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THE PERSISTENCE OF BEDOUIN IDENTITY AND

INCREASING POLITICAL SELF-REPRESENTATION IN


LEBANON AND SYRIA
Dawn Chatty
Al-Bedu, Bedu wa al Hadr, Hadr
[The Bedouin are Bedouin while the Urbanites are Urbanites]
(Bedouin, KH17)

Abstract
This paper examines the persistence of tribal identity and authority and
the increasingly public self-representation of Bedouin in the Badia of
Syria and the Bekaa of Lebanon. It sets out the significant challenges to
Bedouin tribal identity and authority over the past three decades. The paper
argues that, despite the formal annulling of the Bedouin tribes legal status
in Syrian law in 1958 and the silenced legal status of most Bedouin in
Lebanon, tribal identity and the authority attached to traditional leaders
continues to exist.
KEYWORDS: Bedouin identity, Self Representation, Authority, Lebanon,
Syria

This paper examines the persistence of tribal identity and authority and the
increasingly public and political self-representation of tribesmen in the Badia
of Syria and the Bekaa of Lebanon over the past three decades. It commences
with a brief examination of the nature of the Bedouin tribe in Greater Syria
(Bilad al Sham) in the recent past. It briefly examines the twentieth century
history of pacification and revival (19001970). It then sets out the significant
challenges to Bedouin tribal identity and authority over the past three decades: in Syria after the Correctionist Movement of Hafez al Asad and his son
Bashar; and in Lebanon after the ending of the civil war and the Taif Agreement
of the late 1980s. The paper argues that, despite the formal annulling of the
Bedouin tribes legal status in Syrian law in 1958 and the unwillingness of the
Lebanese state to recognise Bedouin as citizens, tribal identity and the authority attached to tribal leaders continued to exist and were played out in different
ways in both countries, reflecting the different approaches to authority of each
state. In the wake of the Arab Uprising, tribal identity, affiliation and political

NOMADIC PEOPLES 18, 2 (2014): 1633. doi: 10.3197/np.2014.180203


2014 Commission for Nomadic Peoples

The Persistence of Bedouin Identity

solidarity have emerged anew as significant elements in the conflict that engulfs the Middle East.
A decade ago Donald Cole wrote Where Have the Bedouin Gone? (Cole
2003: 235267). Today the question could be revised to ask Where have all
the Bedouin come from? to set the stage for analysing the growing trend in the
past decade of growing self-identification as Bedu or Arab. For most of the
past fifty years it has been impossible to get census figures on the Bedouin as
they have not been recognised as an ethnic group or minority either in Lebanon
or in Syria. This paper sets out to show that the Bedouin tribes of Syria, and to
a lesser extent of Lebanon, continue to function as groups tied in relations of
real and fictive kinship and that these bonds provide the tribal members with a
political solidarity and cohesiveness which the state has not been able to suppress, despite either total neglect or decades of discrimination. The Bedouin of
Syria and Lebanon do constitute a coherent ethnicity expressed in segmentary tribal organisation. They construct themselves as groups, forming moral
societies based on clearly articulated concepts of right and wrong, expressed
largely through notions that shape institutions such as hospitality and honour as well as behaviour such as expulsion and generosity. At the same time,
Bedouin and Bedouin-ness, as a social construct and identity, continue to be
regarded by some with both the romanticism directed at the noble savage and
the ambiguity and distrust associated with the backward and primitive.
Much of the analysis in this paper is based on interviews and participant
observation over several decades in the LebanonSyria border region and in
the central Syrian Badia between Homs, Hama and Palmyra, where significant
tribal activity and interaction with the state takes place.

The nature of Bedouin tribes in the past and today


The term bedu is derived from the Arabic word Badia, the semi-arid and arid
steppe land which covers so much of Northern Arabia, and refers to those who
live in the Badia. The opposition of bedu (desert dweller) to hadar (urban
dweller) is specifically an Arab cultural tradition. The other term commonly
used to refer to the Bedouin is Arab.
The social organisation of Bedouin tribes has been described by many as
based on opposing and parallel segmentation of units at various levels of reality and fiction. The Arab expression me against my brother; me and my
brother against my cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the world
perfectly describes this layered outlook on alliances and enmity among families, lineages and tribes. The segmentation refers to the way in which the tribe
is divided into smaller parallel sections ashiras and afkhadhs sub-tribes

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or clans and lineages and then, at the base, large extended groups of related
households sometimes called bayts or qom/aqwam. These groups often move
or live together in adjacent hamlets; they work together in herding and in agricultural activities and often share pastures, agricultural fields and watering
points. At the head of these social groups, the tribal leader (shaykh) is generally
the politically strongest and most charismatic male of the shaykhly lineage.
He negotiates access, arbitrates disputes and generally represents the tribe in
its relations with the central authority of the state. This leadership is also vested
with a moral authority that can be augmented or lost by behaviour which respects or disregards tribal custom (Chatty 1977: 385397). Ernest Gellner
(1958) and more recently James Scott (2009) have regarded such tribal peoples as specialised and sophisticated resistance communities, in that evidence
increasingly suggests a complex but adaptive organisation developed in opposition to the centralising and often oppressive authority of the state.
Throughout history, the semi-arid steppe lands bordering the Mediterranean
coastline have been a zone of conflict and contest between agricultural activity and pastoral grazing. This area is called the Mamoura and is a transitional
zone where some of the best pastures are found and where extensive cultivation can also take place in the right conditions. Sheep-raising Bedouin tribes
have moved into and out of the Bekaa Valley for centuries during their yearly
seasonal migrations (Burckhardt 1822; Chatty 1977; Cole 2003). There are
accounts of the Bedouin presence in the Bekaa Valley as early as the thirteenth
century (Oppenheim 1939: 325).
In the mid-seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire turned its attention and
its resources to its war against Austria, which resulted in a decline in agriculture. Numerous noble camel-raising Bedouin tribes from deep in the interior of
Northern Arabia began to drift north to fill what was in effect a vacuum. This expansion continued into the late nineteenth century when once again the Ottoman
authorities took measures to control, settle or co-opt Bedouin leadership. During
these two centuries, the great Aneza and Shammar camel-raising tribes established themselves in the Badia and Jezireh (the semi-arid steppeland across the
Euphrates River) of Greater Syria (Toth 2000). The Shammar confederation of
tribes moved into the region first. They were followed by Aneza tribes including
the Hassanna, the Fedaan, the Sbaa, the Ruwalla, Wuld Ali and Amarat.
The local sheep-herding tribes generally attached themselves to local
patrons such as the Ottoman governor in Aleppo and paid taxes to the state authority. In the mid-nineteenth century, approximately one hundred common,
sheep- herding tribes were registered with the city of Aleppo and regularly paid
taxes in lieu of paying tribute (khuwa) to a more powerful noble Bedouin
tribe. The noble camel-herding tribes, such as the Fedaan and the Sbaa did
not see themselves as subject to the Ottoman Sultan or his governors; they did

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Map 1. Tribal areas

not generally pay taxes and regarded themselves as free. Large in number and
well-organised for mobility, they also had a role in the states regional security strategy. Those tribes controlling a main Ottoman military district where
lines of communications were important were granted control of these areas
against a payment from the Sultan, and sometimes rations and food. Invariably
control of a district also gave the tribe rights to levy passage taxes on passing
traffic (Rae 1999: 64).
By the middle of the nineteenth century the Aneza and Shammar tribes
controlled the important trans-urban trade and much of the pilgrimage caravan routes between Damascus and Baghdad and Damascus and Mecca.
Occasionally the Ottomans launched punitive expeditions against these tribes
when their inter-tribal wars and raiding disturbed the security of the Mamoura
and the cities of Syria, particularly Homs and Aleppo (Toth 2000). Hence, in
the 1870s and 1880s, troops were dispatched to the border zone from Aleppo
to the Hauran. In addition, the Ottoman authorities began to purposefully settle
and arm Muslim refugees from the OttomanRussian wars along this border
region. Between 1870 and 1900, Circassians, Abkhazi, and Chechnyans were
forced to settle along the Mamoura in a line extending from Ras al Ain on the
Euphrates to Amman (Lewis 1987; Chatty 2010b: 106). In the Golan Heights,
these settlers, along with other new arrivals, the Druze, fleeing fighting in

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Mount Lebanon, formed an effective fighting force to break the power of the
Bedouin tribes. In the region around Homs, Hama and Salamiyah, new militarised Circassian settlements encircled Mawali, Haddiddiyn and Fadl Bedouin.
For Bedouin and villagers in the Mamoura, a basic notion of common
rights existed, based on Islamic law which differentiated between privately held
land (mulk), state land (miri), state land with common use rights (musha) and
dead land (mawat). The Haddiddiyn and the Mawali, for example, were recognised by the Ottoman state to have habitual (customary) summer grazing
grounds to the south of Aleppo. The size and borders of these traditional tribal
areas were not fixed and often overlapped with neighbouring Bedouin groups.
Strong tribal leaders could also allocate particular water sources and pastures
to particular sub-tribes or lineages for undefined periods of time. By and large,
the common tribes were in good relations with the agricultural settlements, but
they were often in patronclient relationships with the stronger noble tribes.

Recent history of pacification, rejection, and revival (19001970)


Many Bedouin leaders and their tribesmen supported the Arab Revolt of World
War I and then the establishment of an Arab independent state under Emir
Faysal over a part of Syria. The leaders of three Bedouin tribes with close
proximity to Damascus the Ruwalla, the Fadl and the Hassanna were particularly active in first supporting the Hashemite Kingdom in Syria (19191920)
and later in protesting against the policy of the French Mandate authorities
in Lebanon and Syria. The Fadl threw their support behind Emir Faysals
movement for independence from Ottoman rule as did Nuri Shalaan of the
Ruwalla and Trad al Melhim of the Hassanna. In 1918 both Nuri Shalaan
of the Ruwalla and Trad al Melhim of the Hassanna entered Damascus with
the troops of General Allenby and the Emir Faysal to establish the Kingdom
of Syria. After the defeat of Emir Faysal by the French in 1920 and the establishment of the French (and also British) Mandate over the former Arab
provinces of the Ottoman Empire, each of these tribal leaders continued their
protest and opposition. Shaykh Trad al Melhim of the Hassanna continued his
campaign for the establishment of an independent Arab nation. In 1920 both
Hassanna and Fadl tribesmen engaged French forces in battle in the Bekaa
Valley in Marjaoun and in Rayak (Hopwood 1988: 178180). Despite defeat, these Bedouin continued to consider the French mandate authority as
illegitimate and expressed their opposition through general strikes and armed
struggle throughout Lebanon and Syria. Many in the Fadl then went into exile
into the newly created British Mandate state of Trans-Jordan. The Shalaan
vacillated between both the French and the English until they finally reached

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an agreement with the French to remain outside the authority of the state but at
the same time to safeguard official caravans crossing in the Badia and to secure
peace among the tribes in payment of a monthly stipend of 2,000 gold pounds.
In their mandate the French sought to increase their strength and followed
the classical policy of divide and rule. The Bedouin of the Badia were separated out from the rest of Greater Syria and some claim that Nuri Shalaan
was encouraged to set up his own nation under the light supervision of a
special French unit, the Contrle Bedouin. This was more than some sort of
simple French romanticism toward the Bedouin as noble savages. The French
needed the cooperation of the Bedouin. First they could not leave two-thirds
of their newly acquired mandate territory (the Badia) out of their control. They
needed to guarantee a continuous and safe passage through the region for commerce and travel to Baghdad. Furthermore, the petroleum line to Mosul had to
be secured, as did the oil pipeline to Haifa. The French had two options. They
could either pacify the area by force of arms or they could buy the support of
the tribes by catering to their leaders. Both approaches were attempted at the
same time with a number of unexpected results.
In creating the new state of Greater Lebanon, the French affixed the Bekaa
Valley of Greater Syria to the predominantly Christian Mount Lebanon. The
French began collecting statistical records in Lebanon 1926 and conducted the
first National Census in 1932 Census (which remains the most recent Lebanese
population count). Many Bedouin were not registered in this census, either
because they happened to be seasonally out of the Bekaa Valley at the time or
because they refused to be registered, in opposition to the French colonial
presence. Without a nationality, the majority of the Bedouin tribes residing in
the Bekaa Valley were not able to purchase land in their own name; nor did they
have access to education and public health care. As the French sold off their
common pastureland in the Bekaa Valley for agriculture, the Bedouin were
increasingly pushed to reduce their migrations, to reduce their herd size and
to build houses for themselves and their families (Haj 1991; Thomas 2003).
In Syria, the French set up the Contrle Bedouin in 1920 to encouraged the
Bedouin to conduct their affairs in their traditional manner in such a way as to
not disturb the settled population. This meant Bedouin not carrying arms in settled regions and that they should fight only among themselves, leaving the settled
communities in peace (see also Bssow 2011). The latter, of course, was not
possible and in 1921 the French severely disciplined these recalcitrant tribes in
operations of unusual violence. Several winter tribal settlements were burned and
flocks dispersed, and large numbers of people were killed (Glubb 1942). Finally
a financial-political understanding between the French authorities and some of
the senior Bedouin tribal leaders resulted in an element of tolerance for the occasional raid and skirmish (Oppenheim 1939; Glubb 1942; Al-Faour 1968).

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Over the next two decades, the French arrested the once-fluid social and
physical universes of the Bedouin in order better to administer and manage this
region. Tribal rights to particular pastures and water points were recognised
as belonging to particular leaders and their tribe and were patrolled by the
French to ensure no further return to contestation and violence. Yet the very
nature of the tribal way of life in these arid lands revolved around recognising
the need for constant flexibility and adaptation in order to negotiate access to
resources when environmental conditions made that necessary. For example,
by the 1930s the French had set up a new land code and system of title to replace the Ottoman system. In the Badia, grazing land traditionally held by the
tribe communally came to be registered in the names of individuals generally tribal leaders. In the Homs-Hama area, for example, land encompassing
twenty villages was registered in the name of Shaykh Trad al Melhim. In this
manner, the Shammar registered in the name of their tribal leaders over two
million hectares of land in the Jezireh. This rapid agricultural push at the expense of communal grazing was not well received by the Bedouin. Some left
Syria and removed themselves from the political sphere of the French. These
included sub-tribal sections and lineages of the Hassanna, Ruwalla, Sbaa and
Fedaan (Ministre Des Affaires Etrangres 1938). Rakan, shaykh of the Sbaa
Butaynat, established an estate for himself in the region of Wadi Hasna and
Wadi al Azaib the tribes former summer grazing area. Other tribes, reported
first in the 1930s, progressively abandoned camel-raising as it became less
lucrative and turned to sheep raising (Ministre Des Affaires Etrangres 1931).
By 1940, in an effort to consolidate their hold over the Bedouin, Arrt no.
132/LR was entered into the French mandated statute books. Law 132, often
called the Law of the Tribes, brought together all the previous relevant laws
that had been introduced over the past two decades to support the Bedouin
state within a state. When, soon after, nationalist deputies submitted a bill
calling for an end to French Mandatory rule, only one of the nine Bedouin
deputies appeared to vote. This was the Emir of the Mawali tribe. By and large,
the French had succeeded in bringing most Bedouin leaders round to their side.
Instead of fighting to free Syria from French mandatory rule, they largely withdrew and abstained from taking a position, content to hang on to the special
status accorded them by the French.

The independent nation and its relations with the Bedouin tribes
The separate status of state-like character which the French had granted the
Bedouin tribes was an immediate thorn in the side of the independent nationalist rulers of Syria. Where the French had used the tribes as leverage against the

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nationalists, the new Syrian government policy wanted to convert this wild
population into Syrian citizens liable to common law (qanun). The nationalist government thus pursued an aggressive tribal policy aimed ultimately at
abolishing all tribal privileges and power. Settling the Bedouin was regarded
as a key part of this process. Furthermore, it was felt that the Bedouin mobile method of sheep-raising was not only primitive but also non-viable on
the scant resources of the Badia. A move to agriculture and intensive sheep
ranching was considered the appropriate model, which was supported by various international development agencies (see Bocco 2006).
In 1953, the French Mandate Law of the Tribes (1940) was annulled and
replaced with a new Syrian Law of the Tribes Decree No. 124 which continued to permit the Bedouin to carry arms in the Badia, but only those classified
as nomadic (the Aneza and Shammar confederations of tribes as well as
the Haddiddiin and Mawali and a further fifteen semi-nomadic tribes). The
Minister of Interior was empowered to remove tribes from this list as he saw
fit and re-register them as a settled community. Settled tribes were not allowed
to carry arms. The nine seats granted to the Bedouin tribes during the French
Mandate were now reduced to six. Of these, four were specified for particular tribes: the Mawali and Haddiddiyn from Aleppo, the Shammar from the
Jezireh and the Hassanna from Damascus.
In 1958, after nearly a decade of political turmoil both within the country and abroad, the Syrian Parliament voted for a union with Egypt. On 28
September 1958, Egyptian President Gamal Abd Al-Nasir repealed the Law
of the Tribes of 1956 and proclaimed that henceforth tribes would cease to
possess any separate legal identity. This was the last legislation to deal specifically with the Bedouin tribes and marked the final legal act in the long struggle
between central governments and the Bedouin tribes and their leaders (see
SAR 1956). For some Bedouin tribes this was a signal for their departure from
Syria. Some sections of Aneza tribes left for Saudi Arabia, particularly the
Fedaan and the Sbaa. Many continued to leave until 1973.
Two years later, in 1963, the Bath party came to power and the Union with
Egypt collapsed. In a desire to shift the balance of power from the city centres
to the rural areas, the Bath Party set out to establish a radical policy of land
reform (Hinnebusch 1989). The tribal leadership was seen as part of the old
order and the pastoral economy an anachronism in the modern Bathi state.
The Bath Party set out to strip the Bedouin leaders of their land and power,
much as they had done with other landowners. An official party document on
sectarianism, regionalism and tribalism stated that the Party [c]onsidered that
any social struggle that was based on regionalism, sectarianism or tribalism
would be a struggle that threatened the livelihood and existence of the people
(Van Dam 1996: 146). The Bath Party considered nomadism to be a primitive

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form of production, and thus inherently inefficient. The Bath Constitution


stated:
Nomadism is a primitive social state. It decreases the national output and
makes an important part of the nation a paralysed member and an obstacle
to its development and progress. The party struggles for the sedentarisation
of nomads by the grants of land to them [and] for the abolition of tribal
custom (Article 43).

This language was in perfect harmony with the modernisation theory that
was being promulgated by Western nations and international development
aid agencies. The emphasis was on the singular evolutionary progress from
savagery to civilisation. Bedouin and their way of life were considered far
removed from the apex of civilisation and needed to be guided through the
steps to reach civilised existence. Land was appropriated from the tribal elite
and given to tribal families so that they could benefit from the conditions of
settlement (El-Zoobi 1971: 120). By the end of the 1960s, more than 1.5 million hectares had been expropriated, much of it from tribal leaders. Some was
distributed to landless peasants and others set aside to settle Bedouin families.
In Lebanon a different process of disenfranchisement was taking place. The
early independence period found most Bedouin encapsulated in marginal areas
within well-populated agricultural regions (Chatty 1978: 400, 1986; Thomas
2003). The gradual settlement of Bedouin in the Bekaa Valley was less specifically state policy and more the result of the restrictions imposed on their
migratory movements by the rapid privatisation of land ownership. By the 1970s
many of the Bedouin group had begun to build informal settlements on former
grazing land and they began to negotiate access to agricultural fields after harvest. For the most part, these small settlements were irregular if not illegal.
In 1958 a Lebanese law was passed giving Bedouin who had not registered
in the 1932 census a special qayd al dars (under-study) nationality status. This
status was an improvement over the identification document most Bedouin in
Lebanon carried, maktum al qayd (no nationality / without records). However,
an under-study status still imposed major restrictions on acquiring basic
government services especially health services. In 1994 the Lebanese government granted those Bedouin with an under-study status from 1958 the right to
Lebanese nationality. This was extended to approximately 10,000 Bedouin out
of a total population estimated at between 100,000 and 150,000. In Lebanon
today, about two-thirds of all Bedouin in the country are unrecognised and without nationality. The attempts of the Bedouin leaders and their constituencies to
regularise their presence in Lebanon have resulted in a confusing array of identification categories; at the same time these various nationality statuses are
emerging as clearly of great political significance in Lebanons contemporary
consociational form of governance (Chatty et al. 2013).

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Hafiz al Asad, the Correctionist Movement and the Bedouin


In 1970 Hafiz al Asad led an internal coup within the Syrian Bath Party on
a platform of creating a credible opponent to the state of Israel. Asad needed
to broaden support for his own regime through a liberalisation of politics and
the economy. He moved to distance himself from the pre-independence neocolonial era by paying tribute to the unity of the 19251927 Great Arab Revolt
against the major European power the French Mandate which had drawn so
many of Syrias minorities to take part. He also set out to invite tribal shaykhs
and other dissidents to return to Syria. Asad felt that national unity and reconciliation of all its minorities, including the Bedouin, was paramount if Syria
were ever to be a challenge to Israel.
Asad also consolidated his grip on the state through the inclusion of disaffected groups including his own minority community, the Alawites. Within a
very short period of time, he had managed to appoint Alawaites as the majority
of the members of the Central Committee of the Bath party, as well as the
crucial military elite (Van Dam 1996: 122). Furthermore, Asad expanded the
traditional patronage networks of Syrian society, and made himself absolute
head of a military and political dictatorship. He was able to create a system
of distribution of national resources based on the political calculation of powers and loyalties and the pre-emption of threatening alliances (Zubaida 1993:
164). In order to shore up such a system, he expanded the military and security
apparatus of the country so that, by the 1990s, these services employed fifteen
per cent of the countrys total workforce (Perthes 1991: 147). The security
services became ubiquitous; their powers were often unchecked and only occasionally tempered by the supremacy of patronclient relationships.
Throughout this period Asad took a flexible approach to relations with
the Bedouin tribes. In contradiction to the Law of 1958 stripping the Bedouin
tribes of their right to settle disputes among themselves on the principles of
customary law, Asad encouraged them to settle disputes through traditional
tribal channels. In 1977, for example, Asad was reported to have sent a close
advisor, Ali Adil to the Haddiddiyn, to settle a decades-long blood feud in
which more than ten tribal members had been killed. Local police had been
turned away numerous times under heavy fire when they had sought to deal
with this disturbance. Ali Adil commenced a process of customary reconciliation which was completed a year and a half later in 1978 when the Governors
of Aleppo and Hama as well as Razi Gayyan and other members of the Internal
Security forces met with the leaders of the two Haddiddiyn sub-tribes (see, for
example SAR 1975, 1981). A peace was agreed and blood money was paid.
This example underscores the complexity of Asads rule and his recognition of
the potential power of Bedouin tribal society. Hafiz al Asad instituted reforms

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that permitted the Bedouin tribes, among other minority groups, to continue
to operate an alternative system of authority and thus also power but power
allied to his regime.
Several years later, Asad called in his favours. In 1982 he quashed the
Islamist insurrection based in Hama. There is some evidence and certainly
strong belief among Bedouin elite that, during the governments three-week
battle with the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, one, if not more, of the Bedouin
tribes were called upon to assist the regime. In conversations with key informants among the Haddiddiyn, Rae was able to establish that Jamil al Asad, the
brother of the President, visited Boueidar, the capital of the Haddiddiyn, to ask
tribal leaders to be the governments eyes and ears in the Badia and to monitor movements around the cities of Hama and Aleppo (Rae 1999: 221). The
tribal leadership of the Haddiddiyn was asked to check the flow of arms being
run in from the Iraqi border as well as to prevent the Badia from becoming
a refuge for Muslim Brotherhood members (Chatty 2010a). We know from
other sources that Bedouin support of the governments policy was not universal. Other tribal leaders the Hassanna, in particular were the first to come
forward with humanitarian assistance to the survivors of the Hama massacre
(Schoel 2011: 104). Thus, towards the end of the twentieth century, the Syrian
Bathi (and largely Alawite) regime needed Haddiddiyn support and got it. In
return this tribe and its allies received de facto, if not formal, recognition of its
role in managing affairs in the Badia.
In the years since 1982, the Syrian regime of the Asad family seems to have
suspended any clear tribal policy. There have been no new settlement schemes
for semi-nomadic or nomadic Bedouin. Land reform in the Mamoura had
taken place in the 1970s and there was little room for expansion along the border fringes with the Badia. Laws forbidding cultivation, especially of barley,
in the Badia had been passed in order to protect traditional grazing areas. The
ban was meant to prohibit the large-scale agricultural activity which was not
often carried out by the Bedouin themselves. However those most affected
were the small-scale Bedouin settled farmers who had traditionally grown
barely enough to feed their own herds. In 1989 a final and absolute ban of all
cultivation in the Badia was promulgated by the President himself. Yet even
this Presidential decree could not be systematically applied in the extensive
areas of the Badia where rain-fed agriculture is occasionally possible. Once
in a while, a Bedouin is prevented from growing barley but, by and large,
these tribesmen continue to plant it when conditions permit to feed their own
herds. The ban on cultivation is continually imposed and then reversed, often
depending on who holds the position of Minister of Agriculture and what kind
of patronclient relationship he holds with the Bedouin tribal leadership.
In the most recent decades, numerous important posts both in the Bath

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Party and in government have been held by individuals who self-identify as /


celebrate being Bedouin. The Governor of Dera in 2010, for example, was universally recognised as the Shaykh of the Agheidat tribe. A number of important
Bath Party members are widely understood to claim Bedouin origins. The current head of the Bath party Regional Command, for example, identifies himself
as Bedouin, as do several other important members of the Internal Security
apparatus in the country. In recent years, the Minister of Agriculture has been
of Bedouin origin (Haddiddiyn) and has regularly come down on the side of
Bedouin in disputes between the tribes and the Directorate of Badia Affairs.

Political rhetoric and Bedouin realities


Between 1958 and the early 1970s, the Bedouin tribes of Syria and Lebanon were
politically isolated from government. With the ascendancy of Hafez Al-Asad and
his pragmatic Correctionist Movement, political contacts between the state and
the tribes both in the Syrian Badia and, after 1975, in the Bekaa Valley (once
Syria had entered the Lebanese Civil War) were tacitly re-established, and more
formal channels of communications and patronage were set up.
This realistic approach to the alternative system of authority and power in
the Badia remains a core feature of the Asad governments, that of the father and
now the son. The Asad regime has continued to invite Bedouin to return to the
country and has played an active part in setting up customary arbitration over
disputed claims to grazing areas and water. In the 1990s a major re-adjustment
of the borders of the Mamoura and the lands that had belonged to the Haib
came into effect after months of statetribe sponsored arbitration, culminating
with some Haib land being sold to the Haddiddiyn. Among the Bedouin it is
dominance rather than formal ownership that is the basis underpinning control
of resource. Possession is nine tenths of the law; the remaining percentage
comes through legitimising the claim by occupation (or investment).
Thus contemporary Bedouin leadership in the Badia was derived not only
from the allegiance of individual tribesmen, but also the de facto recognition
by the state of the tribal leaders ability to smoothly manage natural resource
allocation and customary process for conflict resolution. This recognition is
not codified in law; it is the working relationship of the tribal leaders with the
military and security services, the Ministry of Interior and parts of the Ministry
of Agriculture as well as the Presidential Offices that determines success. In
the past few decades in Lebanon this working relationship between Syrian
security forces and the Bedouin was clearly in evidence in the Bekaa Valley.
Several tribal leaders from among the Fadl and the Mawali have emerged
as important political figures in the Bekaa, leading the protests against the

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marginalisation of the Bedouin (Ashair) in Lebanon. In Syria, a number of


Bedouin leaders have been appointed to government and Party offices since
the 1990s. The Presidential appointment of the Minister of Agriculture is frequently bestowed on a Bedouin, as are important appointments to the Ministry
of Interior and the Bath Party Regional Command. Rumour circulating in
Damascus in 2010 had it that Assef Shawqat, the brother-in-law of Bashar al
Asad and, until April 2008, the head of Internal Security, was associated with
the Beni Khalid, a Syrian sheep-raising tribe with traditional grazing lands
near the Alawite Mountains. This trend to identify or create fictive kinship
links with Bedouin is very recent among Bath party members; it suggests a
contemporary recognition that some Bedouin leaders have a strong following
in the Badia which is potentially beneficial to the Party and to the government.
No official statistics exist in Syria or Lebanon regarding the size of the
Bedouin population in the country. The Syrian National Bureau of Statistics
does not have a category of Bedouin, but it is possible to extrapolate from
livestock figures a sense of the Bedouin presence and importance to state politics and economy. Estimates made in 1999 by the then Minister of Health put
the number of Bedouin in the country at 900,000. As a percentage of the total
population of the country Bedouin represent between five and seven per cent
of the total. Estimates from Lebanon put the total number of Bedouin in the
country at nearly 150,000, with about 100,000 of these lacking citizenship.
In Lebanon, with the decline in seasonal migration, and with the failure
of the 1994 Naturalisation Law to come into effect, Bedouin have developed
a close engagement with local and national politics. This seems to have flourished after 2005 when the Lebanese political landscape changed after the
withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the country. A transformation is taking
place that is apparent in popular discourse; facts on the ground indicate that
the nave, rural bumpkin naturalised Bedouin being bussed in to polling stations in the 1990s is being replaced by the political Bedouin. The March 14th
Future Movement Party of Lebanon is today actively seeking these largely
Sunni Muslim votes. One Bedouin leader in the Bekaa commented, We started
recruiting people to the Future Movement (Hariris Party) until we had around
300400 people. This is the reason the Future Movement agreed to establish a
dispensary in the village ... This is politics today. (Bedouin BW044)
Increasingly the discourse of the Bedouin as a distinctive cultural sub-group
has become more assertive. In 2008, on the eve of the 2009 Parliamentary elections, Bedouin mobilisation peaked in what was named the Intifadat al Ashair
(Tribal Uprising). This forum created a new political discourse about the distinctiveness and rights of Bedouin in Lebanon (Diab and Abu Rjeili, 2008).
In Syria, Bedouin political self-identity and voice are being expressed in
voting trends. If one considers that, in 1943, ten seats out of 135 (seven per

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The Persistence of Bedouin Identity

cent) were set aside for Bedouin representatives (a carryover from the French
Mandate policy), then the current situation is much changed. In 2010, thirty
of the 250 elected members of Parliament (twelve per cent of the total) were
Bedouin. This is not a reflection of government policy, but rather an expression
of Bedouin strength in the Badia. The size of this representation suggests that
the Bedouin voice in Parliament is twice what would be expected if seats in
Parliament were based solely on population size rather than on territorial control. The Syrian Uprising has also seen an active internet voice among Bedouin
leaders and their followers, not surprisingly with Shaykh Abdallah Milhem of
the Hassanna tribe actively engaged with the Syrian National Coalition as well
as other Aneza and Shammar Confederation leaders. Other tribal groups support the Syrian government, particularly tribal leaders once actively engaged
with the Ministries of Interior in Syria and Lebanon.

Conclusion
Bedouin tribes have occupied the semi-arid Badia of Syria and Lebanon for centuries. Their lack of total self-sufficiency, however, has meant that they have
always been linked to non-pastoral societies by economic, social and political
relations. In the contemporary local Syrian and Lebanese context, a Bedouin
can be a regional specialist in livestock breeding whose closest social and political ties are with his/her pastoral kinsmen (i.e. tribes). He may also be a merchant,
a transnational transportation specialist and even an agricultural worker. Change
and adaptation are key aspects of Bedouin livelihood strategies and, in the
current global economy, many Bedouin have sought out multi-resource strategies, seeking wage labour in related activities such as transport and commerce
in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Some Bedouin
women and men enter the unskilled daily wage labour market in agriculture.
Some Bedouin men migrate for jobs in construction. Others have settled and
become less mobile, refocusing their livelihoods on farming. However, regardless of their multiple occupations and residence patterns, they remain Bedouin
culturally as long as they maintain close social ties with pastoral kin and retain
the local linguistic and cultural markers that identify them as Bedouin. The term
Bedouin, originally regarded by some as meaning a desert dweller, has taken
on an important sense of cultural identity derived from the association with the
tribal genealogies, myths of origin and moral society and leadership.
For those Bedouin who have remained primarily focused on herding, the past
thirty years has seen immense transformation. The land they regarded theirs to
use has been legally stripped from them and given away or sold off to urban entrepreneurs or tribal elites. For some Bedouin this has meant the transformation

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Dawn Chatty

from a mobile lifestyle to a more settled existence cultivating barley and other
crops while managing a dwindling herd of sheep. In the 1970s, trucks and other
motor vehicles came to replace camels as beasts of burden (Chatty 1986, 2013)
making some Bedouin even more mobile than in the past. Today the truck is often
used to bring feed and water to the herds deep in the Badia or to take livestock
to distant markets. Modern trucking has also come to be identified with Bedouin,
particularly interstate commerce and trade. The movement of goods from one
market to another when significant price differentials appear is commonly a
Bedouin activity, particularly when it is between countries (even watermelons and lemons fall into this category). Furthermore, the truck has allowed the
Bedouin to settle for much of the year in permanent villages (especially for the
young and the old), while still maintaining access to water, pastures, herds and
places of employment beyond the arid steppe land that is their home.
The Bedouin tribes of contemporary Syria and Lebanon have managed to
maintain their tribal identity and the authority of their leadership for decades
in the face of formal legislation, but very little real interference in their affairs
and their management of resources. Increasingly over the past few decades,
self-identifying Bedouin and their leaders have been drawn into government
agreements and active political engagement. In Syria, in 1982 the cordon
sanitaire which some tribal groups maintained around Hama was a turning
point that resulted in the re-recognition by the state of Bedouin tribal leaders authority and control in the Badia of Syria. Today, many of these leaders
are now also parliamentarians. Others are actively involved in the current uprising; some with the regime and others with the opposition. In Lebanon the
active political involvement of the Bedouin is expressed as patronage politics.
The Bedouin leadership has recognised that its vote a Sunni Muslim one is
a negotiating factor to bring greater social services to its informal settlements.
Votes count and can be parleyed into social provisions and political strength.
The Arab Spring of 2010 has turned into an armed uprising in Syria, with
reverberations in Lebanon. In March 2011, confrontations between protestors and Syrian security forces turned violent in Dera, followed soon after
by violence in Homs, Hama and Aleppo. This string of towns and cities along
what was once known as the Mamoura had a strong tribal presence. It is
evident that the Bedouin communities at these flashpoints resorted to armed
self-defence. In the past two years, Bedouin tribal leaders have issued manifestos against the Asad government (e.g. Hassanna). Other largely Aneza
Bedouin elements have formed tribal gatherings in exile, in Amman and in
Istanbul, where they have joined forces with the largest opposition group, the
Syrian National Coalition (SNC). In 2013, the elected head of the SNC was
a Shammar Bedouin. Other Bedouin have remained with the government. In
July 2012, Bashar al Asad appointed a Haddiddiyn tribesman as Minister of

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The Persistence of Bedouin Identity

Defence after the assassination of Dawoud Rajiha. What is striking is not so


much that Bedouin are taking sides in this violent regional conflict, but rather
that so many are self-identifying, culturally and politically, as Bedouin.

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Interviews
Interview with Bedouin Key Informant BW044, Faour, 22 February 2008.
Interview with Bedouin Key Informant KH 17, Damascus, 10 December 2010.

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Dawn Chatty is University Professor in Anthropology and Forced Migration


and Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, Queen Elizabeth house, University
of Oxford, UK. Her research interests include coping strategies and resilience of
refugee youth, nomadic pastoralism and conservation, gender and development,
health, illness and culture. Her most recent books include: Dispossession and
Displacement in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2010);
Dispossession and Forced Migration in the Middle East and North Africa (ed.
with Bill Finlayson, Oxford University Press, 2010); Deterritorialized Youth:
Sahrawi and Afghan Refugees at the Margins of the Middle East (ed. Berghahn
Books, 2010); Nomadic Societies in the Middle East and North Africa: Facing the
21st Century (Brill, 2006); Children of Palestine: Experiencing Forced Migration
in the Middle East (ed. with Gillian Lewando-Hundt, Berghahn Books, 2005);
and Conservation and Mobile Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement and
Sustainable Development (ed. with Marcus Colchester, Berghahn Press, 2002).
Email: dawn.chatty@gmail.com

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