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The Bedouin, (from the Arabic ( ), pl. badū), are a predominantly desert-dwelling Arab ethnic group (previously nomadic, currently mostly settled) found throughout most of the desert belt extending from the Atlantic coast of the Sahara via the Western Desert, Sinaimarker, and Negevmarker to the Arabian Desert. Non-Arab groups as well, notably the Beja of the African coast of the Red Seamarker, are sometimes called Bedouin.

Traditional Bedouin cultures

Traditional Bedouin
The Bedouins were divided into related tribes. These tribes were organized on several levels—a widely quoted Bedouin saying is "I and my brothers against my cousins, I and my brothers and my cousins against the world." This saying signifies a hierarchy of loyalties based on closeness of kinship that runs from the nuclear family through the lineage, the tribe, and even, in principle at least, to an entire ethnic or linguistic group (which is perceived to have a kinship basis). Disputes are settled, interests are pursued, and justice and order are maintained by means of this organizational framework, according to an ethic of self-help and collective responsibility (Andersen 14). The individual family unit (known as a tent or bayt) typically consisted of three or four adults (a married couple plus siblings or parents) and any number of children.

When resources were plentiful, several tents would travel together as a goum. These groups were sometimes linked by patriarchal lineage but just as likely linked by marriage (new wives were especially likely to have male relatives join them), acquaintance or even no clearly defined relation but a simple shared membership in the tribe.

The next scale of interactions inside tribal groups was the ibn amm ("cousin") or descent group, commonly of three to five generations. These were often linked to "goums", but whereas a "goum" would generally consist of people all with the same herd type, "descent groups" were frequently split up over several economic activities (allowing a degree of risk management: should one group of members of a descent group suffer economically, the other members would be able to support them). Whilst the phrase "descent group" suggests purely a lineage-based arrangement, in reality these groups were fluid and adapted their genealogies to take in new members.

The largest scale of tribal interactions is of course the tribe as a whole, led by a Sheikh (Arabic: , literally, "elder"). The tribe often claims descent from one common ancestor—as mentioned above. This appears patrimonial but in reality new groups could have genealogies invented to tie them in to this ancestor. The tribal level is the level that mediated between the Bedouin and the outside governments and organizations.

Bedouins traditionally had strong honor codes, and traditional systems of justice dispensation in Bedouin society typically revolved around such codes. The bisha'a, or ordeal by fire, is a well-known Bedouin practice of lie detection. See also: Honor codes of the Bedouin, Bedouin systems of justice

Bedouins are well known for practicing folk music, folk dance and folk poetry. See also: Bedouin music, Ardha, Ghinnawa.

Changing ways of life

Starting in the late 19th century, many Bedouins under British rule began to transition to a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In the 1950's as well as the 1960's, large numbers of Bedouin throughout the Middle East started to leave the traditional, nomadic life to settle in the cities of the Middle East, especially as hot ranges have shrunk and population levels have grown. For example, in Syriamarker the Bedouin way of life effectively ended during a severe drought from 1958 to 1961, which forced many Bedouin to give up herding for standard jobs. Similarly, government policies in Egyptmarker and Israelmarker, oil production in Libyamarker and the Persian Gulfmarker, as well as a desire for improved standards of living, effectively led most Bedouin to become settled citizens of various nations, rather than stateless nomadic herders.

Government policies pressuring the Bedouin have in some cases been executed in an attempt to provide services (schools, health care, law enforcement and so on—see Chatty 1986 for examples), but in others have been based on the desire to seize land traditionally roved and controlled by the Bedouin.

The Bedouins in recent years have adopted the past-time of raising and breeding white doves. The reason for this has in some respect been attributed to the etymology of the word Bedouin: Be-douim archaic Pheonicio-Arabic for be, "white", and douim, "dove".

Partial list of Bedouin tribes and populations

There a number of Bedouin tribes, but the total population is often difficult to determine, especially as many Bedouin have ceased to lead nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles (see above) and joined the general population. Below is a partial list of Bedouin tribes and their historic place of origin (the list does not include tribes of the Negev Bedouins in Israelmarker):


  1. More in-depth discussions on these topics can be found in Chatty (1996) and Lancaster (1997)
  2. Info on Tuba from Flags of the World Website
Al Majali (south Jordan)Strong tribe played big role in history of Jordan

Further reading

  • Alush, Zvi. "New town for rich US immigrants: New southern town aims to attract affluent American immigrants" YNet 05.02.06
  • Andersen, Roy R., Robert F. Seibert, Jon G. Wagner.Politics and Change in the Middle East: Sources of Conflict and Accommodation. Eighth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2007.
  • Brous, Devorah. "The 'Uprooting:' Education Void of Indigenous 'Location-Specific' Knowledge, Among Negev Bedouin Arabs in Southern Israel;" International Perspectives on Indigenous Education. (Ben Gurion University 2004)
  • Chatty, D Mobile Pastoralists 1996. Broad introduction to the topic, specific focus on women's issues.
  • Chatty, Dawn. From Camel to Truck. The Bedouin in the Modern World. New York: Vantage Press. 1986
  • Cole, Donald P. "Where have the Bedouin gone?". Anthropological Quarterly. Washington: Spring 2003.Vol.76, Iss. 2; pg. 235
  • Falah, Ghazi. “Israeli State Policy Towards Bedouin Sedentarization in the Negev,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 1989 Vol. XVIII, No. 2, pp. 71–91
  • Falah, Ghazi. “The Spatial Pattern of Bedouin Sedentarization in Israel,” GeoJournal, 1985 Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 361–368.
  • Gardner, Ann. "At Home in South Sinai." Nomadic Peoples 2000.Vol.4,Iss. 2; pp. 48–67. Detailed account of Bedouin women.
  • Lancaster, William. The Rwala Bedouin Today 1981 (Second Edition 1997). Detailed examination of social structures.
  • S. Leder/B. Streck (ed.): Shifts and Drifts in Nomad-Sedentary Relations. Nomaden und Sesshafte 2 (Wiesbaden 2005)
  • Lithwick, Harvey. "An Urban Development Strategy for the Negev’s Bedouin Community;" Center for Bedouin Studies and Development and Negev Center for Regional Development, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, August 2000
  • Manski, Rebecca. "THE SCENE OF MANY CRIMES: SUFFOCATING SELF-SUBSISTENCE IN THE NEGEV;" News From Within, Vol. XXIV, No. 13, April 2006
  • Manski, Rebecca. Vilified Among Top 10 Environmental Hazards in Israel;" News From Within, Vol. XXII, No. 11, December 2006
  • Manski, Rebecca. "A Desert Mirage: The Rising Role of US Money in Negev Development" News From Within Vol. XXII No.8 October/November 2006
  • Mohsen, Safia K. The quest for order among Awlad Ali of the Western Desert of Egypt.
  • Thesiger, Wilfred (1959). Arabian Sands. ISBN 0-14-009514-4 (Penguin paperback). British adventurer lives as and with the Bedu of the Empty Quartermarker for 5 years

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