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Taking the Bedouin out of the desert in one generation

Ali Al Saloom offers his take on the traditions, culture and heritage of the UAE.

Ali Al Saloom is on holiday, so for the next two weeks he will share various facts about the UAE. His biography will resume next month.

You can take the Bedouin out of the desert, but you can't take the desert out of the Bedouin.

My generation has never lived in the desert for long stretches of time, but many of us have farms of varying sizes in the oases spread around Al Ain, Liwa and Fujairah.

Obviously, the life we experience on our farms now is way different from that of our ancestors. I remember stories of desert life told by my grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts. My paternal grandfather was a mutawwa, a teacher of the Holy Quran. He travelled by donkey along the Gulf coast from what is now Saudi Arabia to the UAE teaching the tribes and tiny settlements along the way.

Most people think of camels as the ships of the desert, so you may wonder why my grandfather used the donkey as a means of transport. That's because not all of the Gulf region is desert. The topography comprises the salt flats along the coast (known as sabkhas), the mountains (mostly volcanic formations), the vast expanses of desert dunes and the refreshing pools of greenery known as oases or wadis. Each of these different landscapes has its own beauty, and affected livelihoods, transport, survival strategies and lifestyles. As my grandfather travelled the mountain regions, the donkey was the ideal means of transportation because its feet could grip rocky surfaces, unlike those of the camel. Today, motoring writers may debate the pros and cons of Land Rovers and Pajeros, but our ancestors grappled with natural elements and live means of transport, and selected the best one for the terrain.

Bedouin is "badawaiy" in Arabic and means "inhabitants of the desert". A Bedouin caravan invariably consisted of sheep, goats and camels along with tribesmen. Travelling in groups created a culture of loyalty that extended to the entire tribe.

What's in a name?

If I followed the traditional way of introduction I would be Ali bin Abdulkarim bin Ali bin Salem Alsaloom. Abdulkarim is my father, Ali is my grandfather, Salem is my great-grandfather and Al Saloom is the tribe I belong to.

In the past, a Bedouin would identify himself by naming at least two generations of male ancestors, but now for reasons of convenience we shorten our name to just one generation. The Al in Al Saloom means "belonging to a tribe or clan". The last name is usually derived from the most famous person belonging to that tribe from way back. In my family's case it was an ancestor named Salem who was given the nickname Saloom. And so all the future generations who came from this line are Al Saloom. Thus, the Arabic surname immediately establishes authenticity as to which line we come from and gives us a shared identity as to what specific values our tribe shares, beyond being devout Muslims.

I was recently invited to South Korea by its government to create stronger business and cultural links between our two countries. I was surprised to learn the basis of Korean surnames. Just as Arabs have the name of their tribe in the surname, the last name of South Koreans signifies which "house" they belong to. I was told there are about 20 houses (old families) in all of South Korea, and everyone with the same surname belongs to that particular house. It was then that I understood why practically every South Korean I have come across was either a Kim or a Lee. It is surprising how common the naming process is among different societies and civilisations.

All in the family

The Bedouins - also known as Bedus - bred sheep and camels for their livelihood. Land was divided into recognised tribal orbits within which family groups moved. The desert environment forced the Bedouins to move from time to time in search of grass and water for their animals. Only when they reached an oasis did they settle for a while. The nomadic lifestyle allowed them to take maximum advantage of the meagre resources spread over a wide area. Tribal traditions and moral conduct were derived from the teachings of Islam.

Thus the nomads' way of life was rooted in cooperation, harmony with the environment and within the framework of a clan. This provided social security, since every unit represented a social and economic cell. The family and tribe system was the foundation of the social and political life of the Bedouins. The leader of the tribe commanded the loyalty of the members of the tribe, but his position was entirely dependent on their acceptance of his leadership. He had to lead by consensus. Equally, he had to ensure fair distribution of food and water for the members of his tribe. If, at any time, he lost the confidence of his tribe, he could be unceremoniously deposed. He enjoyed privileges but was expected to be generous and fair in his conduct.

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