Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Preserving Bedouin Cultures: Rediscovering Centuries-Old Routes

Preserving Bedouin cultures is essential to ensure that age-old values continue to be cherished in MENA despite the changes it has undergone.

Preserving Bedouin Cultures
A Jordanian Bedouin rides a camel as the sun sets in the southern Jordanian desert of Wadi Rum. THOMAS COEX / AFP

Dana Hourany

Nestled between rolling valleys, sandstone hills, and soaring mountains lies Jordan’s majestic, rustic-red Wadi Rum. It is home to ancient cultures and traditions that have been preserved for years by local Bedu nomads. Today, the desert landscape is a popular tourist attraction, with people coming from around the world to experience its expeditions and hospitality – safari jeep rides, camel treks, and camping under the stars led by local Bedu guides.

In February of this year, the “Wadi Rum Trail” was officially inaugurated, offering a challenge to hikers seeking a unique experience. Spanning 75 miles and connecting a 120 km-long network of ancient paths, this exciting new trail would not have been created without the integral help of local Bedu tribes who call this protected area home. These pathways include shepherd routes, hunting trails, trade roads from antiquity, sections of the Hajj path to Mecca, and some of the earliest climbing lines.

Ben Hoffler, co-founder of the trail and among the enthusiasts involved in creating the Sinai Trail in Egypt, told Fanack that portions of the trail line up with parts of an old pilgrim track between Damascus and Mecca. These paths were used by caravans traveling from Jordan’s higher deserts to Saudi Arabia’s deepest; they were even utilized by migrating Bedus and shepherds corralling their herds, he said.

Although they are some of the earliest inhabitants of the Middle East, Bedu tribes have been greatly impacted by negative stereotypes, limited access to the workforce, and a lack of government support. In an effort to protect this endangered culture, initiatives such as the Wadi Rum trail were developed. However, with increasing modernization and globalization, experts fear that Bedu traditions may be irrevocably lost in time.

The ancient inhabitants of MENA

Bedu, who are frequently referred to as “desert people,” have historically traveled from Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Egypt. The more popular Bedouin term is an Anglicization of the Arabic word “bedu,” and it was frequently used as a stereotype to identify people who led traditional nomadic lives and relied on animal husbandry.

Steeped in history, the Bedus have roamed the desert for many thousands of years. It is said that they can trace their ancestry to two distinct lineages: North-Arab descendants of Adnan, and Qahtan’s sons from further south. Evidence of this lineage stems from their eponymic forefather, which serves as a key source for their inherited knowledge.

Like all other Arabic dialects in the MENA, Bedu Arabic varies depending on the region. For example, Bedawi Arabic is used mainly in eastern Egypt, Hassaniya Arabic was originally developed by Beni Hassan Bedus, while Libyan or Sulaimitian Arabic is spoken in Libya and its surrounding areas. Najdi Arabic is commonly used in central Saudi Arabia and Saharan Arabic can be heard in Algeria.

Bedu Arabic has been compared to Shakespearian English when looked at from a stylistic point of view.

Bedu tribes are renowned for their animal herding and regular migration into the desert in winter and back to cultivated land in summer. Typically, they are divided into groups based on which animals they rely. For instance, those who herd camels occupy large swaths of land in the Sahara region.

Bedu social fabric is patriarchal and tribal, with families typically being patrilineal, endogamous, and polygynous. The head of each family unit is known as a “sheikh,” who is assisted by an informal council of elders.

Life for many Bedus was significantly altered after World War I when contemporary Middle Eastern states expanded their control over previously ungoverned areas. The majority of Bedus were either forced or chose to give up their traditional ways and comply with official authorities. Due to their adaptability and fortitude, Bedus occasionally found work in the military or in law enforcement, while others found jobs in the construction and petroleum industries.

Against all odds

For Sabbah Eid, a Bedu elder and co-founder of the Wadi Rum Trail, tremendous change has shaped his lifetime as a desert nomad from Jordan. In his youth, he resided in a hay house, rarely worrying about money beyond the simple need to survive. Nowadays, however, education is at the forefront of his community’s priorities, and modern lifestyles have become central aspirations.

“Promoting Bedu culture through developmental projects is vitally important, not only to preserve it, but also to provide employment for the younger generations. This allows them to stay close to their roots while still earning a living,” he told Fanack. The brutal heat in the Jordanian deserts offers a break for young people from the tourism season, allowing them to remain within their families instead of taking on full-time jobs throughout the whole year. This helps preserve longstanding family relationships and communal bonds.

“Inhabiting the desert develops certain sorts of mental and physical resilience,” Eid noted, “whereby life is more challenging and allows you to become stronger.” Life in the desert alters one’s outlook on existence; community becomes more important than one’s personal life, he noted.

As for maintaining heritage and tradition, Eid believes it is the Bedus’ responsibility, first and foremost, to ensure collective preservation.

Yet, Hoffler perceives that some traditions are more vulnerable than others, and a few have already begun to fade away due to generational discrepancies.

“It’s already recognizable that there is a difference between the knowledge of the elderly and the young,” Hoffler said.

“Some of the skill sets and valuable information on the natural world and its legends are passed via word-of-mouth rather than written records, meaning they could be more susceptible to becoming lost as generations change,” he added.

A traditional way of life

Many Bedu have maintained their traditions despite the onslaught of modernization and industrialization. Their unique lifestyle and renowned hospitality have shaped their culture and heritage, which has survived changing political and social tides over several generations.

In “The Bedouins of Arabia,” author Thierry Mauger narrates his experience with a Najran tribe in Saudi Arabia. When inspecting the tribe’s homes, he noticed that their interiors were vividly furnished. As followers of Sunni Islam, the Bedouins observed traditional Muslim customs, which were reflected in their homes, for example, a separate area dedicated for receiving guests and another for the women.

In the book, images display a culture filled with diverse patterns and colors. Women wear intricately designed clothing adorned with jewelry, accompanied by a hijab (head cover). Similarly, men are portrayed wearing long robes in mostly monochrome shades, accessorized with an iconic jambiya (curved dagger), bedecked with its silver sheath, signaling virility and courage.

However, many Bedus nowadays do not subscribe to such depictions. Many can be seen wearing modern attire and residing in newly-built structures. Some Egyptian Bedu women have even defied strict social norms and work at petrol stations where they manage clients, finances and confront gender-based bias and harassment.

But for others, the ability to connect with and make use of the natural resources in their environment is a tradition to be maintained – one that has been passed down throughout the generations. Several Bedu tribes use the observation of animals and celestial bodies to learn about their location, the time, and any impending weather changes. These antiquated practices continue to be crucial aspects of Bedus’ daily life even when phones and TVs are available.

Over the course of recent years, Bedus have made their presence known within the mass tourism industry along the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. A multitude of job opportunities have opened up for them at various hotels and resorts throughout the region.

They run camps, plan “Bedouin nights” with their distinctive form of entertainment, and even work as diving instructors and desert explorers.

Developmental projects

Hoffler notes that while Bedu tourism packages are incredibly popular, they can give tourists a distorted idea of who the Bedus actually are. Rather than an immersive and authentic experience, they typically flatten out the culture to appeal to visitors.

“I talked to people who said they were not able to get a real sense of traditional heritage,” Hoffler noted. “Although likely created in response to tourist demand or from middleman intervening, these experiences may not accurately capture what it is like living as a Bedu.”

Travelers might miss out on key facets of Bedu culture. Be it their traditional use of native plants, comprehension of the night sky, or deep understanding of animals.

The Wadi Rum Trail will therefore offer the opportunity for adventurers to witness long-standing Bedu traditions firsthand – most notably mountain climbing. For generations, desert dwellers have scaled mountains in search of hunting grounds, water sources, hiding spots, and foraging lands for their herds. Doing so with nothing but their bare feet and often alone.

“Not many people are aware of how skilled Bedus are when it comes to climbing,” Hoffler noted.

The trail has been in the works since 2020, with local Jordanian tribes organizing and finalizing it. According to Hoffler, they hope these jobs will allow the local Bedus to stay connected to their culture without needing to move into city workforces, which could force them away from their heritage and way of life.

Examples of similar efforts have been seen in Dahab, Egypt, where The Bedouin Way was established by two friends – Sofian Noor and Mondi Soliman.

Combining their deep understanding of the Sinai and Bedouin background, the duo are giving both Egyptian and international guests an exclusive desert dinner experience (focused on slow cooked recipes) as well as other safaris and travels within South Sinai. Their primary purpose is to keep Bedu culture alive.

Longstanding hardships

Hilary Gilbert, founder and chair of the Community Foundation for South Sinai, told Fanack that Bedu communities continue to be plagued with negative stereotypes. They are often viewed as ignorant and uneducated, whereas they possess much knowledge of the natural world and its resources, among other skills.

She claims that this prejudice is evident when it comes to Egyptian employers and their hiring practices – there is no law that forces them to employ Bedus. She cites the example of Sharm el-Sheikh turning into a tourist hub many years ago. During this time, more than 10,000 jobs were created, yet most hotel workers came from mainland Egypt, excluding in large part Bedu tribes.

“Since this kind of discrimination is still very common, our team works incredibly hard to try to help people overcome it by assisting them in navigating the system and helping them understand their legal rights,” Gilbert said, highlighting the absence of governmental interest in such endeavors.

Just in 2019, construction of a 37-kilometer barrier of concrete began in South Sinai around Sharm el-Sheikh along its eastern and western borderlines; a move that would cut off Bedus who reside and work in the city from popular tourism sites. According to the governor of South Sinai, Dr. Khaled Fouda, the wall was built to “beautify and secure Sharem el-Sheikh” and curb terrorist operations.

“In remote areas of South Sinai, while children have access to school, teachers often show up only to sign the register and leave,” Gilbert claimed, adding that this kind of mistreatment can severely impact children and stunt their development.

This phenomenon is common across several regions, she noted. “Many bedus face discrimination despite being an integral part of the community.”

Gilbert also emphasized how the responsibilities of Bedu women have changed significantly throughout time.

“Women have always contributed to the household, and although they still face restrictions, organizations and local women have fought for adequate access to education and the workforce,” she said. “The tourism boom has also given women access to work outside the household.”

Jordan’s Bedus, on the other hand, are highly regarded, according to Eid. To support their way of life, the government offers them a number of privileges, including jobs, and educational opportunities.

As for the Eastern Bedawi Bedus, who migrated into the Negev region of southern Palestine, as well as other nearby areas such as the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon, government forces have destroyed some of their settlements without warning, leaving them with nowhere to go and nothing but ruins in their wake. Animals remained an integral part of their lives; many of them still gain income by selling sheep and goats. However, given the need for better healthcare, greater wages and improved quality of life, some Levantine Bedus have been willing to work in roles that pay them regular wages.

Inhabiting the arid desert regions of Syria, Syrian Bedus and their descendants are the prominent populations from Homs to Hama, Qalamoun to Palmyra, Raqqa on down to Hasakah and Deir Ezzor. Additionally, tribal communities have grown in the northern Aleppo countryside, around Damascus’s Ghouta agrarian belt and Houran region in the south. Many Syrian Bedus, however, have migrated into urban areas over recent decades in pursuit of employment opportunities as well as educational resources.

This transition led many to stop identifying as Bedus while still maintaining a sense of the historic social structure. Those that have chosen to hold onto this identity might have become urbanized but still own a few livestock to remember their traditional agrarian lifestyle.

According to Eid, however, as centuries have passed, Bedu life has undergone change as to keep up with the times. Yet, despite these changes, much of their heritage still lives on. Both Hoffler and Eid recognize the importance of joint efforts that include – and are led – by desert tribes throughout the MENA, to ensure that age-old values continue to be cherished in the Middle East today – just as they were before the region’s current cityscapes took over.