The majority of
Those Bedouins who still practice pastoralism camp in one spot for a few months at a time, grazing their herds of goats, sheep or camels until the fodder found in the area is exhausted. It is then time to move on. Often the only concession they make to the modern world is the purchase of a pick-up truck (to move their animals long distances), plastic water containers and perhaps a kerosene stove.
The Bedouins have always lived in long, low, black tents made of goat and hair cloth, known as beit al-sha’ar, or “house of hair”, which are woven by the women. The tents are supported by a line of tall central poles in the middle while the front, back and sides are supported by lower poles. The number of poles is an indication of the owner’s wealth and social standing.
The tent is well adapted to desert life –it can be packed up and ready to move within an hour. In summer, when all that is required is shade from the sun, shelter from any wind and privacy from passers-by, the older, poorer quality tents will come out of storage.
Many are ‘patched’ with cardboard boxes, bits of sacking or sheets of wood or metal. The better quality tents will be saved for the harsher winter months.
Sections of cloth which are rolled up, along the sides of the tent, during the day are dropped down at night to provide additional shelter.
The tents can be up to twenty or thirty metres long and are divided into two sections by a woven curtain known as a ma’nad. The mag’ad or “sitting area”, reserved for the men and for the reception of guests, is kept open during the day while the maharama or “place of the women”, usually on the right as you face the tent, is kept closed.
Nobody from outside the family would ever venture to intrude upon the women –female visitors may only enter if specifically invited.
The public area is normally arranged to receive guests, who sit, lounge or lie upon mattresses arranged around a small fire. The women are free to join in and usually don’t hesitate to do so. No discussion of money or business will ever take place inside the tent. A guest will be received inside, will sit and drink tea or coffee, but if he has come to discuss business, eventually, when the talk gets serious, the whole party –including the women –will move outside, taking mattresses and tea etc. with them.
Many of the characteristics of the Jordan and Arab society are found in their strongest form in Bedouin culture. Bedouins are most famous for their hospitality or diyafa. It is part of their creed –rooted in the harshness of desert life –that no traveller is ever turned away. Any stranger, even an enemy, can approach a tent and be sure of three days’ board, lodging and protection after which he may leave in peace. Bedouin will always offer their guest a rich meal, even if they have to slaughter their last sheep or borrow from neighbours to do it. Their honour is bound by their hospitality and lavish generosity.
Bedouin society is patriarchal, all members of a tribe claiming descent by male line to a common ancestor. The Sheikh, as leader of the tribe, has considerable power but is limited by custom, precedent and the advice of the council of tribal elders. He is elected from a noble family –any member of that family is eligible for the position when he dies.
The largest social unit amongst the Bedouin is the tribe or qabila which is divided into clans or qwam. Each clan owns its own wells and grazing grounds and was the raiding unit of past generations. Clan are divided into family groups or hayy which consist of all those related back to five generations –having the same great great grandfather in the paternal line. The hayy is the herding unit, its member families camping together most of the year. It is divided into kin groups –extended families –which consist of the relatives through three generations. The kin group is responsible for all its individual members –in matters of morals and honour, including blood vengeance.
Bedouin traditionally wore loose clothes flowing robes that covered them, from head to foot, protecting them from the fierce sunshine, wind and sand of the desert. Men wear a long cotton shirt –thawb - with a belt, covered by a flowing outer garment –‘abaya. In winter they may wear a waterproof coat of woven hair.
Their heads are covered by a large headcloth which can be white, red and white or black and white in colour. The Shamagh/kifaya is held in place by a double black cord known as the Agal and is used to protect the face and neck.
The women wear long-sleeved, ankle-length, heavily embroidered dresses over ankle-long pantaloons. A black headcloth –Tarha –covers their hair and their faces are hidden behind their veil –Burga –which is embroidered and fixed with gold and silver coins to show the financial status of the family. The women tend the flocks, do the housework, cook, take care of small children, draw water, spin and weave.
They are also responsible for dismantling the tent and setting it up. They are protected by a very strict code of honour but are allowed to move about relatively freely and to talk to other men.
Ancient Bedouin religion was animistic. Later, gods such as Manat, ‘Uzza, Allat, Baal, Sin and Ishtar took the place of the spirits of the trees, fountains and sacred stones. In the pre-Islamic age, most Arabian Bedouin tribes were pagan while others had converted to Judaism or Christianity. With the rise of Islam most accepted the new religion and became converts. Islam became the basis of Bedouin social and religious life, although many pre-Islamic beliefs and customs were still retained,
Today, the Bedouin usually form the poorest social group in the area in which they live –once dominant, they are now marginalised and regarded by many as “primitive”. They see themselves and their way of life, however, as the most noble in Arab society. The majority of