1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bedouins

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BEDOUINS (Ahl Bedu, “dwellers in the open land,” or Ahl el beit, “people of the tent,” as they call themselves), the name given to the most important, as it is the best known, division of the Arab race. The Bedouins are the descendants of the Arabs of North Arabia whose traditions claim Ishmael as their ancestor (see Arabs). The deserts of North Arabia seem to have been their earliest home, but even in ancient times they had migrated to the lowlands of Egypt and Syria. The Arab conquest of northern Africa in the 7th century a.d. caused a wide dispersion, so that to-day the Arab element is strongly represented in the Nile Valley, Saharan, and Nubian peoples. Among the Hamitic-Negroid races the Bedouins have largely lost their nomadic character; but in the deserts of the Nile lands they remain much what their ancestors were. Thus the name has suffered much ethnic confusion, and is often incorrectly reserved to describe such pastoral peoples as the Bisharin, the Hadendoa and the Abābda. This article treats solely of the Arabian Bedouin, as affording the purest type of the people. They are shepherds and herdsmen, reduced to an open-air, roving life, partly by the nature of their occupations, partly by the special characteristics of the countries in which they dwell. 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. Professionally, the Bedouins are shepherds and herdsmen; their raids on each other or their robbery of travellers and caravans are but occasional exceptions to the common routine. Their intertribal wars (they very rarely venture on a conflict with the better-armed and better-organized sedentary population) are rarely bloody; cattle-lifting being the usual object. Private feuds exist, but 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 relation killed in some previous fray. But bloodshed is expensive, as it must be paid for either by more bloodshed or by blood-money—the diya, 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 optional for the injured tribe either to accept this compensation or to insist on blood for blood; but the Prophet, though by his own account despairing of ever reducing the nomad portion of his countrymen to law and order, succeeded in establishing among them the rule, that a fair diya if offered must be accepted. 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 taken place. Such were the wars of Pekr and Thagleb in the 6th century, of Kelb and Howazin in the 8th, of Harb and Ateba in the 18th.

The Bedouins regard the plundering of caravans or travellers as in lieu of the custom dues exacted elsewhere. The land is theirs, they argue, and trespassers on it must pay the forfeit. 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 sheik, 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 Arabia the passport is given in writing by one of the 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 submissive enough in other and Arab-governed regions. But the traveller who ventures on the desert strip without such precautions will be robbed and perhaps killed.

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 worth; even their genealogies, in which they pretend to be eminently versed, are not to be much depended on; the more so that their own family names hardly ever exceed the limits of a patronymic, whilst the constantly renewed subdivisions 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 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. First, the Aneza clan, who extend from Syria southward to the limits of Jebel Shammar. 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 their hands. Their principal subdivisions are the Sebaá on the north, the Walid Ali on the west, and the Ruála 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 Rabi’a. Second, the Shammar Bedouins, whose pasturages lie conterminous to those of the Aneza on the east. Their numbers are about the same. Thirdly, in the northern desert, the Huwetat and Sherarat, comparatively small and savage tribes. There is also the Solibi clan, which, however, is disowned by the Arabs, and seems to be of gipsy origin. Next follow, in the western desert, the Beni-Harb, a powerful tribe, supposed to muster about 20,000 fighting men. They are often troublesome to the Meccan pilgrims. In the eastern desert are the Muter, the Beni-Khalid, and the Ajmans, all numerous clans, often at war with each other. To the south, in Nejd itself or on its frontiers, are the Hodeil, Ateba, and others. These all belong to the “Mustareb,” or northern Arabs.

The Bedouins of southern or “pure Arab” origin are comparatively few in number, and are, 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 Beni-Yas, between Harik and the Persian Gulf, are the best known. The total number of the Bedouin or pastoral population throughout Arabia, including men, women, and children, appears not to exceed a million and a half, or about one fifth of the total population. The only tribal authority is the “elder,” or “sheik,” a title not necessarily implying advanced age, but given to any one who, on account of birth, courage, wealth, liberality or some other quality, 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. To the “sheik” 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 may consider proper. But in fact, for most personal and private affairs, every man does pretty much what is right in his own eyes.

All the Bedouins, with the exception of certain tribes in Syria, are nominally Mahommedans, but most pay but slight attention to the ceremonial precepts of the Koran; the five daily prayers and the annual fast of Ramadan are not much in favour among them; and however near a tribe may be to Mecca, few of them visit it as pilgrims. The militant Wahhabi have, however, from time to time enforced some degree of Islamitic observance among the Bedouins of Nejd and the adjoining districts: elsewhere Mahommedanism is practically 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 Hodeil, south of Mecca, perform it after a fashion peculiar to themselves.

Though polygamy is not common among Bedouins, 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 easy. 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. Burckhardt writes: “The Bedouins are jealous of their women, but do not prevent them from laughing and talking with strangers. It seldom happens that a Bedouin strikes his wife; if he does so she calls loudly on her wasy or protector, who pacifies the husband and makes him listen to reason.... The wife and daughters perform all domestic business. They grind the wheat in the handmill or pound it in the mortar; they prepare the breakfast and dinner; knead and bake the bread; make butter, fetch water, work at the loom, mend the tent-covering ... while the husband or brother sits before the tent smoking his pipe.” 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 ill looked on. But marriage, if indeed so slight and temporary a connexion as it is among Bedouins deserves the name, is often merely a passport for mutual licence. In other respects 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. In patience, or rather endurance, both physical and moral, few Bedouins are deficient; 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.

Most Bedouins, men and women, are rather undersized; their complexion, especially in the south, is dark; their hair coarse, thick and black; their eyes dark and oval; the nose is generally aquiline, and the features well formed; the beard and moustache are usually scanty. The men are active, but not strong; the women are generally plain. The dress of the men consists of a long cotton shirt, open at the breast, often girt with a leathern girdle; a black or striped cloak of hair is sometimes thrown over the shoulders; a handkerchief, folded once, black, or 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. Under the shirt, round the naked waist, 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. 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. The women usually wear wide loose drawers, a long shirt, and over it a wide piece of dark blue cloth enveloping the whole figure and head, and trailing on the ground behind. Very rarely does a Bedouin woman wear a veil, or even cover her face with her overcloak, 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; ear-rings are rare, and nose-rings rarer. Boys, till near puberty, usually go stark naked; girls also wear no clothes up to the age of six or seven.

On a journey a Bedouin invariably carries 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 nomad, and the one in the use of which he shows the greatest skill. An antiquated sword, an out-of-date musket, an ornamented dagger or knife, a coat of mail, the manufacture of Yemen or Bagdad, and a helmet, a mere iron head-piece, without visor or crest, complete his military outfit.

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 ft., gipsy fashion. If it be the tent of a sheik, its total length may be from 30 to 40 ft.; if of an ordinary person, less than 20 ft. Sometimes a partition separates the quarters of the women and children; sometimes they are housed under a lower and narrower covering. A rough carpet or mat is spread on the ground; while camel-saddles, ropes, halters, two or three cooking pots, one or two platters, a wooden drinking bowl, the master’s arms at one side of the tent, and his spear stuck in the ground at the door, complete the list of household valuables. On striking camp all these are fastened on the backs of camels; the men mount their saddles, the women their litters; and in an hour the blackened stones that served for a cooking hearth are the only sign of the encampment. For food the Bedouin relies on his herds, but rice, vegetables, honey, locusts and even lizards are at times eaten.

Bibliography.—Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabis (1831); Karstens Niebuhr, Travels through Arabia (orig. Germ. edit. 1772), translated into English by Robert Heron (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1792); H. H. Tessup, Women of the Arabs (New York, 1874); W. S. Blunt, Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates (1879); Lady Anne Blunt, Pilgrimage to Nejd (1881); Desmoulins, Les Français d’aujourd’hui (Paris, 1898); C. M. Doughty, Arabia Deserta (2 vols., 1888); E. Reclus, Les Arabes (Brussels, 1898); Rev. S. M. Zwemer, Arabia, the Cradle of Islam (1900); W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (Cambridge, 1885); H. C. Trumbull, The Blood Covenant (Philadelphia, 1891).