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Arabic: badawīPlay sound

Bedouin woman in Syria.
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Bedouin woman in Syria. Photo: yeowatzup.

1. Nomadic lifestyles
2. Dialects
3. Social structures
4. Culture
5. History
Bedouins by country
Figures in 1000.
Last column: % of country population.
1,400 2.0%
170 2.3%
740 13.0%
250 9.0%
20 0.5%
100 12.0%
Saudi Arabia
1,000 4.0%
80 0.4%
450 9.5%

Bedouin man in Syria.
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Bedouin man in Syria. Photo: yeowatzup.

Bedouin boy in Syria.
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Bedouin boy in Syria. Photo: yeowatzup.

Nomadic Arabs, recognized by their nomadic lifestyles, specific dialects, social structures and culture, counting 4.2 million (2006 estimate), the majority living in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Their numbers are decreasing, as more and more are changing from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles. Estimates say nomadic Bedouins constitute about 10% of the population of the central Middle East. Their life forms are pastoral: they herd camels, but often also sheep, goats and cattle. Handicrafts form another important source of income.

Nomadic lifestyles
Bedouins are normally migrating only in parts of the year, depending on grazing conditions. In winter, when there is some precipitation, they migrate deeper into the desert, while they seek refuge around secure water sources in the hot and dry summer time. For many Bedouins, the city is the preferred location for the summer months.
Modern societies have made traditional Bedouin lifestyles less attractive — as they are demanding and often dangerous — so that many tribes have settled in urban areas. At the same time many governments have taken strong measures to regulate nomadic lifestyles. Historically their way of living has represented a military threat to urban rulers, and it has also been important to decide who belongs where, who owns the land and how will taxes be collected.

Even in modern Arabic, Bedouin dialectic characteristics are evident. Bedouin Arabic is spoken by more Arabs than just the ones keeping up their traditional lifestyles.
The Bedouin Arabic is divided into two zones, the eastern and the western, with borders running almost parallel to the Egyptian/Libyan border.

Social structures
Bedouins organize themselves according to patrilinear corporate groups. The size of these groups depends on social context and can vary from a handful of people close in kin to several thousands making up a tribe. Bedouins define themselves as members of tribes and families. All defined groups are headed by shaykhs, "elders", a position that is hereditary, going from father to son. People are divided into social classes, depending on ancestry and profession. Passing from one class to another is relatively feasible, but marriage between a man and a woman of different classes is difficult.

Throughout recorded history poetry has been a central cultural form of expression for the Bedouins, and in early centuries of Muslim history, Bedouin poetry represented the ideal standard for other literary achievements, as well as for Arabic language.
Bedouins are predominantly Muslims, while there are small groups of Christians in Palestine and Syria.
Food eaten by Bedouins upholding traditional lifestyles, are dairy products, milk and meat. Bedouins sell and barter products, in order to obtain agricultural foodstuff from sedentary peoples.
Bedouins live in in tents made out of goat or camel hair, as well as fibres from plants. These tents normally have a black colour. As for more temporary settlements, Bedouins construct simple, unadorned houses, built from mud and stone.

7th century: With the Muslim conquests, the territory of the Bedouins, originally limited to Arabia, increased. New territories became Syria and Egypt.
Around 1050: Bedouin migrations to North Africa, with dramatic and lasting effects on urban lifestyles of this region — pasture land was reduced to semidesert.

By Tore Kjeilen