The purpose of this project was to give an insight into the life in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) through the eyes of my grandfather. This interview gives a glimpse into how the Emiratis, specifically Bedouins, lived and co-existed before and after the formation of the UAE in terms of their social, cultural and economic lifestyles. This is in addition to how the life has changed due to the rapid development that arose from the discovery of oil and the effect of this development on the Bedouin culture. The interview was conducted orally, while the interviewee is my grandfather, Falah Jaber Al Ahbabi. Our family is of the Bedouin origin, and we originate from Al Ain.

Interview Questions

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What was life like growing up?

Life in the desert was not as difficult as it is always imagined by the modern day Emiratis. Life was not as complicated as it is right now. We lived a simple but satisfying life, where our worth was not equated to the money that was in our bank account but rather upholding your family’s honor and how successfully you ran your household.
Luckily, my family lived in the Al Ain region, where water was available. We lived in tents and, as it is characteristic of the Bedouin lifestyle, interchangeably migrated between the ocean, desert and the oasis. This was based on the economic sustenance of the family. We migrated to the ocean when it was the prime time to conduct pearl fishing or harvesting and the desert in order to look for oases, where a lush vegetation grew for our camels and livestock. We also migrated to the oases or back to Al Ain with the purpose of cultivating vegetables and dates, which were considered to be a sign of prestige in our times. When I was a child, my life revolved around taking care of the young livestock and attending madrassa, where we learned how to read and write in Arabic in addition to studying the Koran. The madrassa classes were offered by shaykh who were individuals from non-nomadic communities teaching us the Quran, when we settled in a region temporarily. By reaching the age of seven years, a child began to take on simple household tasks before being recognized as the early full working member of the family and the Bedouin society. The Bedouin lifestyle did not permit me to have a formal education as it was a nomadic standard of living that did not permit us to stay permanently in one place. We were always on the move, searching for a better life and greener pastures to sustain our family and livestock. However, some enlightened Bedouins knew the value of education and chose to settle down to ensure that their male children benefitted from the formal education. Girls from those families were not permitted to receive an education because of the mentality that a woman’s place was at home in the kitchen, while her essential task was to give birth. Over time, we turned back to Al Ain as well as a more stable lifestyle, where I got married and settled down.

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Explain the social relations such as nuclear and extended family relations and marriage.

With regard to social relations, face-to-face interaction relations were extremely crucial. It was significant for families to maintain kinship ties because of the intricate family connection that comprised a single tribe.
The society was pre-occupied with maintaining the honor of their families and trying as much as possible to avoid shame. This served the purpose of controlling or restricting the behavior of individuals in the society. Honor, which a family inherited and was sometimes passed down from one generation to the next, had to be constantly asserted or vindicated. In order to remain relevant, it had to be asserted or proven occasionally. Honor could increase or decrease, depending on the behavior of a man and his kin. Decades of honor that had been associated with a family could be destroyed by one irresponsible act by a man or his family. Honor among women in addition to the family honor was pegged on chastity. This is because chastity was something that if it was lost, it could not be regained. Therefore, women were expected to remain chaste until they got married. Male relatives had the task of upholding the honor of female relatives. Once this honor was lost, it would never be regained and could lead to the social expulsion which was the worst form of punishment an individual could face. The expulsion was not only reserved for females who were discovered to be impure, but also individuals who were considered to have seriously breached the tribe’s customs and traditions.

With regard to marriage, it was preferable that a union was entered into within the minimal lineage, also referred to as bayt, mainly between a male cousin and a female cousin. However, a female cousin was permitted to refuse her cousin’s marriage proposal but could only marry another man after seeking his consent first. Although the modern world now considers this as incest, marriages between cousins in the Bedouin culture were viewed as a way to fortify the unity and influence of the minimal lineage. Some marriages were arranged, where the bride had little or no say when it came to the man that she would spend the rest of her life with. However, women retained their names and father’s family name even after they were married.

In line with the Muslim culture, polygamy was permitted but was mostly practiced by wealthy men who had the ability to comfortably and equally cater for each wife’s household and children. Divorce was permitted and could be initiated by either the husband or the wife. In case of the divorce, the wife was required to return back to her father’s home. She was required to stay there under his protection, until she was remarried or an amicable solution could be found to save her marriage. Divorce was permitted according to the Islamic law and was not as frequent as it currently is in the modern society. Divorcees were often not regarded highly in the society, with female divorcees bearing the brunt of such prejudice.

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A family unit was comprised of the nuclear and extended family, whereas it was patrilineal in nature. Hence, an individual’s name comprised of four generations of the family patriarch’s names. The family was the glue that bound a community together. The family was made up of three generations, meaning that a family had up to or more than eleven members. Depending on the economic ability of the family, members would sleep under one tent if they were not well off or several tents if they could afford them or were wealthy. However, meal times were considered as an occasion for families to bond. Therefore, all members were required to be present during meal times. A newly married couple usually remained with the larger family unit until they had enough offspring and wealth to form their own family unit and survive on their own. However, brothers or patrilineal cousins would unite to form a single family unit for the purposes of security or accumulating more wealth together. On occasion, patrilineal cousins or brothers would join forces in order to form a domestic unit. An extended family unit raised infants and children. An extended family household ceased to exist when the patriarch or matriarch passed away. However, divorced, widowed or remarried woman’s older sons were required to form their own households. The significance of the extended family mainly ranged from helping to raising children, while also assisting in household duties and herding livestock. Nevertheless, it was usually based on the premise that the unity resulted in strength. Therefore, more could be achieved by a greater number of individuals who were working all together towards the achievement of a common goal.

What were the traditional religious practices?

We were and still are the Muslims, who adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam and Muslim customs. Therefore, our traditional religious practices are enshrined in Islam and its teachings. We faithfully observed Ramadan, ritually said our daily prayers and celebrated the two most significant Islamic holidays of Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adhha. The pilgrimage to Mecca was one of the most cherished spiritual journeys, and we endeavored to make at least one during our lives. An individual’s piety was interestingly measured by the number of pilgrimages he or she made to Mecca.

We also believed in the existence of spirits which we referred to as jinn and were aware of the role and influences they had on the lives of human beings. However, not all spirits were good, some were considerably evil and could harmfully interfere in an individual’s life. We also believed in monsters called Maleika al-ahrd who lived in the desert and attacked nomads or lone travelers who wandered the desert. Sacred trees and sites were marked in the desert to aid travelers and nomads to pray or seek the protection from the evil that lurked in the desert. There was also a common belief that children were vulnerable and were targets of what we called the hasset or the envious eye. We believed that evil people, such as witches, would enchant young children by just looking at them; therefore, we ensured that children had protective amulets to shield them from that kind of evil.

We were nomads and did not have specially selected individuals to teach us the Quran. However, travelling groups organized for shaykh to spend time with the group and teach their young relatives how to read the Quran and write in Arabic before they travelled again. When we fell ill on the move, we sought out special religious medicine men, who we referred to as katib. However, these healers were sought for curative and preventative purposes. They would cure us, while incorporating the Quran in their treatment regimes. Our doctors were called Hakim, and they were specialists when it came to the herbal and traditional healing.

Describe some aspects of the lifestyle such as food, clothing, etc.

The Bedouin clothing was usually loose and could be wrapped around wearers to shield them from the sun and sand. Being nomads, loose clothing was conducive for the harsh desert environment, because it shielded the skin from the harsh elements, yet provided enough open room to ensure that the absorbed heat is not directly transferred to the skin. Clothing for a typical Bedouin man comprised of a thobe – a long, white, long sleeved gown, a kibber, which was a long robe worn over the thobe, and a dagger in their belt. A sleeveless coat called aba could be worn over the kibber or thobe, depending on an individual’s preference. The aba was used at night as a blanket. The keffiyeh was our head gear, namely a square cotton scarf that was draped under the chin and over the face to protect eyes during sandstorms or keep warm during cold desert nights. The keffiyeh was held in place by a thick wool cord made of black goat hair or camel wool known as an aghal. During the cold season, we wore woolen caps under the keffiyeh.
Women wore a long blue or black thobe. The embroidered thobe which were decorated around the neckline, hem and sleeves were worn during special occasions. The thobe was held in place with a band made of the folded cloth. A burqa’ah was worn around the face by women, but not in the desert because of the heat. However, women wore them when strangers were in their midst in the desert, because relatives were the only ones who were permitted to see their faces. They also covered their heads with a dark shawl known as the tarha, when they did not wear a burqa’ah.

What type of entertainment did people engage in?

For entertainment, we indulged in music and sang songs as well as composed poems in praise of our Maker or general things that we observed in the society. We gathered around campfires, where we sang songs, mainly acapella or with the accompaniment of a stringed instrument called the rebab, a drum we referred to as a duumbek, or tambourine and a flute. Songs were mostly performed acapella making the singing prowess, while lyrics was the most essential aspect of the Bedouin music. However, songs had purposes which included giving nomads the will to proceed with their journey, or according to common myths, in order to take the weight of heavy loads off the minds of camels. Some were religious or played ritual roles, such as exorcism, or were ceremonial in nature such as wedding songs.
Another aspect of the Bedouin entertainment was poetry which was a highly valued skill appreciated by both men and women. Poems were viewed as accounts of the history, allowing to celebrate love, give advice on life and celebrate famous people in the society.

The poems were recited around the campfires at night, along with stories and folk tales from the Quran. The unique aspect of our poetry was that poems were unique to different tribes, and in some instances, neighboring tribes did not know each other’s poetry. It was passed down from one generation to the other, since the Bedouins were illiterate. This is in addition to our traditions, history and literature. Poetry contests among both men and women were occasions that we looked forward to. I believe that a substantial emphasis was placed on the oral tradition, because it was the only means that our heritage and culture could be preserved. Therefore, elders were tasked with the responsibility of sharing with the younger generation the traditions that they knew.

What type of education if any was available?

Due to the nomadic nature of the Bedouins, it was difficult to acquire a formal education, because our duration of stay in one place was not guaranteed. The only type of education if you may call it so was how to read the Quran. It required us to learn how to read and write in Arabic. However, the majority of the Bedouins back then were illiterate. Those who were privileged enough gained a formal education, once their families ceased the nomadic lifestyle, mainly due to the discovery of oil which hampered their unrestricted journeys across the desert. There was also a number of the Bedouins who understood the crucial value of education and sent their children, mostly boys, to schools that offered a formal education.

What type of work, business, or trade did they engage in?

The type of trade, work or business we engaged in depended on our location at the moment. If we were closer to the ocean, we engaged in pearl farming or fishing, the proceeds of which we sold or bartered. If we were located next to the oases at Al Ain, we cultivated vegetables and dates, which we sold or used to sustain ourselves as a family. As nomads, our livestock and camels were part and parcel of our lifestyle. Therefore, we traded in livestock in terms of acquiring new animals or selling some of ours in exchange of monetary gains or goods that we required as money mostly had no significance in the desert.

What was the role of women/men?

Men were the heads of the household and were expected to provide and protect their households. Men were expected by the society to be independent, and women had to rely on them, because they were the bread winners of the family. This status quo was expected to remain this way in order for a man to retain the respect and prestige that he commanded in the society. Thus, his significance was assessed by his ability to successfully sustain his household and control his wealth and resources, such as livestock, or own a date farm as was the case in Al Ain. This is because those factors were linked to his manhood, while the independence was one of the greatest virtues upheld by the Bedouins. Every man was expected to live up to his virtue.

Men were tasked with the responsibility of looking after the family’s livestock and camels. Young men and boys who were of age accompanied their fathers on herding their livestock, while learning an age old tradition that had been passed down from their forefather for centuries. Men were permitted to exercise their alleged superiority over women and often displayed by physically aggressiveness that targeted women. They were traditionally permitted to beat their wives and daughters over the perceived laziness or inability to handle family affairs or run their homes effectively. In a way, women did not have a voice and could not express their rights. Thus, the Bedouin society was the one that advocated the male supremacy and female submissiveness.

The role of a Bedouin woman was to perform household chores, make decisions pertaining to the family and raise their children. A woman was expected to prepare all of her family meals, weave cloth that would shield their tents from the harsh desert climate, and collect firewood. Apart from tent coverings, women also wove sheep wool or goat hair into carpets or blankets. Significant artistic expressions of design, color and patterns was incorporated into those handicrafts. This was in addition to milking the livestock in order to provide milk for the family’s daily nourishment and also for preparing butter. Young girls and women stayed back with their mothers to learn how to sew and perform household chores effectively. This could be attributed to the fact that they were expected to eventually get married; hence, they had to know how to efficiently run their homes. However, household chores were not specifically restricted to women, young children who had not attained the age of ten were expected to look after young animals and fetch water for them in small leather bags specifically made for that purpose.

Back then, male children were considered more significant than female ones. Therefore, boys had a higher status than their sisters, with the eldest boy being in charge of his siblings regardless of whether he had an older sister. This was because he was expected to automatically assume the role of the father figure in the absence of his father, be it due to a journey or death. In the unfortunate event of death, the responsibility of caring for his siblings until he too passed way fell on him. In the same manner, other brothers were expected to take care of their sisters and ensure that they were protected for the rest of their lives.

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What was the system of leadership?

In the case of all the Arabs, the Bedouin society was patrilineal in nature. The family, which was the most basic unit of the society, was a part of larger patrilineal groups that formed a community, which resulted in a tribe that consequently formed an even larger confederation of tribes. Hence, communities and tribes shared a common ancestry which meant that they were united when it came to territorial allegiances. The Bedouins were extremely loyal to their clans and tribes because of the shared kinship relations.

Leadership was based on the organization of the society from the family unit to the tribe. The Bedouin society was structured in accordance with the succession of authentic and imaginary overlapping family groups. The age, religious virtues, and admirable characteristics, such as generosity and in-born leadership skills, gave some men a higher status in the society which automatically qualified them as leaders in some areas. The smallest unit of the society was referred to as the bayt. Numerous buyuut, that descended from one ancestor formed a fakhadh. The leaders of each bayt and fakhad were the part of the Council of Elders, whose supreme leader was a sheikh or tribal ruler. The male leaders of the bayt and fakhadh were considered equal, and none was considered superior over the other. Numerous fakhadhs were, in turn, united to form tribes. When a tribe was quite large, it was sub-divided into smaller sub-tribes to permit an effective administration. In areas, where there were large tribes, the fakhadh leader was under the sub-tribe leader known as ʿashiira. The ‘ashiira was subordinate to the sheikh of the respective tribe. This chain of command enabled the sheikh to effectively administer the tribe. However, the sheikh could not make absolute decisions on his own and had to rely on his Council of Elders and the agreement of the community with his judgements to effect his decrees. The sheikh usually presided over conflicts, which were mainly centered on the access to water and pasture, which were extremely valuable resources to the Bedouins. A large number of tribal wars were fought over the struggle to control or defend oases and pasture, which was the life line of the Bedouin people. This changed with the discovery of oil and the mapping out of territories in addition to the formation of a central government. The influence of tribal leaders has considerably waned with time, and they exert little or no influence on the process of determining the lives of the Bedouin community. In this regard, the formation of the UAE and the foray of foreign powers into the region meant that tribal leaders no longer exerted the immense power that they had before the centralization of a single administrative and political authority that clipped their power and restricted the movement of the Bedouin tribes within the desert.

Most tribes put up a spirited resistance to the centralized government, but I fought alongside Sheikh Zayed in tribal wars and later supported the union and formation of the UAE.

What is your opinion about the present development of the UAE? In terms of expats, the economic development, and culture, is the rapid development posing a threat to the Emirati culture?

The UAE has developed at an astounding rate. Despite the fact that the development is essential for the country’s economy, the unplanned and unchecked development might have dire consequences for the UAE. I feel like I experience the life that is two worlds apart from the life that I was accustomed to while growing up in Al Ain. The discovery of oil was a blessing to the UAE as we are now able to compete with the first world economies and make an impact on the international scene. However, I believe that this has come with consequences, because we have to outsource a manpower to help us in running our economy effectively. I do not have anything against expatriates, but I believe that their numbers should be reconsidered, or else the native UAE inhabitants will be locked out of jobs. The arrival of expatriates has also been fueled by the lack of confidence in our own workforce. We regard foreigners, especially from the Western countries with a considerable respect, especially when compared with our own people. I believe that this attitude should be nipped in the bud, because we have the suitable manpower to handle the jobs taken up by expatriates.

The economic development is quite good, being that it is the second largest growing economy after Saudi Arabia in the Arab world. However, I believe that the economy should not be entirely reliant on oil. This notion is based on the simple fact that it is bound to run out some day in the near or distant future. Therefore, I believe that we should diversify more to find alternative means to bolster the economy.

I do not like the direction that the culture in the UAE is taking. The entry of numerous foreign cultures has eroded our traditions. Despite the fact that Westernization came with its benefits, especially for us as the Bedouins, I believe that the younger generation is embracing the Western culture more than their own. Westernization opened our eyes to the outdated cultures that we needed to let go, but it also created an air of superiority over our traditions and way of life. It is my fear that our traditions and way of life will be wiped out in the generations to come, because the young generation is more interested in a foreign culture and are eager to be associated with it.

I believe that the rapid development is posing a substantial threat to the Emirati culture. For instance, we Bedouins do not have an unrestricted access to the desert as we used to. Most of us were forced to give up our way of life due to the development and the fact that our traditional ways of fending and providing for our families have been changed. For example, pearl harvesting is no longer viable for us, because a license is needed to conduct this activity. Whereas money had no real significance to us in the past, because we were able to barter our goods and services, we are forced to acquire paying jobs in order to obtain money. In large cities, women can now wear trousers in public which was unheard of in the past. I believe that it is the only qualm that I have against women when it comes to changing cultures, because in my view, other developments, like giving them an equal chance to access the education and other benefits, empower women and us as a country. We are all equal before our Maker’s eyes. Our oral tradition which is a record of historical events, our traditions and customs may die out, because as elders, we are unable to play the role of custodians of our culture. This is because of the overall disinterest on the part of the younger generation, who feel like this practice is outdated and would rather engage in “modern activities” such as going to the mall to hang out with their friends or watch movies.

Summary of my Views

This project was an eye opener for me, because I got a chance to experience life through the eyes of my grandfather. It also seems that life was less complicated than it is now, and I envy that my grandfather had the chance to experience the Bedouin way of life first hand. I learned more about my culture and traditions from a man who lived in this way of life, and this is chance that I will eternally be grateful for. I believe that this is the best way for the younger generation to experience the culture from our elderly relatives as it also serves the purpose of strengthening bonds and being educated on the lives of our forefathers. The Bedouin culture has a rich history that should be preserved for generations to come, despite the fact that the formation of a centralized government has restricted their movement and affected their political structure.

Despite the fact that nothing is constant in the face of a rapidly changing environment, knowledge of our heritage is paramount. Modernization and development are crucial, but so is our cultural and traditional heritage. We stand the risk of losing ourselves to the world and turning into people with no identity if we continue to shun our customs. Why should we readily embrace a foreign culture when we have our own? Therefore, steps should be taken for the current generation to preserve these cultures and traditions, by whereas it has already been heavily influenced by the Western countries.

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