Being Bedouin: Past and Present
ON LOCATION AT THE NYU ABU DHABI INSTITUTE
BY ZAHIDA RAHEMTULLA
On April 4, 2012, the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute hosted a panel entitled “Being Bedouin: Past and Present” at NYUAD’s Downtown Campus. Three anthropologists, AbdAllah Cole, Dawn Chatty, and Sulayman Khalaf spoke on the topic of what it means to be Bedouin in the modern world. Each of them has carried out extensive research on the Bedouin way of life throughout the Middle East.
Chatty’s talk challenged the idea that there might be a single universal Bedouin identity. In Oman, where Chatty has conducted a large part of her fieldwork, the term Bedouin applies to fisherman and beekeepers as well as to camel and sheep herders. This usage dispels the widely held notion that the term applies only to desert pastoralists and raises questions about what exactly constitutes a Bedouin identity. Instead of asking where the Bedouin have gone, Chatty argued, we should be seeking to understand how identity and culture change when a way of life is transformed.
The transformation of the Bedouin is the result of the rapid changes that have swept over the Gulf in the last half-century. Cole explained how the discovery of oil and the subsequent “black gold rushes” of the 1960s and ‘70s resulted in Bedouin migration to cities. New occupations in the cities and changes in land ownership, Cole argued, have caused the meaning of being Bedouin to “shift from denoting a way of life grounded in ecology and economy to referring to a shared identity in heritage and culture that cuts across tribal boundaries.” Cole believes that in the face of modernity, the term Bedouin is taking on more of an “ethnic dimension” that transcends local particularities.
This “ethnic dimension” can be seen in the UAE, where Bedouin identity has played a role in the construction of a national cultural heritage. It is impossible to visit the Emirates without being inundated by billboard representations of camel herds, woolen tents, and “desert” coffee pots. At the Heritage Village in Dubai, Bedouin “lifestyle activities” are now also on display. As the UAE grapples with questions of tradition and heritage in the face of rapid modernization, Bedouin across the Gulf have played an increasingly sought-after role in crafting an image of shared national identity.
Khalaf, who currently works in the Heritage Department at the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, spoke about how this realization of the need to preserve traditional culture in the UAE is exhibited in the revival of camel races. Before the discovery of oil, camel races were carried out on special occasions in small communities. With the onset of the oil boom, many of the earlier uses of the camel for pastoral life were no longer needed, and camel culture seemed to be disappearing.
The new emphasis on a national identity brought about the revival of the so-called “heritage sport” of camel racing. Today’s camel races, however, look very different, from those of the past, as camels are loaded on trucks and transported to racetracks built near most major cities in the Gulf. “The camel that once was known among Arabs as the ship of the desert retired from sailing across the desert sand dunes and now gets carried on wheels,” according to Khalaf. Although many other aspects of the races have also changed to the point of being unrecognizable to many elderly Bedouin, the races are valued for providing a link to a way of life which is increasingly being used as shared history for the nation. Khalaf’s account of the revival of camel racing depicts it as an example of the resilience of culture, which is itself always adapting and changing.
All three anthropologists agreed that, while the Bedouin way of life may not be dying out, it is a way of life that is changing. In the context of a country that has been marked by rapid transformations and migrations, the question of what it means to be Bedouin today points to the broader question of how changing contexts reshape identity and culture.
[Photo Credits: Top: Camel race in front of Dubai Towers – Wikimedia; Dawn Chatty – Oxford University; AbdAllah Cole – Wikimedia; Sulayman Kahalf – sulaymankhalaf.com; Bottom: Camel Warning Sign – Wikimedia.]