I had never heard of the Bedouins before my course with Mashav in Israel. Our teacher Monse worked with them helping empower women. According to what she told us, men are very chauvinist and women are almost not allowed leave their homes.

She ran an organization that kept customs alive by weaving carpets and scarves to sell. The woman’s job is to weave the house (literally) and decorate it, while the man is a shepherd of goats, sheep and camels.

But who are the Bedouins?

The Bedouin name comes from the Arabic language (بدوي) bedaui or badawi, which means ‘desert dweller’

Basically, they are nomadic Arabs from Arabia, the peninsula between Africa and Asia, between the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. With the Muslim conquests of the seventh century they expanded to North Africa. They are used to living a difficult life because in some areas of the desert less than 5 centimeters of water falls per year.

They consider themselves the true Arabs and the “Heirs of glory.” They are mentioned in the Old Testament as “Qedarites” and as “Aʿrāb (أعراب)” in the Quran.

It is a macho culture with a hierarchy of loyalties based on the proximity of the male kinship. They are polygamous and if they are rich they can have up to 4 women, but each one lives in their own awning. Marriages between family members are common as they are allowed by Muslim law. It is very rare for them to marry among tribes. If they divorce, the woman returns to live with her family.

The homes are for many people who live in separate awnings but share their meals. They have many children, it is common to see families with 10 children and more.

They were originally converted to Christianity and Judaism, although many ended up as slaves during the Roman Empire. It is possible that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Bedouin, since their traditions have changed little since biblical times. In the seventh century, the Bedouins were among the first converts to Islam.

Clothing and customs of the Bedouins

As the Bedouins live in the desert, their clothing must protect them from the sun and sand. The clothing is not attached to the body so that the fabric can absorb heat without transfering it to the skin. Each tribe has designs for their clothing, awnings and camel bags so they can be identified.

The different members of the tribes have clothes and jewelry to identify their social position and marital status. Men usually wear white cotton gowns and women blue or black. Some are covered with the burqa (it depends on which country they live in) and others do not.

It is typical that the eyes are delineated with black paint made of plants to protect themselves from the sun, just as the Egyptians did. It gives them a look like that of pirates of the Caribbean. It is also common to be painted with henna tattoos. Since they have no water, they do not bathe much and the hair is washed with powdered leaves (which are mixed with water) of the cider tree, a prickly fruit tree also known as the thorn of Christ.

They drink thick coffee mixed with ginger or cardamom and meet socially to do so. They also drink plenty of tea and milk directly from the camel. Many smoke hashish and some drink liquor, although they are Muslim.

They are good musicians and like to gather around a campfire to play and sing. Their instruments include the drum and the “kinnor” dating from biblical times. They also produce poetry that are particular to each tribe.

In Petra we ate at a Bedouin restaurant called ‘Deretna My Mom Recipe’. I know the picture doesn’t look so good, but the mansaf is delicious. This typical dish is made of lamb cooked in fermented dry yogurt sauce and is served with rice in a casserole. We also stayed in Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp which offers tourists a chance of experiencing their way of life.

Bedouins in Israel

Currently there are 270,000 Bedouins in Israel. Before the independence of Israel, it was estimated that between 65,000-90,000 lived in the Negev desert. The capital of this area is Beersheba to the north. To the west is Gaza and the Mediterranean, to the east the Dead Sea and to the south, the city of Eilat in the Red Sea.

When you go to the Dead Sea or the Red Sea, you will see informal Bedouin camps on the road. Apart from seeing the settlements, I had no contact with them in Israel.

Since these Bedouins are Israelites, they can only cross from Israel into Jordan or Egypt. In 1954 everyone received their citizenship. Informal communities range from 70 to 1,500 people. However, there are 7 recognized towns. Including that Rahat had a population of more than 58,700 (as of December 2013), being the largest Bedouin settlement in the world.

These villages were built by the government of Israel and have infrastructure such as water, electricity and health systems. They also have schools and hospitals that are free. Unrecognized peoples have schools that only reach 6th grade. Many Bedouins in informal communities have been forcefully moved by the Israelite government and more than 60% now live in urban areas.

The first Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of ancient Jewish texts, were found by Bedouin shepherds in the caves of John of Qumran in 1946. In the following decade they found 972 additional texts.

Bedouins in Jordan

Between the 14th and 18th centuries the Bedouins arrived in Jordan. Currently they make up 33-40% of the population. The majority are semi-nomadic, since part of the year they spend it in their homes doing agriculture. The government provides basic services, including education, housing and health clinics.

In Jordan, if I had plenty of contact with the Bedouins. It is estimated that about 1 million live in this country and are seen everywhere. They are very easy to recognize for their clothes and have taken over tourism.

We left our hotel in Aqaba and took the highway to go to Petra, on the way I had to stop several times while modern Bedouins (not all dressed in traditional costumes) crossed the highway with their goats.

Arriving in Petra we saw even more, since the Banū, one of the largest nomadic tribes live there. On the side of the road they could be seen with their fabric and tin houses. They live very close to their animals, usually sheep and donkeys. Sometimes they have camels. Donkeys and camels generate a lot of income as transportation for tourists visiting Petra.

Petra and Wadi Rum are two Bedouin tourist destinations

We stayed at Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp in Wadi Musa (Petra) that was run by purely men, since Bedouin women hardly seen. This hotel en Petra was accompanied by several camps near Little Petra. From this area you can enter Petra from behind and arrive directly at the monastery. The hotel gave us a guide who accompanied us on the tour.

Little Petra is part of Petra but is not well known, so admission is free. There I rented a camel and went on a short tour to the end.

You can climb to a viewpoint that has a great view for the sunset. I met a Bedouin named Iman who asked me where I was from, I replied Panama and he told me that that was weird and that I was close to the moon. It made me laugh and we became friends. I stayed a while telling stories and offered me tea.

When I went down I wanted to vomit and I couldn’t control myself. He told me the tea was sage. Online it said that if you drink a lot of sage tea it gives you those effects. The truth is that I do not think I drank too much, but it has a cleaning effect.

We didn’t have time to go to Wadi Rum in the desert. The Banū al-Ḥuwayṭāt tribe lives in this area and handle all hotels in Wadi Rum.

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