were many who took two wives. On many occasions a woman was widowed and so married another man, becoming a second wife in addition to his first. Whatever the case may have been with plural marriages and divorce, especially among wealthy shiyuhk coming from well known families, the prevailing custom was that the first wife, in many cases her husband´s relative, was not divorced as easily as the other women were. Rather, she remained the first lady of the household and the leadership passed to her eldest son. If a wife was divorced she took the children until the age of seven with her and also all her belongings and came again under the custody of her father, or if he had died, her eldest brother or her nearest male relative” (Jabbur). 

Photos Carl Raswan

Boys and Girls


The mother gives her daughters chores to do and teaches them the affairs of the home, i.e. the tent. As for the boys, when they became older they frequent the men´s circles, where they listened to the discussions of the adults. At the same time they were entrusted with certain camp tasks, such as taking care of the horses and watering them. Before governments began to prevent the Bedouins from raiding, boys were sometimes charged with learning to shoot. When he reached the age of fourteen a boy was expected to gain raiding experience. Once he reached sixteen, he was then allowed to participate in major raids with the adults (Jabbur).


The Bedouin Tent


“The Meskin received me with the dignity of a prince, and motioned me to the place of honour on the ragged carpet between the square hole in the ground that serves as hearth and the partition that separates the women´s quarters from the men´s. We had tethered our horses to the long tent ropes that give such wonderful solidity to the frail dwelling, and our eyes wandered out from where we sat over the eastward sweep of the landscape - swell and fall, fall and swell, as though the desert breathed quietly under the gathering night. The lee side of an Arab tent is always open to the air, if the wind shifts the women take down the tent wall and set it up against another quarter, and in a moment your house has changed its outlook and faces gaily to the most favourable prospect. It is so small and light and yet so strongly anchored that the storms can do little to it; the coarse meshes of the goat´s hair cloth swell and close together in the wet so that it needs continuous rain carried on a high wind before a cold stream leaks into the dwelling place.” (Gertrude Bell 1907)

The Bedouin family home was the black tent, made of goat hair and called bayt/bait (house). Jabbur refers to the tent as the third pillar of Bedouin life. The Bedouin tent, the home of the nomads and the sanctuary of “God´s guest”, has not changed since the times of the Old Testament: The tent is called bayt/bait (house) both by the Bedouin and in the Old Testament. And according to Jabbur it is “undoubtedly from this sense of the word that the term bayt was borrowed to refer to the house built of brick or stone. And from a´mida, the poles of the hair tent, the same word was borrowed to refer to the pillars of temples, and perhaps also the expression “the seven pillars of wisdom” mentioned by Solomon and used by famous T. E. Lawrence as title for his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The tent of the al-Sha´lan amirs of the Rwala, pitched with its seven large poles, reminded Jabbur on Proverbs 9:1: Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. Also Solomon sang of the black tents of Arabia in the Song of Songs: “Black I am, and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem; black like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon” (Song of Songs 1:5). If one compares the shapes of the letters b in Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Ethiopic, South Arabian, Phoenician , Sinaitic and Latin, in all their different forms, they do not differ in shape from the configuration of the hair tent, and in most of these languages the pronunciation of the letter approximates that of the term bayt” (Jabbur).


There was a special sanctity to the Bedouin´s tent, especially if a fugitive or stranger sought refuge there. In such a case it was the obligation of the owner of the tent to protect him. Similarly, a visitor would be reproached if he passes by a tent without staying as a guest there, as this was regarded as a blemish on the honor of the people of the tent (Jabbur). The shape of the hair tent (khayma) was an extended cube. The roof and the sides consisted of cloth made of black goat´s hair. Only the front side was open. Wooden poles (a´mida, sing. `imad) carried it in the center as primary poles. Secondary poles supported the sides (arwiqa) and the front. The length of the tents varied and with it the number of tent-poles. A one-room tent was four to five meters and consisted of one room and one center pole. But the tent could extend to about 40 or 50 meters if it had many rooms and stood on a large number of center poles (Jabbur). 

The goats were sheared in spring. The hair was carded, spun into thread on a spinning wheel, and woven on a loom. Jabbur explains: These panels of fabric were called shiqaq (sing. shuqqa) and were stitched together until they reached the needed size. The fabric for the roof (saqf) was made from goat´s hair of three qualities. The best was pure unmixed goat hair sheared in spring and from mountainous regions, so that it was longer and stronger. Most Bedouins bought the fabrics and it was imported by traders from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The most important center for the production of tent-cloth panels has been Yabrud in southern Syria. Less quality fabrics also came from Turkey or India and were a blend of different hairs. The back wall (called riwaq by the Rwala) and the side walls (kisr) were made of inferior material. A tent from pure goat´s hair could last between 15 and 20 years, that of less quality fabrics only five to seven years. The height of a tent was generally about two meters, except among the wealthy, where the head of the household was rafi´al-´imad, a man of “high of tent-pole”. If the tent was of two rooms or more, one room, called the rub´a, was restricted to receiving guests and making coffee, and in it was dug the pit in which the fire for coffee was kindled. This reception room was in the right part of the tent (to the south with northern Arab tribes like Rwala or Shammar), and in the left part among the Fawa´ira and Banu Kalid in Syria and the tribe of Harb in Nejd. From its fireplace, one stopping later at the traces of the tents would judge the generosity of the sheikh and his standing among she sheikhs of the tribes: the broader and larger the heap of ashes was, the more generosity and expense it indicated. The number of tents in Arabia, according to Jabbur, may have been in excess of 100,000. But the black tents were also used from Afghanistan to the Atlantic coast of North Africa. Still today the ancestors of the Bedouins erect tents on their farms (next to their houses and stables) or even in modern hotels. The tent is regarded an important part of the Bedouin heritage. 

The Bedouin Camp


Among the Bedouins of the north the tent was normally pitched facing east, especially during winter, in order to take advantage of the heat of the sun. There were, however, tribes of Anaza that oriented their tents northward. In other seasons the directions of the winds, the lay of the land, and the direction of the light were taken into account. The way to pitch up the tents of a camp, or the organization of it, varied with the tribes. A powerful tribe like the Rwala stipulated no specific organization. As they feared no enemy among the other tribes their tents were randomly scattered about, though they did keep to something of a disposition of lines, with specific intervals (about 60 meters) between one line and the next so that one could easily pass between them without tripping over the ropes. Also circular alignments in half-circles or ovals were known. The tents of the Htaym tribe, on the other hand, were pitched close to another. A single camp may have sometimes be as large as 300 tents, if the available water supplies could support such a number and if if the tribe was this large (Jabbur).

If a family grew in the number of sons, when they erected new tents, to take up living in their own tents near the family in the same row. The same would occur with another large family in another row, and so on, even in a fariq of six or seven or more rows, depending on the size of the tribe (Jabbur). The moving of the camp was called rahla (Doughty). The sheikh was the last to depart when the camp was moved and the first to unpack when it had reached the new location, as he designated the place of the new camp.

In the Rwala camp, photos Carl Raswan

Bedouin Appearance


Bedouins were in most cases light in weight and of slender build due to their diet and their constant traveling and migrating, mounted or on foot. They lived for the most part on milk and did not eat to much meat. On festive occasions they ate clarified butter or melted fat and meat. Also they did not eat many sweets. So he had strong and healthy white teeth. The Bedouin paid special attention to their hair, beginning in boyhood. He allowed it to grow long, washed it from time to time with camel´s urine (as the women also did), and plaited it into braids which he allowed to hang down on his chest, thus adorning himself with it in his boyhood and youth in the same way that village girls did with their long hair (Jabbur).


“Bedouins did not pay much attention to their attire. There did never exist a Bedouin uniform dress, but each tribe had a practically unique manner of dress that only the Bedouins recognized. It is true that most Bedouins wore the shamla/kufiya or head-cloth, and iqal (head-cord), on their heads. Some dispensed the iqal and folded the shamla around their head in a style unique to themselves. The shirt that was worn on the body could be short and was covered by a long one, that almost reached the ground. Or it was only a long shirt or loose flowing linen robe. Some dyed it with a dark yellow color to match the color of the sands, but even a white un-dyed robe would soon turn into a color similar to the dusts and dirt of the desert. Over this different kinds of robes were put: a saya (a white linen open-fronted robe), a qumbaz ( a striped silk robe, also open-fronted), or an aba mantle. Winter and summer attire differed: A coat (farwa) made from sheepskin, or an overcoat (aba) of thick broadcloth was used against the cold. After plundering settled folk Bedouins saw no harm in putting on the very clothing they had just raided, especially if their own cloths was old and fell to pieces. A belt (zunnar) might have girded the Bedouin around the waist. But they did not generally wear drawers and only a few of them were familiar with them. Most Bedouins rarely wore shoes. Mostly in winter times, a special kind of shoe, jazma or bastar, was used. Also sandals were in use made of camel´s hoof or rubber, and the straps of leather” (Jabbur).


Bedouins attire differed, but there was one general agreement: Every Bedouin wore on his head the head-cloth (kuffiya/kufiya/keffieyeh). Most of them have wound the head-cord (´iqal) around it. This cords were often woven by the Bedouins themselves or their wives from camel´s hair or sheep´s wool, or made from black goat´s hair. “It is interesting to note here, that the ´iqal did not differ in form from the ´iqal cord with which the camels were hobbled around the knee of its left or right foreleg. The term ´iqal in the sense of head-cord is probably taken from its meaning as the hobbling cord; and the word ´aql (intellect), may itself be derived in the Arabic language from the term or the hobbling cord, for it was said that the intellect (´aql) “hobbles” a man in the sense that it restrains him from traveling in the ways of error” (Jabbur).


“The dress of the Bedouin women differed from that of the men as she did not wear the iqal, but rather wound a kerchief (mandil) made of soft black cotton around her head. Above it, or at times underneath it, she might have tied another silken kerchief, called the hatta, which she folded over in multiple layers to form a band about as wide as the palm of the hand around her head. The women of the camel-herding tribes had different cloths than the sheep-herding tribes. In most cases the women´s robes were dark in color, black or dark blue, with a hemmed border along its edges that may be colored with some tribes. Over the robe sometimes a broadcloth durra´a, a loose sleeved tunic, was worn. During winter they wore shoes (jazma style). Young women girded themselves with a belt over their robes, varying with age and an article of adornment. Some Bedouin women of southern tribes wore an aba that covered the top of the head and hang down to the ground, a dress that also Nejd women of the villages and towns wore. Various kind of cheap jewelry was bought, and with rich families also expensive ones. On the foot the Bedouin woman wore an anklet, on her arm a bracelet, rings on the fingers and earrings, sometimes even a nose-ring (khizam). Most of the jewelry was made of silver alloy or copper, although some might have been of gold. The Bedouin woman of north Arabian tribes did not wear a head veil (qina` or burqu/burqa) over her face, as it was commonly found among southern Bedouin. But she could wrap a veiling cloth (khimar) across the lower part of her face so that it was covered from the neck to the nose. Worn in this fashion it was called a litham, or muffler. This litham was regarded as an indication of aloofness and dignity, and also men muffled themselves so as not to be recognized or in order to achieve a more impressive image. Bedouin women generally applied kohl to their eyes, a black powder made from antimony" (Jabbur).

Carl Raswan photos

Education and Instruction


Camel raising Bedouins knew nothing of educational matters familiar to settled folk, even at most elementary levels (Jabbur). The written word was nearly absent with the Bedouin tribes with very few exceptions. Some sheiks of the large tribes had a scribe (katib), mostly when a tribe began to establish contacts with settled life. In later times the newly established states introduced regulations for mobile schools in the desert, but without much success, as the need for education at schools was not recognized by most Bedouins. But sometimes the sheikhs sent their sons to the cities to receive schooling, or they engaged a teacher themselves to live with them in the desert and teach the youth there.


The Majalis as School of the Desert


“For the ordinary Arab (or Bedouin, annotation by the author) the hearth was a university, about which their word passed and where they heard the best talk, the news of their tribe, its poems, histories, love tales, lawsuits and bargainings. By such constant sharing in the hearth councils they grew up masters of expression, dialecticians, orators, able to sit with dignity in any gathering and never at a loss for moving words. The shepherds missed the whole of this” (Lawrence).


Despite the Bedouins´ ignorance of writing, they had a thriving oral tradition. According to Jabbur, “life in the desert made it easy for Bedouin boys to attend the adults´majlis /pl. majalis (discussion sessions) in the late afternoon, evening, and forenoon, and to listen to the subjects being studied or discussed. The Bedouin was by nature an inquisitive man who enjoyed finding out about things, hence one saw Bedouin boys lending highly attentive ears to the adults in these sessions, and receiving orally from them information of use to them. In these sessions the sons of the Bedouins learned about their society, their customs, and institutions, the narratives concerning personalities of their tribe, their system of justice, and their culture. They heard litigants defending their rights, and accounts of raids, heroism, love stories, curious accounts of individuals, odes by the poets of the desert folk, news about settled folk and the governments in the towns, information concerning rain, weather, pasturage, water and various other matters concerning Bedouin life”. But also, as the European travelers recorded, world affairs were discussed, if their knowledge had reached the Bedouins. These sessions comprised the school of the desert and graduated men for their tasks for leadership. In a more restricted sphere something analogous occurred in the women´s sessions for the girls. They learned how to become like their mothers in behavior, management of the homes, discretion, generosity, and good speech (Jabbur).


Cultural Life in the Desert


The badu believed themselves to be the speakers of pure language not contaminated by contact with foreigners and non-Arabs, a quality lost by the hadar (Rasheed). Poetry and folk tales (qissa) were the two main manifestations of desert cultural life. The qasid/qasidah (pl. qusdan/qasaid), the Bedouin ode, was held in high esteem. Jabbur states, that the ancient classical Arab literature cannot be understood without the knowledge of the Bedouin way of life: “The Arab student may not understand what it means to stop at the remains of an abandoned campsite, nor the aim of such a stop, if he has not seen such traces and does not know what sort of information the Bedouin can gain from them when he stops there. The remains comprise a book written without a pen.”


Rasheed must be cited at length, as she gives us a personal insight into her family´s oral tradition, which allows us a deeper understanding. Although six generations separate the present members of her Rasheedi family from the founders of the Hail dynasty, the narratives and poems are still remembered. Her family members told her stories and referred to events which they themselves never witnessed or took part in it. “The authenticity of the stories was highly dependent on the status of the narrator, his age, his reputation for processing good memory and his relationship to what is being narrated”. According to her, “the key element in judging the authenticity of narratives or oral poems is transmission, the audience is always keen to know the line of transmission before listening to the speaker. Once this is established, the narrative is enhanced by the recitation of poems which have a wider circulation than the narrative. The clever narrator would be able to recite the right poem at the right moment. By doing so, he enhances the authenticity of his story” (Rasheed).


Rasheed continues: “actors are portrayed as wise grandfathers, brave fathers, eloquent uncles, dissident nephews, or treacherous cousins. In this oral history, one finds examples of actors who were “real politicians”, “brave marshals”, and “traitors”, betraying the lineage and surrendering to its enemies. Both “good” and “bad” characters are described. They belong to the ancestors whose deeds and words are not forgotten. There is always a story to be told about each one of the amirs who ruled Hail and their relatives. The amirs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century become some of the amirs were famous poets, their poems are recited, thus making their words immortal. The narrator always allows the amirs to speak for themselves by reciting their qasaid (sing. qasidah, oral poem)”. The Shammar and Rasheedi oral tradition seems to consist mainly of narratives (salfah) and oral poems (qasidah) which usually occur together in the process of accounting for the past. There is more accuracy in poetry recitation than in the narration of the salfah and the Rasheedis claim that the musical sound of the qasidah makes it easier to memorize. Also any verbal deviation from the original version is easily detected by the audience - especially if it upsets the rhythm. The interconnectedness between narrative and qasidah was noticed by many scholars. The salfah is not complete unless accompanied by a qasidah, which equally does not stand on its own (Rasheed).


Rasheed comes to the conclusion that poetry becomes the medium of history and the amir-poet is his own historian, not of peace, order stability and prosperity, but rather of political and military conflict, opposition and competition. The history which he constructs reveals episodes of thread for his survival and that of his tribe and family. Facing that thread by action is not enough for him, the amir-poet documents challenges through poetry and makes history for future generations. Therefore, Rasheed`s ends, there is no reason to portray our (western, annotation by the author) historical knowledge as sacred, unchanging and scientific but that of the people as mythical, changing and unreliable. These poems (qusdan/qasaid) were composed in special meters, the two main patterns were called majzu` (curtailed) and ghayr majzu´ (uncurtailed). In both there were many familiar variations in prosody (´arud). Many of recent poems of the Rwala began with “Oh rider” (ya rakibin) and described a rider and his she-camel, as we also see in ancient poetry. Instead of thoroughbred camels of Oman in the old poems the camels came from the Shararat tribe in the poems of the last two hundred years. (Jabbur). More in pillar four, Bedouin tradition. (on this website under THE POWER OF POETRY)

Bedouin Justice


The unwritten laws of the desert determined Bedouin jurisdiction, and were performed by the sheikh or by a special judge, but the judgments were not binding. But those who did not obey could no longer stay with their tribe, but had to seek refuge and home with another tribe, because the tribe was not only the political but also the legal union (Oppenheim). The Bedouin had no written law nor did he recognize the authority of written laws, religious or civil, except when they accorded with his own unwritten law. This was the law of tradition and custom to which he adhered for as long as Bedouins had known their nomadic way of life. Fortunately for him, Islam arose in a milieu familiar with Bedouin life and firmly bonded to it. Hence, it confirmed many of nomadism´s institutions and customs (Jabbur).


According to Caskel, public opinion and tradition had been coined by the poets. The Bedouin regarded this unwritten law with the greatest respect, and was bound by precepts it imposed upon him through institutions dictated by the ways of desert life and the manners and customs of desert folk. Hence, he did not deviate from established customs. If he did, scrupulously administered justice brought him back to the straight path; otherwise, his tribe was obliged to bear on his behalf the penalty prescribed by customary practice (Jabbur). The only binding power, before the Bedouin would bow, was the public opinion, the fear of blame and mockery of others. The public opinion stood behind the unwritten codex of honor of the desert, that every Bedouin had to respect. Belonging to its claims were solidarity with his kinship, execution of blood feud and everything that was summarized under Bedouin virtues. If a Bedouin did anything against the customs of the desert, he lost his reputation with the tribe and the Bedouins in general (Oppenheim).


“Among the Bedouins, judges consisted of a group of generally irreproachable men and they seldom made mistakes; and if they did err, they made good their mistakes when they were advised of the proper course of action. One sometimes saw the judge allowing the defeated party to appeal against his decision. Even the people of the villages and towns that surrounded the desert viewed Bedouin justice with respect and held Bedouin judges in high regard. Indeed, they maintained that Bedouin justice was the most impartial and fairest of judicial systems. For example, one who committed murder, was not sentenced to death; rather he and his kinsmen were sentenced to payment of wergild (diya), which was set at a huge amount. In cases of theft, the perpetrator was not sentenced to having his hand cut off, as prescribed by Islamic law, but had to return the stolen property and pay a fine. There was no “eye for an eye”, nor “tooth for a tooth”, as in the Mosaic law, but rather payment of a diya set for the value of the eye in compensation for that eye (annotation of the author: the Mosaic law had the same possibility of fine). On the other hand, in the case of murder the victim´s relatives had the right in blood vengeance to exact revenge for his relative on the murderer or on his kinsmen. Or to hamstring the horses and camels of the murderer or his family for the first three days after the crime. These in turn returned for vengeance of their own, thus resulting in those endless hatreds in men´s souls, those acts of vengeance, those continual wars among the tribes for as long as tribes have existed, and those tendencies to seek revenge for the sake of honor and reputation” (Jabbur).


In judicial proceedings it was important that the plaintiff produce unequivocal proof or witnesses. If this was not given, the judge would oblige him to swear an oath. The principle agrees with Islamic law, which is sometimes based on pre-Islamic Bedouin custom, in this case the rule that “the plaintiff must produce evidence and the accused must take the oath.” In some important and serious matters the judge occasionally used to resort to the bash´a. This meant that an iron rod was put into the fire until it was hot. The suspect had to open his mouth and stick out his tongue so to touch the rod with it. If the rod left no mark on the tongue he was innocent, otherwise he was guilty. But that procedure was seldom performed to the end, because the judge made use of physiognomy and psychology, and based his decision on the conclusions to be drawn from the behavior and reactions of the accused (Jabbur). 

The Office of Sheikh among the Bedouins


“The office of sheikh was not one that must necessarily be an inherited post assumed by the son from his father or uncle, though this was usually what occurred. Rather, the customary procedure was that the sheikh made arrangements on the matter and prepared the kinsman who was to succeed him. This was generally one of his sons, or if they were still young, one of his brothers. Disagreement among the candidates for succession sometimes lead to controversy and conflict and the splitting of the tribe, with the tribe generally favoring the strongest contestant, especially if he endowed with noble traits of character. It was thus expected that the sheikh be generous when people come to him and camp on the ground around his tent, that he be a valiant warrior when he aids or protects his domains, and that his sense of honor be quickly aroused when his aid and protection was sought. If he possessed these qualities, a man had the right to nominate himself for the sheikh-ship. Indeed, if signs of these qualities were manifest in him while he was yet juvenile, he would gain support and notice before others did and his kinsmen would all prefer him for the sheikh-ship over other contestants” (Jabbur). The sheikh (pl. shiyukh or mashyikh) was sided especially by the aristocrats of his family and by the sub-sheikhs. But amongst them and also against other Bedouins he was only primus inter pares. His influence was mainly by moral. Him was the representation of the tribe and the reception of strangers; him was the khuwah/chuwe/chuwwah the brotherhood-money, that the half-nomads at the edge of the desert and the farmers, traders and caravans had to pay, to be safe from raids, and him was the greatest part of the pray from raids or wars. The sheikh had to care for the well-being of the tribe; he decided on the changing of pasturage, on war and peace, on alliances with other tribes, on raids, on the relation to the government, if such had power over the tribe. The governments approached the sheikh to collect taxes or if some members of the tribe had been raiding. In the daily assembly of the most renown tribal members with the old custom of serving coffee, all affairs of the tribe and of politics were discussed. And as already stated, the sheikh had the decisive word. And above all, the sheikh was the peace-maker inside his tribe and thus very important among the hot-headed Bedouins. Also the offering of hospitality and the asylum for refuge was mainly with the sheikh. He had to see for the safety of the refugee. Especially in their youth the sheikh and their relatives had to excel by bravery and even foolhardy . Thus since remote times a large part of them lost their lives in wars and raids. In the times of modern guns those numbers even increased. Normally the sheikh or one of his sons was the leader (aqid /akid) of those fights. With some tribes the honor of aqid belonged to another family and was hereditary (Oppenheim).


Musil introduces us to the word kowm that indicated a group of Bedouins ruled by one sheik, a term only used in connection with the name of the leader. (The same word he also uses as term for war). On the other hand the phrase “al-kowm al Rwala” was never used. He distinguishes also between a seikh al-bab, a leader directing the external and peaceful affairs of his kowm, and a sheikh al-harb or sheikh as-sdad, who had to deal with all affairs of war, a man known for his courage and prudence, who could be descended from a different kin. Every expedition had “a leader, aqid/akid/azid (pl. ´ukada), who need not always be a chief of a tribe, as every tribe can have its own military leader or war commander, sheikh as-sdad, if the chief is not possessed of sufficient military ability, or is ailing, or too old. Sometime´s the chief´s son or one of his relatives is entrusted with the command. But any Bedouin conspicuous for his prudence and bravery in time of war may be promoted from leader of the men on foot to leader of mounted men and may even be recognized as the commander-in-chief. The chief generally tries to gain his favor, marries his daughter to him, and adopts him into his kin, but likewise may bring about his death on finding that the commander does not wish him well. For a leader who rises in such a manner usually deposes the reigning kin and becomes chief himself. Therefore the members of the reigning kin are careful when choosing a chief and recognize only the most distinguished of their kin. This is also the reason why the dignity of a chief does not pass from father to son as a matter of course” (Musil). 

Sheikhs of the desert photographed by H. Philby:Muhammad IbnSalih al Subhan from Zubair, Dhari Ibn Tawala and Hamud Ibn Suwait, sheikh of Dhafeer (left) and a photo by Gertrude Bell: Sheikh Hamud of Dhafeer.

The Search for Water and Pasturage


“One of the requirements of Bedouin life was that one roamed from place to place. This wandering was not a caprice or the result of mere habit, but an obligation enjoined by desert life. In the first place water was available in certain rain or flood pools; a tribe had not sooner camped around it and begun to use it than the pool´s supply of water was exhausted and the pool dried up, and the tribe was forced to move on to another place where supplies of water were available. Likewise, in an area of a few kilometers surrounding their tents, there may have been pasture sufficient for their camels for several days. But then these days had passed, the camels would have eaten up all plant life and the Bedouin would be forced to seek pasture lands for his camels elsewhere. This alone explains the migration of the Bedouins from one place to another. The reason was that plant life was so meager and scattered in the badiya. There might have passed a succession of years with almost nearly no rain falls, and when one saw no signs of vegetation in most parts of the desert. In this situation the Bedouin´s camels lived on what little remains of the dry plants left from past years. If pasturage disappeared from its grazing grounds, the tribe was forced to migrate to lands far far away from its own territories. Before the First World War, a tribe in such situation would raid the lands in which it found grazing grounds and either join the currant occupants or drive them out of the area and occupy it. Only after that time it became necessary for a tribe to seek permission of other tribes or of the governments to migrate into their territories” (Jabbur). Also frontiers of the new states had to be respected.


“The Bedouin did not generally remain in one spot for a long time even in periods of rain and abundance and on fertile lands. Camels could have spoiled a pasture if kept in a limited area, so the tribe moved on to another place. The Great Quest - if we are allowed this expression - took place in the winter and summer seasons. In general terms, one saw the Bedouins leaving the desert in the summer when the heat became intense and water supplies dried up, and heading for the settled regions - or the land adjoining the settled areas. They spent the entire summer there and waited until the rains fell in the autumn and some of the rain and flood pools in the desert filled up, and then began to return to the desert. Each tribe had a dira (pl. dir), or recognized territories within which it wandered throughout the winter and spring season until the water supplies dried up. Then they headed again for the settled regions. One must not suppose that whenever the Bedouin penetrated deep into the heart of the desert he ended his journey at lands mostly parched, full of sands, and possessed of very little pasturage and water. The land of Nejd, which lies almost in the center of Arabia, is one of the areas most amply supplied with water, and in the oases of the Ahsa/Hasa province there are springs practically equal to the fullest springs in Lebanon. Whatever the case might have been, when a tribe had decided to move on, it did not proceed before making sure that water and pasturage was better than in the land currently occupied.” For this reason they sent out scouts. On many occasions the large tribes counted on the assistance of the tribe of Slayb for the needed information (Jabbur). 


The yearly Cycle of nomadic Life


The rainy season (al-wasim/wasm) started in autumn (end of September / first days of October) when the star Canopus (suhayl/shejl) appears in the east at dawn, and the rains were therefore called as-shejlawi, the rains of Canopus. This was the time of an-naj´ih, when the nomads began to tickle back to the heart of the desert (Sowayan). “ `Canopus has shown itself; well, then let us go into the inner desert´ is now the cry of the Bedouins, who, leaving the borders of the settled and cultivated districts, wander with all their possessions into the interior of the desert in search of pastures. Canopus reigns for forty nights, after which the Pleiades, trajja, take the helm for twenty-five nights, truwi, to be followed by Gemini, gazwa, for an equal period. Thus the reign of Canopus, Pleiades and Gemini lasts ninety days in all - three months - and this season is called as-sferi… (October-December). Next, the star Sirius, as-sa´era, rules for forty nights. This season of the year is called as-sta (January, half of February). For fifty nights after Sirius the ruler is Arcturus, as-smak, but in the middle of our April the reign of the stars ends, as then the summer, as-sejf, appears, which lasts to about until the beginning of June and is succeeded by the dry season, al-kez, extending over four months, to about the first days of October. The Bedouin knows, therefore, five seasons of the year”: as-sferi, as-sta, as–smak, as-seif, and al-kez (Musil).


The most important rain of all was the wasm al-truwi, the second rains; it was the decisive factor for the future grazing. If a copious rain of Gemini followed, it banned the dread of hunger, as both grasses and woody plants could grow. The last rains, or spring-rains, as-smak, were only beneficial if the soil had already been soaked by autumnal rain, otherwise the hot sun of summer (as-sejf) would consume everything of the young green that smak had called to life” (Musil). The time of abundance was called rabi. In the inner desert the word rabi did not signify a season of the year; it is therefore impossible to translate it by the word spring. If autumnal rains were scarce and the danger of a failure of the pasture, mahal (or muhti) arose, the girls and wives of the Bedouins formed a procession with the umm al-rejt, mother of the rain, and prayed for rain (Musil).


We see an important difference between the nomadic life of the large tribes of Northern Arabia and the tribes inhabiting Inner Arabia. The latter did wander around the oases and therefore had also goats and sheep. The first were pure camel herding nomads and had a far greater number of camels per family and the necessity to cover far distances during their annual wanderings. We will see more details on this topic in the chapter on the Bedouin tribes. 

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