1902 Encyclopedia > Arabia > Arabia - The Bedouins

(Part 25)


(25) Arabia - The Bedouins

Actual Divisions of the Arab Race. Bedouins.

At present, however, the most important, as also the best known division of the Arab race is that which separates them into "Ahl Bedoo," or "dwellers in the open land," whence the common appellation of Bedouin; and "Ahl Hadr," or "dwellers in fixed localities." The former class, living under tents, and occupying the waste country which lies in a vast circle between the coast and the central plateau, while to the north it joins on to the Syrian desert, are the best known to European travelers, with whom they often come in contact, and by whom they have sometimes been described with considerable exaggeration both as to their numbers and in other respects. The most trusthworthy authorities regarding them are Niebuhr and Burckhardt.

Mode of Life of the Bedouins

The Bedouins, then, are shepherds and herdsmen, reduced to an out-of-doors and roving life, partly by the intrinsic nature of their occupations, partly by the special characteristics of the country they belong to. For, while land, unsuited to all purposes except pasture, forms an unusually large proportion of the surface in the Arabian territory, the prolonged droughts of summer render considerable portions of it unfit even for that, and thus continually oblige the herdsmen to migrate from one spot to another in search of sufficient herbage and water for their beasts. The same causes also involve the Bedouins in frequent quarrels with each other regarding the use of some particular well or pasture-ground, besides reducing them not unfrequently to extreme, want, and thus making them plunderers of others in self-support. Lastly, the loneliness of the desert, far removed from the vigilant control of fixed law, order, or police, has, combined, with the other circumstances, continued during generation after generation to leave a peculiar impress on a naturally bold, hardy, and enterprising race, till the terms Bedouin and brigand have, in the opinion of many, become synonymous.

Habits of the Bedouins

This opinion is, however, unjust. Professionally, and in the ordinary course of their lives, Bedouins are only shepherds and herdsmen; their raids on each other, or their exploits in despoiling travelers and caravans, are but occasional, though welcome and even exciting, exceptions to the common routine. Besides, their wars or forays among themselves,-for they very rarely venture on a conflict with the better armed and better organized sedentary population,-are rarely bloody; the object being most often with the one party to carry off, and with the other to protect, a flock of sheep or a herd of camels: booty is aimed at, not slaughter. If positive hatred or a desire to kill exist, such feelings are usually limited to two or three individuals at most, one of whom has perhaps been ridiculed in satirical verse, to which they are very sensitive, or had a distant relation killed in some previous fray. Bloodshed, too, is expensive, as it must be mad up either by more bloodshed or by paying the price,-the ‘deeah," a it is called, and which varies, according to the importance of the person killed, from ten to fifty camels, or even more. Previous to Mahomet’s time it was left optional to the injured tribe either to accept this kind of compensation or to insist on blood for blood; but the Prophet, though by his own account despairing of ever reducing the nomade portion of his countrymen to any fixed observances, succeeded on this point in establishing among them the rule, that a fair "deeah," if offered, must of necessity be accepted: a merciful regulation, tending to cut short otherwise interminable feuds.

Instances are, however, not wanting in Arab history of fiercer and more general Bedouin conflicts, in which the destruction, or at least the complete subjugation, of one tribe has been aimed at by another, and when great slaughter has accordingly taken place. Such were the wars of Pekr and Thagleb in the 6th century, of Kelb and Howazin in the 8th, of Harb and Oteybah in the 18th, with others. But these are comparatively rare events.

The Bedouins regard the plundering of caravans or travelers, whether on business or otherwise, simply as a supplementary measure that takes the place of passports or custom dues exacted elsewhere. The land is theirs, they say, and trespassers on it without leave must pay the fortfeit. Hence whoever can show anything equivalent to a permission of entrance into their territory, has in the regular course of things, nothing to fear. This permission is obtained by securing the protection of the nearest Bedouin sheikh, who, for a politely-worded request and a small sum of money, will readily grant the pass, in the shape of one or two or more men of his tribe, who accompany the wayfarers as far as the next encampment on their road, where they hand their charge over to fresh guides, equally bound to afford the desired safeguard. In the interior of the peninsula the passport is given in writing by one of the local town governors, and is respected by the Bedouins of the district; for, however impudent and unamenable to law these nomads may be on the frontiers of the impotent Ottoman government in Syria or the Hejaz, they are quiet and submissive enough in other and Arab-governed regions of the peninsula. But the rash traveler who ventures on the desert strip without the precautions above mentioned is likely enough to atone for his negligence by the loss of his luggage; and should he resist, perhaps his life also.

Bedouin Tribes

Utterly ignorant of writing and unacquainted with books, the Bedouins trust to their memory for everything; where memory fails they readily eke it out with imagination. Hence their own assertions regarding the antiquity, numbers, strength, &c., of their clans are of little real worth; even their genealogies, in which they pretend to be eminently versed, are not to much depended on; the more so that their own family names hardly ever exceed the limits of a patronymic, whilst the constantly renewed subdivision of a tribe, and the temporary increase of one branch and decrease of another, tend to efface the original name of the clan. Few tribes, accordingly, now preserve their ancient, or at least their historical titles; and the mass of the Bedouin multitude resembles in this respect a troubled sea, of which the substance is indeed always the same, but the surface is continually shifting and changing. As, however, no social basis or ties are acknowledged among them except those of blood and race, certain broad divisions are tolerably accurately kept up, the wider and more important of which may here be noted.

Anezah Bedouins

First, the Anezah clan, whose pasture-grounds extend from Syria southward to the limits of Jebel Shomer. It is numerous, and, for a Bedouin tribe, well armed. Two-thirds of the Arab horse trade, besides a large traffic in sheep, camels, wool, and similar articles, are in the hands of these Anezah Bedouins. Their principal subdivisions are the Sebaa on the north, the Woold-Alee on the west, and the Ruala on the south; these are generally on bad terms with each other. If united, they could muster, it is supposed, about 30,000 lances. They claim descent from Rabeeah.

Shomer Bedouins

Second, the Shomer Bedouins, whose pasturages lie conterminous to those of the Anezah on the east. Their numbers are about the same.

Howeytat Bedouins

Thirdly, in the northern desert, the Howeytat and Sherarat, comparatively small and savage tribes. Also the Soleebee clan, which, however, is disowned by the Arabs, and seems to be of gipsy origin.

Harb Bedouins

Next follow, in the western desert, the Benoo-Harb, a powerful tribe, supposed to muster about 20,000 lances. Their origin is from Keys-Eylan. They are often troublesome to the Meccan pilgrims.

Moteyr Bedouins

In the eastern desert are the Moteyr, the Benoo-Khalid, and the Ajmans, all numerous clans, often at war with each other.

Other Bedouin Tribes

To the south, in Nejd itself or on its frontiers, are the Hodeyl, Oteybah, and others. These all belong to the "Mustareb," or northern Arabs.

Southern Bedouins

The Bedouins of southern or "pure Arab" origin are comparatively few in number, and are, it seems, with few exceptions, even poorer and more savage than their northern brethren. Al-Morrah, on the confines of Oman, Al-Yam and Kahtan, near Yemen, and Benoo-Yast, between Hareek and the Persian Gulf, are the best known. The total number of the Bedouin or pastoral population throughout Arabia appears, including men, women, and children, not to exceed a million and a half-it may even fall short of it.

Organization of the Bedouins

Whatever be the clan, the only authority it submits to is that of its "elder," or "sheikh," a title which, however, does not necessarily imply advanced age, but is given to any one who, on account of birth, courage, wealth, liberality, skill, prudence, or some other fortunate quality or accident, has been chosen to the leadership. Descent has something to do with rank, but not much, as every individual of the tribe considers himself equal to the others; nor are the distinctions of relative riches and poverty greatly taken into account. This is natural in a state of things where property itself, consisting almost wholly of live stock, is of an essentially uncertain and fluctuating character, and the Bedouins have no other. To the "sheikh" all disputes are referred; he is consulted, though not necessarily obeyed, on every question which regards the general affairs of the tribe, whether in peace or war; there is no other magistrate, and no law except what he and the other chief men of the clan may consider proper. But in fact, for most personal and private affairs, every man does pretty much what is right in his own eyes.

Religion of the Bedouins

Nominally Mahometan, most for the Bedouins pay slight attention to the ceremonial precepts of the Koran; the five daily prayers and the annual fast of Ramadhan are not much in favour among them; and however near tribe may be to Mecca, few of them visit it as pilgrims. Wahhabee influence exercised, sword in hand, has however, of late enforced some degree of Islamitic observance among the Bedouins of Nejd and the adjoining districts: elsewhere nomade Mahometanism is pretty nearly confined to the profession of the Divine Unity; among the remoter and wilder tribes sun-worship, tree-worship, and no worship at all, are not uncommon. Some clans even omit the rite of circumcision altogether; others, like the tribe of Hodeyl, south of Mecca, perform it after a fashion peculiar to themselves.

Bedouin Morals

Nor are the social and moral injunctions of Islam better observed. Marriages are contracted without any legal intervention or guarantee; the consent of the parties, and the oral testimony of a couple of witnesses, should such be at hand, are all that are required; and divorce is equally facile. Nor is mutual constancy much expected or observed either by men or women; and the husband is rarely strict in exacting from the wife a fidelity that he himself has no idea of observing. Jealousy may indeed occasionally bring about tragic results, but this rarely occurs except where publicity, to which the Bedouins, like all other Arabs, are very sensitive, is involved. A maiden’s honour is, on the other hand, severely guarded; and even too openly avowed a courtship, though with the most honourable intentions, is all looked on. But marriage, if indeed so slight and temporary a connection as it is among Bedouins deserves the name, is often merely a passport for mutual licence. In other respect, Bedouin morality, like that of most half-savage races, depends on custom and public feeling rather than on any fixed code or trained conscience, and hence admits of the strangest contradictions. Not only are lying and exaggeration no reproach in ordinary discourse, but even deliberate perjury and violation of the most solemn engagements are frequent occurrences. Not less frequent, however, are instances of prolonged fidelity and observance of promise carried to the limits of romance. "The wind," "the wood," and "the honour of the Arabs," are the most ordinary oaths in serious matters; but even these do not give absolute security, while a simple verbal engagement will at other times prove an inviolable guarantee. Thus, too, the extreme abstemiousness of a Bedouin alternates with excessive gorgings; and, while the name and deeds of "robber" are hardly a reproach, those of "thief" are marked by abhorrence and contempt. Patience, or rather endurance, both physical and moral, few Bedouins are deficient in;’ wariness is another quality universally developed by their mode of life. And in spite of an excessive coarseness of language, and often of action, gross vice, at least of the more debasing sorts that dishonour the east, is rare among them. Of their hospitality, as also of many other points common between them and the town Arabs, we shall speak further on.

Personal Appearance of the Bedouins

In person most Bedouins, men or women, are rather undersized, the result probably of hardship endured through uncounted generations; their complexion, especially in the south, is dark; their hair coarse, copious, and black; their eyes dark and oval; the nose is commonly aquiline, and the features well formed; beard and moustache are apt to be somewhat scanty. The men are active, but not strong; the women, rarely otherwise than plain.

Bedouin Dress

Their dress is simple enough; that of the men consisting in a long cotton shirt, open at the breast, and often girt with a leathern girdle; a black or striped cloak of hair is sometimes thrown over the shoulders; a handkerchief, folded but once, and generally black, more seldom striped yellow and red, covers the head, round which it is kept in its place by a piece of twine or a twisted hairband. To this costume a pair of open sandals is sometimes added. No other article of dress is worn,-neither trousers nor turban; but under the shirt, round the naked waits, a thin strip of leather plait is wound several times, not for any special object, but merely out of custom. In his hand a Bedouin almost always carries a slight crooked wand, commonly of almond-wood; with this he guides his camel when on the road, and amuses himself by playing with it at other times. Among the Bedouins of the south a light wrapper takes the place of the handkerchief on the head, and a loin-cloth that of the shirt.

A woman’s attire is hardly more complicated; wide loose drawers, though these are sometimes dispensed with; next a long shirt, and over it a wide piece of dark blue cloth enveloping the whole figure, the head included, and trailing on the ground behind. Very rarely does a Bedouin woman wear a veil, or even cover her face with her over-cloack, contenting herself with narrowing the folds of the latter over her head on the approach of a stranger. Her wrists and ankles are generally adorned with bracelets and rings of blue glass or copper or iron, very rarely of silver; her neck with glass beads; earrings are rare, and nose rings rarer. A few comparatively rich women indulge in more elegant ornaments and fuller dress. Boys, till near, puberty, usually go stark naked; girls up to six or seven.

Bedouin Weapons

On a journey a Bedouin invariably bears with him a light sharp-pointed lance, the stem of which is made of Persian or African cane; the manner in which this is carried or trailed often indicates the tribe of the owner. The lance is the favourite and characteristic weapon of the Arab nomade, and the one in the use of which he shows the greatest skill, throwing it, at need, to a considerable distance with unerring aim. Frequently, too, he girds on, or rather suspends from a kind of shoulder-belt, a sword, straight or crooked as may be; the blade is often of little value, rusty, and not over sharp; the scabbard of wood. The weapon which comes third in frequency is a gun; this is still in almost every instance a matchlock, clumsy and foul, taking from five to ten minutes to load and fire, when, indeed, it can be fired at all, which is not always the case. Yet with such wretched implements at his disposal, a Bedouin is seldom other than a good marks man. Flint-guns may here and there be met with now a days; but percussion or breech-loaders never. Nor are pistols any part of a Bedouin’s war equipment. But whether in peace or war, he is seldom without a knife: this is the north is only a large clumsy clasp or sheath knife; but in Yemen, Oman, and the intervening regions it develops into a broad and crooked dagger, a truly formidable weapon, on the ornamentation of which the Bedouin of the south bestows what skill or wealth he may happen to possess.

Bedouin Armour

For defensive armour a Bedouin on a foray, or preparing for a serious engagement, sometimes puts on a coat of mail, the manufacture of Yemen or Baghdad; its links are thin, but closely plaited, and often are two or even three deep. To this he adds a helmet, a mere iron head-piece, without visor or crest. Pennons and banners are rarely used by the nomads, whose chief tactics consist in surprise, as their main object is plunder, both of which require, not display, but secrecy. For though the Bedouins are undoubtedly brave and reckless enough of life, their own as well as that of others, where a cause requires it, they have the good sense never to venture blood unnecessarily or on insufficient grounds. Indeed on all points and in all their dealings, shrewd, calm, good sense, joined with a humorous and sarcastic turn of kind, may be said to be the base of their character; their passions, strong and lasting, are kept in habitual control; and in these regards, as in a lively and poetical imagination, and a wonderful power of untaught eloquence, they resemble their more settled countrymen of the towns and villages. In their principal faults, too-instability, restlessness, envy, rancour, untruthfulness, and sensuality-they resemble them also.

Bedouin Independence

Much has been said and written of the independence of the Bedouins, and of their having never submitted them selves to a foreign yoke; and prophecy has been called in to explain a fact which a little reflection would have shown to imply nothing marvelous or exceptional whatever, but to be merely natural result of condition and circumstance. A nomad population, thinly scattered over a large and open space of meager pasture-land, will always be unconquerable, because it offers next to nothing to conquer.

A Bedouin Camp

When in camp, a Bedouin’s tent consists of a few coverings of the coarsest goat-hair, dyed black, and spread over two or more small poles, in height from 8 to 9 feet, gipsy fashion. If it be the tent of a sheykh or man of consequence, its total length may be from 30 to 40 feet; if of an ordinary person, it will oftener fall short of 20. Sometimes a partition separates the quarters allotted to the women and children; sometimes they are housed under a lower and narrower covering. A piece of rough carpet or an old mat may or may not be spread on the sandy floor; while camel-saddles, ropes, halters, and the like, constitute the entire furniture of the dwelling; ornament there is none. To the list two or three cauldrons for cooking, one or two platters, and a wooden drinking bowl, must be added; and with these, including the master’s arms in one side of the tent, and his spear stuck in the ground at the door, the household valuables are complete. When the time comes for moving, all these several articles are easily fastened in bundles on the backs of one or more camels; the men mount their saddles, the women their litters; and in an hour the blackened stones that served for a cooking hearth remain as almost the only sign where the encampment has been. When the tribe is once on its way across the deserts pursuit is difficult; and were the fugitives overtaken, they would offer nothing to repay the trouble of their pursuers. It may be worth the while of nomads such as these occasionally to plunder each other, but it can hardly be worth the while of any foreign power to plunder, still less to attempt to subdue them, and in this lies the whole secret of their imagined independence.

Read the rest of this article:
Arabia - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-18 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries