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What Arab Culture Today Owes to the Arab Bedouin of Long Ago

posted on: Feb 14, 2018

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

Arab Bedouin peoples once spread from Iraq, into Jordan, Lebanon, the Arabian Peninsula, through Egypt and across North Africa to Morocco. The Bedouin or bedu, meaning desert dwellers, are nomads who herd camels and goats. A tribal people originating in the Arabian Peninsula, they moved about drylands in search of water and pasture. In the Qur’an they are known as the ‘A’rab people, hence the name that became attached to the broad group today called The Arab People. They were important in the spread of Islam starting in the seventh century A.D., but some Bedouin also follow the Christian tradition.

Arab Bedouin in the Desert

Bedouin people have largely left the desert and their nomadic life to live in villages, towns, and cities across the Arab Middle East. Most Arab governments have encouraged the Bedouin to settle in order to have more control over them. Here, then are some of the features that originate with the Bedouin and which define, broadly speaking, contemporary Arab culture and society.

Close Family Ties

Rooted in Bedouin society is the notion of family loyalty. Family trumps individualism and self-reliance. Family, then as now, is a primary unit of society, providing for each member’s wellbeing. Through history it has been the key to individual survival, including such functions as socializing and educating children, producing a livelihood, and readying children for adulthood. Now, many of those functions have been taken over by the state. Nevertheless, while not uniquely an Arab trait, family members’ behavior reflects on the entire family. Thus, family honor is critical to the Arab family, especially as it entails protecting the reputation of its women. Pride and protection of children are found in a parent taking the name of his or her child, such as ‘the father or mother of Mohammed.’

In my work as an anthropologist in the Arab Middle East, I experienced the closeness of family ties. Endless ceremonies of drinking tea are a case in point. Without tea, in some places, the wheels of society do not seem to move. I learned that the traditional tea ceremony was an important part of a child’s upbringing, teaching him or her the value of contributing to family life. Such events inevitably added an hour’s time to the visit, but it was important for the child to learn a sense of responsibility in both helping with chores and providing hospitality to visitors. For an anthropologist, this hour or so is entirely “value-added,” since it lends more time for casual chatting, getting to know people better, and therefore being able to better tell their story.

Tea is thus part of a ritual of socializing younger Arab children into adolescence. Often, a father making tea would invite his son or nephew to pour the boiling hot water from one pot over the tea leaves into a second pot. Rituals such as those involving the tea ceremony, according to anthropologists, have the benefit of preparing individual members and groups within a society to participate in expected ways. While much more complex, seven-day marriage ceremonies, for example, prepare couples and their families for expectations about appropriate behavior in their new status. I attended dozens of wedding ceremonies in the Libyan Desert oasis of Augila, in Cyrenaica. The tea ceremony, in addition to numerous other rituals used to nudge children towards adulthood, however, had a more mundane purpose. It made the tea taste better!

The tea ceremony is part of the preparation  of youth for adult responsibility

A Strong Sense of Hospitality

Arab Bedouin are probably the source of the profound hospitality practiced among Arabs. It is probably rooted in people depending on each other, more especially so in the setting of the harsh, often unforgiving climate of the desert  Hospitality is a prized virtue among Arabs generally and they are known widely as honoring a guest via a strong dose of hospitality.

A somewhat strange example of the practice of hospitality occurred as my wife and I once crossed North Africa by car. We were mixing research with sightseeing. This meant taking meandering routes, passing through remote border crossings. Such border crossings in this part of the world might be friendly or maybe not. One crossing at a lonely southwest Desert border post from Tunisia into Algeria was a case in point. We found at first an ambiguous reception awaiting us on the Algerian side. The roadway between the two countries was a cracked one-lane, sand swept asphalt road. The customs post consisted of a small shack sitting beneath a single, lonely palm tree.

As we arrived at the post the two immigration officials manning it seemed suspicious of us. Even to ourselves, we thought we might have appeared suspicious. We could easily empathize with these officials, wondering, “Why were these Americans crossing at this remote, out-of-the-way post?” Furthermore, even more, curious perhaps was, “what was the Libyan license plate doing on their car?” These officials searched the car and bags but when they asked to see Nancy’s and my wedding rings I began to believe that this involved more than just the normal border crossing.

The officials inspected inside each of the rings for the official stamp indicating the number of gold carats and then carefully recorded that content on a customs form. It was clear that they were purposely stretching out the usual procedures. They may have just been meeting customs requirements that justified their jobs. But, in fact, they just wanted to talk with us. They were interested in what was happening in Libya, which we had just left. We also told them of our interest in visiting some of Algeria’s well-known desert places. They seemed pleased to chat leisurely with two Americans at their isolated post. We were with them for almost an hour and at the end, they gave us a very friendly farewell. They also told us, “drive safely.” This was their way of being as hospitable as they possibly could—under the conditions.

Song, Dance, and Poetry


Arab music is a mix from the early Arab Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula and that of all other music forms ever since. Because Arab civilization was so far-flung over centuries, its music was informed by other cultural influences, including those of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Kurds, Assyrians, Turks, Indians, and Berbers of North Africa.

The melody line in Arab music is easy to hear but difficult to explain, since it seems to float in and out of different keys. Different from Western music, Arab melodies do not conform to the Western tonal scale. Rather, Arab music has what are called “microtonalities.” These are intervals between notes that are scaled back from half- and full-step tonalities that characterize Western music. (Technically, the difference is in the maqam (Arabic) or a scale of micro-tones that rise and eventually fall back to a full tone.) You have to hear it to know it. No better example exists for listening than Umm al-Kulthum, Egypt’s premier songstress.

My family and I’d brushed up against the legend and person, Umm al-Kulthum, once we’d moved from Garden City in Cairo to the mid-Nile island of Zamalak. We were happy to know that Zamalak was the home of the ever-popular Egyptian songstress. We’d known Umm al-Kulthum’s songs for years—she was and is still loved across the Arab world. Umm al-Kulthum was well into her seventies at the time we moved to Zamalak in the mid-seventies, but her reputation was as strong as ever. Her voice and message were intertwined with Egypt’s social fabric, including its politics. Umm al-Kulthum’s performances went on for hours, listeners never tiring of her messages of life, love, and lore.

Egypt’s Songstress and “Star of the East”–Umm al-Kulthum

For Umm al-Kulthum, her audience was the entire Arab World, who not only couldn’t wait to hear her voice but who never tired of her singing. Her songs were not three-minute pop hits, but rather, expansive messages about Arab peoples’ hopes, trials, and tribulations that lasted for hours. In the end, at her death, her followers had far fewer words than their heroine to express their mourning over her loss.


Like its songs, Arab dance has many different styles. While normally associated with the “belly dance,” there are many forms, ranging from folk to those presented in long-ago Arab imperial courts. Still well-known today are what are called “folk dances,” namely local dances rooted in Bedouin ceremonial practices and seen most often in weddings.  

An example of the Arab dance occurred when I lived in a Libyan oasis and was invited to most weddings during my year-long stay. While the wedding festivities themselves lasted for seven days, it was the evening wedding dance that was my focus.

At the beginning of the wedding dance in the groom’s home, the younger, unmarried male members of both the bride and groom’s party formed a single line to dance and sing. The songs were not explicitly sexual but contained some innuendo. The men’s dancing was more explicit, which involved thrusting their hips forward in rapid motion to the rhythm of a penetrating drum beat. In concert, they thrust their arms forward in a resounding clap of hands.

Arab Bedouin Dance

Women of both the bride and groom’s party, including the bride, sat in a darkened, adjacent room, peering through a shrouded window or doorway. They rendered their approval of the men’s performance by making the zaghrit, a shrill, piercing sound — known as ululation — made by the rapid back-and-forth movement of the tongue. Meanwhile, the groom sat to the side of the dancers, assuming a very serious demeanor, maintaining his new sense of modesty in the presence of the younger, unmarried men, who were free to act boisterously. After an hour or so of male dancing, the women sent out their ‘emissary’ to the men, usually a young, unmarried woman from the bride’s family. She was dressed in a white blouse, a modest, shin-length skirt, and white stockings. Her face was veiled in a transparent material that allowed an outline of her face to be seen but not necessarily revealing her identity. She carried a white baton about two feet long, which she held out in front of her, facing the line of males as if she was choreographing the dance of these serenading men.

A male singer then began to serenade her, having possibly discovered her identity. Taking on the guise of uncontrollable emotion, he sang about her physical beauty with the tone of a distraught lover. His emotion mounted, his voice quavered, he was simply overwrought. Then, he covered his eyes with his hand, leaned his elbow on the next male’s shoulder as if he needed both physical and emotional support. He mournfully warbled a single, punctuated verse.

While this Bedouin-influenced ceremony is layered with symbolism, it can be boiled down a bit. First, based on a local interpretation made to me by my friends, the white baton is said to represent the virginity of the dancing woman. It also symbolizes the protection afforded her by the bride’s male kinsmen. The baton, when used to strike a male, also represents the fleeting illusion of female control over the world of the seemingly intransigent male. The dance ritual upholds the separation of females from males, except for the appearance of the woman dancer, who is both praised and ridiculed. She alone, however, has the momentary power to sanction the men. Throughout the ritual, the woman never utters a single word. It’s in this way that the woman gets the upper hand. Symbolic as it is, fleeting as it is, this ritual brings to the surface and recognizes a sense of equality, even superiority, of the female over the male.


Arabic poetry is as complex as its music. Written poetry appeared in the 6th century, just before the emergence of Islam. Its oral form long predates Islam. Its rhythmic (rhymed) and prose forms are quite different from its Western counterpart. I did not record poetry during my fieldwork but have heard group recitations by well-known Arab poets that are simply mesmerizing, “music to the ear,” as it were. The following is an example of a 7th-century poem by Imam Ali ibn Abi-Taleb, considered by some as one of the most beautiful poems in the history of Arabic literature. I’ve selected stanzas from the beginning of the poem to illustrate its beauty, so as to capture its essence without repeating the entire poem; it purportedly sums up the Islamic philosophy of life (from the website Quora):

النفسُ تبكي على الدنيا وقد علمت

  The Soul Cries over this world and yet acknowledges,  

أن السعادة فيها ترك ما ف  يــها

  that the happiness within it is to abandon what is within it.  

لا دارٌ للمرءِ بعد الموت يسكُنها

There is no house for the individual to live in after death,

إلا التي كانَ قبـل الموتِ بانيـها

  except for the one that he built before his death.

فإن بناها بخير طاب مسكنُه

And if he built it with goodness, pleasing his settlement will become,

وإن بناها بشر خـــــــاب بانيـــها

And if he built it with evil, disappointed its builder will be.

Arab Pride and Cultural Identity

An earlier article by Al-Hewar defines Arabs by culture, not race; its two coordinates are ‘Arab’ and ‘Islam.’ It continues, that while religion may differ, the civilization itself is defined as “Islam.” While the article does not define language as a marker, to be Arab is to define oneself as belonging to the “mother culture of Arabism.”

Sociologist Halim Barakat, a Lebanese Arab, sees Arab identity as rooted in language, which he sees as more important than religion, tribe, region or race. Yet, such conditions as “religion, regional affiliation, tribal allegiances, ethnicity, and outside forces” play a part in shaping Arab identity. Thus, the question of such identity is highly nuanced.

Interestingly, Barakat’s study of Arab youth in the U.S., which is focused mainly on Arab Muslims, defines several patterns of identity.

Simplifying the patterns, they are defined as “High Bicultural, Moderate Bicultural, and High Arab Cultural.” The study continues,

Although all three groups demonstrated positive general family functioning, the Moderate Bicultural group was distinct in that they were less likely to be engaged or married, and they experienced less family support and more family acculturative stressors. The results highlight the importance of the family context in contributing to a stronger sense of cultural identity for young adults who fall at the intersection of Arab and American culture and Muslim faith (quoted from Halim Barakat).

Throughout different studies of Arab cultural identity, one point remains clear, according to Barakat: the family remains at the heart of an individual’s identity. Even in present-day American society, Arabs group around the family as its point of identity. This, then, takes us back full circle to the impact of Arab Bedouin culture and society on the everyday lives of contemporary Arabs, wherever they are in the world.

The Arab League in Cairo embodies the unity and identity of The Arab World

Thus, it is important for Arabs, as part of their long, often illustrious history, to come to know and understand the beginnings of their culture and its underpinnings. This is where the Bedouin come sharply into focus. It is in their society and culture that many of the themes of contemporary Arab culture pulsated and gave vibrancy to what we know today as a lively Arab presence in the global community.


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.