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Bedouin

The Bedouin Nomads

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Read About The Life, Culture and History of the Bedouin Arabs

Qatar Desert, Late Thirties

A young girl squats by a herd of camels, eyes squinting against the harsh glare of the sun. She holds a container in her hand, waiting to dart forward and catch the hobbled camels' precious urine.

Behind her, her father strokes his hooded falcon, while her mother tends to the cooking in front of a brown and white tent woven from goats' hair. In a few minutes, they will wash their hands and face with dust - water is too precious - before performing their absolutions.

Suddenly, the quiet of their camp is disturbed by the noise of cars. Driving past them and towards Dukhan is a procession of jeeps. Dukhan, where thousands of barrels of black gold lies waiting alongside the biggest gas field in the world. Oil is about to be discovered in Qatar, and with it will come not just enormous wealth but the end of a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years.


Black and white photo of a masked Bedoin woman dancing in the desert.
A Bedouin woman performs a lone sword dance
in this early 20th century photograph.

The Bedu

A large portion of the population of present-day Qatar are, or originated from, Bedu tribes. The word Bedu itself means inhabitant of the desert. Bedouin is actually the plural form of the word, although Bedu can also be used as a plural.

Who are the Bedouin?

Not everyone agrees - indeed, Michael Asher, in his book The Last Bedu, states that even the Bedouin disagreed about who they were. Some believed that being a Bedu was a matter of tribe, whereas others believed that once settled people can no longer be called Bedu.

Thesiger believed that the quality of the Bedouin he loved was a result of the harsh life they led. When he met up with his old companions in the 1990s he was bitterly disappointed, according to Asher's biography of him, by the changes in their lifestyle. In particular he resented the replacement of the camel by the motor-car. Incredibly, he said to one of his old companions that he, Thesiger, was the last Bedu.

In Qatar there are no longer any Bedouin who are still travelling, although some of the older Qataris will have spent the early part of their life travelling by camel. Indeed, I was surprised to find that the father of a friend had not settled until he was twenty five years old. Until that time, he had travelled by camel, and could neither read nor write. However, by the 1970s the Qatari Bedouin were almost completely settled.

Despite this, many Qatari Bedouin wish to retain a link with the desert. Some - including my friend - keep a permanent tent in the desert, along with herds of camels. Noticeably, however, my friend does not look after the camels himself but employs a Sudanese to do the job.

This yearning and respect by former nomads for the desert is nothing new. When Mohammed was born he was given to a Bedouin wet nurse to be raised - then a common practice among Arabs who did not want their children to forget the traditions of their forefathers.

Origins

It is possible that the Bedouin were descended from nomads who herded cattle at a time when the climate of the region was milder. After the climate became harsher - in around 4000 BC - these nomads would have found it impossible to support their cattle. One researcher, Doctor Kallweit, believes that over time these pastoral nomads became the “true wanderers” of the desert, the Bedouin. Meanwhile, the Bedu themselves believe they are the descendents of Shem, son of Noah.

Appearance

In the past Bedu men could have shaved head or long hair, which was sometimes plaited into cords. “With their alert eyes, long hair, lean bodies and militant appearance, these men from the distant sands were a fine subject for my camera,” wrote Codrai. Their traditional head cloth, according to Lawrence, formed a valuable protection against the sun. Nowadays, in Qatar, Bedouin men usually wear the Qatar National Dress.

Traditionally, women reaching puberty would start to wear a face covering or mask. This was seen as a sign of maturity by young women rather than an imposition upon their freedom. Nowadays, you can still see older Qatari women wearing gold-coloured face masks but it is becoming rare among younger women.

Religion, Marriage and Divorce

Originally, (before and around the time of Mohammed) at least some of Bedu society was polygamous - both men and women could have several spouses. A woman stayed in her father's tent, and her children were brought up by her family. When a man wanted sex, he would visit his wife's tent. If the woman wanted to divorce a man, her tent's entrance would be turned away from the man when he approached. If a man wanted to divorce a women he just stated: “I divorce you.” Paternity was unimportant and lineage was passed through the mother. Such a promiscuous lifestyle would have infuriated Mohammed and the Mohammedans. Perhaps this was why the Bedu were attacked in the Qur'an:

“The bedouins are the worst in the disbelief and hypocrisy, and are more likely to be in ignorance of the limits which Allah has revealed to his messenger.” Surah 9:90.

Things change, however, and now almost all Bedu are Muslims, and Islam a way of life to them. In the 1920's Lawrence wrote:

“Their conviction of the truth of their faith, and its share in every act and thought and principle of their daily life is so intimate and intense as to be unconscious, unless roused by opposition. Their religion is as much a part of nature to them as is sleep or food.”

The Hajj to Mecca is very important to the Bedu, and many Bedouin children will make the hajj before the age of ten.

Marriage in Qatar nowadays may be arranged, often by mothers, although according to Islamic law women should always have the right of refusal. Marriage now, as in the past, often takes place within the family, between cousins. Marriage used to take place at a very young age, and there are some Qataris around today who will have got married at the age of thirteen. This has now changed, with eighteen now the minimum marriage age.

Some Bedu men still take more than one wife. It is controversial over whether this is allowable in Islam - the Qu'ran states that a man can have more than one wife, but only if he treats them all equally. However, it then goes on to say it is virtually impossible to treat multiple wives equally. Certainly, the conditions of the time at Medina - when many women were left widowed by constant fighting - do not exist nowadays.



Seven Pillars
of Wisdom

Sport

Falconry was both sport and hunting. Codrai, in his book the Seven Shaikdoms, remembers a Bedu he knew being richly rewarded for capturing a falcon with a net trap. When the birds were being trained they were seldom separated from their handlers.

Bedu used the falcons to hunt their houbara or turkey boustard, which would cross the Gulf on an annual migration. Houbara would flee at the approach of hunters before the hunters could get in shooting range - but getting beyond the range of the smaller falcons was another matter. Sadly, houbara are now rare in Qatar, and many of the richer Qataris will travel abroad to hunt with their falcons. (Falcons can sometimes be seen in the first class section of Qatar Airways - with a seat for themselves!)

Camel racing was also a favorite sport. Coderai remembers one between two sheikhs in the UAE developing from nothing, and taking place over an unmarked point to point. Nowadays, camel racing in Qatar involves a lot of money and has - arguably - more organisation. It is still a favourite of Bedouin - I have found that some other Arabs sometimes turn up their noses at camel racing, preferring instead to follow horse racing.

Medicine

Many bedu suffered eye problems because of the dust and the sand and the sunlight, and some smeared their lids with a black powder kohl. Bedu often practised traditional medicine, including cupping, which involved bloodletting. Cupping still takes place today, and a recent advert in the Gulf Times asked for volunteers for a scientific study into cupping.



Tents

Bedu family units were originally known as Bayts or tents.

Traditionally a tent was divided into at least two areas: the men and the women's. The women's area would be where the cooking was done, while guests would be received in the men's section. The tents were woven by the women using goats hair. While more permanent affairs could be elaborate affairs, setting up and dismantling them was a laborious job and often more temporary arrangements were used. Codrai photographed some shelters which were little more than palm fronds woven together.

Nomadic Lifestyle

The camels were God's gift to the Bedu, the Bedu used to say. Camels were not only used for transport but provided meat, milk - and fuel. Because camels use water so efficiently, their droppings are almost entirely dry, and ideal for burning. The dung was also used as a lining for nappies, while their wool was used to weave ropes and clothes, and their urine was used to wash hair and tan leather. Because of theft and raiding the camels were often branded.

In Qatar, the bedouin also harvested wood from the mangrove swamps from areas such as Al Thakira and Al Ruwais.

Some Al Naim in the North of Qatar originally used to travel to Bahrain in the hottest month, loading their camels and tents onto dhows. In Bahrain they were able to obtain sufficient water because of plentiful natural springs. This fact was later used by Bahrain when they argued their case for ownership of Zubarah in an international court.

By the time researcher Klaus Ferdinand and documentary film maker Jette Bang arrived at the 1950s the Al Naim were only semi-nomadic. In the hottest summer months they now lived in simple houses, and used donkeys and cars for transport. The Al Murraah in the south of Qatar were still, however, travelling by camel.

Originally Bedu did not recognise any country boundaries roaming throughout the Arabian peninsula. Artificial boundaries between states severely hampered the Bedu lifestyle, cutting off their traditional nomadic routes. The principle of owned land contradicted their belief in communal ownership.

Government

Tribes of Beduoin were ruled by Sheiks. Originally this was not a hereditary position: instead a sheik was chosen for his wisdom and ability. A sheik was first among equals, not an absolute ruler, and decisions were arrived through discussion and consensus.

Originally, law among the bedu was governed by the “an eye for an eye” principle. Thesiger recalls accidentally injuring one of his bedu companions, bin Gabaisha. When he asked another companion, bin Kabina, what Kabina would have done if he had killed Gabaisha, Kabina answered “I should have killed you.” To Thesiger's protestation that it would have been an accident, the only answer was: “That would have made no difference.”

Law as it was generally applied only within a Bedu tribe, and raiding parties to steal cattle were still common when Thessiger was travelling the desert after the Second World War.

Fighting

“Raids and tribal feuds kept everyone in a state of constant alertness,” Codrai wrote. The Bedu were famed for their raiding, and, as they proved when three thousand Bedu and Arabs, advised by Lawrence, pinned down fifty thousand Turkish soldiers, very good at guerilla warfare. As Lawrence said: “Unnumbered generations of tribal raids have taught them more about some parts of the business [war] than we will ever know.” In many Gulf countries the Bedu now form a large part of the armed forces.

Hospitality

The Bedu were famed for their generosity and hospitality, which was even more impressive because they had so little. A visitor would be guaranteed food and water for three days, and protection for a further three days. This hospitality could be extended even to enemies.

There is also the principle of as-sime, which means a bedu should be prepared to give up things for the benefit of a weaker person. Thesiger stated that because reputation was so important and rumour spread like wildfire, all the Bedouin competed to be both the bravest and the most generous - Thesiger recalls one friend even giving away his loin cloth.

The End of Nomadic Life

Maybe Thesiger was right when he wrote that he was recording a dying way of life. In Qatar at least, the nomadic way of life has disappeared. Bedouin still retain an attachment to the desert, but nowadays their recklessness and bravery is applied in the land cruisers and cars which tear up both the roads and dunes of Qatar - and which account for seventy percent of deaths among young people.

Also see The Rise of the Qatar Ruling Family.

Sources

Books

Aslan R: No God but God - Read Review

Michael Asher: Last of the Bedu, Thesiger - Read Review

Codrai R: 1990 The Seven Shaikdoms: Life in the Trucial States Before the Federation of the United Arab Emirates

Gillespie, F: (2006) Discovering Qatar - Read Review

Internet

Expert puts spotlight on region's rich archaeological past

The 27 Articles of TE Lawrence