National Geographic : 2003 Oct
It was just past dawn. As Zafer built a fire in the entrance to the tent to stave off the morn ing chill and make breakfast, teenage boys ham mered out a drum rhythm in brass mortars, grinding down coffee beans. "My heart is at rest in the Sands," he contin ued. "I know how to read the desert winds when I graze my animals. I know how to find my way through the dunes at night by keeping al-Jedi before me: That one, the 'goat star,'" he said, pointing into the northern sky. There are no reliable statistics on how many Bedouin are fully nomadic today. (Saudis ac knowledge that their country's mirage-like census is a demographer's Empty Quarter.) The sweet scent of burning san dalwood per fumes the desert air for a Bedouin near the border with Iraq, where tribal leaders meet at the tent of a prominent sheikh to share a campfire, break bread, swap sto ries, and debate news of the day. "What matters most to us are your ancestors. A half-century ago, the best guess was that 30 percent of the population, about two million people, lived the desert wanderer's life. In the estimate of Saudi ethnologist Ali al-Ambar, the figure has dropped to roughly 600,000. A far greater number have become what al Ambar refers to as "semi-nomads" herding their flocks on the outer economic orbit of mush rooming cities, or "urbanized" Bedouin who work city jobs but retain ancestral tribal customs. Taken together, these three communities still make up more than half Saudi Arabia's total population and a large share of its self-image. Despite the kingdom's precipitous urbaniza tion, the free-ranging spirit of Bedouin culture 18 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * OCTOBER 2003 remains at the core of traditional Saudi identity. Slowly, other men drifted into the tent where I sat with Zafer. They gathered in halaqah,small conversational groups, relaxing on pillows around the tent's margins. The talk was of hunt ing and camel-raising, and, when I brought the subject up, the essential values of the Bedouin. "What matters most to us are your ancestors, who they were," one man said. "Without a tribe, a person is suspect." The elder seated next to him took immediate issue. "No, I don't agree. The important thing is what you yourself do in this world, not who your grandparents were. It is you who must choose between good and evil."