top of page

The Call of the Desert

2000 years ago a voice from the desert could be heard (Matthew 3: 1-3):

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,

And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Today, at a similar important turn of time, the voice from the desert resounds again by the descendants of Abraham´s first son, Ismael. Let us hear the voice of the desert itself and its former inhabitants, the Bedouin of Arabia, in the following by citing important travellers and specialists from East and West that followed the call of the desert.

The desert attracted her with irresistible force. Its vast silences, its immense heaven of moon and stars and the mystery of its phantom lakes and waves of mirage, those glorious illusions of reflected skies and ghostly palm-trees in glittering, shimmering waters of incredible reality, and yet more incredible unreality. The golden flood of dawn, the flaming blue and gold of noon, the fairy cloud-shadows blown across immeasurable tracts of plain and valley, and the ever- changing and receding loveliness of its “Eternal Hills.” Riding all the day long under a cloudless sky and camping in the blaze of crimson sunset passing into the deep mystery of the desert night. This was her enchanted life of dreams.”

Lady Wentworth about her mother Lady Anne Blunt
 

The Arabian owes his best qualities to the desert: his deep religiosity expressed by the Islam; the feeling of fellowship uniting him with his brother in faith; his pride of race, his generosity and hospitality, his dignity and respect for the dignity of his fellow-men; his sense of humour, his courage. I shall never forget how often I felt poor compared with these analphabetic herdsmen because they were so much more generous, more courageous, more enduring, and more chivalrous than I was. With no other people on earth I have ever experienced such a feeling of minority.

Wilfred Thesiger

 

For an account of pastoralists´ impact upon Near Eastern civilization, one must go back to the fourteenth-century writings of Ibn Khaldun. In his philosophy of history, The Muqaddimah, he viewed a nomadic herding way of life as one in which men were unusually constrained by natural conditions. This situation, he believed, fostered the human qualities of physical endurance and moral fortitude, making the peoples of the deserts and steppes a reservoir of energetic capacities and a driving force, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, in the cyclical fortunes of the Near East polity.

                                                                     Michael Meeker

The life of the Arabs has strong roots in nomadism. Even today the Arab sedentary mentality is firmly bonded to that of the Arab Bedouin. Hence, anyone trying to study the situation of the Arab world and to understand the peculiarities of the Arab mentality and the distinguishing features of Arab life must return to the source of these traits and features in the desert and Bedouin life. The Arab does not know himself, or understand his unique qualities…, if he does not know that the way he lives has its roots in the desert. The tribal spirit, and proceeding from it, family solidarity, ambitions of group leadership, personal inclinations and disputes over access to authority and leadership - all these and other matters trace their origins back to the organization of the tribe and to the influence of Bedouin life. Likewise, many Arab customs and conventions originate in well known Bedouin traditions still followed today. Among these are issues of vengeance, honor, hospitality, boasting, derogation, generosity, the sanctity of the guest, chivalry and bravery.

Conrad Jabbur.

One answer of badu society to the uncertainness of life in the arid zones of Arabia was the close human community which became ceremonialized and ritualized to a large degree. “Bedouin talk was therefore at the very center of a Bedouin  formal life. Bedouin  words, far  more than Bedouin actions, were  the center of an effort to work out the various possibilities and impossibilities of uncertain political relationships. … The prominence of the voice in the desert and steppe did not escape Doughty´s attention. … The voice itself appears in the desert as a striking human artifact commanding attention. … In a society where men´s relationships with one another are in question, the literary voice crystallizes as a center of a formal life” (Meeker).

This literary voice was the voice of the poets. Poetry, the only art of the desert, played a central part in the badu society and was formalized so that it remained nearly unchanged for more than 1,500 years. Poetry “as center of a formal life” (Meeker) expresses the importance of the recited and sung words to be heard in the black tents of Arabia. Poetry and narrations were therefore the main source of education and the main expression of the human life among the nomads of Arabia. Rasheed speaks of the “power of poetry” and of the “(amir)-poets making history.” Meeker coins the phrase of the “personal voice” and states: “The person, as a political actor and speaker, emerges as a central conception.” This central person was the heroic raider who could proclaim his deeds in eloquent speech.

The words of the poets formed the society. These words were intertribal (Caskel), they even transcended the Bedouin world and were later adopted for the holy book of Islam. The words of the poets shaped an ideal, the poet himself, and to be more precise: the heroic poet-warrior-rider in one person. This was the idol of Bedouin society. And in contrast to other societies which developed a similar ideal, every male member of the Bedouin society could reach there, even slaves (most prominent example: Antara Ibn Shaddad). And the horse, the war-horse, was to become the icon of manhood and bravery, an aspect that will be discussed in detail under pillar five: Bedouin Tradition.

The answer of Bedouin society to uncertainness and violence, the personal voice of the poets, had a positive feed back to violence. Violence as an accepted, even desired, means to accomplish personal aims was fixed in the conscience of the society. Therefore the poetic verses did increase the amount of violence in the badu world. Meeker puts it this way: “The violence of the desert and steppe appears as a dream of the personal voice written large. It is a dream that sometimes degenerates into a nightmare.” In the course, a society was formed that was built on the right of the strong and favored manhood with all its attributes, like pride and arrogance, endurance and patience, courage and combat, generosity and hospitality, loyalty and individuality, circumspection and vengeance. The violent side of Bedouin society brought forth many virtues and shaped many attributes of its people, both positive and negative. 

But there has always been another side of Bedouin society. We find many mechanism to counteract uncertainness and violence: Family solidarity and the unwritten law of the desert with its kinship rules, the brother-laws, and the protection of the weak. Musil reports that “there are no beggars among the Rwala.” Protection of the oppressed was a vital part of badu society. It was performed in many ways, like countenance (wagh), or by companions to protect travelers (hawi), protection by request (dahhala) for both persons and property, and protection in cases of thievery (Musil), and of course hospitality. Meeker also stresses that raiding and warfare were to some extent ceremonialized and ritualized, and, as we have discussed already, did not aim at the destruction of life, but at the gain of booty. 

From the book BEDOUIN SOCIETY by the author
 

The voice of the desert is still heard in our days. The descendents of the Bedouin have stepped forward and rediscover the blueprints their ancestors have left for innovative ideas to solve environmental and other issues of humanity. Visions for the future that are to shape the future of mankind evolve in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. The flagship of the Arab world has already been launched.

 

Another voice of the desert, is presented on this website: the call of the Great Akid from heaven to bring mankind home to the house of the heavenly father.

bottom of page