Digital Nomads

Bordering the Bedouin

December 16, 2021 Maggie F. Season 1 Episode 11
Digital Nomads
Bordering the Bedouin
Show Notes Transcript

Contemporary issues like the refugee crisis, climate refugees, and global restrictions on movement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have brought into stark relief the extent to which our movements, lives, and worldviews are governed by national borders and boundary-making. But these borders and their associated militarization and security infrastructures are a recent phenomenon, the legacy of 20th-century wars and colonialism. Modern borders are also often the result of complex, disputed negotiation processes between governments and other authorities, which rarely take into consideration the local populations living in border zones.
What happens when these modern border-making processes interact with nomadic peoples? How is pastoralism affected and circumscribed by nation-state borders and boundary regimes? This episode discusses histories of border formation in the modern Middle East in relation to nomadic pastoralists - the Bedouin - specifically in Iraq and Israel. I talked to a range of scholars working on these topics, and you'll hear from them throughout the episode. We also talk about the effects of these borders on the Bedouin today, as well as evidence for Bedouin alternatives to borders and maps. 

Music in this episode:
Desert City by Kevin MacLeod

Maggie   0:18
Hello, and welcome to Digital Nomads, a podcast about nomadism and nomadic peoples, around the world and throughout history. I’m your host, Maggie, and in this episode we’re going to be looking at national borders in relation to nomadic peoples, and specifically in relation to the Bedouin in the Middle East. I’m going to focus on two contexts, one, the formation of Iraq’s southern border with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and the effects of the historical processes of border formation on the Bedouin in southern Iraq today, and second, the Bedouin in the Negev around Israel’s southern border with Egypt. I talked to a range of scholars working on these topics, and you’ll hear from them throughout this episode. We talked about not only the historical processes that led to these relatively new national borders, but also about how these borders have calcified and become increasingly militarized over the course of the twentieth century, and what that means for the nomadic, semi-nomadic, and formerly nomadic peoples who live around these border zones. We also talk about Bedouin practices of creating borders and territorial delimitations and how we can think about alternative forms of border-making practiced by nomadic peoples, in addition to or instead of these militarized, impermeable national borders. Thanks so much for listening, and I hope you enjoy the episode.

When we think about modern nation-state borders and their associated security infrastructure, we tend to take them and the prominent role they play in our societies and how we organize our lives, pretty much for granted. Even in cases where you’re crossing, let’s say a state border which might not be demarcated by anything except a sign that says, I don’t know, “Welcome to New York,” we still imagine that border as being more permanent and tangible than it actually is. We can imagine where that border lies, we can correlate it to a line on a map, and the act of crossing that border, no matter how arbitrary it might be, feels meaningful to us because it tells us that we have crossed into a space that is somehow different from where we came from. When crossing national borders, of course, this feeling is magnified exponentially, especially because of the sheer logistics that goes into crossing from one country to another. We take for granted that when we travel we have to have documentation, like passports and visas, that allow us to cross that border and that we’ll have to show that documentation at the border and get it approved, or that depending on where we come from or where we’re going from, certain borders are closed to us entirely simply on the basis of national origin. But this fixity of national borders and the extent to which they govern our movements and our worldviews, is in many ways a recent phenomenon. This is not to say that borders or passports are a modern invention, because they’re definitely not, but the function and nature of borders has changed significantly over the past few hundred years. The borders we have today I would argue are largely a product of two factors: war and colonialism. European colonial powers mapped their territories, established their boundaries, and fortified those boundaries in order to definitively stake their claim and exert control over a specific area of land, its peoples, and its resources. At the same time, wars between European powers, and in particular the First World War, culminated in peace treaties which redrew and defined national borders and their territorial sovereignty. These histories are a vast and complex area of study, but what I’m going to explore in this episode is examples of what happens when these modern border-making processes interact with nomadic peoples, and how the mobility that is inherent to a nomadic lifestyle is perceived and altered and controlled within modern border regimes, and how nomadic peoples respond to such borders.

A prime example of this is in the modern Middle East, where there are many scholars who research the histories of national border formation, especially under colonial authority. Under European colonial control of the eastern Mediterranean in the first half of the twentieth century, nomadic peoples - the Bedouin - and a prevalent stereotype of the ungovernable nomad loomed large in the Western imagination. In the case of Iraq, despite the fact that the Bedouin represented a demographic minority, Iraq’s national borders were to a large extent determined by a perceived Bedouin threat, and designed to distance nomadic populations from one another, intersect their migratory routes, or force them into restricted geographical areas which could then be more easily controlled and surveilled. This is certainly the dominant narrative of how modern Middle Eastern borders were formed during the Mandate period – we hear about leaders sitting in London and Paris and Geneva dividing up territories between them, like the infamous, but definitely apocryphal, story of “Churchill’s sneeze,” which claims that Winston Churchill sneezed while drawing the line that would become the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and his hand moved and created the triangular border between the two countries that was otherwise supposed to be a straight line. As untrue as that story definitely is, it’s indicative of how we tend to think about borders as being made, especially in colonized territories, as being these almost God-given institutions, that are created from on high and by a distant authority. But such narratives erase the local actors, both colonizer and colonized, who were highly influential in shaping the layout and appearance of national borders.

I talked to Dr. Carl Shook, who wrote his 2018 PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago on the origins and formation of Iraq’s national borders under the British Mandate, about his research into the historical processes underlying the creation of Iraq’s southern border with Saudi Arabia, and about how the Bedouin people living in this region figured into imperial, colonial aims of territorial control as this border was being defined.

Dr. Carl Shook   7:40
What I was particularly interested in concerning Iraq was to understand what happens before the treaties. So I wanted to know what happens before these final-status processes and documents take place, before the map, before the League of Nations signs off on a mandate for Mesopotamia. Looking at the backstory brought me to the processes of boundary-making, and the people that I was studying and reading about were people who live and work in the Syrian desert, which is roughly western Iraq and eastern Syria, just a little bit of the modern northern state of Saudi Arabia, to give us some mental geography here. In general, this area, particularly in the south of Iraq, is referred to as the Shamiya, and crucially the Shamiya is historical, it’s a meaningful geographical, geological unit that is crossed by the modern state, between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The people that I ended up encountering in the sources were provincial British forces, not the bold-faced names that we’re used to reading about, certainly not many of the colonial elites based in Baghdad, but also provincial officials, district governors of the Iraqi government, and also the accounts and the discourse and the relationship of these officials to the Bedouin tribes and sheikhs living in this transnational zone, or soon to be transnational zone of northern Arabia and the Syrian desert. So with all of these players in the field, literally, responding to historical forces, attempting to determine what this new political order meant for them and their lives and their livelihoods – I came at these questions with a couple different approaches. One of them was to look at borders as a process that involves these human figures and not as static institutions; certainly not lines on a map or even worse, lines on a sand, if you want to go that far. I understand borders as beginning from a process of imagining, projecting out loose understandings of territorial and social difference onto a landscape like let’s say historical Mesopotamia. But then during negotiations and the mechanisms of day-to-day rule and governance, again before maps or borders are demarcated or even delimited – we’re a long way from border posts being laid down in the desert and strict surveys being made – and then working in this borderland as I was this fit with another one of my goals which was to decenter the state-centric narratives about state-building, and in particular a state-centric historiography about the origins of modern Iraq. In short, these denizens of the borderland that I was speaking about and ended up working on in my research have agency and through cooperation, through resistance, I argue they are able to shape, if not the final locations of the boundaries, they’re able to shape the nature of these boundaries going forward. I think we see this in the kind of piecemeal nature of Iraq’s boundaries. Each of them, if we just take the southern boundary with Nejd, the boundary with Syria, the boundary with Turkey, all develop on their own terms specific to the historical and local circumstances.

Maggie   11:28
This piecemeal nature of creating Iraq’s modern national borders is a prime example of the messiness that is inherent to all processes of border-making, and the various actors and imaginaries and political and economic concerns that underpin all national borders. Where Bedouin populations around this particular border are concerned, there was also an extremely piecemeal, cherry-picked, and arbitrary nature as to how Bedouin tribes in the Shamiya were “bordered,” and how they were assigned a new national identity, as being either Iraqi or Saudi.

Dr. Shook   12:11
By 1922 when we see the first agreement, pen to paper, between British mandate authorities based in Baghdad and Ibn Saud of Nejd, we have a mandate. So we have this mandate system established in 1920. And in short, the mandate system allowed the British Empire and the French to maintain a presence, an active presence, in these exonymous lands. S the French are in Syria, greater Syria, Syria and Lebanon, the British are in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. Now, there are technical requirements to being a mandate power, and the essence is that the British and the French are here to assist indigenous governments in Iraq and Syria, for example, until they’re able to “stand on their own.” Literally, that’s in the text of the League of Nations charter, until they’re able to stand on their own as independent nations. In Iraq this mandate is never put into place, for reasons we don’t really have time to get into today. The British want more autonomy, they essentially don’t want to be limited by the terms of the mandate. They want to stay longer and they want to have a more robust military presence in Iraq. So they enact a series of Anglo- Iraqi treaties and each of these follows the previous one and this is really what governs and shapes Britain’s role in Iraq. But, some sort of state-building still needs to happen, and whether you are a mandate in technical terms or in spirit this means recognizable sovereign borders. Before we get into the development of these borders themselves I think it’s important to point out that the British dominate the process of border formation. The Iraqi state, the monarchy of Feisal I, one of these Hashemite kings, is part of the process but the British and most importantly British security concerns really dominate this process. 

So, there are a couple agreements in play. They both date to 1922, and these are agreements with Ibn Saud, who is the leader of the nascent Saudi state. These agreements have geographical aspects to them, if you look at the maps produced in these meetings and coming out of these negotiations, they are maps of the Shamiya and there are lines on them and you see a proposed neutral zone, this little flattened diamond shape that you see on some early maps of Iraq. You see different proposals for Kuwait’s boundaries. But what’s really at stake in these 1922 treaties is sort of a more effective and social idea of territorial governance. So here the focus is twofold. One is to identify really for the first time in this context which tribes belong to – and this is again their term – which tribes “belong” to Nejd and are therefore the responsibility of Ibn Saud, and then of course which tribes are quote-unquote Iraqi tribes. And the way that this is done is the territories, the seasonal territories of each of these tribes, along with some information about where they are purported to spend their time when they need to water animals at fixed wells, this information is kind of tabulated and a rough map is drawn up of where these tribes are most of the time. And then, through these inevitably overlapping territories – the term in Arabic is dira – a straight line is proposed that more or less best divides these up. So this is one focus of the Uqayr and the Bahra agreements from 1922. And then the other is to settle the question, a political question really, between again mainly the British and Ibn Saud as to what this frontier zone will look like and particularly what state authority will look like in this frontier zone. So at this point within this document you see prohibitions against the hardening or the building up of military installations, police forces, within literally “the vicinity” of the border. The fact that everybody has their own idea as to what the vicinity of the border is leads to some problems. But that sets the tone for Iraq’s southern border and its relationship with Ibn Saud, this recognition that there is no firm border but there are certain tribes that are in one way or another associated with each state and the technical terms of how to essentially form a boundary regime, how do two neighboring states cooperate, how do we in effect work together to make this border meaningful for the people who live there.

Maggie   18:12
The question of what the Iraq-Saudi border means to the Bedouin populations living around it is an open one. As Dr. Shook describes, Bedouin tribes used to be able to cross the Shamiya freely, and during the border-making process were simply assigned to one country where they appeared to spend most, but not necessarily all, of their time. So these new border regimes and the fact that they quickly became highly and increasingly militarized and fortified during territorial border disputes between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, changed and narrowed the scope of pastoral migration routes, impeded access to resources like water and pastureland, and severed cross-tribal and inter-tribal Bedouin relationships and cut off access to communal spaces like markets where Bedouin tribes from across the region would come together to meet and negotiate and trade.
But on the other hand, Bedouin populations have in some ways benefited from the border. Wherever you have a system that controls the passage of goods and people, you’ll also have smugglers, and people who are willing to help get things across the border illegally. So some members of the Bedouin on both sides of the border have certainly benefited economically from the existence of the border and from cross-border smuggling, but of course the Bedouin are then increasingly seen as criminals and further marginalized in society because of these illicit activities. To get more information about the Bedouin in contemporary Iraq, I talked to Dr. Jaafar Jotheri and Dr. Salah Hatem at Iraq’s University of al-Qadisiyah, who are leading a project to document the intangible cultural heritage of the Bedouin living in southern Iraq today.

Dr. Salah Hatem [translated from Arabic into English by Dr. Jaafar Jotheri]   20:08
The first point is that the Bedouin actually, they put themselves away from the government, and the government actually puts itself away from the Bedouin. So there is no connection between the Bedouins and the government, they don’t have any representative in the parliament, they don’t have a public figure that can speak to the government, so that’s why they feel neglected. Of all the governments that have led Iraq, nobody cares about them, nobody looks after them, we don’t have statistical information about them – how many are there, how do they feel, are they okay. So a lot of political issues have emerged in the last thirty years. 

You know, there was no border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. So they used to travel from Iraq to the neighboring countries, and then the Iraqi government punishes them for breaking the law, but at the same time the Iraqi government doesn’t offer them anything. So it’s just punishing, not offering anything. So that’s why they feel themselves as a target of the government. When we go there they are afraid of us, they are afraid we will persecute them, or that we know their wrong-doings. The Iraqi government makes them feel that their activities are against the law, and feel that they are outlaws or something like that. So the first point is that there is no relationship between…or rather, there is a bad relationship between the Iraqi government and the Bedouin.

Dr. Salah Hatem [translated from Arabic into English by Zainab Mahdi]   22:31
The second result that they found – just to give a bit of background about the Bedouins in Iraq, which Jaafar had also mentioned right before, the Bedouins in Iraq seem almost like an outcast, they are very forgotten in society, so there is this disconnect. There’s not a lot of research, so this project is very important because they’re looking at this really important part of Iraqi heritage and learning about them more, because the government hasn’t been involved and there haven’t been any studies. So they are very forgotten, but what the study realized also is that these people who live in the desert have learned to cope within very extreme climates, so he’s talking about how they extend between west Ramadi to the borders between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and if you look at a map that’s mostly desert. So they’ve learned, through inherited knowledge from their ancestors and whatnot, how to find water. There are special plants that they use called aqul – I don’t really know how to translate that to English, but aqul, and also cacti, to find water. They’ve also inherited a lot of medicinal knowledge and traditional knowledge, and that’s how they treat themselves.

Another very important factor here that’s been affecting their lives is that their land has kind of been narrowing because of agricultural development. So a lot of these lands have been taken to expand farming, but not just that, also for brick factories, and so you find that their way of life is almost going to become extinct because they can’t take care of their camels as they were able to do before. Their camels don’t have the plants that they need to feed them, or the water, so this is almost imminent, or it’s probably happening within the next few years, they’re just running out of space. 

Maggie   25:28
And so what are your goals for this project? Your research aims to create a teaching module for Iraq’s national university curriculum on the intangible cultural heritage of the Bedouin, but do you see this kind of public education of broader Iraqi society about the Bedouin as also leading to larger-scale social change or improvements for the Bedouin?

Dr. Jaafar Jotheri   25:55
In terms of our goal, at the end of the project, we will write to the Iraqi parliament, to make the quota – you know, in our constitution, there is a quota, for women, for Iraqi minorities, and we would like to suggest that the Bedouin should have a quota, and we should select a representative from the real Bedouins, who live in the desert, to be a member in the Iraqi parliament and to speak for the Bedouins.

And of course, we should teach our students how to respect the Bedouins: their accent, their fashion, their dress, their everyday life. We should not make a joke, we should not insult them. They are a real part of Iraq, they are the indigenous people of Iraq. A part of each tribe has a Bedouin. For example, my tribe, the Jotheri, there is a Jotheri Bedouin and a Jotheri living in the city. So they are a part of us, but they are suffering, they are not enjoying their life. They are facing the climate change, facing the harsh weather, the harsh environment. They just need to survive. They are safe people, they are lovely people, we just need to take care of them. We have the resources, they don’t have access to public money, we do. We should convince them that they should believe in the state, the border, because in their mentality, they think there’s no border of the desert, the desert is open, there’s no border. But we put the border and we punish them when they cross the border. We don’t offer any services to them, no clean water, no paved roads, no school for the children, no hospital when they get sick, so they live in the medieval period. And why? We should feel responsible to them. So we will speak about that in a workshop, in our curriculum, with the decision-makers, with the stakeholders, so it’s a big responsibility for us actually. Of course we enjoy doing the research, but it’s a big responsibility. For me, I didn’t know before about their everyday life, I’m now surprised. So we are dealing with the Iraqi living heritage, so bringing the past and knowing the future. We need to work with…how to use heritage to thrive the community. Heritage is a tool, so we are using heritage to value the Bedouin, and as a result one of the value of the Bedouin is a representative. So it’s just a start, the project is just a start. The project will help Iraqis, different stakeholders, to understand the Bedouin. Once everybody understands the Bedouin, then we think about how to serve them better. 

Maggie   29:54
Dr. Jotheri’s and Dr. Hatem’s proposal for increased awareness and understanding of Bedouin culture and for political representation for the Bedouin is urgently needed, given how the lives of the Bedouin in southern Iraq continue to be affected today by ongoing conflicts, like the American occupation of Iraq and the rise of ISIS, and by the increasing militarization of the Iraq-Saudi border as a result of this fear of the cross-border spread of Islamic fundamentalism. I’ll give the last word on this topic to Dr. Shook, on how these border security regimes continue to affect the Bedouin of southern Iraq today.

Dr. Shook   30:39
Many of these boundaries, particularly the boundaries that I study between Iraq with Saudi Arabia and Iraq with Syria, remain, for a whole host of reasons, relatively isolated, literally and functionally distant from centralized authority in Iraq. We see this with the reliance on tribal levies during Iraq’s war against Islamic State. This is happening in Syria as well. Also, this continued goal of an absolute or hard border – so there is, as of four or five years ago, a border fence between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This is also a response ostensibly to Islamic State, and there’s certainly a place to discuss the political and rhetorical value of building fences and walls with your neighbors. I don’t think that’s unique to this case, it’s certainly not unique to the United States’ portrayal of the border with Mexico, but what does interest me with this border fence is that, if the goal is to prevent, from the Saudi point of view, the goal is to prevent Islamic State terrorists from infiltrating Saudi Arabia from Iraq, when does that fence come down? When does this boundary become, in effect, softer? I don’t think it will. These boundaries tend to calcify over time and I don’t see that priority and that vision, or that goal, changing. So, in a similar way to the middle and late 1920s, where the result is a militarized southern desert in Iraq, I think the legacy of this border fence between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is going to last much longer than the acute terror threat of ISIS fighters. What interests me, and I’ve done no real research on this, but what interests me is the next step or the effect that that has on the way that states think about their neighbors, think about their borders. Because as the nature of the border changes I think the nature of the polity that it encompasses and purports to encompass changes as well.

Maggie   33:38
On that note, let’s move from Iraq to Israel and Palestine and the Bedouin in the Negev desert in southern Israel. This is another context where we can find a tangled historical web of state formation and border-making influenced by a variety of local and national and international actors, but with the Bedouin in the Negev I want to talk more specifically about how local Bedouin populations perceive national boundaries and other state institutions, as well as how the Negev Bedouin create and define their own boundaries and systems of defining borders and property that both pre-date and coexist with state border regimes.

For this, I spoke with Dr. Davida Eisenberg-Degen, an archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority and lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, about her research into various types of Bedouin rock art and archaeological evidence for Bedouin occupation of the Negev throughout history.

Dr. Davida Eisenberg-Degen   34:50
I’m going to start off with where the Negev, a bit of a description of the Negev and where the Negev is. The Negev is actually a very, very large section, the southern section of Israel, nowadays Israel, but it’s actually an even more extensive area connecting to the Sahara in the West and Arabia in the east. So we’re talking about a very large area of land, desert, which has always been a migration area. The Negev can also be divided into a lot of different subsections based on the geography and the topography, and then in the northern Negev you can have areas with let’s say 200 millimeters of annual rainfall, whereas other areas further south can maybe have 80 millimeters annual rainfall, so you can see there’s a very large difference. It’s arid, but in some areas it’s super-arid, in some it’s semi-arid. It was always used for migration, the migration routes are usually from the east to the north and northwest, towards the more fertile lands. And we can see that the first pastoralists were in the Negev already 6000 years BC. So we’re talking about a much longer history of pastoral life. The conditions in the Negev also didn’t change much over the past few thousand years. So the migrations that we see also in prehistory and in much earlier times continued on up until the present day. These nomads always had a relationship with the settled land, because they depended on the settled land for marketplaces, for trade, so we know that for instance in prehistory we can see the relationship with goods which are made in the desert and are traded further north, in cities, and then they made their way into the settled communities, and this coexistence is really important. We see that when the Negev goes through a more harsh political period, when it’s deserted, then also we see that less and less nomads, and thus tribes, exist in the Negev. So in the Abbasid period, around the 9th or 10th century CE, we see almost a total desertion of the Negev and that’s also a period that we see the Negev as being almost empty. We know that there are people living there, we know that there are nomads who are still moving around with their flocks, but it’s relatively small amount and small tribes. We see a change closer to the late Ottoman period, the Mandate period, we see that the migrations become more intensified and it starts we think in the 16th century. But if you compare the names of the people who claim that they made into the Negev in the 16th century and you compare it to tax lists of the Ottoman period and Ottoman government, we see that there’s no continuity. We see that the names are different people, different tribes, and it seems that they made their movement into the Negev much, much later. Now because the Negev is so inhospitable, and so dry and a difficult area, no one wanted to stay there. Their main goal was to continue up into more fertile lands and continue up north, either north or northwest. So the people that stayed in the Negev are usually the weaker people, the weaker tribes, who either lost in the wars or had no other choice but to be pushed, literally pushed, into these desert areas. It seems like most of the people who live in the Negev nowadays, it’s a result of the past two to four hundred years. We have the last large tribal war at the end of the 19th century around 1890, and the Azazme who was the tribe who lost this war was literally pushed into the Negev and that’s where they stay, many of them still live there today. We know that we had many, many tribes. We know that before 1948 there were roughly 95 different tribes that were divided into confederations, which is literally a few tribes working together, strengthening their power by having political and other relations. And the Ottomans, because as I mentioned the tribes and the nomads always had this connection with the settled land, it wasn’t always a positive connection. The Ottomans really tried settling the Bedouin – 1858 we have the Ottoman Land Law and they tried encouraging the Bedouin to first of all, settle down, and second, register their land. But together with registering your lands you are also liable afterwards to taxes and also to in some cases be forced into the Ottoman army. And we see that very, very few people, very few Bedouins but also in general, would register their land, very few people did. We know that the Bedouins were migrating through the Negev, not necessarily to Jordan and Egypt, but they did have family relationship with the people who also lived to the east and to the west, and throughout the Ottoman period those borders were open. So they could technically move around and also visit family and also go to other areas that perhaps had better vegetation for their flocks. During these periods we’re also talking about the Bedouin who were mostly if not totally reliant on their sheep and goats, and also camels, agriculture only came in very recently, in the past 100 to 150 years, and then in a very limited way. The Bedouins did what they thought they should be doing on their own, they were very autonomous, and they were not very happy with the government in the sense that they were forced into registering their land which is something that they did not want to do and is something that was not part of their culture up until that point. And then in World War I they went and fought with the British, and the British, so it’s said, promised them autonomy. But that didn’t happen. We know that prior to 1948 there were around 65,000 Bedouins residing in the Negev or moving around the Negev. With the formation of the state of Israel that number was reduced to 11,000. Nowadays, the number has grown and increased to 275,000 Bedouins who live in the Negev nowadays. British didn’t do much in the sense of registering land, they accepted what was already registered in the Ottoman period and they also opened opportunities for Bedouin again to come and register their land and very, very few did. I didn’t mention that the Ottomans, one of the things that they did in order to try and control the Bedouins is build cities. They built Beersheva, which was planned in 1900 and which by 1903 was already standing, by 1906 had electricity, had a water pump, these amazing things that you wouldn’t expect 120 years ago and definitely wouldn’t expect on the verge of the desert. They encouraged the Bedouin to settle there, they offered them reduced prices for the land, but very few did, it was mostly the sheikhs. They also had a school for the children of the sheikh and they wanted to educate the Bedouin and they saw them as ignorant. They hoped to reduce their behavior, reduce the raids, by forming these cities and by education, but there wasn’t much answer to this demand and they did not really change their way of life, which is just nomadic, it’s moving around.

Maggie   43:11
And you’ve talked a bit about how the Ottoman and British officials organized the Negev and the Negev Bedouin through land registration and urbanization projects - what can you say about how the Negev Bedouin perceived the land and sort of spatially organized their landscape?

Dr. Eisenberg-Degen   43:31
It’s very difficult, first of all, for me as an outsider to try and answer that. I can only say what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, but the connection that a person has to the land is really personal, a cultural aspect of their life, it’s a very strong one. We do know that they saw the land more as patched. When we talk about territories we usually think about this large area with a fence around it, that’s not what a territory is for a nomadic people. Usually they see it as…for instance with the Bedouin, they have areas where they graze, where they have animals grazing, and they have movement between summer and winter grazing lands, and then the route that they take in between will be considered their territory, but it will also be considered their territory during a certain time of the year and when they are using it. They don’t have a set migration route like sometimes we construct, in prehistory we say, “Oh, it was a circular movement and they went from site A to site B,” we don’t have that necessarily with the Bedouin of the past 100, 200 years, it’s based on the rainfall, on how the greenery is, how much vegetation we have, and if the place they would like to go to can’t sustain then they will obviously choose a different area. So the territories are not something set, you could say that it’s possibly a much larger area which each time they use a much smaller section of it based on that year and the flocks that they need to feed and the people that they have with them.

Maggie   45:12
Can you describe the tribal dira system and how it evolved in the Negev, in relation to this quasi-emergence of agricultural practices?

Dr. Eisenberg-Degen   45: 25
The dira is really very much connected to this change, because dira is really the communal grazing land of the tribe and all of the available sources in the land. If I belong to a tribe and I have a flock, I can actually use any area which belongs to my tribe. It’s equal to anyone, the water sources are equal to anyone, you cannot put any restrictions on this. Especially the wells, which reach groundwater, those are equal and available to everyone. The Bedouins do not make wells, do not dig wells, they use wells which are already in existence, the same thing with the agricultural dams and terraces, they use things which are already in existence from previous generations. And now, when we have the agricultural aspect of their life starting to emerge, it was, first of all, in our area of the Negev, we’re talking about the central Negev, the Negev Highlands, it was only seasonal, a very small part of their livelihood. They were still, still are, very much based on flocks of sheep and goat. But the minute you have agriculture, that’s already someone who’s putting effort into the land, it’s usually a small percentage maybe, one or two families who are cultivating this wadi while someone else is cultivating the next wadi. You have this process of privatization, where things are becoming privately owned. If beforehand the dira belongs to everyone equally, to the whole tribe, now we see that we have to say, “This is mine.” And the minute that you have that it actually takes away from the communal land which belongs to all of the dira together. One of the things that they do is, we see that they’re putting effort into the land, they’re putting in labor, they’re also starting to build cisterns, which is to catch runoff water, and the minute you put more effort into something it is privately owned and it becomes your own. One of the interesting things that came out of this whole situation, we said that the dira is equal to everyone, that means that also women can use the dira, they also go out with their flocks, they also are in charge of the young animals, and they can also inherit the use of the dira. Whereas the agricultural lands are privately owned and they are not and cannot be passed on to women, so in that sense it actually hurt their status. The dira was also really important because it’s the way that it brings the tribe together. It’s a really important asset that is also part of the identification of the tribe, another aspect which again just pulls them together and keeps the unity of the tribe, and as that diminishes then also the tribe slowly starts to lose its power and unity.

Maggie   48:35
And let’s transition now more to the archaeological side of things, which is your specialty – can you talk about the tribal wasm, the rock art of the Bedouin in the Negev, and other kind of inscribed archaeological evidence for how the Negev Bedouin convey property ownership and land rights?

Dr. Eisenberg-Degen   49:03
First of all, it’s a sign of identity. We usually tend to say that it’s a tribal marking, but it’s not necessarily tribal because it can also be a smaller group, but it represents a group, it could be a tribe, it could be a confederation, it could be a khamula, which is an extended family, it could also be a smaller family unit. It’s a sign which represents an agnate group, it goes down from father to son. Basically, it’s a sign which can represent a very large group of people. If we were talking about the dira as a cultural aspect which brings the tribe together, then the wasm is definitely a cultural mark which represents a people, which represents a group. Now the wasm and the camel branding is the same. So we can see that there’s a parallel between the signs used to brand camel and show ownership markings, and that of the wasm. But if you look at sheep or goat it’s a different marking, it’s a different way of “signing” the animal. Horses are not marked at all, but camels are. But we don’t really have much information, we have information of travelers who are going through Saudi Arabia or Sinai or the Negev who mention the fact that they see these markings, but we don’t have a firsthand account of what it means or how it’s used, and it’s changed dramatically over the past 50 or 60 years. 

We find wasm everywhere throughout the Negev. Everywhere we have rock art, we have wasm. If we think about territory and we think about fences or we think about lines or we think about edges, we do not find them in any way that we would be able to say, “It ends here,” that we would have a certain line which is formed by the wasm. It seems that almost every grazing land has wasm and we believe was made by bored shepherds. They’re sitting, they’re out there, they have time to kill, so they can either play the flute or carve something out of wood, or they can meanwhile take a stone and start pounding the stone next to them. I believe that we’re all just really affected by the culture that we live in and the symbols that we see and the wasm was something that was surrounding them, something that they knew, something that they recognized, and next thing you know you look down at the rock and you can fashion it into that symbol. And then we see a few things which are a bit different. Every now and then we find a wasm which stands out a bit. What does that mean? It means that it could be on a very, very large rock. We found a rock which kind of stood up and it had different faces to the rock and every single angle of the rock had the same symbol of the wasm. And that’s like a signpost. It was also next to a route that led down into the wadi. So no matter where you come form, you see that sign, it’s the same sign, if you missed it you turn around, you see it again. And that says something, that says, “This is mine.” Even though it seems like the wasm that we see throughout the Negev rock art isn’t a meaning of, “This is my territory,” that’s what it translates into. So they may have been doing it absentmindedly, but they are not going to go into someone else’s territory. You come into agreement before you cross into someone else’s territory. You need to know if you’re allowed to use the water or you aren’t. Usually you would be able to, but you have to first come to that agreement. So if you’re going into someone else’s land without permission, you’re definitely not going to be engraving your own sign. And even if you are going into that land with permission, maybe you will, maybe you won’t. It shows the presence of people in a certain area over time, that’s for sure. Obviously we can’t find wasm of a certain tribe if they weren’t in a certain area. So with the agriculture it seems to be less used, it is occasionally, the borders of agricultural plots are usually marked in the land either by small stone piles, natural characteristics like if there’s a tree. We don’t have many here, so that would be a sign, or a certain mountain. Nowadays because the stone piles, if they’re small they can be moved, so there are also very large stones, nowadays if they have tractors you can find a ditch, you can find stone piles made also from the clearing of the field, and also quills. They used to plant quills next to the edges of the land. The quill blooms in autumn, they bloom before their leaves sprout, and it’s just amazing, it’s this stick which is sometimes a meter, close to two meters in height, and flowering. Nowadays you drive through the Negev and you see them everywhere. Every hillside has all these quills, it’s beautiful, but if the original use was to mark territories or the separation between one family’s land and the other, that no longer can be used. So we know that was originally one of their uses, but that’s no longer possible. Another way to mark, so we have the different between family territories and tribal territories. So with family territories we’ll see the small stones, larger stones, possibly the wasm. With tribal territories one of the marks that we have is usually cemeteries. And we see that from prehistoric times until nowadays the cemeteries are usually at the edge of the territory. And with the cemeteries we have had occasion to find wasm on a few of the headstones, so that was actually very interesting.

Maggie   55:10
As an archaeologist, Dr. Eisenberg-Degen’s specialty is in rock art like the wasm and other forms of tangible evidence in the landscape and in the material record for how the Negev Bedouin inscribe social relationships with the land. But, in addition to these sorts of alternatives for borders and signifiers of property ownership, I was also curious about potential Bedouin alternatives to practices of map-making that might differ from and might overlap with the sort of maps that we tend to be more familiar with. For more about this I talked to Dr. Emir Galilee, who is a lecturer in Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he researches the historical and cultural geographies of nomadic peoples in the Middle East.

 In your publications, you’ve talked about “mental maps” and a sort of mental geography that you see appearing based on your research among the Negev Bedouin. Can you define those, can you talk about what you mean by those terms?

Dr. Emir Galilee   56:20
Basically after about ten years or fifteen years of study, I started to try to arrange my thoughts, and I thought to myself, “Okay, let’s understand a few things.” One is, how do people actually arrange their own surrounding. What is their perception of their immediate surroundings, of their environment, of their region. That’s one question, and the other question is, I’m standing in a friend’s house in a village in Jordan, and he says, “I’m a Bedouin,” but he actually stays in a permanent house that’s very, very similar to the house of his neighbor in the other village, and he says, “No, no, he’s not a Bedouin, he’s a farmer.” And I thought to myself, “How are these differences actually getting into a kind of reality?” So these two questions guided me in the last few years, and I started to gather all my documents and all my data, and I started to rethink about it. So because I’m a geographer, one thing that really interests me is geographical terms, and then I went back to one of the classic works from the late ‘50s, it’s the book of Lynch that’s called The Image of the City, and he was actually the first one I think who started to use this term “mental maps.” He showed that people, sometimes as individuals and sometimes as groups, have certain perceptions of their surroundings. The best example I can give is when I was sitting in my students in Eilat, which is on the border of Israel and Jordan, and I asked them, “What is the closest city to Eilat?” Their first answer was places in Israel, Beersheva which is about 200 kilometers from Eilat, or Dimona which is about 150 kilometers from Eilat, and they didn’t even think of Aqaba, which is 5 kilometers from Eilat but it’s on the other side of the border. So you can understand that people arrange their immediate surroundings in a certain way. It can be differences between genders, it can be differences between different populations or single people. So that was one thing, and I started to read about mental maps and I understood that, yes, people are arranging their immediate surroundings in a certain way, but then I thought to myself, “Okay, these people are sedentarized.” Actually they’re not sedentarized, sedentarization is not the term because sedentarization is the process of settling down. These are people who were born and grew up in cities, in settlements and towns, for decades and hundreds of years, and we’re talking about a nomadic population. So then I started to ask myself, “Okay, how do they arrange their surroundings?” I went back to my seminar in my undergraduate studies and what I did from that, and I understood that these people arrange their environment in a different way. If you’re sitting in the United States and I’m sitting in the Negev Desert in Israel, we have all sorts of mutual language, about geography. It’s maps, basically. It’s written, and you can know exactly where I live and what is the name of the park nearby, et cetera et cetera, and I know about the place you’re staying in right now the same things. But the nomads have nothing like that, all their geography and history is oral, they move all the time, in a certain area or in a distant area or other things. I understood that they arrange their surrounding in a different way, for instance long, dry river beds, it’s called a “wash” I think in English, so long washes like this, it’s a very long or big area, so when you look at place names you understand that they divide the area into certain areas, into specific areas according to their terrain or the environment. For instance, a place that has not a lot of plants and then you don’t have a lot of grazing areas, is called wadi fiqri. Fiqri means “poor.” The other part of the same wash that has quite a lot of areas for grazing would be called al-tuhami, which means “making a living.” So this is one thing. The other thing that I have realized is that people arrange their area by, I called it social and geographical anchors. This means that if you have a tree in the middle of the desert, it has the name of a certain family. It’s not necessary that they will stay there the whole year round, they’re not staying there the whole year round because they’re nomads, pastoral nomads. But on the other hand that’s considered to be their tree. Sometimes the names will be much more neutral, like al-abyad, which means “the white-ish” or “the white one.” It’s a white hill in the middle of a brown, rocky desert. So everybody knows this is a certain place, this is not a social, geographical anchor, it’s not just some kind of neutral anchor. About water sources, again, you have certain water sources that have specific names that actually connect them to a certain family and some of them will be totally neutral, something like a general name that is not connected to any certain family, et cetera et cetera. So this is basically one thing, the mental maps, and the other thing was what about people that been sedentarized but they still see themselves as Bedouins. What exactly makes the difference between them and their neighbors that are farmers? I understood that it’s something much more deep than just what you see, it’s a kind of a state of mind. They still see themselves as nomads, they still feel that they are connected to the kind of living outside, connected to the nature. They still feel that they always can get their flocks outside, even if they are already city-dwellers, they can always take a camel and go outside for a few days. I’m not sure even if they can really do it, but they feel that they can. It’s their connection to the environment, to their ability to move around, from place to place. Basically these were the two themes that I was trying to combine in this research.

Maggie   64:07
So you brought up borders, and the issue of national borders and how in our worldview, these play a really important role in how we define the world, in how we imagine the world and our settings and our communities. Could you talk about from your research how you’ve seen the Negev Bedouin organize themselves in relation to the Israeli-Egyptian border and how the increasing militarization of the border has maybe affected how Bedouin communities are able to move around and are able to hold on to these mental maps and tribal kinship ties?

Dr. Galilee   64:45
The borders in the region I’m living are actually pre-state borders. Why, because these were borders made by colonial empires, like Britain and France, or the Ottoman Empire, they decided exactly where the border is going to be without any care about who lives there, especially if it was in the middle of the desert. And when the state of Israel was established it was actually established into international borders that were established before the existence of the state of Israel. The Israeli-Egyptian border is actually a border that was drawn on the maps in 1906 between the British and the Ottoman Empire. There was no modern Egypt yet, or it was a kind of a modern Egypt but they were under the rule of the British government in a way, and of course Israel did not exist, it was part of the Ottoman Empire. So this is one thing to understand, the establishment of the modern state was actually along borders that they did not draw themselves, it was drawn by someone else who stayed in Europe. So this is one thing, and the other thing is so, for many, many years after the establishment of the state of Israel and Egypt was a modern state especially after 1952 and then you have a line on the map, and so what? It’s a line on the map in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the desert. And then you can see two things happening at the same time. One is that the Bedouin society didn’t really care about this line in the middle of nowhere on the map. It’s a line on a map, it’s not a line in the field itself. And then what you see is that people still cross the border, they don’t really care about it. I have documented about a decade ago, an example of someone who, he’s a very honorable judge in the customary law in Egypt, in Sinai. Bedouins in Israel, in the Negev, called him to be a judge in a trial. They just sent a Jeep to wait for him on the border and another Jeep brought him to the border and he just crossed the border by foot. There was no fence, there was nothing there. He just crossed the desert, he walked 15, 20 meters, half a mile, I don’t know how much he walked by foot, and then a Jeep collected him, he did his job for two days and then went back, and nobody knew about. This is one example, I have some recordings who have tribal disputes and then they say something like, all the tribe is liable in Jordan, in Palestine, in Egypt, et cetera et cetera. They don’t really care…they maybe use the terms of the geography and the political terms, but they don’t really care about it. That’s on one hand, but on the other hand you see another thing, and this is that the border is actually an advantage because if you have differences in taxes between these two states, so you can smuggle in order to make a living. They arrange themselves along the border and they shape their territories as close to the border as they can. Sometimes it’s a kind of a corridor, so each group has a certain corridor from both sides of the border, and you can see that they just smuggle things from here to there. So they really treat the border as something physical. So what’s happening here is something very flexible. Sometimes they will ignore it totally, sometimes they will use it as a kind of economic tool. What happened is that in 2012 the state of Israel decided to build a fence, a real, big, tall, high fence, electric even in some places, because of some terror attacks and things like this. And then things started to be much, much more complicated, but I won’t get into that because it’s a theme for another episode, so it’s a real big thing here now.

Maggie   69:39
Obviously, these increasingly impermeable national borders create significant problems for pastoralist communities and require the adaptation of these communities around these new border regimes, not just in the cases of Iraq and Israel as I’ve talked about in this episode, but in every country that is home to nomadic peoples. But, I hope one thing you can take away from this episode is that today’s national borders are not set in stone, but rather, not are they fairly arbitrary, man-made constructs, but they are also recent constructs and a phenomenon with a relatively short history, and also that there are alternatives, that are other ways in which we can organize land and geography and society that don’t have the same effects. In light of issues like the refugee crisis and the imminent prospect of an increasing number of climate refugees in the future as climate change worsens, borders are something that affect all of us, especially as at the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased restrictions on movement for everyone around the world. And we’ve seen that once borders are hardened, it’s very rare for states to then soften them again. For example, as Dr. Shook asked earlier in the episode, at what point does the Iraq-Saudi border become demilitarized if the terrorist threat that caused the militarization in the first place is determined to no longer exist? Will it ever be demilitarized, or are these just expedient excuses for states to solidify control over land and people and resources? In contexts where we have indigenous nomadic peoples living around these border zones, we can look to these cases to better understand how nomadism and pastoralism are especially affected by nation-state borders, but also for alternative modes of defining and signifying land and property ownership that do not have the same social and ecological consequences. 

Thanks so much for listening, and special thanks to Dr. Carl Shook, Dr. Jaafar Jotheri, Dr. Salah Hatem, Dr. Davida Eisenberg-Degen, and Dr. Emir Galilee for speaking with me, and to Zainab Mahdi for translating parts of these interviews. A written transcript of this episode is available as well as a bibliography and suggestions for further readings on the topics covered in this episode, so please check that out if you’re interested at If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, please feel free to get in touch with me at Thanks so much for listening.