The Life of the Egyptian Bedouins
The Bedouin people of Egypt can easily be described as a people with no place to call a home. Studying the Bedouins show that they have a deep and unique culture. They do not get involved in politics, and they live a humble and modest life. The Bedouin Nomads of Egypt are predominantly Muslim. Therefore, their beliefs, practices and rituals will be the same as that of a common Muslim. I will discuss the doings of Muslims but more importantly, I will concentrate on the beliefs and other aspects that make the Bedouin people unique and different from other Muslims.
In Islam, there is something known as the five pillars. These five pillars detail how to carry on your religious duty. The five pillars of Islam start off with the belief in the oneness of God and Muhammad as his prophet, as well as belief in all other prophets before Muhammad. The next pillar is prayer. Prayer must be carried out five times a day. The first prayer called Fagr (streak of light) must take place between when the first light of the day is seen until 10:00 am. The second prayer called al-duhr (noon prayer) should be done between noon and the next prayer which is the asr (afternoon) prayer. The fourth prayer of the day is the Maghrib (sundown) prayer. The last prayer is called the Isha (night) prayer. If any prayer is missed at any time of the day for any reason, it can be made up at a later time. The next pillar of Islam is al-sowm (the fast). Muslims must fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan. Muslims engage in this practice in order to gain endurance and compassion for the poor. The fourth pillar of Islam is zakah (charity), every Muslim is asked to give a fraction of their money to the poor. This fraction is usually a percentage of their wealth. The final pillar is the Hajj (journey to Mecca), a mature Muslim must visit Mecca in Saudi Arabia at least once in their life. A Muslim that visits Mecca seven times in their lifetime can visit the Dome of the Rock is Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is the second most holy place in the world for Muslims.
Most reputable literature written on the Bedouins were written by anthropologists that have spent time and traveled with them. One of these anthropologists, Joseph J. Hobbs, spent two years with the Ma’Awa Egyptian Bedouins. Through these travels he was able to document the stories and traditions of these desert people.
It is most fascinating that the Bedouins of Egypt live off of the deadest land in the world. They travel from place to place looking for the highest proliferation of plants for their ibexes and gazelles to feed. They depend on these animals not only for food but also for money. Small animals such as ibexes and gazelles can be sold for a good wage after they are grown. Bedouins can invest in a camel using money that they get from selling these small animals. The Bedouins have a symbiotic relationship with camels. The camels can be used for transportation as well as food. Bedouins take great pride in their camels often treating them as a member of the family. It is not uncommon to see a family posing with their camel in a photograph.
Marriage with the Bedouins is the next most popular topic of conversation after camels. Many of the practices and rituals that take place before marriage are similar to those of other Middle Eastern societies. There is a strong preference for marriage between a man and his bint’amm, (Cole p. 71) that his paternal uncle’s daughter. The Al Murrah tribe do not allow their women to marry down into a group that is of lower social status. Men are allowed to marry a woman from a lower social group but the children will not be considered full members of the tribe. The major requirement that must hold true is that members of the tribe marry someone of equal social status, even if the perspective spouse is from a different tribe.
The practices that follow the death of an Egyptian Bedouin are simple and swift. As the news of a death spreads, people come together and raise their palms and pray the Exhortation:
Praise be to God, Lord of Creation,
The compassionate, the merciful,
King of Judgement Day!
You alone we worship, and to you alone
We pray for help.
Guide us to the straight path,
The path of those whom you have favored,
Not of those who have incurred your wrath,
Nor of those who have gone astray. (Hobbs, p. 65)
The dead should be buried as quickly as possible. The body is wrapped in seven layers of white sheet. A grave is dug six feet deep and the body is placed in with the head facing Mecca. Cemeteries are usually located near a source of water, this offers the luxury of ritual washing. This location also strengthens the bond between the dead and the living. People as people come to water they have the opportunity of visiting the cemetery. Rituals are carried out fifteen and forty days after the burial. On the fifteenth day, the family of the deceased gather to eat dates and sweets and recite the Exhortation. On the fortieth day, they slaughter a sheep or goat and leave some food and water on the grave. (Hobbs, p. 65) This is only symbolic unlike the ancient Egyptians that gave offerings to the Gods in order to insure safe passage through the underworld.
The nomadic Bedouins pride themselves with their abilities of making use of things at hand, they feel that this distinguishes them from settled people. They believe that they are better than settled people in that they do not rely on anyone else for their survival. They do not rely on technological advances but use them to make life easier. It was only recently that automobiles were introduced into Bedouin life. Hobbs tells of a story that captures the spontaneity and creativity of the Bedouins.
“In upper Wadi at-Tarfa, a desolate plain of sharp limestone, we blew out one tire and then our only spare. In this waterless district, there was no chance that we could walk to safety. The only option was to fix a tire but we had no repair kit. Saalih envisioned a most unlikely solution. Out best spent tube had a four inch gash. He bunched the rubber around this tear like the skin of an accordion and punched a steel nail through the folds as I watched in dismay. Around this he wrapped a piece of clothe torn from his headscarf. He secured this patch by tying my leather shoelace tightly around the nail. We inflated the tire and drove nervously sixty-eight miles into Ras Gharib.” (Hobbs, p. 54)
The uniqueness of creativity of the Bedouin tribe is slowly diminishing. Elder Bedouins tell of how the younger members of the tribe seem to grow increasingly lazier and less dependent on themselves for survival. An elder Bedouin illustrates this with more detail.
“In the old days people weren’t lazy. In the old days people climbed mountains to fetch ‘irn to cure their waterskins. They ground millet by hand in their millstones. They made garments from cloth they bought at the market. When these got too worn to wear, they made blankets of many colors from them. They wove great wool houses. People are lazy now and don’t make wool houses. Before people made waterskins from ibex or gazelle, instead of using jerrycans. Now they buy flour instead of grinding grain. They are getting more lazy. Years from now you will find them staying by the water all the time!” (Hobbs, p. 55)
Studying the Nomadic Bedouins of Egypt is most fascinating. They seem to be a people that love their life and work to make the most of it. They live off of the deadest land in the world and take great pride in doing so. Nomadic Bedouins illustrate that mankind can inhabitat most any environment and prosper with great endurance.
Cole, Donald P. Nomads of the Nomads. The Al Murrah Bedouin of the Empty Quarter. Aldine Publishing Company. Chicago. 1975
Hobbs, Joseph J. Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness. University of Texas Press, Austin. 1989
Katakura, Motoko. Bedouin Village. University of Tokyo Press. 1977