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Bedouin – footsteps in the sand

'I went to Arabia only just in time. Others will go there to study geology and archaeology, but they will never know the spirit of the land, nor the greatness of the Arabs.' Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands

The people of the desert are known as Bedouin, or Bedu, from the Arabic word Bedawi, meaning ‘the ones who live in the desert’.

Like the Inuit in the Arctic, the Bedouin live their lives on the edge of human existence, in an environment of great hardship and challenge. Both groups have seen their lives undergo a period of rapid change in recent decades, since the discovery of oil, and the arrival of the internal combustion engine.

Traditional Bedouin life

Traditionally, the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia roamed freely, searching for good grazing for their camels, living in large tents made of goat hair and sheep wool. It was a simple existence. Animals provided them with their living – wool for weaving, meat, milk and butter, a method of drawing water from wells, and transport. To protect the camps at night from wolves and raiders, and to hunt animals such as hares and gazelle, it was common for the Bedouin to keep Saluki dogs. Most dogs are considered unclean, but the Saluki were so useful that they were allowed inside the tents, and given special treatment. Able to outrun a gazelle, and with excellent eyesight, the Saluki has been used for hunting in Arabia for thousands of years. To catch additional food, the Bedouin needed to trap migrating falcons and train them to hunt bustards and smaller prey.

As their animals were so vital to everyday life, the Bedouin cared well for them, travelling great distances to seek good grazing provided by the erratic and unreliable rains. Money was made from offering camels and protection to the thousands of pilgrims who had to cross the interior of the Kingdom on long journeys to Mecca – at the time such a journey was simply not possible without the large camel caravans provided by the Bedouin. Today, modern airports and air-conditioned coaches offer shorter and more comfortable modes of transport for pilgrims.

Changing times

It is estimated that, fifty years ago, nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s population led a nomadic existence. Whilst small, settled communities existed on the coast, and around the major oases, the harsh desert interior was the home of the Bedouin. Today, the figure of truly nomadic people is estimated to be less than 10%, and rapidly decreasing, as many, particularly the young, have left their tents in the desert, and moved to the city where they have settled. Many have chosen to cling on to their traditional customs by becoming semi-nomadic, herding their animals close to the city edges.

Did you know?The camel was viewed as a gift from God, the very spirit of the desert, and life revolved around it. Prior to the arrival of the car, the Bedouin depended on the camel for milk and meat, and as an essential mode of transport. On a camel it was possible to travel up to forty kilometres in one day. Today, in a car, travelling across trackless desert, distances of 150 kilometres are achievable, with journeys of over 300 kilometres possible on graded tracks. This has signalled a period of great change. Many of the young people have left to seek their fortune in the city, and it is often the elderly who choose to stay put. Those who remain have become more sedentary, using vehicles to bring supplies of water, and fodder, to their animals, rather than moving. The ability to keep larger herds of animals in one area has led to problems of overgrazing, with the desert losing much of its precious vegetation cover.

Whilst for many Bedouin life has been transformed in recent decades, their traditional qualities of hospitality and nobility remain an integral part of life in Saudi Arabia today. Urban dwellers speak proudly of their Bedouin roots, and the mass exodus from the cities into the deserts at weekends shows that, despite the rapid technological advances in the Kingdom, the desert remains a key part of the national soul, and a lasting trace of a nomadic past.

mOre To find out more about the Bedouin, take a look at:

Last of the Bedu
Michael Asher, Motivate Publishing, ISBN 0-670-83770-9

Bedouin, Nomads of the Desert
Alan Keohane, ISBN 1-85626-545-5

From 'The Washington Post' website:

Photographs courtesy of Galen Frysinger and Encore Editions.

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