11 May 2011

The culture of Arabia

I finished Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands (1959) in Israel. It describes life among the Beduin of southern Arabia, Yemen and Oman in the 1940s. It's not only well written but full of interesting cultural details. Here are a few:
Arabs rule but do not administer. Their government is intensely individualistic, and is successful or unsuccessful according to the degree of fear and respect which the ruler commands, and his skill in dealing with individual men. Founded on an individual life, their government is impermanent and liable to end in chaos at any moment. To Arab tribesmen this system is comprehensible and acceptable, and its success and failure should not be measured in terms of efficiency and justice as judged by Western standards. To these men, security can be bought too dearly by loss of individual freedom. [p 47]

The cooked meat as set apart. Sultan then divided it into seven equal portions. Tamtaim took seven twigs and named each twig after one of us. Musallim, whose back had been turned, then placed a twig on a heap of meat, saying as he did so "Here is for the best man," This lot fell to bin Turka [snip] "This is for the man who pokes the girls," and Tamtaim picked up the meat which had fallen to him. Bin Anuf grinned at the old man, and said "Evidently, uncle, you will have another son next year. Musallim went on until each of us had drawn his share of the meat. There is always trouble if the meat is not divided by lot. Someone immediately says that he has been given more than his fair share and tries to hand a piece to someone else. Then there is much arguing and swearing by God, with everyone insisting that he has been given too much, and finally a deadlock ensues which can only be settled by casting lots for the meat -- as should have been done in the first place. I have never heard a man grumble that he has received less than his share. Such behavior would be inconceivable to the Bedu, for they are careful never to appear greedy, and quick to notice anyone who is. [pp 85-86]

There is no security in the desert for an individual outside the framework of his tribe. This makes it possible for tribal law, which is based on consent, to work among the most individualistic race in the world, since in the last resort a man who refuses to accept a tribal decision can be ostracized. It is therefore a strange fact that tribal law can only work in conditions of anarchy and breaks down as soon as peace is imposed upon the desert,* since under peaceful conditions a man who resents a judgement can refuse to be bound by it, and if necessary can leave the tribe and live by himself [p 94.]

* This comment noted that Abd al Aziz Ibn Saud had imposed central authority on most of Saudi Arabia, but not the Bedu areas described in the book

"What is the news?" That is the question which follows every encounter in the desert even between strangers. Given a chance the Bedu will gossip for hours... and nothing is too trivial for them to recount. There is no reticence in the desert. If a man distinguishes himself he knows that his fame will be widespread; if he disgraces himself he knows that the story of his shame will inevitably be heard in every encampment. It is this fear of public opinion which enforces at all times the conventions of the desert. The consciousness that they are always before an audience makes many of their actions theatrical.
Bottom Line: Anyone interested in Arabic culture (Arabian Spring, anyone?) should read this book to understand its roots. FIVE STARS.

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