Andrew Halladay paper

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Old Wine, New Flavour: An Investigation into the Expressive Culture of a Changing Bedouin World

"The music of the Sinai desert is a designated Stratocaster-free zone" Bedouin Jerrycan Band

In the past fifty years, Bedouin society has undergone enormous, irreversible change with many of the traditional practices being abandoned in favour of a ‘modern’ lifestyle. Being Bedouin today “refers less to a way of life than to an identity” (Cole, 2003, p. 237). The nomadic lifestyle is being discarded by choice or by force and people are moving to permanent settlements. As a result, many of the old hallmarks of Bedouin culture are being lost. The purpose of this paper is to explore the extent to which Bedouin expressive culture mirrors these social changes, focusing primarily on the Bedouins of the Negev, and Sinai while touching on Jordon, the desert of Western Egypt and the Gulf States. While one might expect to find a great deal of change within Bedouin expressive culture, what is striking is the way in which old forms have been revitalized to serve new purposes, be they economic, political or social.

Centrality of Expressive Culture

Music and poetry occupy a central place within Bedouin culture, having a value that goes beyond entertainment. Bedouin music has evolved against the backdrop of the extreme desert silence resulting in the development of a “profound sensitivity and mystical appreciation for sound” permeating “every aspect of Bedouin life” (Basile, 1998). The Bedouin culture has developed in an environment of extreme hardship and thus poetry and music become a way in which to escape the drudgery of daily life. In such a context, the sounds of the words become equally as important as their meaning and elements such as “rhyme, assonance, alliteration, intonation, stress and rhythm are highlighted and relished” (Basile, 1998). Poetic genres such as Al-‘arda, or ‘war song’ or the huda intimately reflect desert life (Jargy, 2006, p. 665). The huda, or the camel-riders’ song, said to mimic the camel’s gait, (Jargy, 2006, p. 665), “breaks the infinite silence of the desert and encourage the lonely traveler and his mount” (Shiloah, 1978).

It is beyond the scope of this to describe the specifics of each genre however a brief mention but some of the predominant ones include the hida, or battle/work songs, the uhjuza, heroic songs dealing with war and battle and sung during processions, or Qasida, the well known Bedouin ode (Hamam, 2008). Dances such as the sammer, sahja, dahhiyyaarda and razfah involve predominantly males but in the case of sammer or sahja can include a single female defending herself with a sword from the surrounding dancers (Hamam, 2008). The farida may denote either a pilgrim’s song or the song accompanying the bride in her passage from her parental home while the ma’id is sung by women at funerals (Hamam, 2008). The main features of each genre are “consistent throughout the Arab world,” but vary according to local traditions as a result of contact with surrounding urban centers (Hamam, 2008).

Central to each of these genres is the human voice and verbal expression. According to Shiloah (1978), “words and rhetorical speech are the principal means through which the Bedouin expresses his feelings, his imagination and his rich interior world.” The use of poetry to express one’s emotion is consistent throughout various Bedouin groups. Abu-Lughad (1985), referring to the Awlad ‘Ali of Western Egypt writes, “only sentiments that create the impression of autonomy are appropriate to self-image and self-presentation in terms of the honour code” and thus, people turn to poetry as a way of expressing those emotions which would tarnish their honour (p. 247). Be it reacting to world events or merely the mundane of daily activities Bedouin peoples use poetry as a way of expressing ones deepest sentiments (Bailey, 1991, p. 18).

Expressing one’s emotions provides self provides an important occasion for the production of music and poetry, however it only accounts for portion of Bedouin expressive culture. According to Bailey (1991), much of the production of poetry revolves around every day events (p. 16). He describes poems dealing with everything from smuggling debts to humorous situations (Bailey, 1991, p. 16). Whatever the case, there is a certain pride within the Bedouin of hearing facets of their society poeticized 1991, p. 7). Poems can be used to send messages, being far easier to memorize than prose and allowing the messenger to include subtleties and allusions which could not be expressed via conventional methods (Bailey, 1991, p. 72). It can also impart knowledge and generate adherence to social norms and customs (Bailey, 1991, p. 120), exemplified in the verse “If folks don’t invite you, invite not yourself, lest some doorman inquire by what right you’re there” (Bailey, 1991, p. 127).

The intricate link between expressive culture and the experiences of Bedouin life is reflected in their instruments as well. Certain instruments such as the rababa, the frame drum and the six-holed flute share connections to the wider Arab culture while others are more unique to the Bedouin experience. The minbash, “a carved wooden mortar and pestle used to grind coffee”, reflects Bedouin hospitality (Hamam, 2008), “its musical . . . beat . . . [becoming] a sonic expression of the host’s distinguished status and entitlement to the provision of hospitality” (p. 408). Other instruments such as the simsimiyya, a five stringed lyre reflect the passage of time. Formerly made of wood and camel or goat intestine (Shiloah, 1972, p. 18), it is more common today to use electrical wire for the strings and old oil cans scavenged out of garbage piles left from oil companies and military camps (Shiloah, 1972, p.21). In this way we can see the transitions between Bedouin society and that of neighbouring rural and urban areas (Shiloah, 1972, p. 20) and it becomes symbolic of the way in which the Bedouins themselves absorbing and adopting the modern world in their own lifestyle.

A Changing Society

In the past century, Bedouin society has been steadily eroded, being caught up in the local and international politics of the region both as victims and participants (Cole, 2003, p. 237). Successive governments, be they British, Ottoman, Egyptian or Israeli, “have pursued their national interests . . . as if there were no local population to take into account” (Bailey, 1991, p. 341). Between 65 000 and 103 000 Bedouin lived in the Negev prior Arab-Israeli war of 1948, however within five years only 11 000 remained (Cole, 2003, p. 246). Those that remained were relocated and cut off under from traditional migratory routes under military rule. Migration outside the permitted area required a permit, goats were forbidden and sheep had to be registered (Cole, 2003, p. 246).

Adding to these difficulties has been the privatization of previously tribal territories. Scholarship is replete with examples of the way in which these territories fell into private hands, restricting the access of tribes to the land. In the 1940s, several tribal leaders of the Negev sold land to the Jewish Agency, acquiring land for Jewish settlement, “disinheriting [the people] from their own living space and freedom” (Bailey, 1991, p. 361). In Egypt, as land was privatized, tribal sheikhs became the large landholders while other tribal members were “lost among the fellahin” (Cole, 2003, p. 241). Furthermore, the Egyptian government enacted a policy by which all tribally-held lands were to be converted into titled property or be confiscated (Abu-Lughod, 1989, p. 11) resulting in further restrictions on the Bedouin way of life, As a result, many have resettled in the cities in search of new livelihoods, however most have only found poverty and unemployment (Cole, 2003, p. 246).

Historically, governments have undertaken systematic programs to settle the Bedouins as a way of controlling them. In Egypt, they have been denied entry into the military, and denied national identity cards (Cole, 2003, p. 250). After regaining the Sinai in 1979, Egypt saw it as a base for “absorbing excess population,” developing it economically and building roads to hitherto inaccessible areas of the desert, bringing Bedouins into direct contact with the modern world (Bailey, 1991, p. 6). Measures such as this destroyed the nomadic lifestyle employed by the Bedouin for centuries.

In light of the urban migration that has occurred in the past century, it has become increasingly difficult to delineate who exactly is ‘Bedouin’. Racy (1996) points out that there is a great deal of cultural exchange between the nomadic, rural and urban communities (p. 406) and thus to differentiate between ‘urban’ and ‘Bedouin’ is largely impossible. They have become taxi drivers, oil workers, low level labourers, their sons are being educated in national schools and they are being absorbed into national cultures (Cole, 2003, p. 236). In addition, new technologies such as radios, cassette players and television have brought modern culture to the Bedouins even within camps (Racy 1996, p. 420). When this music is heard on the radio, it is absorbed and transformed into a local version (Shiloah, 1972, p. 20). These mass media bring in new values and worldviews into the Bedouin context, resulting in a cultural transformation, especially among the youth (Abu-Lughad, 1989, p. 10). This influx of mass media combined with an increase in education has created a desire among the youth for a different way of life, resulting in many leaving the steppe into the urban areas (Cole, 2003, p. 249). Kinship is becoming less valued in favour of individualism. In Beersheba, many frequent the large, multinational shopping center there people are able to escape the social limitations imposed in the traditional markets in and become an “unmarked person” able to shop without fear of being judge or watched (Markowitz & Uriely, 2002, p. 227).

Furthermore, Bedouin culture has been turned into a commodity for Israeli and European tourists seeking the romantic aura of a pre-modern society. Such destinations are marketed as “romantic yet obsolete, noble yet primitive” (Dinero, 2002, p. 76). The fact that the majority of Bedouin now live in stone houses with modern, immobile appliances and have all but abandoned the way of life of their predecessors is largely ignored (Dinero, 2002, p. 75). It is telling that in Beersheba the market containing factory made trinkets and ‘traditional’ cloths advertised as ‘handcrafts’ grows and is filled with tourists (Dinero, 2002, p. 80) while the original livestock market where one would be more likely to encounter a ‘Bedouin’ finds very little traffic (Dinero, 2002, p. 78). This has served to create an “extra-authentic” Bedouin culture, perpetuating “misinformation in the form of stereotypes, biased viewpoints and prejudices” (Dinero, 2002, p. 69). (For example, see this Youtube video with the musician playing for a crowd of tourists in tank-tops and shorts) People want to see a version of Bedouin culture that conforms to their Orientalist preconceptions, even if it is far removed from reality. Perhaps more problematic is the “decontextualization of culture” whereby the Bedouin’s traditional lifestyle is converted into a form of wage labour (Dinero, 2002, p. 72). As such, even hospitality, a central pillar of Bedouin society that evolved out of life in the desert is now being sold these tourists, completely undermining the principle in the process (Dinero, 2002, p. 89).

Social Change as Reflected in Expressive Culture

"The only good use for an electric guitar in Sinai is smoldering on a fire, preferably underneath a large pot of freshly roasted Bedouin Coffee" (Bedouin Jerrycan Band)

Given these drastic social transformations, one would expect to find similar changes within expressive culture as well. In fact, these changes are mirrored in the music and poetry of the Bedouin, however these changes are not within the music and poetry themselves, but the contexts in which they are expressed, ranging from political or social dissent to commercialize mass produced media.

There have been many attempts to record and preserve Bedouin expressive culture before it disappears. However, once again we find the perpetuation of misinformation by both Bedouin musicians and those recording the music. They may be sincere in their attempts to preserve traditional Bedouin music, however the way in which they market the music clearly makes use of stereotypes. Take for example the album The music of Islam, volume two: Music of the South Sinai Bedouins, Sinai, Egypt. In the introduction provided in the liner notes it states "This recording presents the traditional fold music of legendary desert nomads . . . It was recorded in a single night under a full moon in a dry river bed in the South Sinai Desert . . . acting as a doorway into this ancient culture, people and music, capturing their very essence" (Basile, 1998, emphasis mine). Cleary the marketers are playing upon the romantic aura which western audiences hold towards the ‘legendary desert nomads’. The music does in fact represent the musical traditions of the South Sinai, however it is clearly playing upon Orientalist biases.

A similar argument can be made for the musical group, The Bedouin Jerrycan Band. They are a group of musicians based out of Southern Sinai who have rose to international renown. They were brought together out of a conscious effort “to preserve and promote the Sinai Bedouin musical tradition” while attempting to “rekindle interests within their own community” (Renton, 2007, p 17). They use instruments such as the simsimiyya, rababa, while combining them with ‘junk’ percussion such as old oilcan drums, ammunition boxes, remnants of previous wars and occupations (Aspden, 2007, p. 38). However, as much as they are preservers of culture, they also market themselves as ‘authentic Bedouin’. At their performances in concert halls, they sit in front of a black goat-hair tent with their coffee pots in front of them (Aspden, 2007, p. 38). Their website contains pictures and a music video of them sitting on the desert sand in front of another black goat-haired tent (browse their website for pictures and the music video)They may be sincere in their attempts to preserve culture, however one cannot deny that they market themselves in such a way as to appeal to western fantasies of the exotic. According to Aspden (2007), their album “Coffee Time” was recorded in the same “lavish, Gulf-funded Cairo studios” used by Amr Diab (p. 38). The Jerrycan Band needs the market as much as Diab himself.

Another interesting way in which Bedouin culture has become popularized is in the Gulf television show “Poet of Millions”, a talent competition in a similar vein as programs such as “American Idol” (Fattah, Bakri & el-Naggar, 2007). In this program, contestants compete using the Bedouin poetic genre Nabati, popular only in the Gulf states today (Fattah, Bakri & el-Naggar, 2007). In this way a traditional form of Bedouin expression has become repopularized not just within the local society, but across the Arab world, broadcast via satellites. Although very much a commercial endeavor, it is a way of legitimizing a form of culture that has in recent years been over shadowed by glamorous Arab pop stars (Fattah, Bakri & el-Naggar, 2007). Picture of the Competition

Poetry is preserved in other ways as well. Bailey (1991) provides numerous examples of how the Bedouins of the Sinai and Negev have used poetry to express their social discontent and in doing so have displayed a remarkable awareness of the global world around. He records poems expressing anger over not being invited to an official ceremony, stating “though Husni Mubarak calls Sinai ‘our land’, It’s we helped them in when they’d no hope at all” (Bailey, 1991, p. 38). There are poems praising Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 (Bailey, 1991, p. 168) and others praising the 1979 peace accord stating “we ask God who sends us rain with the clouds to shield Anwar Sadat from all evil . . . Sixty-seven was bitter with what it revealed . . but then we stood from in seventy-three” (Bailey, 1991, p. 376). These are but a few of the examples of the way in which the Bedouin have used poetry to express and record what is going on around them.

Similarly, the poet Abu Samir of Jordon has used the traditional Qasid as a way of speaking out again the American invasion of Iraq and the collaboration of Arab leaders (Holes & Athera, 2007, p. 273). In this way, the Qasid provides “a vehicle for commentary on all kinds of national, regional and . . . international political issues, providing a ‘grass roots’ view of the world (Holes & Athera, 2007, p. 273). Such poems, because of their vocal criticism of governments are often circulated via word of mouth, cassettes, and even mobile phones (Holes & Athera, 2007, p. 273). Traditional poetic structures are adhered, yet room is made for innovation. Instead of a camel, the hero of the poems mounts his LandCruiser, or pick-up truck (Holes & Athera, 2007, p. 274). Abu Samir uses this liberty to write poetry from the perspective of George W. Bush, placing him in the archetypical role of a boastful poet, basking in his victories, yet the irony of Bush’s failure is not lost on the audience (Holes & Athera, 2007, p. 278). By using a familiar medium, as well as using modern technologies, the poet’s message reaches and resonates with a far wider spectrum of society than any published article could ever.

In a similar way, youth of the Awlad Ali have used the traditional poet-songs as a way of speaking out against the accepted social hierarchy. Abu-Lughod (1989) chronicles her fear that a particular poetic genre she was disappearing however, upon returning, she found this genre flourishing due to the very mediums which she believed would overwhelm it (p. 9). The proliferation of cassette recordings throughout the Western desert enabled young Bedouins to perpetuate the genre and achieve local fame because of it. What had changed however was the way in which these poems were used. These singers had gained popularity singing about contemporary problems (Abu-Lughod, 1989, p. 9), using the traditional poetic forms as a way of expressing “cultural defiance” against the overbearing power of their elders (Abu-Lughod, 1989, p. 10). Increased exposure to the Egyptian pop culture, infused with Western values has created a desire for change among the youth and better educational and employment opportunities. This discontent is expressed through the traditional method of poetry.


Bedouin society has undergone tremendous change. Few if any have been able to maintain the desert lifestyle that brought so much fame and notoriety to the Bedouin. Tents have been exchanged for stone houses, and nomadism has been abandoned in favour of a cash economy, working in wage based jobs, fates being intricately linked to the global world around them. However, in spite of these changes, Bedouin expressive culture has persisted, ever reflecting the changing situation around them. While some have used romanticized version as a way of entertaining western audiences, others have used it form of protest against a world which no longer holds them in esteem. Others have sought to preserve their culture bringing exposure to it. Whatever the case, the Bedouin “are adjusting their material and political life to rapidly changing modern conditions and yet they continue to respect and adhere to a range of traditions that help them define and perpetuate their ethnic integrity, their Bedouin-ness” (Cole, 2003, p. 37).

Examples of Bedouin Music, Taken From Beduin music of southern Sinai [sound recording]

Alá dal 'úna, performed by Group of fishermen from the Syro-Lebanese region

A Fisherman's Dance, performed by Al-Tur singers

A Fisherman's Song, performed by Abu Rodeis

Bedouin Evening: Coffee Grinding, Daḥḥīya Dance, Poem's Declamation', performed by Group of different tribes recorded in Dir Nasib and Wadi Firan

Hudjaini - Caravan Song, peformed by Tarabin Tribe

Three Simsimiyya Tunes, performed by Al-Tur lutist, drummer


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