Origins of nomadic peoples are difficult to trace as they leave little evidence behind for archaeologists…
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. 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…