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Shifting sands of the Bedouin world

  • Written by  Michael Benanav
  • Published in Cultures
Farag Younis, a professional Bedouin shepherd who tends a flock in the desert outside Marsa Matruh Farag Younis, a professional Bedouin shepherd who tends a flock in the desert outside Marsa Matruh Michael Benanav
24 May
Bedouin pastoralists have inhabited the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years. Today, however, many are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their traditional semi-nomadic way of life

In the northernmost reaches of Egypt’s Western Desert, a Bedouin shepherd watches over a flock of some 70 sheep. He wears a frayed and soiled grey galabiya; a lavender keffiya is coiled loosely atop his head. His family’s simple stone house is a few kilometres away, but here, his only shelter is a makeshift tent stitched together from old clothing scraps and empty chicken-feed sacks. The city of Marsa Matruh can be seen in the distance, the Mediterranean behind it.

The land here is parched and rocky. Sometimes, after winter rainfall, a dusting of grass covers the ground, but usually, nothing green grows – and water certainly never flows.

Unlike traditional Bedouin herders, who move with their flocks to find fresh pastures, Farag Younis will stay in this desolate place all year round. Water is trucked in and pumped into a cistern; bales of grass are delivered in bulk.

Farag doesn’t own these sheep; they belong to wealthy Bedouin who live in Matruh and pay him E£600 (£62) a month to care for them. Today, such arrangements are common around these parts; on the dry hillside opposite Farag’s camp, another shepherd-for-hire can be seen spreading fodder into wooden troughs for the animals he’s paid to watch.

Most families from the Awlad Ali tribe, which is dominant in this region, have abandoned he desert and their migratory ways. Since the mid-20th century, the Egyptian government has used a carrot-and-stick approach to persuade them to settle, banning grazing in some places and confiscating livestock in others, while offering small plots of land and access to jobs, schools, hospitals and modern amenities such as electricity and plumbing. For those Bedouin who weren’t tempted by the conveniences of a sedentary life and didn’t bend to government pressure, the devastation wrought on natural grazing cycles by years of drought has proved more convincing.

Eatamad Abdullah lives in a simple, respectable home in a neighbourhood on the eastern edge of Marsa Matruh. At 35-years-old, she remembers growing up in the desert, and misses it. ‘In the desert, you are free,’ she says. ‘There is no noise, no traffic, no filth and your day runs on a natural schedule, not by the clock.’

A skilled weaver, she prefers to make traditional Bedouin rugs, but finds it economically unfeasible. ‘We no longer have sheep, so I would have to buy the wool, spend weeks weaving, then wait maybe a long time for someone to buy the rug before I make any money,’ she says. ‘I just can’t do it that way.’ Instead, she earns E£10 a day working at a small carpet factory.

Not all of the Awlad Ali are nostalgic for their old way of life. Eatamad’s 18-year-old sister, Iness, has never lived in a tent and doesn’t want to. ‘I like my cell phone, and Facebook,’ she says. ‘I want to finish school and one day be a lawyer or a journalist. There’s nothing for me in the desert.’

Bedouin Benanav004 reproA Bedouin tent near Qadisiyya, Jordan. With few places available for grazing in the region, shepherds have to buy fodder for their sheep (Image: Michael Benanav)


Last year, I spent a few months visiting Bedouin communities in Egypt, Jordan and Israel, looking at how their lives and cultures were affected by where they lived. In each place, I saw trends that, in a very general sense, looked quite similar: whole tribes shifting, or completely shifted, from nomadic to settled lifestyles, sometimes by choice, sometimes by coercion, and younger generations that have little interest in raising livestock. After I had spent some time with each tribe, however, it became apparent that their situations have unfolded in distinctly different ways, producing distinctly different scenarios.

Bedouin have lived in the village of Dana in Jordan for more than 500 years. This tiny settlement of stone houses, about 200 kilometres south of Amman, is perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking a dramatic canyon panorama that ultimately plunges more than 1,500 metres through four different climatic zones.

For centuries, the Al Ata’ta tribe used the village as a home base, particularly during the summer months, when they tended terraced gardens fed by a gushing spring. In winter, many families would descend into the canyon system and take their herds of goats, sheep and camels to graze there at warmer, lower elevations.

In 1984, a cement factory opened outside the nearby town of Qadisiyya. Over time, virtually all of Dana’s Bedouin moved there, lured by the promise of jobs, the electricity grid and a convenient location along a main road. While some families abandoned their flocks, others kept their animals, either living part-time in tents or assigning herding roles to some family members while others went to work at the factory.

In 1993, Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature created the Dana Biosphere Reserve, covering about 320 square kilometres around the village. It included much of the land on which the Al Ata’ta relied for grazing. Nevertheless, park policy severely restricted access for shepherds.

Unable to use their traditional pastures, many had to buy fodder for their animals, which proved prohibitively expensive. People were forced to sell. ‘I used to have 80 animals,’ Brahim Na’anah tells me. ‘Because of the reserve, now I have none. Most of our fertile land was lost.’ His story is common.

Some shepherds still cling to their pastoralist ways, despite the challenges, but young people in Qadisiyya are looking elsewhere for their future. Some head to university when possible, or the military when not. Many graduates often end up in the military after university when they can’t find a job. Some cheer this change, as more Bedouin than ever are getting educated, including women; others lament the effect that settled life is having on their age-old cultural values.

Hamed Abu Saygir, a Bedouin park ranger, tells me that, in the old days, his people would cut wood but never kill the trees, so they would continue to have wood and shade in the future. Now that they don’t live off the land, however, wood poachers cut trees to stumps. ‘We have forgotten that trees are a gift from Allah,’ he says.

Bedouin Benanav006 reproChildren from the Elamor family, outside their partially finished house in El Serah, an unrecognised Bedouin village in Israel’s Negev Desert. The house and the village will be demolished if the Prawer Plan is implemented (Image: Michael Benanav)


Khalid Khawaldeh, a founder of the Sons of Dana and Qadisiyya Cooperative, a local advocacy group, says that after the Al Ata’ta learned what it meant to have their traditional pastures turned into a nature reserve, they shared their hard-won knowledge with neighbouring Bedouin. As a result, when the 740-square-kilometre Wadi Rum Protected Area was created in 1998, the Zalabia tribe, which calls it home, was wise enough to negotiate successfully for their right to use all of their ancestral lands.

Located 120 kilometres south of Dana, Wadi Rum is an otherworldly desertscape of salmon-hued dunes undulating in grand avenues between gargantuan sandstone massifs. It was propelled to global fame by TE Lawrence, who used it as a place of respite and occasional field headquarters during the Arab Revolt of 1916–18.

When I first visited 14 years ago, the village at Rum felt like little more than a token outpost. Bedouin families still lived scattered throughout the desert in tents pitched alongside towering rock walls. Today, nearly all of the tents at Wadi Rum belong to tourist camps; virtually all of the Zalabia have moved into the village.

‘Now we think it’s important to send our kids to school, so we have to live in the village,’ says 41-year-old Salem Ouad Nasr Zalabia, who was born and raised in the wilderness of Rum. ‘Also, there has been drought. Grass doesn’t grow enough anymore. No-one’s flock can survive by grazing alone, and with grass at eight or nine dinars (about £8) per bale, it’s too much. A few still herd, but it’s better now to work with the tourists.’

And most do, either working as guides through Rum’s visitor centre or launching private tour companies and advertising on the internet for clients from among the 300,000 sightseers who visit each year. Salem now keeps just a few camels, for guiding, in the courtyard of his cinder-block home. ‘I miss living in the desert,’ he says, ‘but I have five kids, and life is expensive.’

Bedouin Benanav003 reproFarag Younis’s grandson, Ghmela Mraja, watches over a flock of sheep in the desert outside Marsa Matruh (Image: Michael Benanav)


Just 45 kilometres to the west, across the Wadi Araba, the Bedouin situation is distinctly different. There, in the Negev Desert, the creation of the State of Israel has had an impact on virtually every aspect of tribal life.

During the mid-1940s, nearly 90,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. Most practised a combination of farming and grazing, establishing permanent settlements where they planted wheat fields, from which they would come and go with their herds as determined by seasonal rainfall.

During the Arab–Israeli War, most of the Negev’s Bedouin fled to Jordan or Gaza. By 1949, only about 15,000 remained. The Israeli government designated huge swaths of the Negev a military zone, banning Bedouin from 93 per cent of it. Entire tribes were uprooted from their traditional lands and forced to resettle in a small area that they call the Siyag – Arabic for ‘fence’. Thanks to high birth rates, some 180,000 Bedouin live there today. All are Israeli citizens.

The situation in the Negev is complex. About half of the Bedouin live in officially recognised villages with roads and schools and other infrastructure. The other half live in rural ‘unrecognised’ villages, with no link to the electricity grid and no public services, except perhaps a primary school; built on disputed land, these settlements are constantly faced with the threat of demolition.

Some Bedouin are educated professionals participating in modern Israeli life as lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople, living in modern, multi-storey homes, with children who watch SpongeBob SquarePants on flat-screen televisions. But the Bedouin villages in the Negev have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and crime in Israel. And, if a bill known as the Prawer Plan, which was passed recently by the Israeli Knesset to settle Negev land rights issues, is implemented, things are likely to get worse (see The Prawer Plan below).

I ask Menal Alsana, a nurse from Lakiya village, how the many changes to their way of life have affected her tribe’s sense of identity. Her answer could have come from any one of the Bedouin whom I had met in any of the communities in any of the countries I visited. ‘We may not have goats or live in tents anymore,’ she says, ‘but we are still Bedouin. It’s how we think about our land, our families and especially our tribes.’


A bill that was presented to Israel’s Knesset in January aims to resolve land-ownership issues in the Negev Desert that are as old as the country itself. Called the Prawer Plan after its chief architect, Ehud Prawer, it focuses on the so-called ‘Bedouin problem’ – the 90,000 Bedouin who live there in 45 unrecognised villages.

Some of these villages have been inhabited since Ottoman times; others were built after tribes from elsewhere in the desert were forcibly relocated by the Israeli army. Yet the state has refused to legitimise their existence. Israeli law views the Bedouin as illegal squatters on state property, while the Bedouin claim that the land on which their villages are built rightfully belongs to them.

Unrecognised villages receive no government services except, sometimes, primary schools; they’re not marked on maps and not connected to the electricity grid, the telephone network or water lines. Residents can’t get building permits, so every structure is subject to demolition. Sometimes, individual houses are destroyed; at other times, entire villages are levelled, leaving whole communities homeless.

If the Prawer Plan is enacted, the largest of the unrecognised Bedouin villages will be recognised. The rest will be demolished. More than 30,000 people will be uprooted and forced to move to recognised towns. Although some will receive compensation, many won’t – and those that do will be entitled to no more than half the value of the land they’re leaving.

The government insists that it’s trying to bring the Bedouin into the Israeli mainstream by providing them with modern services, and that it’s simply unrealistic to extend infrastructure to every small village. The Bedouin, however, are vehemently opposed to the plan, which was conceived without their input.

In part, they prefer rural life. ‘Most Negev Bedouin don’t want to live in a city,’ says Huda Alsana, a Bedouin woman and Middle Eastern studies major at Ben Gurion University. ‘We want room for gardens and some livestock when possible. And we want the comfort and security of living with our own tribe, in our own village.’

In large, recognised Bedouin towns such as Rahat and Hura, crime and violence are rampant, in part because multiple tribes have been thrust together in a culturally unnatural way – once tribal rivalries are triggered, blood feuds begin and people get killed, Alsana says. The Prawer Plan would add tens of thousands of people from different tribes into already crowded, overstressed, poverty-stricken towns.

It would be worse, Alsana continues, for the women. ‘We feel much less free among strangers,’ she says. ‘In our own villages, we’re comfortable being ourselves and asserting ourselves, because everyone knows everyone. If women are forced to move to big towns with other tribes, they’ll feel as though they need to stay more hidden.’

Before Israeli independence, Bedouin rights to their generational lands were accepted by the British mandatory authorities and the Ottomans before them. (British governors stated that land in the Negev ‘belongs to the Bedouin’ because they’ve lived there ‘from time immemorial’.)

But Israel refuses to recognise traditional Bedouin ways of assigning, transferring and inheriting property, which were rarely sealed in writing. ‘We didn’t need records,’ says Alsana. ‘Everyone knew who owned what, and any disputes were handled by the sheikhs.’ The official Israeli line, however, is that no written deed means no ownership.

Taleb Alsana (no relation), a Bedouin member of the Israeli Knesset, warns that an attempt to displace 30,000 people could ‘spark an intifada in the Negev’. But he stresses that Negev Bedouin ‘are not against the state. We are only against the policy of the state.’

As their representative in parliament, he feels that his mission is to convince the rest of the government that ‘recognising Bedouin villages, rather than demolishing them, would benefit Israel; that what is good for the Bedouin is also good for the Jews’.

This feature was originally published in the July 2012 edition of Geographical magazine.

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