What first comes to your mind when you hear the word, “Bedouins”? Deserts? Camels? Nomadic shepherds and dancing girls with dark skin? Ultra conservative people who resist the march of civilization?
Some of that is true, but much is not. I, too, had many of these stereotypes until I became friends with some Bedouins in school. (Yes, although we don’t have deserts in the traditional sense, we have Bedouins in Gaza too!) I was drawn to them almost instinctively, since I love to learn and share stories (that’s why I was drawn to We Are Not Numbers!) and oral histories are very important to the Bedouin culture. I will never forget their hospitality.
A number of Bedouin tribes live in Gaza today, but their total population is difficult to determine, since most no longer lead nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles. And while they once had a distinctively darker skin, their frequent intermarriage has made it difficult to recognize them by sight. It is their accent, passed down from their original days in Beersheba, which often first gives them away.
The Palestinian community is roughly divided into three segments: the Bedouins, who typically congregate together where the land is more open, but now are spreading out more; the city dwellers; and the villagers. Each share a common culture. Bedouins are fiercely proud of their origins, since they regard themselves as the “true Arabs” and the “heirs of glory." Indeed, Arabs believe the Bedouins are the predecessors to the settled Arabs on the Arabian Peninsula.
Historically, Bedouins are known for their extreme generosity and hospitality. At one time, they lit fires at night and offered food and water to anyone who lost their way in the desert. Even though they are not wealthy, they still offer whatever they have to guests. I have Bedouin friends who treat me with unfailing respect and compete to offer me the best hospitality. I call one of my Bedouin friends “the coffee girl” because the first thing she offers me is coffee mixed with cardamom seeds—which is, for me, the best ever. Then she serves me nuts, juice, tea, fruit and sweets. If I happen to visit her at lunch time, I know I won’t leave without a big meal of chicken and rice. I always visit my coffee girl with an empty stomach!
The centrality of loyalty
Bedouins are fiercely loyal to clan and tribe, and their community is organized around kin groups. A widely quoted Bedouin saying is, "I and my brother are against my cousin; I and my cousin are against the stranger.” It symbolizes their hierarchy of loyalties based on proximity of kinship. For example, an entire tribe is responsible for a murder or another crime committed by a member. But one tribe also will defend and protect other tribes against “outsiders.” If one tribe gets into trouble, all other tribes offer help.
Knowing this challenges me to be more loyal and patient in my own personal life. If I think like a Bedouin, then I wouldn’t reject my friend because she lied to me, I wouldn’t leave my job only because I’m bored and I wouldn’t stop reading novels just because I’m not in the mood. I would give my friend a second chance because loyalty leads to a long-lasting friendship. I would stick to my job and try to make it more productive or interesting. I would keep reading novels even when my interest flags, because they enrich me. I’m challenged to be loyal on a much larger scale, not just to my family and friends, but also to my country and, most importantly, to humanity. If more of us were loyal to broader humanity, evils like ISIS would find no fertile ground to take root.
Bedouins are identified by the names of their tribes, and each tribe is led by a sheikh—“a wise old man"—who settles disputes and also provides counsel. Among the important criteria in choosing a sheikh are age, religious piety and personal qualities such as modesty, ability to listen and generosity.
Gaza Bedouins prefer to marry their cousins or other girls from the same tribe to maintain their cohesion and traditions. A Bedouin wedding reflects the cultural heritage that is passed between generations. A traditional Bedouin wedding is typically celebrated for a week, with horses and camels brought out to perform with the dabka dancers. An animal such as a camel is then sacrificed and a “marital tent“ is set up, to signify that a couple now can legally live with each other.
At sunset, the bride is escorted by female relatives of the groom to the ceremony and then to her new house. The wedding ends with “Dahyah,” a song that expresses belonging to Bedouin communities in Palestine. To some extent, its words are unintelligible and you need to be familiar with the Bedouin dialect. However, this song and its accompanying dances and applause have spread widely among all weddings and parties, whether or not they are Bedouin, because it inspires everyone to participate and have fun.
I once attended a Bedouin wedding and I found it very different from others. The bride’s party is usually held one day before the wedding and my friend—the bride—carried a tray on her head with a variety of temporary henna tattoos, surrounded by candles and roses. She started to dance, while other females applied henna tattoos to her palms. Then the bride gave a packet of henna with some candy to her friends and relatives. Anyone attending the party could ask for her own henna tattoo and have it applied in minutes. In fact, I got my own henna tattoo that day. At first, it looked like mud on my hand, then orange after I removed the paste. It gradually transformed into a dark, brown, beautiful design. I always wanted a real tattoo, but I fear needles and the idea of having something on my body forever isn’t appealing, so this temporary body art is my savior! When henna is applied, it feels like your skin is being decorated with pudding. It’s natural, safe, looks like a real tattoo, and is relaxing and pleasant to apply.
Horses in the Bedouin culture
Many Bedouins own Arabian race horses, since they are fiercely loyal to their owners. According to one Bedouin,” I was standing next to my Arabian horse and the horse suddenly started kicking its leg against the floor. I didn’t know why until I saw a snake coming toward me! Arabian horses never fail their owners. They warn them about danger and don’t abandon the rider if he falls off the horse.”
I do not actually own a horse, but what I love is the bond that can develop between a horse and a human. It’s like family members. You trust them not to hurt you, and they trust you to care for them. Horses are big and powerful, and were once used in wars. But now, in Gaza, they are used for transportation and companionship as well as in therapy and sports. I also love horses because they have feelings expressed through their eyes. One day, I will have a horse with which to bond, and I will feel freedom as the wind blows into my face while we ride together.
The number of true, nomadic Bedouins is shrinking and many are now settled. Technology and roads have increased contacts with outsiders. “Bedouin” now refers to someone’s origins, not his or her degree of civilization. Although today’s Gaza Bedouins are educated, travel, communicate and hold high positions in society, they still identify themselves as Bedouins to maintain their dialect, habits and traditions.
I love the way Bedouins adhere strictly to their traditions, because it reflects that even though we are all different, we are also unique and have histories of which we can be proud and want to maintain. If we did not, my Bedouin coffee girl would be just a copy of everyone else. Everything would seem dull, and I wouldn’t be fascinated with anyone. Our similarities make us strong, but our differences make us stronger.
Haitham, a Bedouin friend, says: “I start my day by going to university, then I return home to take care of our hens and sheep. What I like most about being a Bedouin is that I can speak two different dialects of Arabic, one with Bedouins and another with non-Bedouins. I end my day with headphones on, listening to Dahyah.”
I believe our backgrounds and circumstances influence who we are, but we are responsible for who we choose to be. Haitham is a role model for young men. He chose a pattern for his life; he is keeping up with changes, but still living the life he loves. Maybe this is what we all should try to do: Accept the changes, enjoy the differences and keep doing the things we love.