The Bedouins and the Desert

Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East

By Jibrail S. Jabbur
Edited by Suhayl J. Jabbur
Edited and translated by Lawrence I. Conrad

Subjects: Arab Literature
Series: SUNY series in Near Eastern Studies
Paperback : 9780791428528, 700 pages, October 1995
Hardcover : 9780791428511, 700 pages, October 1995

Table of contents

List of Illustrations

List of Tables

Translator's Note



The Desert and Bedouin Life: a Personal Perspective

Books and Studies on Desert Affairs

The Meaning and Character of Nomadism

Types of Nomadism

The Ethnic and Social Significance of Nomadism

The Economic Significance of Nomadism

The Military and Political Significance of Nomadism

The Pillars of Bedouin Life

The First Pillar: The Desert

I.  The  Desert Homeland

Defining and Describing the Desert

Deserts and Sand-Deserts of Arabia

II.  Trees and Plants of the Desert

Fruit-Bearing Trees

Non-Fruit-Bearing Trees

Desert Grasses and Shrubs

Fungal Plants

Desert Flowers

III.  Carnivorous  Desert  Animals

The Lion

The Wolf

The Hyena

The Shib

The Badger

The Fox and Jackal

The Qurayta (Wildcat)

The Panther

IV.  Herbivorous Desert Animals

The Gazelle

The Ibex

The Onager (Wild Ass)

The Oryx, or "Wild Cow" (Wudayhi)

The Roebuck

The Wild Boa

The Porcupine

The Marmot

The Hedgehog

The Jerboa

The Rabbit

V.  Desert Birds

The Sand Grouse

The Ostrich

The Falcon

Acquisition and Training of Falcons

The Eagle and Vulture

The Bustard

The Francolin

Cranes and Herons

The Stork

Other Birds

VI.  Desert Reptiles and Insects

The Dhabb

The Locust

VII.  Domesticated Animals in the Desert

The Horse

The  Origins of the Horse

Characteristics of the  Horse

The Donkey

The Guard Dog

The Saluki

Sheep, Goats, and Cattle

The Second Pillar: The Camel

VIII.  The Camel

The Origins and Habitats of the Camel

Domestication and References in Ancient Records

The Camel as an Important Pillar of Bedouin Life

Types of Camels

Attributes of the Camel

The Diet of the Camel

Its Endurance and Strength on the March


Traits  of Thoroughbred Camels

Benefits of then Camel

Disadvantages of the Camel

The Temperament of the  Camel

The Breeding  of She-Camels

Stages in a Young Camel's Life

The Third Pillar: The Tent

IX.  The Bedouin's Tent

The Bedouin Tent

Tent Fabric

The  Bedouin Camp

The Fourth Pillar: The Arab Bedouin

X.  The Arab Bedouin and His Tribes

Who is the Arab Bedouin?

The Origin of the Arab Bedouin

Bedouin  Solidarity and Pride in Descent

Some of the Best-Known Tribes

The 'Imarat (from Dana Bishr)

The Sba'a (from Dana 'Ubayd ibn Bishr)

The Fid'an (from Dana 'Ubayd ibn Bishr)

Dana Muslim

The Hsana

The Rwala (from the al-Jlas branch of Muslim)

The Hadidiyin

Banu Khalid

The Fawa'ira

The Mawali

Banu Sakhr


The 'Aqaydat

The Wild 'Ali

XI.  The Tribal Order

The Family: the Foundation of the Tribal Order

Descent-Group Solidarity

Tribal Territories in the Tribal Order

The Master of the Household

The Mistress of the Household


Boys and Girls

Bedouin Justice

The Office of Shaykh among the Bedouins

The Search for Water and Pasturage

XII.  The Bedouin Character

Endurance and Patience

Courage and Combat



Solicitude for Kin and Protégés

Bedouin Eloquence



The Bedouin's Zeal for Vengeance


His Ability to Interpret Physical Signs

XIII. Bedouin Appearance, Dress, and Adornment

Bedouin  Appearance

Bedouin Dress and Adornment

Women's Dress

XIV.  Raiding and the Brother-Right


The ''Brother-Right"

XV.  The Bedouins and the Hunt

Gazelle-Hunting with the Trap Method

Gazelle-Hunting without Recourse to Dogs

Gazelle-Hunting with Dogs and Falcons

Gazelle-Hunting with the Automobile

Gazelle-Hunting from a Blind

Hunting the Ibex

Rabbit Hunting

Bustard Hunting

Hunting the Sand Grouse

Hunting the Ostrich and Oryx

XVI.  The Bedouins and Religion

The Bedouin's Profession of Islam

Sacrifices  among the Rwala

The Markab, or Sacred Litter

XVII.  Education and Cultural Life

Education and Instruction

The Majalis as Centers of Education

Cultural Life in the Desert

Literary Genres—the Bedouin Qasid

Bedouin Folk-Tales

The Subject Matter of the  Stories

The Aim of the Story

The Bond between Story and Qasid

Genuine Historical Events

Examples of Such Lore

Other Bedouin Genres

XVIII.  Nomads of the Nomads: the Slayb

A Curious Tribe

Modern  Scholarship on the Slayb

The Views of al-Bustani

Objections to the Views of al-Karmali

Views of Other Scholars

Later Europeans Who Wrote on the Slayb

The Emergence of the Slayb

The Donkeys of Slayb

The Slayb and Hunting

The Slayb and Handicrafts

The Slayb and Their Knowledge of the Desert

Poetry and Music

The Slaybi Woman

Slayb Origins: a View in Critique of al-Bustani

A Theory on Their Origins

The Clans of Slayb

Changes in Their Way of Life

XIX.  The History of the Bedouins in Northern Arabia

In Ancient Times

In Pre-Islamic Times

In Early Islamic Times up to the 'Abbasid Era

In the Era of the Declining 'Abbasid Caliphate

In the Era of the Crusaders and Mongols

In the Mamluk Period

In Ottoman Times

XX.  The Transformation of Bedouin Life


Appendix I. Egyptian Archival Documents

Appendix II. British Foreign Office Documents

Appendix III. Plants and Shrubs in Arab Desert Lands

Bibliography of Works Cited



An extensively illustrated account of traditional bedouin life in the Arab east that extends from desert wildlife and lore on the camel to marriage customs and the history of the enigmatic tribe of Slayb.

Jibrail Jabbur (1900-1991) was Professor of Arabic literature and Semitic Studies at the American University of Beirut. He was a renowned historian of Arabic literature, a leading figure in modern Arab education, and chair of the committee responsible for the modern Arabic translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. His many publications include editions of several medieval Arabic texts, a three-volume study of the early Arab poet 'Umar inb Abi Rabi'a, and numerous monographs on historical and cultural topics. His memoirs were published in Beirut only days before his death. Lawrence I. Conrad is Historian of Near Eastern Medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London and the author of numerous studies on medical history and medieval Arab history and historiography. Suhayl J. Jabbur, Jibrail Jabbur's son, is a neurophysiologist and Professor of Physiology at the American University of Beirut.


"I need scarcely say how important this book's subject is for anyone who wishes to understand the society and culture of the Arab peoples. There have been a number of important studies in European languages about aspects of this subject, and some valuable reports by western travelers, but in my opinion Jibrail Jabbur's book goes beyond them. It is based on a unique variety of sources: the works of Arab historians as well as European scholars and travelers; Arabic poems (of which Professor Jabbur had a remarkable knowledge), and his own personal observations during a long life which began on the edge of the Syrian desert." — Albert Hourani, author of A History of the Arab Peoples

"This book is above all a mine of detailed information about many aspects of bedouin life and about the physical environment in which the bedouin live....The interplay of recent/ethnographic detail and information drawn from ancient Arabic poetry and other literary sources is remarkable....All in all, it is an invaluable compilation and synthesis of material on a rapidly vanishing way of life." — Fred Donner, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago