Houses of Hair

Long a common sight in the desert and along the fringes of rural towns, the black tents of the Bedouins are a reassuring sign that tradition lives on in Saudi Arabia. In the nomads' camp, camels and goats lazily graze on tiny shrubs, as their Bedouin herders occupy nearby tents. Providing shelter and hospitality to their inhabitants, these goat-hair tents are the focus of Bedouin life, as well as an important part of Saudi culture.

The Bedouins have inhabited the deserts of this region for thousands of years. A pastoral people, they raise sheep, goats and camels. Historically, they journeyed continuously through the desert in search of food and water for their herds. Tents were made to be quickly erected in one location and then just as rapidly dismantled and transported to a new site. Camps are usually made up of extended families or tribes united under one leader. Each member has a role, and the camp functions as a self-contained unit. Today, however, many Bedouins have become settled in rural villages where they tend small farms and raise their livestock.


Bedouins have lived for generations in tents woven from the black hair of their goats (this photo and the one above).

Women occupy a very important position in Bedouin society. Not only do they raise the children, herd the sheep, milk the animals, cook, spin yarn and make the clothes, but they are accorded the honor of weaving the cloth that constitutes the tent. While the younger female members of the tribe are off watching over the animals, the older women spin the coarse, dark hair of the goat into fabric for tents on ground looms made from two strong pieces of wood staked into the dirt. There the weaver sits, her hands passing quickly among the loom and the wool, creating long strips from the black hair that are then assembled to form these "houses of hair".

Indigenous goats are usually black or brown, hence the color of the undyed wool. When making clothes, however, some women use plants to dye the cloth for variety. Leaves, roots, stalks and petals are used to create these dyes. When weaving today, most Bedouin women use synthetic dye purchased at the local souqs (markets).

When weaving, loose stitches are employed to ensure good ventilation. The threads swell from rainwater, and tighten, making the tent waterproof during passing storms. The strips are later sewn together to form a roof and walls, which are resistant to wind and provide insulation from the sun and protection against the night cold. The roof is supported by wooden poles, the number of which illustrate the power and wealth of the owner.

Tents are pitched in an east-west line in order to avoid the direct rays of the sun. To raise the tent, the women spread the roof out on the ground and stretch it by tightening the lines attached to the stakes before they hoist the poles. Then they hang the cloth flaps that serve as the walls, with the "door" flap facing away from the wind. The sides are pegged to the ground.

Traditionally, the tent is divided into three sections by curtains: the men's section, the family section and the kitchen. In the men's area, guests are received around the hearth where the host prepares coffee on the fire. This is the center of the Bedouin's social life. Coffee represents the generous hospitality of the host. Fresh roasted beans are crushed with a brass mortar and pestle. The men pass the evening trading news and discussing their animals. Separated from them by a curtain, the women gather in the family area and kitchen along with their small children to bake bread and prepare the main meal. A dinner of rice and chunks of mutton or lamb are then served to the gathered guests.


Even in a tent in the middle of the desert, Arabian hospitality includes the burning of incense and the offering of coffee to guests.

The ground inside the tent is covered with rugs and the owner displays his sword or rifle from the tent pole in the men's section. Furnishings are sparse, as the life of a nomad requires. Blankets, carpets and cooking utensils comprise the bulk of each family's possessions. The Bedouins' animals sleep in smaller tents or improvised pens near the family's living quarters. One sign of a family's wealth is ownership of camels. Traditionally, Bedouins who owned and raised camels thought of themselves as the aristocrats of the desert. Camels were used as animals of war, transport and a source of food in the form of milk and meat. Social hierarchy among the Bedouins is evident in that the men are the ones responsible for the care of the camels. The women herd only the sheep and goats.

After a long day out with the herd, the Bedouin men gather around the fire sharing stories, sipping coffee and feasting. They might discuss falconry, the saluki greyhound and Arabian stallions - all animals the Bedouins are credited with breeding - as well as other matters of importance to the tribe. Traditionally, one of the men recites poetry or sings. To mark the end of the evening, the host burns incense in a mabkhara (incense burner) passing it to each of his guests to inhale and fan their clothes.

Prayer is an integral part of the Bedouins' life. As there are no formal mosques in the desert, they improvise their prayer area with a small semi- circular wall of rocks inside the camp. Here they gather five times each day, facing towards Makkah, and perform their prayers, often with the tribe's leader acting as the prayer leader.


Tents are supported by poles, and rooms are created by curtains which separate the family's sleeping and cooking area from where the guests are received.

The lifestyle of the Bedouins has changed little during the Kingdom's phenomenal program of modernization. Valued as a link with their country's heritage, Saudis respect the simple - yet not easy - way of life the Bedouins follow. Driving through some of the Kingdom's larger cities, in modern neighborhoods, one often comes upon tents erected in people's gardens - a symbol of affection for their nomadic past.

Today, Bedouins have adopted some modern comforts. Trucks have replaced camels as the primary form of transportation. Many camps enjoy the luxury of portable generators to power small refrigerators and television sets. Gas stoves have replaced the traditional hearth, and white canvas factory-made tents have begun to usurp the handmade goat hair tents that the women labored hours to make. Yet, it seems only natural that the Bedouins should incorporate some of these modern amenities into their traditional lifestyle, because historically, they are a people who adapt to their environment while preserving their centuries old habits.

The Bedouin lifestyle, with its repetitive routine, unites its community through the pursuit of common goals and ideals. The tents that are their homes are a very reflection of their souls - simple in nature, durable in strength.

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