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Desert Dwellers

20 April 2017

A nomadic society of people, the Bedouins of Northern Africa and the Middle East have long remained a shrouded mystery to the outside world. But for the dwindling number of desert dwellers, life in the dunes is business as usual.

Scattered over the inhospitable desert sands of Northern Africa and the Middle East, roving packs of wanderers clad in kufeya and maser (traditional head wraps) roam. Refusing the glitzy high-rises of Dubai’s desert oasis, and the charm of seaside Muscat’s historic importance, these desert-dwellers prefer a transient life in the ever-changing dunes. These are the Bedouins.

Originally stateless nomads, this roaming population has seen a steady decrease in population as time and modernisation have taken the globe by storm. But for the remaining Bedouins who still call the deserts of places like Sudan, Egypt, Oman, Iran and a number of other African and West Asian nations home, an important facet of life is carrying on the traditions of long-engrained desert-faring ancestors. An anomaly of sorts, this broad group of people, which is broken down into mostly smaller familial lines and groups, has made that which most avoid, the desert, their livelihood. Rejecting agricultural and industrial society, the Bedouins rely on animal herding—typically that of goats, camels, and, to a lesser extent, cattle, in Northern Africa—for sustenance. Trading in wools and milk has been a backbone of the now semi-nomadic society, but in the early years much of the earnings were made by acting as remote border patrols, for-hire militiamen, desert raiders and desert guides. With the recent boom in desert tourism, however, there is a renewed focus not only on Bedouin desert knowledge, but also on the traditional ways of life.

A Bedouin man clad in traditional desert garb sits in front of his cattle. Herding is a traditional way of life for Bedouins stretching from Northern Africa to the Middle East, and usually revolves around cattle, goats and camels.

Walk into any Bait Al Sha’er (traditional tent made from wool) and you’ll feel at home, and don’t think that it’s only because of the money you might be paying for an overnight desert excursion—this is Bedouin hospitality, and it’s an integral part of desert society. Borne from the traditions of old, the belief is that receiving a guest is a great honour, and one that should be treated with great respect. You can imagine the surprise when, many years ago, a roving band encountered another wandering soul in the great emptiness that is the desert. Empathetic towards the hardships the desert presents, Bedouins made it tradition to make these lonely guests feel a part of the tribe, or family, a tradition that is still uphelp to this day. This usually means a happy helping of Qahwah Saadah, or some of their finest cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee, along with meals that consist mostly of yoghurt, cheese, rice, butter, goat or lamb meat, and shrak, their traditional bread. If that weren’t enough to make you feel at home, you can also be assured of your safety, as when you’re a guest, you are considered a part of the family, and a person that must be protected at all costs—not a bad deal.

“Walk into any Bait Al Sha’er (traditional tent made from wool) and you’ll feel at home, and don’t think that it’s only because of the money you might be paying for an overnight desert excursion — this is Bedouin hospitality, and it’s an integral part of desert society.”

And while hospitality and tradition are centre-stage, and unifying themes for many of the Bedouin tribes that call the desert home, there are also some unique differences that make themselves apparent between the varying groups within the greater society. In Oman, for example, turban-like masers are donned, instead of the kufeya, the traditional square cloth folded into triangles and held in place by a woollen agal or head rope, and brighter coloured tobs (traditional robes)—compared to groups in other parts of the Sinai who prefer darker or earth-toned tobs—are preferred. Linguistic, culinary and ritualistic variations are also present between the many wide-spread tribes, and are largely dependent on regional factors, but nothing separates the many tribes more than their claims to land. Though historically hospitable, and wary of the plight other desert-dwellers face, Bedouins view claims to land as serious matters. In the arid landscape of the desert, fertile land can be elusive, and when you’re living the life of a herder, the last thing you’d want is to see someone else’s goats grazing on your greenery. As such, warfare, specifically over land rights, has long remained a thorn in the side of this diverse desert society. However, the truth of the matter is that with the declining number of traditional tribes, and the establishment over the years of strict international borders, the cases of this type of warfare have dropped significantly, so much so that it’s nothing you should realistically concern yourself with—but hey, the promise of protection never hurts.

Camels rest in front of a Bait Al Sha’er (traditional wool tent), at a Bedouin camp in the plains of Dhofar region, South of Oman.

“In the arid landscape of the desert, fertile land can be elusive, and when you’re living the life of a herder, the last thing you’d want is to see someone else’s goats grazing on your greenery.”

Sadly, as the rates of globalisation, modernisation, industrialisation (especially in areas like the Middle East and Northern Africa) and climate change increase, many of these local Bedouin clans are beginning to turn towards the cities to find new sources of income, and new ways of life. Desert life has always been hard, and in the modern era, it’s only becoming harder. Luckily for travellers, there are still ways to not only get into contact with the remaining numbers, but to make camp with them in the desert to better understand and experience first-hand the intricacies of these desert ways. Two of these camps, 1,000 Nights Camp and Desert Nights Camp, are located but a few hours’ drive away from Muscat and offer guests authentic (albeit a bit luxurious) experiences. So before the powerful sands of the dunes cover the Bedouins’ tracks once and for all, be sure to make the journey to experience authentic life in the desert, Bedouin style.

(Featured image: Working in one capacity as desert guides, camels have always been the preferred method of travel for Bedouins through the years. Sign up for a desert camel caravan, like that pictured above, to experience traditional desert travel with the guidance of Bedouin desert guides.)

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Desert Dwellers
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A nomadic society of people, the Bedouins of Northern Africa and the Middle East have long remained a shrouded mystery to the outside world. But for the dwindling number of desert dwellers, life in the dunes is business as usual.
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