Bulletin 37 - March 1989: Bedouin Youth, Past and Present

Bedouin Youth, Past and Present

by Sheikha Al Maskery
(The following is the gist of a talk presented to the ENHG at the end of 1986. -- Ed.)

Sheikha Al Maskery's thesis is that UAE Bedouin youth have been corrupted since the coming of the oil age in the country. Traditional values have been eroded, there is now a distinct generation gap and the result is a cultural void.

Sheikha Al Maskery began her lecture with an overview of the past. Because of its formidable dunes and sabkhas, and very shallow Gulf waters, the country's intrinsic sovereignty was maintained until the middle of the 20th Century. Only the eastern frontiers of the Gulf were occupied by various intruders down the ages. It was not only the inaccessibility of the country itself, however, but also the character of its people that has determined that sovereignty. The Bedouin had evolved through a period of many centuries to what he was until so recently, a man tempered by poverty and his harsh, naked environment until he was able to adapt. He was able to survive almost in camouflage with his environment, and his character was molded by two basic precepts -- one was either a friend or one was an enemy (or at least treated as such).

The archaeological background to this part of Arabia goes back at least 5000 years, to a period of sophisticated civilization as revealed by the artifacts of such sites as Qattarah, Hili and Umm an Nar. The region, in fact, has a long tradition of civilization, intimately involved with its environment, until the coming of recent history some two centuries ago. It was then that the Al Falah family migrated from the Liwa to found the city of Abu Dhabi. Until that point, at the end of the 18th Century, life had been lean. There were two distinct living patterns, according to whether one lived inland or along the coast.

The desert Arab lived around his date palms. He relied on the date groves for both housing and food. He kept sheep and cattle, drank camel and goat milk, but ate very little meat. Vegetables and most other fruits were almost non-existent, but there was some wheat so local bread was available. The woman's life was hard but there were compensations. She understood both the harshness and the freedom of the vast open desert for, despite her domestic chores, she did have time on her hands. For six months of the year, the menfolk left the inland oases to go sea-faring, sifting through he African and Asian societies they encountered, bringing back what was attractive to them and leaving behind what was unappealing. They had wives in far-off lands but always returned to the land of their roots. During these lonely months the women were left at home with full matriarchal responsibility for the family. This involved not only everyday life and death, but also the responsibility of upholding tribal honor and tradition. The men left at home spent their time doing very little, except holding open 'majlis' of coffee-drinking sessions, conversing with family and visitors; and with so much time available, a tradition of oral poetry was nurtured over the centuries. This was a poetry that spoke of the rhythm of the desert, with verses advancing and retreating, reflecting a slow, deliberate life just as it was, drowsy, monotonous, repetitive, but with a definite pattern. An unexciting, forbearing life after all meant survival.

The coastal Bedouin were the boat-builders, seafarers and pearl divers. They lived and ate quite differently to the inland Arab, their food comprising mostly fish, again with little or no meat. The local UAE dish today is still the traditional "machbous" based on fish. As with the inland tribes, the menfolk were seafaring for half the year. Modern TV soap operas depict the sad farewells among families and when the menfolk returned, of course there were changes; people died, children were born, tragedies occurred. Yet the men were extremely proud of the role of their women in upholding the virtues of a clan, and for their patience.

Then came oil. The Bedouin life style has now been altered to the core and the traditions of centuries have been irrevocably altered in just three short decades. Of course, there had been earlier contacts with foreigners. Britain had signed a series of agreements with local Sheikhs in the 19th Century, but these mostly considered maritime and external politics, internal affairs being resolved mainly by the Sheikhs themselves.

Oil exploration commenced in the 1930s and drilling actually started in 1951 at Ras Sadr, near Jebel Ali. Nothing was found there but by then the region was virtually a British protectorate. It was not until 1972 that true political independence was realized. Yet there was little or no opposition to British influence for the 150 years or so it lasted because it was never really felt by the population. Local people had nothing to give and nothing to be taken.

Oil was finally discovered in 1960 and since then the infrastructure of a modern state has been built out of nothing. At first, many expatriate staff and dependents were kept in Bahrain as no facilities existed for them on the Trucial Coast, and it was not until 1966 that the first oil-company families moved into what is now the UAE. The Bedouin were suddenly exposed to influences that completely bewildered them. They had heard stories from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia of oil wealth and ostentation and now found they had to do little but become local sponsors, sit down, and become rich overnight. The construction boom that followed introduced the Bedouin to the idea of permanent housing for the first time in their lives. From there it was too easy to assume the trappings of a consumer society. They were then told that if they and their children were to cope with all this permanent change, they would have to attend schools. Children were thus uprooted from a traditionally patterned existence to one in which they were taught by foreign teachers. In his traditional upbringing, a boy was demarcated from his sister. She learnt about life from her mother, aunts and grandmothers; above all, how to be a good wife. By the time she was 12 she was ready for motherhood and primed for marriage. By that age she was deemed to know all that was necessary in the old tradition of a Bedouin wife.

From the age of three, the boy was a part of male society, sitting with his father in the 'majlis' and learning how to listen, one of the prime attributes of the Bedouin. Unveiling of one's thoughts was always a sign of discourtesy and a man's intelligence was measured by his ability to elude direct questions. By the time he was 15, the Bedouin boy was ready to be a husband and father, ready to uphold tribal traditions and honor on his father's death.

This pattern of education was totally altered by the new schools. Now the child was taught things that his parents could have no conception of. The father, meanwhile, was too preoccupied with his new get-rich-quick commercial life to be able to spend much time with his family. There was no time to regale the young son with tales of his tribe, or to teach him in the customary way the values of a Bedouin life.

It was the Bedouin woman who suddenly realized that there was a generation gap, and that it was up to her to adapt to cope. She felt she had to dress differently because the neighbors did so, in new, synthetic, often tight-fitting textiles that were not really compatible with the climate and her previous lifestyle. With her husband and children away, she had free time, but she was confined to her home, with all responsibility removed. She was no longer accountable for the behavior of her children; theirs was now a different world, and a communication gap arose between mother and father, parents and children. Along with the new order came an influx of servants who took over the role of housekeeper, cook and nanny. Not to have such a status symbol was now unheard of. Home catering even began to be delegated to hotels and restaurants, while meals were now taken in a foreign manner, on tables with cutlery and adornments. All this gave way to the patronage and responsibility of a Filipino or Sri Lankan maid. The wife was soon reduced to being merely a child-bearer, a watcher of TV soap operas. Meanwhile, young children altered rapidly. Their very first words might be broken English, picked up from the housemaid; the Arabic oral tradition, and all that it stood for, was gone for good.

The cities grew and prosperity increased as more and more oil revenues were utilized. In time, teenagers were sent overseas for further education, further loosening family ties. It was the woman left at home who most keenly felt the pressures as her life became more and more devoid of meaning. Previously, the tribe has been powerful by its cohesion, and by the number of children, especially sons. Now, despite the low population, family planning began to be in vogue with pregnancies spread far apart. Bottle-feeding became the norm, undreamed of 20 years previously. Ironically, in 1984, the World Health Organization was making huge efforts in the Gulf to re-educate women in the advantages of breast-feeding.

Diet in the past was lean and little, compatible with the desert life. The expatriate influx was accompanied by the full Western lifestyle, with refrigerators, prepackaged food, and supermarkets. Very soon there was an increase in the incidence of illnesses related directly to wrong or badly kept foods. Diets changed very quickly; along with a sedentary lifestyle, dietary imbalances became the norm.

It is difficult to blame this solely on the wealth produced by oil revenues, but the cost has been very high. It has been at the expense of virtually the whole of the country's heritage. The Bedouin is now an endangered species, rather like the American Indian, for the tourists to watch and photograph.

The question is what can or is to be done? The UAE today is politically stable and intimately linked with the AGCC as part of a powerful and respected entity. The UAE is also a friendly place, where many expatriates have chosen to settle for long periods. They recognize that there is some intangible thing about the UAE, which they want to be a part of, and this something has to do with the soul of the Bedouin. The old Bedouin life was full of the values of kinship, appreciation, respect and tolerance. There was talk and respect of ancestors, of the past, as witnessed in traditional poetry with its balanced stanzas almost always in the form of a dialogue, not a monologue (which was reserved for adulation of national events and for which the reciter would usually accept payment). Religion, of course, was part of the fabric of everyday life in the desert, a life close to the sand, without class distinction; the Bedouin was inextricably linked with the physical desert. The young girl knew her role in life from a very early age and accepted it; life for her was a continuous 24-hour education, and she was well adjusted to it. So too was the boy, waiting for a known role in manhood.

Then came cities, towns, schools, and the sudden and almost total break up of this way of life. Teenagers were strangers to their tradition. Youth now are estranged from their parents. Those children growing up now in the late 80's have parents who have already forgotten their Bedouin past. These are the remnants of tribes that evolved over centuries, and the sheer pace of the change in a single generation has been unprecedented.

There is much talk these days of the preservation of a culture, but this cannot be done through museums or books or TV. Culture resides in the home where there is cohesion; this cohesion no longer exists.

In an oil recession, such as that we have been experiencing, a generation that has known only glut and wealth is now at a loss, and this is probably a major reason for the recent rise in juvenile delinquency. Mutual care and affection in the home is not what it was, and children feel they are loyal to nobody but themselves. Those who went overseas for education found also romance, and this in many cases has precipitated an identity crisis. In the Liwa today there are more Hyderabadi than local wives. The government has suggested legislating to reduce the practice of foreign wife marriages but to little effect.

While due praise should, of course, go to all the advantages that oil has brought in its wake -- wealth, settled communities, farms, greenery, and education -- it should never be forgotten that all this has been at a very high price. Something essential has been lost, something that distinguishes the Bedouin from the outside world, something that has been lost very recently and completely, though imperceptible to most people until after the event. Unless the nation wakes up soon, that intangible something will be gone forever.


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