The name "Bedouin" is derived from the Arab word Bedu. It is traditionally a term used to differentiate between those groups who migrate with their herds and those that settled in an urban or agricultural area. Despite this general understanding, many Bedu in the U.A.E. historically participated seasonally in both nomadic livestock management, date and other farming, fishing and/or pearl diving. Today the term refers more to a set of traditional values that are still practiced, and ancestry.
Many people picture the Bedouin as nomads clothed in long flowing robes, riding across the desert on their camels. In reality, however, their identity is more varied. Today, very few Bedouin live as camel, cattle and sheep herding nomads. Since the oil boom started in the 1950 's, the U.A.E. government has settled most Bedouins in permanent communities, mostly between Dubai and Al Ain, in the Liwa Oasis, and in the Madinat Zayed, coastal and other locations in Abu Dhabi Emirate, and a percentage live in the cities along the coast and Al Ain. Because all Emiratis (citizens and native inhabitants of U.A.E.) have a fairly recent Bedouin past and still strongly share many Bedouin values, it is difficult to draw a line between "Emiratis" and their Bedouin subset. There is still a small population of Bedu that are nomadic, though they often use expensive four wheel drive vehicles in their work. Some are sedentary camel or livestock owners, many are in the armed forces and police forces, and some are in other mostly low wage work and agriculture, including date farming, fishing and newer crops. The government settlements for Bedu on the edges of cities were patterned after the traditional clan and family arrangements their tents once were in. Despite increased wealth and many social benefits from the government such as retirement, free housing and free education, Bedu love traditional and related modern pastimes such as "dune bashing" in four wheel drive vehicles, falconing, camel races and camel beauty contests. Most Bedouin are still very aware of their traditional tribal affiliations and ancestry. Virtually all Bedu speak Arabic and claim Arab descent.
The Arab conquests of the seventh century brought about a rapid expansion of the Bedouin. At that time, thousands of Bedouin left the Middle East and began spreading across North Africa. They adapted well to the nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life in the desert. Apart from tribal affiliations, there is little to distinguish one group of Bedouin from another.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The economy of the small number of truly traditional Bedu is primarily based on raising livestock. At the core of their society is the need for migration, which is determined by the supply of water and the availability of grazing land. Territories belonging to specific tribes are well defined and their boundaries are known to all. Political borders are of little importance to the Bedouin, although various government restrictions are now having more effect on their migratory lifestyle than in times past.
Though their lifestyle has been enriched from the oil wealth of the U.A.E., Bedu still also enjoy traditional foods: Milk from camels and goats is made into yogurt and a type of butter called ghee. The women also bake round loaves of unleavened bread that are made from coarse, stone-ground wheat. Dates and other fruits found in desert oases are also still eaten, in addition to a wealth of new foods. Meat traditionally was only served on special occasions such as marriage feasts, ceremonial events, or when guests are present. During such times a young goat, camel, or lamb is still slaughtered (or bought) and roasted.
To endure the extreme heat of the desert, the Bedouin wear lightweight, light-colored clothing. It is very loose-fitting, allowing for the circulation of air and freedom of movement, yet providing protection from the sun and windblown sand. Their garments are designed to cover the entire body except for the face, hands, and feet. The main garment for men is the cotton thawb, which is a long straight-cut white, brown, or gray robe. Over the robe, the men wear long silk or cotton jackets called kibrs. The jackets are open in the front and secured with leather belts.
The Bedouin traditionally lived in low, rectangular tents woven from camel or goat hair. A line of poles supported the center of the tent. The wealthier a Bedouin was, the longer his tent was. The sides of the tents were rolled up to let the breezes in, or closed up tightly during rain or sandstorms. The tents were divided by decorative partitions called gatas. Half of the tent is was for the men. It contained a fireplace and was used for entertaining guests. The other half was for the women, children, and stored items. It also had a fireplace used for cooking. Many Bedu still use these tents at recreational winter camps they set up in the desert.
The women do most of the work, while the men socialize and make plans for the group. Bedouin children stay with their mothers in the women's section of the house until they are about seven years old. Older boys often help with chores and tend to the needs of guests. The women's responsibilities include tending to the children, preparing meals, sewing and nurturing the elderly. Marriage ideally occurs within the extended family. Generally, the father's cousins have the first preference.
Bedouin society is organized according to a series of overlapping kin groups. The family is the smallest unit, followed by the clan, then the tribe. In the past, it was shameful for a Bedouin to accept a wage-paying job. For this reason, some Bedu do not work at all because of excellent government benefits. But this is changing, however, as the government is encouraging more Bedu to take advantage of free education benefits, and is considering tying benefits to work.
What Are Their Beliefs?
While most of the Bedouin are Sunni Muslims (many of the Malikite branch), there is still a basic belief in spirits known as jinnis. The jinnis are, according to Arab legend, spirits capable of assuming human or animal form and exercising supernatural influence over humans.
A few of the tribes have been influenced by the mystic tradition in Islam known as Sufism. A Sufi is someone who believes that he has acquired a special inner knowledge direct from Allah.
What Are Their Needs?
All of the Bedouin groups are basically untouched with the Gospel. Although there are resources available in their languages, the Bedouin have proved to be resistant to Christianity. Fervent, effective prayer must be offered up on behalf of these tribes in order to break down the barriers that separate them from the Truth.
Ask the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom and favor to missions agencies focusing on the Bedouin.
Pray that the Lord will raise up additional long term workers to join the few who have already responded.
Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will faithfully intercede for the Bedouin.
Ask the Holy Spirit to complete the work begun in the hearts of Bedouin believers through adequate discipleship.
Pray that God will give Bedouin believers boldness to share Christ with their own people.
Ask the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of Bedouin towards Christians so that they will be receptive to the Gospel.
Pray for fellowships of Christian believers to be raised up among each of the Bedouin tribes.
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