Blending Tradition and Progress in the Desert

To the uninitiated, the deserts of Saudi Arabia conjure up images of barrenness devoid of life. But, in fact, life flourishes even in the harshest deserts of the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia boasts a diversity of deserts and other habitats, each supporting their indigenous plant and animal life. The rolling soft sand desert known as the Rub Al-Khali, or the Empty Quarter, is the largest sand desert in the world and extends over 250,000 square miles in southern Saudi Arabia. The rocky deserts of the north and west are similar to some deserts in the western United States, and support a diversity of life. Other areas of Saudi Arabia, such as the highlands of the southwest, receive regular rainfall and are subtropical.

Bedouins have managed to lead full and productive lives in the deserts of Saudi Arabia for millennia.

Contrary to popular opinion, plants and animals thrive in the desert. Though largely barren, vast stretches of the desert bloom with wildflowers and grasses after periodic rains. Scrub and thorn bushes abound year-round supporting insects, reptiles, birds and mammals, including gazelles, oryx, ibex, wildcats and foxes.

In addition to the plant and animal life, man has thrived for millennia in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Known as Bedouin, these people are the traditional pastoral-nomads whose migratory lifestyle is dictated by the grazing needs of their herds, including camels, horses, sheep and goats. The word "Bedouin" is the French version of the Arabic word badawi (plural, badu) meaning one who lives in the desert. The term, used by settled people, has come to represent all peoples who make their lives in the rocky desert. Referring to themselves, they are simply "Arabs".

A small number of Bedouins still exist in modern-day Saudi Arabia. However, camels have given way to pickup trucks and automobiles, water can now be transported in large quantities by vehicles which can traverse the desert on new roads and highways in a fraction of the time it once took, and the tribe is no longer isolated and alone in its existence. Instead, Bedouins tend to stay in touch with the urban centers to take advantage of medical care, educational facilities and other amenities of modern civilization now available in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Contrary to the Western conception of nomads wandering aimlessly in the desert, the Bedouin lifestyle is quite logical and orderly. Seasonal changes, the availability of grazing and the location of wells and oases all dictate the Bedouin's nomadic cycle. Winter rains unroll a carpet of green grasses across parts of the desert, allowing the animals to graze freely, but the summer heat and drought force the Bedouin into the steppe-like areas where vegetation and wells are available.

The traditional tents of the Bedouin have come to symbolize life in the desert. These tents have to meet some basic requirements in order to protect the Bedouin from the harsh and demanding environment. They have to be easy to erect and dismantle, easy to maintain and repair, resistant to wind and rain and at the same time provide insulation from the sun and protection against the cold. Hair from black Arabian goats is used to make the wool for the tents which are known as Bait Al-Sha'ar, or "House of Hair". Women of the tribe weave wool into long strips that are then assembled to form the roof of the tent which is supported by poles and secured to the ground by ropes. To ensure good ventilation, the cloth is secured with loose stitches. Swelling with the rain, the fibers expand in order to keep the tent waterproof. Curtains are hung as surrounding walls and panels of material separate the interior space into different rooms: the majlis, which is the public space for receiving visitors, and the mahram, the private space for the family.

The Bedouin diet is restricted by the season of the year and the availability of markets in oases and settled areas. Camel milk is a staple which is regularly available, similar to cow's milk in taste, rich in protein and low in fat. Other favorite drinks are tea and coffee which are drunk in even the hottest part of the day. Bedouin love coffee, and the preparation alone is an intricate part of the Bedouin culture. Green coffee beans are roasted lightly in a skillet and, after being cooled, ground with fresh carda- mom in a mortar and pestle. The end result is a light-colored coffee often enjoyed with sweet dates to complement the bitter flavor. The fruit of the date palm tree is another traditional staple of the Bedouin diet as it is small, easy to carry, nutritious and flavorful.

One large meal is usually served in the evening and eaten communally. Large platters of food are placed on short wooden stands with eight to ten people gathering around to enjoy the meal together. A typical meal is kapsa, a dish prepared with lamb and rice. Acida is a common dish consisting of a dough made of milk, flour and salt, formed into a ball and dipped into melted butter before being eaten. For breakfast, one might eat a light meal of soft bread with vegetables or dates.

Although nomadism dictates a lifestyle unencumbered by material goods, the Bedouin have developed a rich culture incorporating necessity and art. Carpets, designed and woven by the women, are used as floor coverings. Wool is naturally dyed to provide brilliant colors for handicrafts, including camel bags and grain bags adorned with decorative tassels, flowing sashes and beading. Saddles are also ornately decorated with patterns of pounded silver and sheepskin pads. The panels hung to divide the interior of the tent stand out as masterful creations. Brightly colored and elaborately patterned, the curtains are designed to contrast the drab colors of the desert.

Other examples of Bedouin handiwork can be seen in their jewelry, often made out of beads, chains, stones, silver and glass. Women decorate their headscarves with coins, embroidery and beads, and men proudly display ornate bridles and saddles.

The Bedouin turned to their imagination to develop a colorful tradition of storytelling, songs and poetry. Poetry has long been considered one of the highest expressions of literary art among the Arabs. Epic poems are passed down through generations, celebrating themes of war, hunting, honor and love. The group gathers around the poet who entertains them through his well-chosen words. Today, Bedouins in Saudi Arabia have adopted other forms of entertainment, such as the radio and television. Run on generators, they keep the Bedouin in contact with the rest of the world.

Even in the harshest desert environments, Bedouins have always cultivated an appreciation for poetry, crafts and culture.

Bedouin have adopted many modern innovations which enhance their lives. Tanks of propane gas, binoculars and sunglasses are now common. Perhaps the most significant change has occurred due to the introduction of the automobile. When the tribe migrates to another area, instead of packing mules, horses and camels, all the household goods are packed into large trucks. A caravan of trucks follow the animals to the next campsite. Occasionally even the animals ride along in pickups or on flat-bed trucks.

The demands of life in the desert shaped a code of values which has long been associated with the Bedouin culture and which Saudis are proud to continue. Generosity and hospitality are evident in the sincere warmth bestowed upon a visitor. As no individual can survive on their own in the desert, all Bedouin feel honor bound to care for a visitor's needs with shelter, food and water given happily and without question. It is this close cooperation between individuals which is the key to the Bedouin tradition. Organized into tribes, each tribe in turn divides into many clans and sub-clans. This extended family works closely together and shares the collective responsibility of family honor. The family unit is a source of identity for Saudis, and they are proud of its long-rooted traditions in their society.

The tribe is led by a Shaikh. Usually a wise elder, his authority derives from the consent of the tribe. Social issues concerning the tribe are discussed by members who give their advice to help guide the Shaikh in the decision-making process. Consultation in the open majlis is a long-standing tradition that is practiced throughout Saudi society, by the King, the Crown Prince, the Governors, the Ministers, and all those who are in authority.

Ever since King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud founded the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, great efforts have been taken to provide services to the Bedouin in an attempt to enhance their lives. King Abdul Aziz himself implemented a policy of easing their way of life, establishing schools and setting up resources for cultivating land close to sources of water. In addition, numerous roads were built in rural areas connecting various oases and wells so that Bedouin migration would be easier. Water is readily available now due to the generous assistance of the government. Older wells traditionally used by the Bedouin which may have dried up have been replaced by cement cisterns and are regularly filled by government water trucks, enabling the Bedouin to water their herds at the same spots that their ancestors once used.

In addition to making Bedouin life more comfortable with roads and water, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also provides extended services, including medical care and education. Many Bedouin educate their children in the public schools, some tribes moving in a set area, always close enough for the child to attend the same classes every day. Other tribes actually have a teacher join the group so that their children can benefit from a first-rate education.

Bedouin hospitality is reflected in the coffee and tea pots prepared for guests at a gathering in the desert.

Even in the last years of the 20th Century, desert life and Bedouin culture hold a special attraction for the people of Saudi Arabia. The attraction of the desert is almost an unexplainable instinct for some Saudis who enjoy the beauty and solitude of the unique environment. Camping expeditions are common, and large groups will even set up small tent-cities of manufactured white canvas tents to experience the desert much as their Bedouin ancestors did. An afternoon picnic with family and friends in the desert is a common outing where it is possible to relax and enjoy nature, and where children have the opportunity to explore and learn about the unique environment firsthand.

Sitting in the desert, one cannot help but contemplate the harshness and incredible beauty of the landscape and wonder at mankind's ability to lead a full and productive life in such a demanding environment.

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