Bedouin, also spelt Beduin, Arabic Badawi and plural Badw, are Arabic-speaking nomadic peoples of the Middle Eastern deserts, especially North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.
The Bedouin tribes have traditionally been classified according to the animal species that are the basis of their livelihood. Most Bedouins are animal herders who migrate into the desert during the rainy winter season and move back toward the cultivated land in the dry summer months. Camel nomads occupy huge territories and are organised into large tribes in the Sahara, Syrian, and Arabian deserts. Sheep and goat nomads have smaller ranges, staying mainly near the cultivated regions of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Cattle nomads are found chiefly in South Arabia and Sudan, called Baqqārah (Baggara). Historically many Bedouin groups also raided trade caravans and villages at the margins of settled areas or extracted payments from regions inhabited in return for protection.
Bedouin society is tribal and patriarchal, typically composed of extended families that are patrilineal, endogamous, and polygynous. The head of the family and each successively larger social unit making up the tribal structure is called the Sheikh; the Sheikh is assisted by an informal tribal council of male elders.
In addition to the “noble” tribes who trace their ancestry to either Qaysi (northern Arabian) or Yamani (southern Arabian) origin, traditional Bedouin society comprises scattered “ancestor-less” groups who shelter under the protection of the large noble tribes and make a living by serving them as blacksmiths, tinkers, artisans, entertainers, and other workers.
The growth of modern states in the Middle East and the extension of their authority into previous ungovernable regions greatly impinged upon Bedouins’ traditional ways of life. Following World War I, Bedouin tribes had to submit to the control of the countries’ governments in which their wandering areas lay. This also meant that the Bedouins’ internal feuding and the raiding of outlying villages had to be given up to replace more peaceful commercial relations. These people were incorporated into military and police forces in several instances, taking advantage of their mobility and habituation to austere environments. In contrast, others found employment in construction and the petroleum industry.
In the second half of the 20th century, Bedouins faced new pressures to abandon nomadism. Middle Eastern governments nationalised Bedouin rangelands, imposing new limits on their movements and grazing, and many also implemented settlement programs that compelled their communities to adopt sedentary or semisedentary lifestyles. Some other Bedouin groups settled voluntarily due to changing political and economic conditions. Advancing technology also left its mark as many nomadic groups exchanged traditional animal transportation modes for motor vehicles.
Because Bedouin populations are represented inconsistently—or not at all—in official statistics, the number of nomadic Bedouins living in the Middle East today is difficult to ascertain. But it is generally understood that they constitute only a tiny fraction of the total population in the countries where they are present.
Most of the staple foods that made up the Bedouins’ diet were dairy products. Livestock and herding, principally of goats, sheep and dromedary camels, comprised the traditional livelihoods of those people. These were used for meat, dairy products, and wool.
Camels, in particular, had numerous cultural and functional uses. Having been regarded as a “gift from God”, they were the primary food source and method of transportation for many Bedouins. In addition to their extraordinary milking potential under harsh desert conditions, their meat was occasionally consumed by Bedouins. Camel races were a cultural tradition during celebratory occasions, such as weddings or religious festivals.
Some Bedouin societies live in arid regions. In areas where rainfall is very unpredictable, a camp will be moved irregularly, depending on the availability of green pasture. Some Bedouin people plant grain along their migration routes in the southern areas where winter rainfall is more predictable. This proves a resource for the livestock throughout the winter. In western Africa, where there is more predictable rainfall, Bedouins practice transhumance. They plant crops near-permanent homes in the valleys where there is more rain and move their livestock to the highland pastures.
Oral poetry was the most famous art form among Bedouins. Having a poet in one’s tribe was highly regarded in society. In addition to serving as a form of art, poetry was used to convey information and social control.
Raiding or ghazw
The well-regulated traditional habit of Bedouin communities of raiding other tribes, caravans, or settlements is known in Arabic as ghazwa.
Historically, the Bedouin engaged in nomadic herding, agriculture and sometimes fishing in the Syrian steppe since 6000 BCE. By about 850 BCE, a complex network of settlements and camps was established. The earliest Arab tribes emerged from Bedouins. A significant source of income for these people was the taxation of caravans and tributes collected from non-Bedouin settlements. They also earned income by transporting goods and people in caravans pulled by domesticated camels across the desert. Scarcity of water and permanent pastoral land required them to move constantly.
The Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta reported that in 1326 on the route to Gaza, the Egyptian authorities had a customs post at Qatya on the north coast of Sinai. Here Bedouin was being used to guard the road and track down those trying to cross the border without permission.
The Early Medieval grammarians and scholars seeking to develop a system of standardising the contemporary Classical Arabic for maximal intelligibility across the Arabophone areas believed that the Bedouin spoke the purest, most conservative variety of the language. To solve pronunciation irregularities, the Bedouin were asked to recite certain poems, and a consensus was relied on to decide the pronunciation and spelling of a given word.
Plunder and massacre of the Hajj caravan by Bedouin tribespeople occurred in 1757, led by Qa’dan Al – Fayez of the Bani Sakhr tribe (Modern-day Jordan) in his vengeance against the Ottomans for failing to pay his tribe for their help protecting the pilgrims. An estimated 20,000 pilgrims were either killed in the raid or died of hunger or thirst, including relatives of the Sultan and Musa Pasha. Although Bedouin raids on Hajj caravans were pretty standard, the 1757 raid represented the peak of such attacks, which was also likely prompted by the major drought of 1756.
Under the Tanzimat reforms in 1858, a new Ottoman Land Law was issued, which offered legal grounds for the displacement of the Bedouin (Turkish: Bedeviler). As the Ottoman Empire gradually lost power, this law instituted an unprecedented land registration process to boost the empire’s tax base. Few Bedouin opted to register their lands with the Ottoman Tapu due to lack of enforcement by the Ottomans, illiteracy, refusal to pay taxes and lack of relevance of written documentation of ownership to the Bedouin way of life at that time.
At the end of the 19th century, Sultan Abdülhamid II settled Muslim populations (Circassians) from the Balkan and Caucasus among areas predominantly populated by the nomads in the regions of modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel and also created several permanent Bedouin settlements. However, the majority of them did not remain. The territory of non-Arabs in the traditionally Bedouin areas was a significant cause of discontent. This became even more severe because every Arab tribe, including the settled ones, have ancestry as a Bedouin.
Ottoman authorities also initiated the private acquisition of large plots of state land offered by the sultan to the absentee landowners (effendis). Numerous tenants were brought to cultivate the newly acquired lands. Often it came at the expense of the Bedouin lands.
In the late 19th century, many Bedouins began to transition to a semi-nomadic lifestyle. One of the factors was the influence of the Ottoman empire authorities, who started a forced sedentarisation of the Bedouins living on its territory. The Ottoman authorities viewed the Bedouin as a threat to the state’s control and worked hard to establish law and order in the Negev. During the First World War, the Negev Bedouin initially fought with the Ottomans against the British. However, under the influence of British agent T. E. Lawrence, the Bedouins switched sides and fought against the Ottomans. Hamad Pasha al-Sufi (died 1923), Sheikh of the Nijmat sub-tribe of the Tarabin, led a force of 1,500 men who joined the Ottoman raid on the Suez Canal.
In Orientalist historiography, the Negev Bedouin have remained largely unaffected by changes in the outside world until recently. Their society was often considered a “world without time.” Recent scholars have challenged the notion of the Bedouin as ‘fossilised’ or ‘stagnant’ reflections of unchanging desert culture. Emanuel Marx has shown that Bedouin was engaged in a constantly dynamic reciprocal relation with urban centres. Bedouin scholar Michael Meeker explains that “the city was to be found in their midst.