SOME BEDOUIN CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
Recounted by "Glubb Pasha" (1897-1986)

Visiting the sheikh
Visiting the sheikh

John Bagot (Jack) Glubb was the commander of the Transjordan Army, known as the Arab Legion, from 1939 until 1956 and before that served as its deputy commander. (See the short biographical note at the foot of the page.) It was he who brought the Bedouin into the army and he who was the founder of the Desert Patrol. He knew the Bedouin and their customs very well, and his book "The Story of the Arab Legion" published in 1948 shows his knowledge and the affection in which he held them. I have based this page on anecdotes recounted in this book. My comments are given in italics.

He first met the Bedouin in Iraq where he was posted by the British from 1920 to 1930 and it was here that he taught himself Arabic and gained the trust of the Bedouin. This was to serve him well in Jordan: there are no secrets in the desert and the Bedouin in Jordan knew all about "Abu Hunaik". He gives a magnificent description of one of the last of the great Bedouin migrations when he was in charge of a pontoon bridge over the Euphrates :

... An almost unending procession of tanned men's faces, framed by long ringlets, like those worn by the young ladies of the Victorian age. Horses stepped daintily on to the bridge with fine muzzles, arching necks and tails carried high - the breed from which in the past were drawn the ancestors of the thoroughbreds of the world. On their backs sat riders in dirty cloaks frayed at the edges, their bare feet swinging by the horses' flanks. They looked unkempt and ragged to English eyes but they managed their horses with unconscious ease, riding only on a pad without stirrups and using a rope or a head-collar in place of bit and reins. Some carried long lances decorated with ostrich feathers, but the majority had rifles slung on their backs. At other times came great camel litters, wooden crescent-shaped frameworks hung all over with carpets, tassels, white shells and blue beads. They seemed to lurch uncomfortably from side to side. Now and then the face of a smiling girl would peer out from behind the curtains.

The whole pageant was dominated by camels. One by one the great herds would pace slowly up to the bridge-head. There is no shade in the desert for hundreds of miles, and the slow heavy camels would pause or shy ponderously at the unaccustomed shadows of the date palms.... For five days the pageant continued. The lumbering flocks, the cantering horsemen, the swaying litters, the deep voices, the veiled faces of which only the eyes were visible. Then the last flock was over, the last of the swaying litters and lean horsemen disappeared once more into the shimmering mirage of the desert to the east of the river.

This was the Shammar tribe, whose chief had the misjudgement to side with the Turks during the war and who paid the price when Ibn Saud decided take revenge. Losing the inevitable battle, they were forced to flee to their usual summer grazing grounds in Iraq, and not return to the Nejd in Saudi Arabia. The tribe is still there in Iraq, where they are noted horse breeders.

However glamorous it might appear to outsiders, Glubb had no romantic illusions about the Bedouin way of life.

The Bedouin warrior is primarily an individualist, and often seems to us to be a boaster. He is more interested in himself than in his side. But he also lives very near to the ground, and death is constantly before his eyes. He has none of civilization’s subterfuges to cover up the agony and crudity of life. Most of his children die in his arms, and he carries the little bodies into the desert himself and scoops their graves. The wounds which he received in war turn gangrenous and he dies slowly of evil-smelling hideous sores. His wife coughed to death with consumption in the middle of the family in his tent….

War had no such terrors for the Bedouin as it has for the modern city dweller. To begin with, it was largely controlled by rules. Then also, the Bedouin's wealth was all mobile, so that if he were threatened by too strong an enemy he could strike his camp and slip away to some other country, where he would be beyond the reach of the enemy or the tyrant.

Divided by such marked characteristics from the world of town dwellers, the Bedouin considered themselves as the elite of the human race. They referred to one another as “thoroughbreds” – the same word as they used for their horses. It was this strong feeling that they alone were gentlemen, which caused them to observe so many rules of honour in fighting one another. Most of their code of chivalry was abandoned when they fought against other communities….

The idea of protection of the weak is fundamental to Arab ideas of honour, just as it was in European chivalry. The absence of a settled government to whom the oppressed could appeal may also have given rise the system of knightly protection of the weak.

The most common illustration of this code is the custom of the “dakheel”. This word means originally one who enters in, but in the present connection it means a person appealing for help. Any Arab to whom this appeal is made, even by a complete stranger or a person who has just committed a crime, will throw down whatever he is doing and defend his protégé with his life. Beside the tent of any great tribal chief can always be seen a line of small tents of various dimensions. These are the families who have placed themselves under the sheikh’s protection, and are known as his “neighbours.” [“tanib”] Some of the neighbours may be the victims of a blood feud escaping from the retribution of the relatives of the murdered man. Others may be people who have been unfortunate, having lost all their animals in an enemy raid or by an epidemic, while others again may be poor and destitute widows or orphans. Arab honour prescribes that the warrior must give his poor neighbours precedence before his nearest relatives and must defend their interest with his life…..

I saw this custom still operating recently in south Jordan. A man was injured in a Bedouin tribe, almost under the noses of the police. His family reacted immediately, and a general fight ensued. While the injured man was taken to hospital  closely followed by most of the young men of the tribe wanting to give what help they could, the older men were kept under close guard by the police post. When the news came, at midnight,  that the man had died, the police immediately rounded up the entire family of the attacker, all of the descendants of his grandfather and prepared to "deport" them from the village. This is another custom intended to prevent retaliation and blood feuds. The family's exile usually lasts until a just compensation is agreed upon between the families. This might take some considerable time - several years is not unknown.

However this time, the head of the "guilty" family refused to go to the village in Wadi Araba usually reserved for "exiles". Instead he appealed to Sultan bin Jazi, the high sheikh of the Howeitat who agreed to extend "dakheel" to him and to allow him and all the family to come to El Husseinyer as tanib instead. This was a much more attractive proposition than the poor village in Wadi Araba, desperately hot and with no arable land. Sheikh bin Jazi assumed responsibility for them all, to provide them with houses and with means of earning a living while "the formalities" were sorted out.

Glubb gives another illustration of dakheel :

...  I sent out a patrol of five camelmen, but this time they were drawn from my own soldiers, not hired tribesmen. They were to base themselves on a small water-hole at the top of the mountain, and to keep the paths across the range under observation.

 After three days journey across the desert and up into the mountains they reached the water-hole. They reconnoitred it, to make sure it was unoccupied, and then rode up to the well mouth, but found that there was very little water in it. They were obliged to lower one of their number down the well in order to bale the water into the waterskins. They were so absorbed in this occupation that they forgot to post a look-out man, although we had strongly impressed on them the necessity for caution.

 Suddenly there was a burst of firing and the four men around the well mouth all fell. The fifth, at the bottom of the well, did not know what had happened. The enemy, who were raiders from Saudi Arabia coming to attack the Howeitat, dashed forward, and murdered the wounded whom they saw lying around the mouth of the well. They then hauled up the fifth man from inside the well, and killed him.

 But one of the four men who had fallen wounded was Hamdan al Bilawi, a small and ugly little boy, but one always at the point of the greatest danger and always managing to survive. His leg had been shattered by a bullet in the first volley, while another bullet had hit the mechanism of his rifle and broken it in half. But his wits were still wide awake, and before the raiders reached the well-mouth he had succeeded in dragging himself behind a rock. For some time the raiders were busy killing the wounded, pulling up the man from the well and killing him, and examining the camels and equipment. But they then noticed that they had taken five saddled riding camels, but had killed only four men. They scattered to search for the survivor.

Hamdan, lying behind his rock a few yards away with a broken leg, could hear the enemy talking, saw them kill of his comrades, and then heard they discussing where he could be. Then he saw them scatter to search for and to kill him. One of them was walking directly towards the rock behind which he lay, and must inevitably find him, helpless and unarmed, grasping only the barrel of his shattered rifle. Then there would be shout, a shot, and he would be dragged from his hiding-place along the ground to the open space by the well, and be finished off by having his throat cut by a dagger.

But Hamdan had been bred up to this kind of thing and was not dead yet. He crouched lower, and pushed the muzzle of his broken rifle round the corner of the rock. The man was advancing towards him with his rifle over his shoulder. Hamdan pushed forward the muzzle of his rifle. “Stand still or I’ll kill you!” he hissed. The man was taken by surprise and clutched his rifle, but Hamdan said quickly “Don’t move or shout, or I’ll shoot you!” the man stood still, at a loss what to do. His comrades were some way off, and with that rifle muzzle so near his face, he did not dare to move or call out”. “Take me under your protection and save my life, or I’ll kill you” hissed Hamdan again. “You are under my protection”, replied the raider, relieved to find so easy a solution. “Swear by Allah!” “I swear it by Allah!”

Hamdan threw away the broken piece of rifle barrel which had saved his life. “By Allah, were you unarmed?” enquired the enemy. “Ay, by Allah, I was,” said Hamdan with a little catch in his voice.

Meanwhile the other raiders had seen him and came running over with their weapons. “Slaughter the infidel!” they shouted, for they professed to be Wahhabis. But his former enemy stepped forward. “You can’t kill this one,” he said. “He is under my protection.” “We will kill him, by Allah.” “You will not!” “We will!” “By Allah, it shall not be!”

His protector stood his ground. At length the raiders relented. They gave him a drink of water, remounted their camels, and rode away, leading the five camels they had taken from the soldiers. Hamdan, with a broken leg, was left lying on the top of a mountain in Arabia… but his wit had saved his throat from being cut.

*****

Raids were not always such a serious matter as that described above which involved "foreigners". At one time, Glubb was caught up in a raid by a neighbouring tribe, and while there was no question of not pursuing the raiders hotly, once the large flock of camels was taken back, friendly terms returned.

… returning to the camp we dismounted again at the tent of Ibn Suweit. The warriors came back slowly, in ones and twos. Ibn Suweit himself arrived, dragging two captured riding camels behind him. Dismounting, he called for carpets, brought out a heap of cushions and told the old negro to make new coffee and tea. There was a bustle of preparation to receive guests. A few minutes later the enemy arrived, walking somewhat disconsolately and unarmed. “Peace be upon you,” they said stopping in front of the tent. “And on you peace,” called the sheikh. ”Be so kind as to sit down! You have honoured us in a blessed hour!” Soon friends and enemies were drinking coffee together and discussing each incident in the fight, like bridge players arguing over their last hand.

Another abortive raid was the outcome of a private initiative :

….the leader of this party was Fahad Al Aweiyid of the Shurafat tribe, a man already known for courage and resource though not the sheikh of a tribe. A few years before, he had tried one night for several hours to steal a camel from the camp of Khalaf Al Mor, a Beni Sakhr sheikh. Meeting with no success, he had stood behind Khalaf’s tent in the dark and called out : “Confound you Khalaf! Send me out a camel here, I cannot get anything from your camp!” The younger men seized their weapons and dashed out into the darkness, but there was no one to be found.

The Bedouin in general have a great sense of humour and also of fair play. Glubb used these qualities both in running the Desert Patrol and also in helping to stop the raids (see the web page "The beginning of the Kingdom")

Believing that tribesmen hesitated to give information against their relatives if they would be imprisoned as a result, I inaugurated a new system. I declared publicly that any man who raided or stole a camel would have to give it back and would also pay one of his own as a fine to the Government. After that there would be no ill-feeling and the incident would be closed. This system possessed several advantages. It was a sporting idea, which appealed to the tribesmen, so that many informers hastened to give away the criminals. When this happened, we called upon the offender, and told him we knew all about him. If he attempted to deny, we rounded up six camels and told him that the two for one rule applied only to people who owned up. This usually forced a confession and resulted in the production of the stolen animals. We then took one for ourselves for each stolen animal, and finished up by making tea and discussing the whole affair with the criminals. This system abolished not only raiding but even ordinary stealing.

The men of the Desert Patrol were never done drinking tea or coffee, and we agreed with them that any man who broke a tea of coffee-cup would be obliged to buy four for the mess. This arrangement produced much merriment and many jokes at the expense of anyone so unfortunate as to break a cup. Sometimes the troops held mock trials to decide who was responsible for a breakage. A whole body of law and precedent was built up round the cup-breaking fines – for example, should a man who volunteered to make tea for his comrades be fined if he broke a cup? There was also the question of cups broken by guests. Everybody was, of course, delighted if an officer broke one, and four replacements of the best quality were expected.

Stopping the raids was one of Glubb's and the Desert Patrol's priorities. Gradually they persuaded the different sheikhs to sign an agreement not to raid, and to prevent their tribesmen from doing so. Sometimes the tribesmen were recalcitrant :

The limit of the Jebel tribes was the edge of the lava, while the open plain belonged to the Ruwallah.

We were on patrol one evening before sunset near the edge of the lava and the plain, when we saw two horsemen just inside the lava … it was soon clear that we should head them off before they reached the lava, when suddenly they doubled on their tracks like hares and were galloping in the other direction. The trucks swung round on two wheels and raced back on the other tack. The horsemen were now riding as though they were coming up the straight at Epsom. Our soldiers, excited by the passion of the chase, were standing up in their trucks, their long hair flying in the wind, cheering the flying riders! After seven or eight minutes of mad galloping, the horses began to flag and the trucks drew in on them. Before they could pull up, the troops were leaping from the trucks, had dragged them from their horses and stripped them of their weapons.

The raiders spent an uncomfortable night tied hand and foot with ropes with a sentry standing over them, and next day we took them back crestfallen to our camp. They came from the tribe of Aouda ibn Seroor, whom we sent for at once. I asked him sternly what was the value of his oath, when we found his tribesmen raiding only a week later.

I had little doubt that Aouda had meant what he said and that he was ignorant of this enterprise, but in spite of this we all looked very solemn and stern. It transpired that one of the offenders was his brother in law, whereat we all assumed even more pained expressions. After about an hour’s torment, during which Aouda swore a great many oaths that he was not aware of their enterprise, and begged with tears in his eyes that we spare them just this once, we apparently rather doubtfully agreed to let them go on the express condition that he gave a written guarantee that it would never happen again. The horses we said would be forfeit to the Government (but we gave them back also a few weeks later).

Aouda abu Tayi, the ally of Faisal and Lawrence, (see the web page on Lawrence of Arabia) was a great and incorrigible raider.

He once led a raid on the tribe of the Aneizat. As the Howeitat charged into the enemy camp, a man of Aneizat threw himself on the mercy of Aouda. The latter accepted his surrender and assured him that no harm would come to him. The prisoner, however, pressed the sheikh to give him a sign which he could show to the raiders, as proof that their chief had spared his life. Aouda hastily pulled off the kerchief which was tied round his head and threw it to the man, riding on bare-headed into the battle. Several years later, Aouda received a message from a man of the Aneizat to the effect that he was looking after a flock of goats for him. Left with Aouda’s kerchief after the battle, the man was unwilling to make away with his protector's property. He sold the kerchief and with the money he bought a goat. After many years of breeding, the goat had produced a flock. A desert traveller was entrusted with a message for Aouda. The latter had long since forgotten the incident of the kerchief, and had never known the man’s name. Although the two tribes were still at feud, the flock of goats was driven to Aouda’s tent by a hired herdsman.

 *****

"bisha'a"

Glubb gives a most interesting description of a custom that has largely died out now :

Even older perhaps than the oath is trial by ordeal. This has been eliminated in most Arabian tribes, partly by religious instruction and Wahhabi influence. It survives in a few backwaters such as the Howeiti mountains. The commonest form is trial by fire or the “bisha’a.” the right to administer this test is usually passed from father to son, and a small number of persons still practise the art. Only professional “mubeshas” are capable of carrying out the trial. The “mubesha” has a flat spoon, the size of half a crown. He sits on the ground in front of a fire and places the spoon in the heart of the embers. The accused sits beside him, while the other parties and the witnesses sit round and watch. The heating of the spoon takes an interminable time, and the “mubesha” keeps taking it out of the fire red hot, looking at it, turning it over and putting it back, in front of the eyes of his victim. During this interval the “mubesha” talks continuously, expounding to the accused the certainty of the revelation of his guilt and the pain of burning. Meanwhile, he watches his face. At last the spoon is ready, the accused is required to put out his tongue, and the hot spoon is laid quickly upon it. An interval of some minutes is allowed, and then the accused is asked to put out his tongue once more. If he be guilty, his tongue will be blistered. If the tongue bears no mark, his innocence is established.

 A more primitive superstitious rite could scarcely be imagined than this use of the “true light of God,” as the Howeitat call it. Nearly all the Arab Governments treat this process with contempt if not with righteous wrath. Yet I have found the process of immense value when working as a magistrate. The “mubeshas” will not, of course, consent to reveal the secrets of their hereditary art, but in many cases in which there were no witnesses, I have found the “bisha’a” identify the offender. I have always imagined that the “mubesha” takes the trouble to enquire into the case before it is referred to him, and to obtain a shrewd idea of the identity of the criminal. Then, during the intentionally prolonged process of heating the spoon, he talks continuously at the accused and watches his face closely. I am inclined to suspect that he then makes up his mind whether the accused in guilty or not, and presses the spoon on his tongue or touches it lightly according to the result which he wishes to produce.

In practice, more than half the accused persons who set out to lick the spoon lose their nerve while the spoon is in the fire, and voluntarily confess to their guilt without blistering their tongues. A further twenty-five per cent probably blister their tongues, and twenty-five per cent are declared innocent. The efficiency of the process depends, of course, entirely on the skill of the “mubesha.” The days of the “true light of God” are doubtless numbered, and in the full glare of modern democracy and (doubtless) enlightenment, the little red-hot spoon will soon vanish. Before it does so, I cannot resist paying a tribute to the skill of those who practise this infamous superstition, and to the considerable number of miscarriages of justice which were by this means avoided.

Glubb sitting in a Bedouin tent
"Abu Hunaik" visiting a Bedouin tent

Glubb recounts many more incidents during the time when the Desert Patrol still only had a few hundred men, and he could meet the people more often. I have enjoyed some of his remarks like : "The Howeitat were great talkers and could rarely keep a secret" (I must repeat this to a few people I know!) and that "The Bedouin robber will celebrate his success by inviting his friends to a meal which will cost him more than the loot he captures..." (Yes, indeed, although the conditions are not the same!)

About the tradition of Bedouin hospitality he gives us the following :

The tent owner sitting in the heat of the day seeing three strange men must needs run to intercept them. Afraid lest they refuse should he ask them to a large meal, he suggests just a little water and a slice of bread. Bus as soon as he has got his way and persuaded them to sit down, then he tells his wife to bake fresh bread (they still do it in the embers on the hearth) and runs and kills a goat and dresses it and bring milk and butter – a real banquet, although he has no idea who the travellers are.

How many hundreds of times have bedouins run to meet me in just such a way, and said pleadingly : “Just a cup of coffee, and a morsel of bread all’mashi – as you walk along – you need scarcely stop a moment”. And having decoyed my party unwillingly into the tent, the host disappears. An hour later, the morsel of bread as we walk not having appeared, we look at our watches and say dubiously that we really are in a hurry. But our hosts brazenly reply that a camel has been slaughtered, and there is nothing for it but to wait three hours for a vast banquet.

And whenever he stopped anywhere always there would be a crowd of petitioners waiting patiently for a moment of Abu Hunaik's time - to explain about the lost camel, or to ask for something to be done about cousin Feisal or just to borrow a few dinars with which to buy food or medicines.

Glubb Pasha

Sir John Bagot Glubb, better known as Glubb Pasha (16 April 1897 – 17 March 1986), was a British soldier best known for commanding Transjordan's Arab Legion 1939-1956. During World War I, he served in France and was then transferred to Iraq in 1920, a British colony at the time.

Educated at Cheltenham College, he became an officer of the Arab Legion in 1930. The next year he formed the Desert Patrol, an exclusively Bedouin force, to curb the raiding problem that plagued the southern part of the country. Within a few years he had managed to get the Bedouin to abandon their habit of raiding neighbour tribes and the raids were soon a thing of the past.

In 1939, Glubb succeeded Frederick G. Peake as the commander of the Arab Legion. During this period, he transformed the legion into the best trained force in the Arab world.

He remained as the commander of the Arab Legion until March 2, 1956 when he was dismissed by King Hussein who wanted to distance himself from the British after the Suez War.  He spent the remainder of his life lecturing and writing books and articles, mostly on the Middle East and his experiences with the Arabs.

His nickname "Abu Hunaik" referred to his crooked jaw, a legacy of the First World War. The word "hunaik" was unfamiliar to me and I enquired of some Bedouin friends what it meant. They misunderstood me.

"Abu Hunaik ? he was an Englishman, a soldier and a friend to the Bedouin a long time ago. It was he who built the fort at Wadi Rum".

This is quite remarkable when one realises that these particular men were born more than 20 years after Glubb's definitive departure from the Middle East. They were vague about the name "Glubb Pasha" though...

Some of his books

Some books about him

I should like to thank most sincerely Rosemary, Lady Glubb, for her gracious permission for me to use her husband's book as a basis for this article.

 back to "Meet the people" - "Bedouin of Wadi Rum"

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Map of the Bedouin tribes of Jordan

Links to Wadi Rum and Bedouin references and information in this site :

Introduction - Sleeping in Wadi Rum - Getting there and away again - What to see there - prices and tours (including horses and camels) - some longer trips in 4x4 - Reliable contacts and guides - "ripping off" - Nature Reserve - Trekking, hiking and climbing : short notes- - Trekking in Jordan - Riding around Wadi Rum - Tours of Wadi Rum - Wadi Rum climbing information - Climbing "El Habla" - Camels and camel trekking

Tourist Map of Wadi Rum - Satellite map of Wadi Rum - RSCN Map of Wadi Rum - Out of doors in Jordan : detailed maps of Wadi Rum

There are also several pages of photos of Wadi Rum in the Photo Gallery and a number of stories about the Bedouin who live there in the section "Meet the people of Jordan"

March 2005