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"The Original Arab, The Bedouin"
by Philip K. Hitti

From the book "The Arabs: A Short History", by Philip K. Hitti © 1996 by Regnery Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by special permission of Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, D.C. - Photo Credits, Wade Fairley - Web Production and Design, OneWorld Magazine.




Although we are concerned in this book with all Arabic-speaking peoples-not only in Arabia but in many lands, including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Persia, Egypt, North Africa and medieval Sicily and Spain-it is necessary to throw the spotlight first upon the original Arab, the Bedouin.

The Bedouin is no gypsy roaming aimlessly for the sake of roaming. He represents the best adaptation of human life to desert conditions. Wherever grass grows, there he goes seeking pasture. Nomadism is as much a scientific mode of living in the Nufud as industrialism is in Detroit or Manchester. It is a reasonable and stoic adjustment to an unfriendly environment. For the surface of Arabia is almost completely desert with only a narrow strip of habitable land round the periphery. The Arabians called their habitat an island, and an island it is, surrounded by water on three sides and by sand on the fourth.

Despite its size-it is the largest peninsula in the world-its total population is estimated at only seven to eight millions. Geologists tell us that the land once formed the natural continuation of the Sahara (now separated from it by the rift of the Nile Valley and the great chasm of the Red Sea) and of the sandy belt which traverses Asia through central Persia and the Gobi Desert. It is one of the driest and hottest countries in the whole world. True, the area is sandwiched between seas on the east and west, but these bodies of water are too narrow to break the climatic continuity of the Africo-Asian rainless continental masses. The ocean on the south does bring rains, to be sure, but the monsoons (an Arabic word, incidentally) which seasonably lash the land leave very little moisture for the interior. It is easy to understand why the bracing and delightful east wind has always provided a favorite theme for Arabian poets.

The Bedouin still lives, as his forebears did, in tents of goats' or camels' hair ("houses of hair"), and grazes his sheep and goats on the same ancient pastures. Sheep-and-camel- raising, and to a lesser degree horse-breeding, hunting and raiding, are his regular occupations, and are to his mind the only occupations worthy of a man. It is his conviction that agriculture-as well as all varieties of trade and craft-are beneath his dignity. And indeed there is not much tillable land. There is little wheat. Bread, to the Arabian, is a luxury. There are a few trees, the date-palm, the shrub from which comes the famous coffee of South Arabia (not introduced until the fourteenth century), grape vines, and in the oases, numerous fruits as well as almonds, sugar cane and watermelons. The frankincense tree, important in the early commercial life of South Arabia, still flourishes.

It is a harsh and forbidding land, the air dry, the soil salty. There is not a single river of significance which flows perennially and reaches the sea. None of its streams is navigable. In place of a system of rivers it has a network of wadies which carry away such floods as occur. These wadies serve another purpose: they determine the routes for the caravans and the holy pilgrimage. Since the rise of Islam the pilgrimage has formed the principal link between Arabia and the outer world.

IN THE FERTILE CRESCENT empires have come and gone, but in the barren wastes the Bedouin has remained forever the same. The Bedouin, the camel and the palm rule supreme over the desert. And together with the sand they constitute the four great actors in its drama.

Tenacity and endurance enable the nomad to survive where almost everything else perishes. Individualism is so deeply ingrained that he has never become a socially conscious being. His ideals of devotion to the common good have not gone beyond that which pertains to his tribe. Discipline, respect for order and authority are not among his ideals.

The rudiments of Semitic religion developed in the oases, rather than in the sandy land, and centered upon stones and springs, forerunners of the Black Stone and Zamzam Well in Islam and of Bethel in the Old Testament. But religion sits very lightly in the heart of the Bedouin. In the judgment of the Koran, "the desert Arabians are most confirmed in unbelief and hypocrisy." Even in our present day they pay little more than lip homage to the Prophet.

The monotony and aridity of his desert habitat are faithfully reflected in the nomad's physical and mental make-up. He is a bundle of nerves, bones and sinews. Dates and milk are the chief items on his menu; and dates and camel flesh are his only solid foods. Fermented, the date gives him his favorite beverage. Its crushed stones furnish the cakes which are the everyday meal of his camel. To possess "the two black ones," water and dates, is the dream of every Bedouin.

His raiment is as scanty as his nourishment: a long shirt with a sash-an Arabic word-and a flowing upper garment which pictures have made familiar. The head is covered by a shawl held by a cord. Trousers are not worn and footwear is rare.

Of the animals of Arabia, two are preeminent: the camel and the horse. Without the camel the desert could not be conceived of as a habitable place. It is the nomad's nourisher, his vehicle of transportation and his medium of exchange. The dowry of the bride, the price of blood, the profit of gambling, the wealth of a sheikh-all are computed in terms of camels. It is the Bedouin's constant companion, his alter ego. his foster parent. He drinks its milk instead of water, which he spares for the cattle; he feasts on its flesh; he covers himself with its skin; he makes his tent of its hair. Its dung he uses as fuel, and its urine as a hair tonic and medicine (as shampoo it leaves on the hair an odor corresponding to perfume and on the face a layer of oil serviceable as a protection against insect bites). To him the camel is more than "the ship of the desert"; it is the special gift of Allah.

The Bedouins of our day take delight in referring to themselves as "the people of the camel." Musil, in his book on the Ruwalah Bedouins, states that there is hardly a member of that tribe who has not on some occasion drunk water from a camel's paunch. In time of emergency either an old camel is killed or a stick is thrust down its throat to make it vomit water. If the camel has been watered within a day or two, the liquid is tolerably drinkable.

As Arabia is the chief camel-breeding center of the world, the camel industry is one of its great sources of income. The part which the camel has played in the economy of Arabian life is indicated by the fact that the Arabic language is said to include about a thousand names for the camel in its numerous varieties, breeds, conditions and stages of growth, a number rivaled only by the number of synonyms used for the sword.

The horse, on the contrary, is an animal of luxury whose feeding and care constitute a problem to the man of the desert. Its possession is a presumption of wealth. Renowned as the Arabian horse has become in Moslem literature, it was nevertheless a late importation into ancient Arabia. But once there, before the beginning of our era, it had a perfect opportunity to keep its blood pure and free from admixture. Celebrated for its physical beauty, endurance, intelligence and almost touching devotion to its master, the Arabian thoroughbred is the origin from which all Western ideas about the good breeding of horseflesh have been derived. In the eighth century the Arabs introduced it into Europe through Spain, where it left permanent traces in its Barbary and Andalusian descendants. During the Crusades the English animal received fresh strains of blood from the Arabian horse.

The horse's chief value to an Arabian lies in providing the speed necessary for the success of Bedouin raids. It is also used for sports: in tournament, coursing and hunting. In an Arab camp today if there is a shortage of water the children may cry for a drink, but the master, unmoved, would pour the last drop into a pail to set before the horse.

The raid or ghazw (corrupted into "razzia"), otherwise considered a form of brigandage, is raised by the economic and social conditions of desert life to the rank of a national institution. It lies at the base of the economic structure of Bedouin pastoral society. In desert land, where the fighting mood is a chronic mental condition, raiding is one of the few manly occupations. Christian tribes, too, practiced it. An early poets gave expression to the guiding principle of such life in two verses: "Our business is to make raids on the enemy, on our neighbor and on our own brother, in case we find none to raid but a brother!"

According to the rules of the game -- and ghazw is a sort of national sport-no blood should be shed except in cases of extreme necessity. Ghazw does help to a certain extent to keep down the number of mouths to feed, though it does not actually increase the sum total of available supplies. A weaker tribe or a sedentary settlement on the borderland may buy protection by paying tribute to the stronger tribe.

The principle of hospitality, however, mitigates in some measure the evils of ghazw. However dreadful he may be as an enemy, the Bedouin is also loyal and generous within his laws of friendship. Pre-Islamic poets, the journalists of their day, never tired of singing the praises of hospitality which, with fortitude and manliness, is considered one of the supreme virtues of the nation. The keen competition for water and pasturage, on which the chief causes of conflict center, splits the desert populace into warring tribes; but realization of helplessness in the face of a stubborn and malignant nature develops a feeling for the necessity of one sacred duty: that of hospitality. To refuse a guest such a courtesy in a land where there are no inns or hotels, or to harm him after accepting him as a guest, is an offense not only against the established mores and honor, but against God Himself, the real protector.

THE CLAN ORGANIZATION is the basis of Bedouin society. Every tent represents a family; members of one encampment constitute a clan. A number of kindred clans grouped together make a tribe. All members of the same clan consider each other as of one blood, submit to the authority of but one chief-the senior member of the clan-and use one battle-cry. Blood relationship-real or fictitious (clan kinship may be acquired by sucking a few drops of a member's blood) furnishes the cohesive element in tribal organization.

The tent and its humble household contents are individual property, but water, pasturage and tillable land are common property of the tribe.

If a member of a clan commits murder inside the clan, none will defend him. In case of escape he becomes an outlaw. If the murder is outside the clan, a vendetta is established, and any fellow clan member may have to pay for the crime with his own life.

Blood, according to the primitive law of the desert, calls for blood; no chastisement is recognized other than that of vengeance. The nearest of kin is supposed to assume primary responsibility. A blood feud may last forty years. In all those intertribal battles of pre-Islamic days, the chroniclers emphasize the blood-feud motif, though underlying economic reasons must have motivated many of the events.

No worse calamity could befall a Bedouin than the loss of his tribal affiliation, for a tribeless man is practically helpless. His status is that of an outlaw beyond the pale of protection and safety.

The spirit of the clan demands boundless and unconditional loyalty to fellow clansmen, a passionate chauvinism. His allegiance, which is individualism of the member magnified, assumes that his tribe is a unit by itself, self-sufficient and absolute, and regards every other tribe as its legitimate victim and object of plunder and murder. Islam made full use of the-tribal system for its military purposes. It divided the army into units based on tribal lines, settled the colonists in the conquered lands in tribes, and treated new converts from among the subjugated peoples as "clients" or proteges. By a "client" Arabs ordinarily mean one who seeks voluntarily to become a member of a chosen clan. The unsocial features of individualism and the clan spirit were never outgrown by the Arab character as it developed and unfolded itself after the rise of Islam, and were among the determining factors that led to the disintegration and ultimate downfall of the various Islamic states.

The clan is represented by its titular head, the sheikh. Unlike his modern namesake of Hollywood fame, the sheikh is the senior member of the tribe whose leadership asserts itself in sober counsel, in generosity and in courage. In judicial, military and other affairs of common concern the sheikh is not the absolute authority; he must consult with the tribal council composed of the heads of the component families. His tenure of office lasts during the good will of his constituency.

The Arabian in general and the Bedouin in particular is a born democrat. He meets his sheikh on equal footing. The society in which he lives levels everything down. The Arabian until recently never used the title malik (king) except in referring to foreign rulers. But the Arabian is also aristocratic as well as democratic. He looks upon himself as the embodiment of the consummate pattern of creation. To him the Arabian nation is the noblest of all nations. The civilized man, from the Bedouin's exalted point of view, is less happy and far inferior. In the purity of his blood, his eloquence and poetry, his sword and horse, and above all his noble ancestry, the Arabian takes infinite pride. He is fond of prodigious genealogies and often traces his lineage back to Adam.

The Bedouin woman, whether Islamic or preIslamic, enjoyed and still enjoys a measure of freedom denied to her sedentary sister. She lived in a polygamous family and under a baal system of marriage, in which the man was the master; nevertheless she was at liberty to choose a husband and leave him if ill-treated.

Ability to assimilate other cultures when the opportunity presents itself is well marked among the children of the desert. Faculties which have remained dormant for ages seem to awaken suddenly, under the proper stimuli, and develop into dynamic powers. In the Fertile Crescent lies the field of opportunity. A Hammurabi makes his appearance in Babylon, a Moses in Sinai, a Zenobia in Palmyra, a Philip the Arab in Rome or a Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad. Monuments are built, like those of Petra, which still arouse the admiration of the world. The phenomenal and almost unparalleled efflorescence of earl Islam was due in no small measure to the latent powers of the Bedouins, who, in the words of the Caliph Umar, "furnished Islam with its raw material."


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