Bedouin Memory Between City and Desert
The redrawing of Middle East boundaries by colonial powers following World War I, and the discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf region from the 1920s to 1950s ushered in more change in two generations than the Bedouin tribes had experienced since the founding of Islam. Urban centres rapidly expanded and new national boundaries created a class of stateless urban and desert peasants (bidoon), and interrupted migration patterns of the pastoral nomads (beddu or badu, the “desert-dwellers”) who have migrated throughout the region for thousands of years. As Bedouin lifestyle shifted in the face of urbanisation throughout the Arabic speaking world, Arabs of Bedouin heritage sought to memorialise a romanticised past by constructing heritage villages and tourist destinations designed to deliver an exotic, authentic Bedouin experience for visitors. Competing conceptions of history have characterised this culture’s interactions with newly emergent post-World War I political realities. Their concept of memory contrasts sharply with Western “documentary” memory, which relies on the written word, photography, and an objectivist vision of historical truth. Oral history is still one of the few avenues of memory available to present-day Arabs of Bedouin heritage due to low literacy rates. This fact, in conjunction with their adaptability to the harsh desert environment, allows for creative re-interpretation of a memorialised past both by the Bedouins themselves and the Arab national states. The case studies below present vignettes of how creatively reinterpreted memory has impacted the politics, culture, and social organisation among the Bedouin of the Negev, Egypt, Arabian Gulf (Saudi Arabia), and southern Jordan (Petra and Wadi Rum).