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Arab Revolts Show Bedouin Distrust of Government

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When I launched a Facebook presence to win readers for my books it never occurred to me that my first name and my lifelong study of Arab civilization would attract North African correspondents, but they have, and I've had a chance to savor their interests and demeanor.

I think I see in their correspondence, which is digitally hip, a similarity to an ancient phenomenon among the Arabs, one that our Marines encountered in Al Anbar in Iraq. Like Bedouins from time immemorial, they're not especially trustful of central authority. The Bedouins of Al Anbar had something in common with our Marines-they were both mobile strike forces, for one- but they had nothing in common with the crockery represented by Baghdad or Al Qaeda.

That may explain why the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa has passed Al Qaeda by. Al Qaeda, like all fanatical organizations, is authoritarian and dogmatic. Bedouins instinctively distrust authority that does not rest on tribal tradition. They know that living dogmatically in the desert will get you killed, and the young people demonstrating in Arab streets today have a sense that dogma has screwed them in every possible way.

The two great imperial Arab families, the Umayyads and the Abbasids, both encountered this stubborn truth. As long as their armies were organized along tribal lines they prevailed, but the minute the rulers began hiring mercenaries and overrode tribal sensibilities loyalties broke down and their empires began to crumble. The Bedouin is the Arab protoype and has represented a continuous danger down through the centuries to tyrants. Alexander the Great, like American Marines, immediately recognized this and wondered how he could enhance his already superb cavalry with the even faster Bedouins.

This is why Muslim rulers rarely encourage or even tolerate the Sufis; these mystics are in their own way as contemptuous of central authority and diktat as the Bedouins.

The urban Arab intelligentsia often reveals a kind of fond frustration towards the Bedouins. On the one hand, Islam was propagated on the tips of Bedouin spears and arrows, but on the other hand Bedouins dislike government, rulers and any hierarchy but their own.

This fact was memorably expressed by Anthony Quinn playing the Howeitat chief Auda Abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia. 'I don't know these Arabs you talk about,' he told T.E. Lawrence, 'I know Howeitat, Harith, Ruwallah. Who are these Arabs you talk about?'

It was Lawrence's difficult job to convince the Bedouins that they were Arabs and had some kind of pan-Arab destiny, if only they would overthrow the foreign Turk. The Turk, of course, was far more familiar to them than the British or French, being a co-religionist they had once conquered.

To the Arab intelligentsia the Bedouins have often represented a regressive, perverse force that has stood in the way of modernization and democratization. But in truth the Bedouins are historically a good bit more democratic than most imperial Arab rulers have been. They just don't trust far-away bureaucrats. They like to gaze into the eyes of leaders. Remote rulers, such as Le Pouvoir in Algeria, the nearly invisible military junta, constitute for them a bureaucracy that rules but does not lead in the tribal tradition.

I see a good bit of this Bedouin irreverence for authority in the correspondence of young North Africans. They think their leaders are full of it. And they're right. We could stand to take a page from their book. Many of our leaders are full of it, too. And probably up to the same no good.

My mother, who lived in the M'Sila Province of eastern Algeria for several years, once told me a story that reflected this disinclination to believe anything but the closest and most proven authority. Every Saturday morning during the French 'raj' in the 1930s Bedouin shepherds would bring sheep to market. My mother, an artist, liked to sit in a central café in a market town and sketch Foreign Legionnaires, Bedouins, cops, tourists, anyone. The Bedouins would sit cross-legged in a semicircle listening to a merchant, a middle man like our bankers and other Wall Street crooks, telling them how bad the market was and how little he could give them for their sheep. They would listen and nod. My mother thought to herself, How polite everyone is.

And then one of the tribal elders rose in one grand movement and walked over to the merchant. He whipped out his dagger and stuck it under the merchant's chin and said, 'Shut up and pay us our price or it will go badly for you.' My mother, alarmed, turned to a Foreign Legion officer and gestured toward the Bedouin and merchant. The officer said, 'Well, Mademoiselle, the crook was trying to cheat them and they're not having it, it happens every week.' It certainly does, as we well know.

That's pretty much how the Bedouins feel about their governments, their governments' grand ideas, Al Qaeda and-us. They're being cheated, and they're not having it.

It's the grand old story of Arab civilization. The Prophet Mohammed himself encountered it and dealt with it ably. He knew what Bedouins do. They raid. They herd. They wander. He showed them how to do it and get very rich off the Persians and everyone else they encountered as far away as Provence and Spain. But when it was over, when the Arabs ruled a great empire, the Bedouins became an inconvenience to their rulers and were supplanted by mercenaries. And guess what? The mercenaries ended up ruling. That's the story of the rise of the Turks. They were once the Arabs' mercenaries.

I see a lot of this Bedouin spirit in my young correspondents. I see it in their digital savvy, their way of cutting to the chase, their fondness for what works, what is practical, their intolerance of bullshit, their love of music and its ability to convey dissent. Rai, after all, was born in Oran and swept over North Africa and Europe with its amazing currency, humor and bite. In this sense, it has a great deal in common with rap. In the very Bedouin spirit the Prophet so admired and instilled in his vision, both rai and rap are about telling it like it is, while the news media are telling us what we ought to think.

This is the Bedouin spirit the Abbasids eventually found to be an obstacle to their grandiose plans.

The Bedouins seem to have passed down through their genealogies an astounding shit-detector gene, and I'm quite sure Al Qaeda will run afoul of it as much as did the Abbasids, among many others. Muammar Qaddafi has ruled Libya by elevating his own tribe. Now he has suffered major defections from within, and other tribes see an opportunity to shake him off. Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq in the same way, elevating his own Tikriti tribesmen over other Sunnis and the Shias.

When the early Ummayad rulers of Al Andalus needed to push back the Christian infidels they talked about sending their lieutenants back to North Africa to 'raise the tribes.' Indeed that is the expression the Emir Abd al Qadir used resisting the French conquest of Algeria.

But raising the tribes, as Mohammed knew, is one thing, ruling them quite another. They don't like being ruled, they like being left alone.

I don't know how this remarkably American aspect of Bedouin culture can be married to the current revolt sweeping the Arab world. The Prophet was able to do it. My guess is that these Arab young people will find much more in common with the Bedouins than with the old elite. The Bedouins never betrayed them, never attempted to exploit them, never shipped their country's wealth to Swiss banks. These youths have much more in common with the Bedouins than with Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi and the other spoilers.

In fact, the digital age, with its speed, mobility-and irreverence-has more in common with the Bedouins. Remember the old man with the dagger in the market? That's what these young people have done, put the dagger to the bullshitters' throats.

Djelloul Marbrook

Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia's Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller's Room, in 1999.

Del's book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latté's fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother's art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt's art: http://www.irenericepereira.com

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