The word Bedouin, pronounced "bedooin", is an Arabic word that means 'desert dwellers'. Originally the Bedouins were limited to Arabia, but their nomadic territory expanded with the Muslim conquests in the 7th century. Many Bedouins spread to what became Syria and Egypt. Around 1050, Bedouins migrated even farther into North Africa.
There have been many studies of Bedouin life, and their history and customs are extensive. Their main livelihood comes from camel, sheep, goat and cattle breeding. Thus, Bedouins migrate at certain times of the year depending on grazing conditions. In winter, when there is some precipitation, they migrate deeper into the desert, and during the hot and dry summer time, they seek refuge around secure water sources. They are very intelligent, using stars and planets at night and following the footprints of man and animal during the day to determine exactly where they are headed.
Bedouins organize themselves according to family groups. The size of these groups can vary from a handful of people close in kin to several thousands making up a tribe. Bedouins define themselves by their tribe. The tribe is a community of equals headed by a sheikh, 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 woman of different classes is difficult.
A wedding is organized after the groom asks for the hand of a bride. She is carried on a camel covered by a special cottage built on the camel's back. Mensaf (a traditional Bedouin meal consisting of rice covered with beef or lamb, cooked with yogurt and flavored with pine nuts) is offered to celebrate the festival.
There is a Bedouin bride dance known as the Hagalla, which came from the western desert of Egypt, near Libya. If a woman or group of women would like to be married, they take part in a large celebration. The dance represents this celebration, in which the women have the right to choose their man. Once chosen the couple dances together. The music is made with traditional instruments, including the tabla and duff (drums), nay (flute) and rababa (the grandfather of the violin). The rhythm is based on malfuf, which is played at varying speeds, with accents on 7 and 8.
Costuming for the women consists of a dress with a short skirt over a full skirt. The skirts must be sumptuous, bright in color, and anchored at hip-level so that hip movement is obvious. They also wear a long veil over the head, leaving the face uncovered. Although most Bedouins are Muslim, the women do not cover their faces. The men wear long trousers, along with a galabiya, a multi-colored waistcoat and a turban on the head. Performing a Hagalla dance needs at least one woman and a few men.
Everyday clothing for the Bedouin woman is a loose, unencumbered dress, which requires little maintenance. While the wedding clothes are gay, the usual color is black or in some tribes blue. The garment is long and ample, with wide sleeves. Old Bedouin costumes are richly embellished with fine hand embroidery worked in cross-stitch. The design is embroidered across the front and back of the bodice, down the sleeves and along the main seams. The embroidery is of a contrasting color. The headdress combines a rectangular scarf of black silk georgette with a diagonally folded band. The thin scarf is draped around the head and under the chin so that the throat is covered. The folded band is tied on the head so that it covers most of the forehead. The women pull their hair out from under the veil to frame the face. They sew gold and silver dowry coins on the headdress and wear gold or silver necklaces, anklets and bracelets.
It is estimated that Bedouins make up about 10% of the population. Unfortunately for the sake of history, their numbers are decreasing. More and more are leaving their nomadic lifestyles because settlement policies of the various Middle Eastern states in the 20th century have forced them into a sedentary life. It may happen that someday only those of us who study Middle Eastern dance will be able to preserve and present the traditions and beauty of the Bedouins.
©2001 Jasmin Jahal