Vanishing in the Desert, Traditional Bedouin Culture Lives Online


He was speaking in his classic apartment in an old neighborhood of Jerusalem. The bookshelves of his small office were crammed with dictionaries and the chronicles of early travelers to Arabia and the Holy Land. A laptop was perched on a cluttered desk. Drawers were filled with old cassette tapes, each one labeled.

Mr. Bailey has written books on Bedouin poetry, proverbs, law and, most recently, Bedouin culture in the Bible.

It all took patience. Describing some of his subjects as “great poets and smugglers,” he said, “I often had to hang around with them for a day or so before I’d maybe hear a poem.”

By about 2008, when he stopped working in the field, it had become harder to find such people since many of those who had grown up in the traditional way had died. Some of their children inherited the memory of the culture, he said, but that too gradually faded out as distance and communication changed with the advent of transistor radios, cars and mobile phones.

The archive is already proving of value to younger generations of Bedouins who live a more modern life, but for whom the traditional culture remains a source of pride.

Daham Al Atawneh, a retired publisher from the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev, recently approached Mr. Bailey for help with researching a book he was writing about his late father, Musa, the sheikh of the small Atawneh tribe. Mr. Bailey would come to his father and play recordings of poems, Mr. Atawneh recalled, and the sheikh would interpret them. Many contained vocabulary and allusions that few outsiders could understand. Mr. Bailey annotated the works in his book on poetry.


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