Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bedouin بدوي

بدوي    Derived from the Arabic word badawī بدوي ,a generic name for a desert-dweller, is a term generally applied to Arab nomadic pastoralist groups, who are found throughout most of the desert belt extending from the Atlantic coast of the Sahara via the Western Desert, Sinai, and Negev to the eastern coast of the Arabian desert.

It is occasionally used to refer to non-Arab groups as well, notably the Beja of the African coast of the Red Sea.

They constitute only a small portion of the total population of the Middle East although the area they inhabit is large due to their nomadic, or former nomadic lifestyle. Reductions in their grazing ranges and increases in their population, as well as the changes brought about by the discovery and development of oil fields in the region, have led many Bedouin to adopt the modern urban, sedentary lifestyle with its accompanying attractions of material prosperity.


Bedouins spread out over the pastures of the Arabian Peninsula in the centuries C.E., and are descendants from the first settlers of the Southwestern Arabia (Yemen), and the second settlers of North-Central Arabia, claimed descendants of Ishmael, who are called the Qayis. The rivalry between both groups of the Bedouins has raged many bloody battles over the centuries.
The fertile crescent of Arabia was known for its lucrative import trade with southern Africa, which included items such as exotic herbs and spices, gold, ivory, and livestock. The oases of the Bedouins were often mobile markets of trade, as their lifestyle involved frequent migrating of the herds in search of greener pastures. The Bedouins were often ruthless raiders of established desert communities, in a never-ending conquest for plunder and material wealth. Ironically, they were great lovers of the virtue of chastity in their women, who were ambassadors of generosity and hospitality. A group of tribal elders known as the Mijilas elected a tribal chieftain, or Sheikh, who governed over his people with fierce nomadic pride and loyalty.

Félix Bonfils (1831-1885) - "Chef de bedouins pasteurs" ("Head of shepherd beduins"). Catalogue n. 682. Middle East, circa 1880s.

In the first few centuries C.E., many Bedouin were converted to Christianity and Judaism, and many Bedouin tribes fell to Roman slavery. By the turn of the seventh century, most Bedouins had been converted to Islam.
A young Bedouin lighting a camp fire in Wadi Rum, 

The incessant warring caused great conflict and discontent among the tribal leaders, and as such they decided to branch out in their conquests as far as Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, and Persia, establishing a fortified extended Bedouin empire, often amazed at the excessive wealth of the civilizations which they conquered. The Bedouins infiltrated all of Arabia, influenced the language and Islamic religion with their power-hungry expansion of the empire. The Mongols took the city of Baghdad in 1258 C.E., and the Bedouin people were subjected to accepting Ottoman presence and authority.

The nineteenth century proved pivotal in the history of the Bedouins, as the British pushed through on their way to India. The piracy that provided the lavish lifestyle of the Bedouins came to an abrupt halt in many parts of the empire. By the 1930s, the oil fields had been established and farmed by Americans and British, which brought gratuitous wealth to the Arabian empire, bringing desert people into a modern world of lavish comforts and technology. The traditional nomadic Bedouin became an endangered species in terms of survival, as contemporary commerce rolled into Arabia.

The Bedouins were traditionally divided into related tribes. These tribes were organized on several levels- a widely-quoted Bedouin saying is:
I against my brothers, I and my brothers against my cousins, I and my brothers and my cousins against the world
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, and would focus on semi-nomadic pastoralism, migrating throughout the year following water and plant resources. Royal Tribes traditionally herded camels, whilst others herded sheep, and goats.

When resources were plentiful, several tents would travel together as a goum. These groups were sometimes linked by patriarchical 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 or descent group, commonly of three or 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 should be able to support them). Whilst the phrase descent group suggest purely a patriarchal arrangement, in reality these groups were fluid and adapted their genealogies to take in new members.
The largest scale of tribal interactions is obviously the tribe as a whole, led by a Sheikh. The tribe often claims descent from one common ancestor- as above, this appears patrilineal 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.
The Bedouin people revere their horses as westerners revere their children. The Bedouins love their horses so much that they often bed them down for the night, and wives sleep in the stables to encourage and facilitate warmth and "good dreams" for the animals. Horses are considered a gift from Allah, and any mixture of foreign blood from the mountains or the cities surrounding the desert was strictly forbidden, and considered an abomination. The proud Bedouin stoically disdain most breeds other than the long line of stout Arabian horses.

The Arabian horse was generally a weapon of war, and as such a well-mounted Bedouin could attack enemy tribes and plunder their livestock, adding to their own material wealth. These bold raids depended on a quick getaway with reliable horses. Mares were more practical than stallions, with their lighter weight and agility. They were trained not to nicker to the enemy tribe's horses, giving away their owner's approach. These stoic animals often displayed worthy exhibits of courage, taking spear thrusts in the side without giving any ground.
The Bedouin people could be as just as hospitable as they were warring. If a desert traveler touched their tent pole, they were obligated to welcome and invite this guest, along with his entourage and animals for up to three days without any payment. Status of the guest was indicated by the mare's bridle being hung from the tent's central pole, and in this way, tribes that were often at war would meet and, with great hospitality, break bread and share stories of their most noteworthy horses.

Bedouin Music

Bedouin music is highly syncopated and generally unaccompanied. Because songs are mostly a cappella, the vocals and lyrics are the most integral part of Bedouin music. Poetry (al-shi'ir al-nabatî) is a part of many songs. Other types include taghrud (or hidâ' ), the songs of camel-drivers, and dance songs of preparation for war (ayyâla, or 'arda).
Yamania songs are a type of Bedouin music that comes from the fishermen of the Arabian Peninsula. These songs are related to exorcism and are accompanied by a five-stringed lyre called the simsimiyya.
Among the popular singers to use elements of Bedouin music in their style is the Israeli Yair Dalal.

Honor codes

Sharaf and Ird are Bedouin honor codes. It is one of three Bedouin aspects of ethics that contain significant amounts of pre-Islamic customs: viz. those of hospitality, courage, and honor.[1] Bedouin justice dispensation systems are based on these honor codes. However, the honor codes are falling into disuse as more and more Bedouins accept Sharia or national penal codes as the means for dispensing justice.
Ird is the Bedouin honor code for women. A woman is born with her ird intact, but sexual transgression could take her ird away. Ird is different from virginity, as it is emotional / conceptual. Once lost, ird cannot be regained.[1]

Sharaf is the general Bedouin honor code for men. It can be acquired, augmented, lost and regained. Sharaf involves protection of the ird of the women of the family, protection of property, maintenance of the honor of the tribe and protection of the village (if the tribe has settled down).[1]
Hospitality (diyafa) is a virtue closely linked to Sharaf. If required, even an enemy must be given shelter and fed for some days. Poverty does not exempt one from one's duties in this regard. Generosity is a related virtue, and in many Bedouin societies gifts must be offered and cannot be declined. The destitute are looked after by the community, and tithing is mandatory in many Bedouin societies. [2]
Bravery (hamasa) is also closely linked to Sharaf. Bravery indicated the willingness to defend one's tribe for the purpose of tribal solidarity and balance (assahiya). It is closely related to manliness (muruwa). Bravery usually entails the ability to withstand pain, including male circumcision.[2]

Bedouin systems of justice

Bedouin systems of justice are as varied as the Bedouin tribes themselves. A number of these systems date from pre-Islamic times, and hence do not follow the Sharia. Many of these systems are falling into disuse as more and more Bedouins follow the Sharia or national penal codes for dispensing justice.

General principles

Bedouin justice is dispensed based on the honor codes of the Bedouin for men (sharif) and women (ird). [1] Bedouin customs relating to preservation of honor, along with those relating to hospitality and bravery, date to pre-Islamic times. [1] In many Bedouin courts, women often do not have a say as defendant or witness, [3] and decisions are taken by village elders.
Members of a single tribe usually follow the same system of justice, and often claim descent from a single common ancestor. Closely related tribes may also follow similar systems of justice, and may even have common arbitrating courts. Jurists in Arab states have often referred to Bedouin customs for precedence. [3]

In smaller Bedouin tribes, conflict resolution can be as informal as talks between families of the two parties. However, social protocols of conflict resolution are in place for the larger tribes.
Bedouins do not have the concept of incarceration - being a nomadic tribe. Petty crimes, and some major ones, are typically settled by fines and grievous crimes by physical pain and bodily harm, or capital punishment. Bedouin tribes are typically held responsible for the action of their members, hence if an accused fails to pay a fine, the accused's tribe is expected to pay - upon which the accused, or the accused's family, becomes obligated to the tribe.

Some common forms of judicial hierarchy

  • Orfi: A single level judicial system - Some Bedouin tribes of the Sinai use arbitration by Orfi courts. Orfi courts do not seek to find the truth or condemn the guilty, they are more of a mediating agency between the two parties. Orfi courts are headed by a Muktar or a judge. Orfi courts can authorize the Bisha'a, but could be overruled by protocols governing blood feuds.[3]
  • Ghadi: A 2-level hierarchy - The Alegat Bedouin of Egypt appoint three judges or Ghadi. One may appeal to a different judge if one is unhappy with the result of the conflict resolution. Alternatively, one may appeal to the tribe leader or Sheikh, whose judgment cannot be overruled.[3]
  • Armilat hierarchy: Multi-level hierarchy - The Armilat Bedouin have five levels of arbiters - judges with increasing levels of authority. The lowest level arbiters are the Kafeel (a person of power and stature or great physical strength in the tribe, chosen by each party). The claimant then approaches the Kafeel of the other party, who acts as intermediary. Kafeels are paid for their work and not hereditary. All arbiters above the Kafeel have hereditary powers and in increasing power of arbitration, are: Kabir, Adraybee, Manshaad and the highest authority - the Jrabiee. The Jrabiee are actually capable of performing the Bisha'a, and are hence Mubashas in this sense.

Trials by ordeal

Trials by ordeal are used by the Bedouin to decide on the gravest of crimes. Authorities to hold such trials and judge them are granted to few, and that too on a hereditary basis. The most well-known of the trials by ordeal is the Bisha'a or Bisha.
This is a custom practiced among the Bedouin of the Judea, Negev and Sinai. It is also practiced, and is said to have originated among some Bedouin tribes of Saudi Arabia. It is a protocol for lie detection, and is enacted only in the harshest of civil or criminal violations, like a blood feud - usually in the absence of witnesses. It entails the accused to lick a hot metal spoon and subsequently rinse the mouth with water. If the tongue shows signs of a burn, or a scar the accused is taken to be guilty of lying.[4] [5]
The basic ritual consists of the accused being asked to lick a hot metal object (spoon, ladle, rod, etc) thrice. He is provided with water for rinsing after the ceremony. He is then inspected by the official who presides over the ceremony - the Mubesha (or Mubasha) and by the designated witnesses of the ritual. If the person undergoing the ritual is found to have a scarred or burnt tongue, it is concluded that he was lying. The Howeitat Bedouin call this ritual "the true light of God."
The Bisha'a is usually performed only to resolve the gravest of civil or criminal offenses, and is a voluntary ritual in the sense that consent on the part of the ritual undergoer is required. Typically, Bisha'a is only performed for those cases where there are no witnesses regarding the disputed issue. Societal peer and hierarchy pressures may, however, force consent. In the case of the defendant agreeing to a Bisha'a ceremony, and subsequently declining to perform the ritual or running away, the defendant is considered guilty.
The ritual is usually a public affair, with both parties arriving with fanfare. Tea is often served. Women are allowed to participate in the occasion, unlike other judiciary hearings of the Bedouins.
The instrument of the ritual - typically a metal ladle called the tassa bil basha is heated up by sticking the ladle down into the flames, the convex side being pressed into the ashes. Gasoline is often poured on the metal to heat it up. In the absence of a ladle, other metal objects like knives, spoons and rods are also used, and use of non-metals like rocks have also been documented. Both parties recount their side of the story during the process of heating, with the Mubesha interrupting for clarification. The Mubesha can also summarize the events. When the Mubesha decides that the ladle is sufficiently heated, both parties swear to God that the issue will end with the ritual, and the defendant undertakes the test. In some variants, the claimant can lick the spoon before the defendant in a bid to worry the defendant (This rare variant is practiced by the Armilat Bedouin). The Mubesha then counts worry beads (possibly prayer beads), and after a suitable lapse of time, inspects the tongue of the person undergoing the ritual. He decides whether or not the tongue is burnt (or the degree of the burn in some cases), and relates his decision to the assembly. The defendant then shows his tongue to the witnesses for inspection.

The Mubesha

The right to perform Bisha'a is granted only to the Mubesha, and this right is passed on from father to son, along paternal lineages. The Mubesha hears the account of the dispute before performing the ceremony, and is also responsible for pressing the metal spoon against the tongue of the person undergoing the Bisha'a. There are only a few practitioners of the Bisha'a in Bedouin society. A single Mubesha might arbitrate over several tribes and large geographical areas, like the Mubesha of Abu Sultan in Egypt.

The legend behind the ritual

The legend behind the Bisha'a goes back to a man of great powers named Weymer abu Ayad of the Sultani branch of the Ayayideh tribe of the Qahtan confederation of Bedouins in southern Saudi Arabia. Many Mubesha claim to be able to trace their heritage to the tribe of Ayayideh. Weymer was a tracker but was robbed of a personal possession. He figured out the criminal, but there were no witnesses. Apparently, Weymer challenged the suspect to lick a red-hot branding iron three times which he would also lick three times, saying that the guilty would be shown. The suspect ran away.


The Bisha'a was illegal under British rule, though numerous accounts of the performance of the ritual is documented in the records of the Foreign Office [6] The Bisha'a is illegal under the Israeli judicial system. It is also inconsistent with the Sharia, being an old ritual passed on by Bedouins from pre-Islamic times. Most Arab states thus denounce the Bisha'a. The practice is getting rarer, with more and more Bedouins preferring standard courts of law for enactment of justice.
The Bisha'a has been variously described in ethnographic and cross-cultural studies.[7] [8] [9] [10] The earliest well-documented reports of the Bisha'a ceremony come from the accounts of Austin Kennett [11], Claude Jarvis [12] [13] [14]. Later accounts of Glubb Pasha[4] and Aref al-Aref [15] also refer to the practice. Glubb Pasha's account mentions the high rate of correct judgement, which he attributes to the skill of the mubesha. A quote from his account:
In practice, more than half the accused persons who set out to lick the spoon lose their nerve while the spoon is in the fire, and voluntarily confess to their guilt without blistering their tongues. A further twenty-five percent probably blister their tongues, and twenty-five percent are declared innocent. The efficiency of the process depends, of course, entirely on the skill of the “mubesha.” The days of the “true light of God” are doubtless numbered, and in the full glare of modern democracy and (doubtless) enlightenment, the little red-hot spoon will soon vanish. Before it does so, I cannot resist paying a tribute to the skill of those who practice this infamous superstition, and to the considerable number of miscarriages of justice which were by this means avoided.
The quasiscientific explanation of the ordeal is that stress would cause the mouth of liar to dry up, hence increasing the possibility of a burn. However, the stress of the ordeal could just as easily cause the same physical symptoms in an innocent person.

Blood feud protocols

Protocols regarding blood feuds often override court decisions, and may vary from tribe to tribe. Punishment for murder is usually harsher than punishment meted out to acts of disturbing the tribal solidarity (assahiya - tribal solidarity). The punishment for murder is usually capital punishment, but in some tribes a blood vengeance fee may be extracted instead. The general governing principle is that of Dum butlab dum (Blood begets blood). In many tribes, the first five levels of male cousins (Khamsa) are obligated to seek out and kill the murderer. If not found, another male member of the murderer's tribe would have to die in the retaliatory killing.[1]

Contemporary Bedouin


Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, many Bedouin started to leave the traditional, nomadic life to work and live in the cities of the Middle East, especially as grazing ranges have shrunk and population levels have grown. In Syria, for example, 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 Egypt, oil production in Libya and the Gulf, and a desire for improved standards of living have had the effect that most Bedouin are now settled citizens of various nations, rather than nomadic herders and farmers.
Government policies on settlement are generally put in place through a desire to provide services (schools, health care, law enforcement and so on). This is considerable easier for a fixed population than for semi-nomadic pastoralists.[16]

Notable Bedouin tribes

There are 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. Some of the tribes and their historical population:
  • Aniza, the largest bedouin tribe, estimated at about 700,000 members (including the Rwala), live in northern Saudi Arabia, western Iraq, and the Syrian steppe.
  • Rwala, a large clan from the Aniza tribe, live in Saudi Arabia, but extend through Jordan into Syria and Iraq, in the 1970s, according to Lancaster, there were 250,000-500,000 Rwala
  • Howeitat in Wadi Araba, and Wadi Rum, Jordan
  • Beni Sakhr in Syria and Jordan
  • Al Murrah in Saudi Arabia
  • Bani Hajir (AlHajri) in Saudi Arabia and the eastern Gulf States
  • Bani Khalid in Jordan, Israel, Palestinian Territories, and Syria, also in the eastern Arabian Peninsula
  • Shammar in Saudi Arabia, central, and western Iraq, Shammar is the second largest bedouin tribe.
  • Mutair, live in the Nejd plateau, also, many small families from the Mutair tribe have lived in the Gulf States
  • Al-Ajman, eastern Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States
  • Sudair, southern Nejd, around the Sudair region of Saudi Arabia
  • Al-Duwasir, southern Riyadh, and Kuwait
  • Subai'a, central Nejd, and Kuwait
  • Harb, a large tribe, living around Mecca
  • Juhayna, a large tribe, many of its warriors were recruited as mercenaries during WWI by Prince Faisal. It surrounds the area of Mecca, and extends to Southern Medina

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