Most Gulf countries in the Middle East have an inhospitable landscape and endure harsh weather conditions. Although in earlier years there was more rainfall, periods of drought and famine caused serious threats to all creatures living in the desert environment. However, its inhabitants, the Bedouins, survived for thousands of years in these unbearable circumstances. Their endurance and spirit are still recognized today. Late Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates once said:
“The desert environment has taught us to be patient until the land blossoms bestowing its bounties on us. Thus, we have to be fortitudinous, supporting our odyssey of development and progression to achieve the aspirations of our people.”
Human occupation in the desert, along the coast and in the mountains dates back from the Late Stone Age, around 7,500 years ago. Desert people were called Badawiyin or Bedouin meaning ‘those in the desert’ or ‘desert dwellers’. It derives from the Arabic word ‘Badu’ who lives on the ‘Badyah’, the visible land, referring to the desert. People in the cities were called ‘Hathar’.
The Badu had a strong hierarchy of loyalty based on kinship and strict honour codes. A Bedouin would fight his brother but would bond with him to fight his cousin. Altogether they would stand up against a stranger. However, the Badu were extremely hospitable, which can still be felt today.
The Sheikh (meaning ‘old man’) was the leader of the tribe. Poets were highly regarded.
The roots of the Middle East are grounded in the Bedouin culture. Originally from Saudi Arabia, the Badu fled the harsh life of the barren desert of Saudi Arabia into neighbouring countries. Most of them migrated to Jordan, where they are seen as the backbone of the Kingdom.
The majority of the ancient Bedouins do not dwell through the desert anymore, but various tribes are still living according to their traditions. They play an important role in keeping the culture and folklore alive.
Flexibility, adaptability, and endurance
In order to survive the inhabitants of the dry barren land developed flexibility, adaptability and endurance to the environment they were living in. They needed to pass on their folk knowledge about sources, medical herbs, and survival skills from generation to generation.
Adapting to the desert environment, the Bedouins were able to find necessary resources of flora and fauna. If they could fish, they ate fish, if they could travel they herded the camels and hunt for gazelles. If they could cultivate the land they grew date palms, wheat, and barley.
Bedouins were masters in dealing with the shortage of rainfall and lack of fresh water. To irrigate the land they built conduits with palm trunks and ‘Aflaj’, underground water channels that could transport water from the wadi’s and oases.
Food, medicine and other sources
In general the Bedouins ate every edible organism they could find, from crabs to sharks, from the Cormorant bird to the Arabian ostrich and from the gazelle to the Oryx. They also ate reptiles, turtles, and dugongs (sea cow) and added edible plants to their menu. Seasonal flowers, desert fruits and the desert truffle were seen as a delicacy. Other plants and herbs were used as medicine, while hot packages of salt were applied to disinfect wounds or to stop bleeding after delivery.
The Badu needed to be sparse with their sources. Therefore they dried or salinized surplus of meat and plants. Non-edible sources, like palm trees, were completely processed into for example poles, crab cages, and floor mats. Possibly the lack of sources developed creativity and craft skills, still seen in many people in the current society.
The Bedouins had three domesticated animals on which they could rely, the Saluki dog, the Arabian horse, and the camel. The camels, ‘a gift of God’, provided meat, dairy, and transport. Their skin was used to make water reservoirs or bags that they used for making dairy products. Camelhair was used for weaving tents and carpets. The Saluki guarded the camps against dangerous animals, like the leopard and the hyena, and other unwanted visitors. But above all, Salukis were because of their endurance and speed up to 60 kilometers per hour, excellent hunter companions. During tribal wars and for hunting, the Badu could also rely on their loyal Arabian horses.
The animals were not only useful, they were also traded and used for entertainment. During celebrations and events, the Bedouins raced with their dogs, camels, and horses.
Along the coast sailors built boats from the leaf stalks of the date palm for fishing and pearl-diving. For the United Arab Emirates the pearling industry was an important source of income. It flourished from the Imperial Rome until half of the twentieth century.
Although life has changed drastically after the discovery of oil, the spirit and life consciousness of the former desert inhabitants can still be found in the people’s nature today. To preserve and transfer knowledge and traditions, moral stories, poetry, music and rhythmic chants from sailors, fishermen, and pearl-divers are still shared during family gatherings and cultural events. The Bedouins of today play an important role in keeping these traditions alive. I hope their knowledge about the country, its history, traditions and ancient life in the harsh desert environment will be echoing through many more generations to come.