Bedouin life & lore in the desert

The Bedouin are the traditional nomadic tent dwellers of the Arabian and Egyptian deserts. There is a tribal culture reflected in the saying, “My brother and I against my cousin. My cousin and I against the world.” Groups traditionally formed around a patriarch figure. In times of strife or special need the groups worked
as one tribe. The Bedouin of Arabia were the first converts to Islam and spread it throughout North Africa as far as Spain in the 7th century. 

Bedouin people are traditionally an oral culture and their history is kept in stories and poems. It is hard therefore for outsiders to get a completely definitive version of their history. Bedouins derive an identity from a confederation of families that have common interests, rather than a common origin. This means the original Arabian tribes over time found common cause with the indigenous nomadic tribes of Egypt. Though nomads are averse to their daughters marrying settlers they are not too opposed to them marrying other nomads of perhaps different ancestry. This flexibility explains why, despite endemic discrimination by the settled folk of Egypt, the Bedouin continue to thrive.

The main tribe on the northern coast of the Egypt are the Awlad ‘Ali. They date themselves from Bedouin migration in the 11th century AD. On the East coast there are two main tribal groups: the Ma’aza and the Ababda. The Ababda claim descent from the Arab migrant Abad in the 13th century. Culturally they are closer to the hamitic Beja nomads of Sudan and Ethiopia. The Ma’aza are a large tribal group comprising many clans or families that have arrived over the centuries from the Arabian Peninsula. The most recent
clan is the Khushman who came about 150 years ago. Though the Ababda and the Ma’aza have traditionally been somewhat opposed neither side attacks the other on having less authentic origins. Their
disputes are about land and behaviour not about race.

Europeans over the centuries have been fascinated by the Bedouin. Such figures as Jacob Burkhardt, Sir Richard Burton and Wilfred The siger were enamoured of their honour code and tough ways- in sharp contrast they felt to the effete ways of city dwellers. The Bedouin honour code includes such notions as automatic protection of guests, guaranteed hospitality to those who ask and acts of secret charity known only to the giver. These notions exist still but are much undermined by the conditions of modern living.

The traditional justice system of the Bedouin is a court attended by all the elders of the tribe- and other tribes if there is an intertribal dispute. In Egypt, amongst the Red Sea tribes, this would be held in the presence of a small boat hanging from a tree. The boat symbolizes our transitory stature on Earth and how we are duty bound to move on. Perhaps, too, it is an influence from earlier inhabitants of the area who carved boat shapes on the rock walls- the same shaped boats used by the Pharaohs. Until the early 19th century the Bedouin controlled the deserts of Egypt  and the Egyptians controlled the fertile Nile Valley and Delta. The Bedouin consider themselves Arabs with their origin being the triangle from Syria to Iraq down to Saudi Arabia. They first arrived as part of the original invasion force of Egypt during the great Islamic conquests. 

This first wave of Bedouin married into the Egyptian populace, though some naturally inhabited the desert regions which they shared in an uneasy truce with Berber and Tebu tribal groups.

Further waves of Bedouin repeatedly arrived either through the Sinai or across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. The latest migrations were little more than two hundred years ago.


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