Tiny herder leads timid beast. (photo: UN)
Desert makes a rocky campsite for family. (photo: Earth Scenes/J.C. Stevenson)
The villages and towns of the Near East are built by the mud that oozes from springs and streams in the desert. Mud makes bricks for their houses. Water determines where those houses can be and how many of them there are. These castles in the sand are home for ninety percent of the people of the Near East, who occupy a tenth of its land.
The rest of the land belongs to the nomads. These weather-beaten wanderers travel between the fire-blackened stones that nomads have used to mark camp sites for generations. To survive, these migrants must reach the water holes that seep up from the desert sands. Without water neither they nor their animals can live.
The animals they raise make the nomads different from townspeople. Nomads lead their herds in constant search of the grass and water on which their very existence depends. Sedentary people search for sources of water to settle by; nomads settle for searching for sources of water. Their animals also distinguish the nomads from each other, dividing them into three groups.
Camel herders have held power in the Near East for more than a thousand years. Large tribes of camel nomads in the Syrian and Arabian Deserts dominate the other people who live there. They are superior because their animals are superior. They occupy the largest territories because camels can travel faster and farther than any other animals in the desert. As warriors, they became rich because they could carry off whatever they seized. As merchants, they are wealthy because they can transport whatever others wish to have.
A new revolution is taking place in the desert now. For centuries only camel tracks crossed the desert. Today, networks of highways follow the old caravan routes and trucks have become the beasts of burden. Bedouins motor from place to place. Motor vehicles transport their families, carry their belongings and move their animals. Trucks even fetch water for their livestock. The camel caravan has all but disappeared. Water holes are turning into service stations. The fighting and the marauding of the camel nomads are fading into legend. But the camel remains. Symbol of strength and endurance, the camel stands tethered outside the nomads tents. Bearer of the traditions of the past, the camel carries on the Bedouin way of life for nomads of the present.
Sheep and goats were the first animals to be domesticated in the Near East. For thousands of years, shepherds and goat herders have migrated with their flocks to reach grazing areas and drinking water. Herdsmen travel in small bands of twenty to thirty tents in order to avoid overcrowding at wells and pastures. Their movements follow a more regular pattern than the wanderings of the camel nomads. In lowland areas, herders move their flocks from the desert where they spend the rainy months of winter to the plains where they stay during the dry months of summer. In mountainous areas, they go to warmer low-lying pasturages for the winter and return to higher and cooler hilly pasturages for the summer.
When they travel, nomads bring all of their possessions with them. They pitch their black tents under the sun. By day, they roll up the sides of their tents so the cool desert breezes can pass through the shade of their shelters. In the evening, they bring the younger animals into their tents with them to protect the animals from the cold night air. At all times, a fire burns inside the tents to heat the kettle of tea from which they offer hospitality to passing strangers.
Nomads depend on their animals for their food, their clothing and their wealth. The herdsmen cannot live without sheep or goats. These animals provide their owners with milk and meat. They are their possessions and their medium of exchange. Nomads can sell or barter their animals at weekly village markets. They may buy produce from farmers.
They might trade with weavers and metal workers.
Unfortunately, nomads cannot live with these animals either. Goats eat vegetation right down to the roots. In villages they graze outside the planted areas until the harvest is in. Once the crops have been gathered, the goats eat the stubble that remains in the fields. As the goats poisonous bite destroys vegetation by exposing its roots, the desert sands advance. The desert captures more territory. Nomads become exiles in a still larger desert.
Cattle nomads rank lowest among the wanderers. They are most like sedentary people. Their herds stay close to the water supply and do not range over as large an area as the other animals. The humped-back cattle that tread through the wastelands of the Near East are the most timid and the most vulnerable of its domesticated animals. In the dry season, they become skin and bones, worth more for the leather of their hides than for the food on their skeletons. Weakened by hunger and debilitated by thirst, they are docile to the commands of the tiny youngsters not half their height and only a fraction of their weight who lead them to food and water.
Nomadic people live in the desert because it is the world into which they were born. The life they lead is the same as the life their fathers led before them. Though the passage of time brings some changes, nomads and their animals continue to exist as they have for centuries, roaming the parched expanse of the desert, sustaining each other in the search for the vegetation and water that sustain life.
Father Mulkerin is Assistant Regional Director of Sub-Sahara Africa for Catholic Relief Services.