The Bedouins and the Desert: Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East

By Chatty, Dawn | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Bedouins and the Desert: Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East


Chatty, Dawn, The Middle East Journal


The Bedouins and the Desert: Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East, by Jibrail S. Jabbur. Tr. by Lawrence I. Conrad. Ed. by Suhayl J. Jabbur and Lawrence I. Conrad. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. xxix + 537 pages. Appends. to p. 642. Bibl. to p. 653. Index to p. 670. $29.50.

Reviewed by Dawn Chatty

The Bedouins and the Desert was originally published in 1988 in Arabic. The author, a renowned historian of Arab history and Arabic literature, had taught, for most of his career, at the American University of Beirut. He translated numerous works from English to Arabic for wider dissemination among his students and others. Jibrail S. Jabbur's greatest work was a study of Ummayid poetry, illustrating his conviction that early Arabic poetry was a key source for understanding the spirit and mentality of early Islamic times.

In a similar vein, this work manifests a fundamental concern that the bedouins should be studied in their historical context. Understanding their past lays the foundation for understanding them in the 20th century. This book is a unique and invaluable addition to the literature on bedouin life in particular, and on Arab culture in general.

The book is divided into four parts, each representing a pillar of bedouin life. These are "The Desert," "The Camel," "The Tent," and "The Arab Bedouin." This organization is reminiscent of the works of Charles Doughty and Alois Musil, both greatly admired by the author. The work, in many senses, is a continuation of the same classical, carefully observed, and detailed tradition, but from the perspective of a native Arab historian and academic. Earlier sections of the book suggest that the focus of the work is the early to middle 20th century. This is especially true in the discussion of carnivorous and herbivorous animals that can no longer be found in the desert, such as the lion, panther, and wild boar. This time frame is then disrupted by the author's discussion of the 1980s' animal re-introduction schemes in various Arab countries of, among other animals, the maha, or Arabian oryx.

The introduction to The Bedouins and the Desert is a solid piece of scholarship, carefully criticizing 19th-20th century Arab works on the bedouins, such as the works of Hafiz Wahba, Muhammad Kurd `Ali, Amin al-Rihani, `Arif al-`Arif, Ahmad Wasfi Zakariyya, Ahmad alAkram, Makki al-Jumayyil, and Muhyi al-Din Sabir. …

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