From afar, I suspect most Americans look at the Middle East as a dangerous, hopeless mess, unworthy of more time and attention because it is mystifying in its violent complexity. But living in Abu Dhabi, UAE, a peaceful, stable and economically vibrant city on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, I tried to unravel the mysteries of the region.
Sleeping in an Arabic tent on the side of Jabal Shams, Oman’s Grand Canyon, I was reminded of a trip to the American West a few years ago, when I slept in a Native American teepee on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. In both cases, I could hear the wind whipping through the camp and flapping the cloth “doors” of the tents. It got me to thinking of perhaps one way for Americans to begin to understand the Middle East.
Imagine that there was no significant European colonization of North America, no “Trail of Tears,” and no deadly smallpox virus that wiped out hundreds of thousands if not millions of Native Americans. Imagine that the Native American tribes, some of them warring with each other, continued to grow, multiply and develop into the 20th century in North America.
Bedoin and Native American tribes had similar lifestyles. Mostly patriarchal societies based on kinship, they both lived off the land. Many were nomads without formal education who rode horses. They had a rich oral history and honor code; followed the traditions of their ancestors; felt spiritually connected to nature; followed the stars and had a strong use of astronomy. They built forts for protection. They hunted and fished, consumed beef and grew vegetables, gathered around campfires, smoked, danced and played drums. One raised and depended on buffalo; the other camels. Today, they each sell colorful jewelry and crafts by the roadside.
Then imagine that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Great Powers disdainfully sought to manipulate and control these “primitive savages.” The Ottomans of Turkey, who dominated the Middle East for more than 350 years, came to view the Bedouin as a threat to state control and “progress.” So they tried to force them to stop their nomadic lifestyles and stay in one place. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th century, Britain and France decided to carve up the Middle East, establishing “countries” with artificial boundaries or borders, and installing governments, rather than letting the natives decide for themselves what they wanted.
If this happened in North America in the early 20th century, where would it be today? How many power struggles, how many land disputes, how much infighting or sectarian violence do you think there would be 100 years later?
Perhaps not just students of Native American history can understand or empathize with this history. Descendants of Scotch-Irish clans, who once fought each other bitterly as well as the English, can perhaps begin to understand the violence that might have continued if there had been no assimilation into the American melting pot.
The analogy only goes so far and is controversial when applied to the weakness if not collapse of the modern Arab states of Iraq, Syria, Egypt; internal disputes in Tunisia; Libya; Kuwait and Bahrain; and rising tensions in Saudi Arabia. But from it you can get a sense of the legacy of the last 100 years in the Middle East, and of the current struggles.
“It’s loyalty to the tribe, family, sect, and religious group that provides the primary source of identity and organization” in the Middle East, Aaron David Miller wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine titled “Tribes With Flags: How The Arab Spring Has Exposed the Myth of Arab Statehood.”
His thesis is disputed by many observers in the comments section, and the blog Karl Remarks offers a good counter-argument. The debate is illuminating for those of us trying to understand the Middle East.
But one thing is for certain.
Tribal loyalties have survived, and remain strong in the Middle East, even with urbanization. More than 70 Bedouin tribes still exist; there are more than 100 tribes of Arabia listed online; 150 tribes of Iraq; 13 major tribes or royal families in the Arabian Peninsula in the 20th century. “From the Gulf to Iraq to Syria, the area is interlinked in a complex web of tribal relations,” columnist Hassan Hassan wrote in The Guardian. Tribes neglected by Bashir Assad’s regime in Syria are mobilizing against his Baathist regime. In another article for The (UAE) National, Hassan argues that deeply rooted tribal bonds between Syrians and Gulf State Arabs are solidifying as a result of the Syrian crisis, despite Baathist attempts to undermine such connections.
A Syrian friend explains to me that when she returned to Syria after a decade in the United States, her last name immediately identified her to strangers as a member of a certain tribe and religious sect. There is no escaping your identity or your tribal loyalties in the Middle East.
And certainly, tribal loyalties and differences between Sunni, Shia, and Kurd help to explain the continuing conflict in Iraq, a conflict that Americans greatly under-estimated when they launched “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
- “Tribes With Flags
- An ESL Teacher Working With Bedouins Compares Them to Native Americans
- Parallels Between Bedouins and Native Americans