Tribes and Tribalism

Jordan Table of Contents

Before the events of the post-World War II period thrust it onto the center stage of international affairs, the territory that is now the East Bank was first a provincial backwater of the Ottoman Empire and later a small and weak desert amirate. Straddling the transitional area between the "desert and the sown," it participated only marginally in the social and intellectual changes that began sweeping the Arab world during the nineteenth century. Although ringed by the hinterlands of such major cities as Jerusalem and Damascus, Jordan lacked a significant urban center of its own until the late 1940s; consequently it did not display artistically, intellectually, commercially, or governmentally the sophisticated form of Arab culture characteristic of urban life. The basic form of social organization in Transjordan was tribal, and the social relations among the various nomadic and seminomadic tribes and between them and villagers (many of whom were also tribally organized), were based on trade and the exchange of tribute for protection.

In 1983 Gubser classified Jordanians along a continuum: nomadic, seminomadic, semisedentary, and sedentary. Nomads, or beduins, were a fully nomadic group whose livelihood was based on camel herding. Tribes and animals existed in a symbiotic relationship; the camels supplied much of the food and other needs of the beduins, while the tribespeople assured the animals' survival by locating and guiding them to adequate pasturage. This fine adaptation to an extremely demanding ecological niche required a versatile, portable technology that was, in its way, extremely sophisticated. It also required a high degree of specialized knowledge and a flexible social structure that could be expanded and contracted according to need. The beduins, however, were also dependent upon settled communities--villages, towns, and cities-- for trading animals and their products for goods they did not produce.

Tribal social structure, as described by tribal members, was based on the ramification of patrilineal ties among men. In reality, matrilineal ties also were significant in providing access to material and social resources. The ideological dimension to patrilineality became more apparent when endogamy, or marriage within the group, was considered. The preference for endogamy-- historically prevalent in the Middle East, especially for paternal cousin marriage in the first instance and then in descending levels of relatedness--gives rise to a network of kin relations that are both maternal and paternal at the same time. Ultimately, the kinship system takes on many characteristics of a bilateral system. Descent and inheritance, however, are traced in a patrilineal fashion.

Tribes in Jordan were groups of related families claiming descent from a supposed founding ancestor. Within this overall loyalty, however, descent from intermediate ancestors defined several levels of smaller groups within each tribe. Tribespeople described their system as segmentary; that is, the tribe resembled a pyramid composed of ascending segments, or levels, each of which was both a political and a social group. At some point, each unit automatically contained within it all units of the lower level. Ideally, in the event of conflict, segments would unite in an orderly fashion from the lowest level to the highest as conflict escalated. In reality, the system was not so orderly; tribal segments underwent fission, and in the event of conflict, fusion did not necessarily follow the ideal pattern. The pattern of unity was much more varied and complex.

Beduins traditionally have placed great importance on the concept of honor (ird). Slight or injury to a member of a tribal group was an injury to all members of that group; likewise, all members were responsible for the actions of a fellow tribal member. Honor inhered in the family or tribe and in the individual as the representative of the family or tribe. Slights were to be erased by appropriate revenge or through mediation to reach reconciliation based on adequate recompense.

Beduins had specific areas for winter and summer camping that were known to be the territory of a specific tribe. Seminomadic groups raised sheep and goats and moved much shorter, well-defined distances; they also practiced some agriculture. But the semisedentary groups were more involved in agriculture than either nomads or seminomadic peoples. Parts of a semisedentary group moved during different seasons, while others in the group remained in permanent abodes.

By the 1980s, these differences among beduin groups were minimal. Substantial numbers of nomads and seminomads had increasingly adopted a sedentary way of life. In his 1981 study of one section of the Bani Sakhar tribe, Joseph Hiatt noted that settlement began in the post-World War I period and expanded rapidly after the mid-1950s. In this case and many others, sedentarization was neither completely voluntary nor a result of an official settlement policy. Rather, it appeared to be a natural response to changing political and economic circumstances, particularly the formation and consolidation of the state. In some cases, the administrative policies of the state disrupted the nomads' traditional pastoral economy. For example, national borders separated the nomads from grazing lands and permanent wells. The creation of a standing army that recruited nomads diluted labor once available for herding. Education had a similar effect. As the nomads took up agriculture and as private titles to land were granted, the nomads' traditional relationship to tribal territory decreased. Faced with these obstacles to a pastoral way of life, nomads increasingly chose alternative occupations, particularly in the military, and the sedentarization process accelerated.

Government policies encouraged settlement by providing schooling, medical services, and the development of water resources. The decrease in the number of nomads continued despite the influx of pastoralists from the Negev Desert after the founding of Israel. By the early 1970s, the beduin tribes constituted no more than 5 percent of Jordan's population. That proportion had dwindled to less than 3 percent by the late 1970s. Their small numbers, however, did not correspond to their cultural and political importance in Jordan.

Despite the near-disappearance of the nomadic way of life, tribal social structure and organization have not necessarily been transformed as drastically. Hiatt contended that tribal organization actually was reinforced during the initial process of sedentarization because the tribe itself was the basis for allocation of land. Leadership patterns have changed significantly, however, as government-appointed officials have assumed many of the tasks formerly associated with the position of shaykh. In the end, tribal social structure was weakened; individual titles to land, which can be rented or sold to outsiders, and individual employment diluted lineage solidarity and cohesiveness.

Some indication of the recent status and aspirations of beduin groups, both settled and nomadic, was provided by a 1978 survey by a team from the University of Jordan. Among the beduins studied, males increasingly were engaged in more or less sedentary occupations. Many were in the government or the army. The researchers found that most beduin parents wanted a different way of life for their children. Willingness to settle was contingent upon settlement being more advantageous than the nomadic way of life. For the beduins, settlement often meant a continued association with livestock raising and its attendant requirements of access to food and water. These hopes and wishes seemed to be consistent with the government's strategy for a revitalized livestock (sheep and goat) industry.

The beduin attitude toward education was two-sided and reflected the difficulty of adapting to a new way of life. Early observers noted that an army career tended to motivate beduins to acquire an education. Some, such as the French ethnographer Joseph Chelhod, argued that "an educated beduin means an abandoned tent." Implied was abandonment of the entire beduin way of life. Many beduin parents interviewed in the 1978 survey were concerned that the education of their children beyond a certain level would threaten the survival of the family. They feared that "an educated child would naturally emigrate to work or pursue further studies in Amman or even outside the country." At the same time, these parents acknowledged that "the best future of their children lay in education and in living and working in a settled society close to the country's urban centers." It is not altogether clear whether the beduins who have acquired enough education for an ordinary career in the army have abandoned their allegiance to their families and tribes or whether they have permanently rejected the beduin style of life.

Jordan was unique among primarily sedentary Middle Eastern countries in that, at least until the mid-1970s, the Hashimite government gained its most significant political support from the beduin tribes. Mindful of the intensely personal nature of his ties with the beduins, Hussein visited them often, socializing in their tents and playing the role of paramount tribal shaykh. People of beduin origin constituted a disproportionate share of the army; that disproportion continued to prevail at the higher command levels in the mid-1980s. The opportunity for a lucrative, secure career that also carried high prestige and conformed to traditional martial tribal attitudes has for over half a century drawn recruits from the desert, first into the Arab Legion under the British and later into its successor force, the Jordan Arab Army. Army service was an important influence for social change among nomadic tribes because it fostered desire for education and often provided the wherewithal for adaptations to factors affecting the pastoral economy. For example, army pay could permit a beduin family to buy a truck as a substitute for or in addition to camels, or to invest in the economically more significant sheep.

Observers in the 1980s noted that a process of detribalization was taking place in Jordan, whereby the impact of tribal affiliation on the individual's sense of identity was declining. Sedentarization and education were prime forces in this process. Smaller groups, such as the extended family and clan, were gradually replacing tribes as primary reference groups. The weakening of tribal affiliation and identity led to the questioning of support for the Hashimite regime. Tribal shaykhs no longer could guarantee the support of tribal members, particularly the younger ones. This process was uneven, however, with some tribes displaying more cohesiveness than others.

The term tribalism was much in use in the 1980s. The intelligentsia proposed that meritocracy rather than tribalism be the basis of selection in the 1984 parliamentary by-elections. Anthropologist Linda Layne compared the intelligentsia's views of tribalism with the electoral behavior of the beduins. Layne defined the intelligentsia's interpretation of tribalism as "the placing of family ties before all other political allegiances" and concluded that tribalism "is therefore understood to be antithetical to loyalty to the State." Layne recognized the prominent role of tribalism in the 1984 election but stated that this was not at odds with a modern political system. Rather, in reconstructing their identity in a modern Jordanian state, Layne held that the beduins were maintaining a tribalism suffused with new elements such as a narrower role for tribal shaykhs in national politics and new sources of political legitimacy. Beduin electoral behavior was not homogeneous along tribal lines, evidence that tribal shaykhs could no longer automatically deliver the votes of their fellow tribesmen and women. In this sense, Layne found no tension between the beduin's identity as tribesman or tribeswoman and as citizen; rather, these were complementary forms of identity.

Tribalism and tradition also lent legitimacy to Hashimite rule. The legitimacy of tradition, considered almost synonymous with beduin or tribal culture, has been defended as part of the near sacrosanct foundations of the state and as central to cultural heritage. In the 1985 public exchange between King Hussein and Minister of Information Layla Sharaf, Hussein responded to Sharaf's calls for liberalizing the law, particularly lifting censorship and diluting the influence of tribalism in society. In the 1980s, a debate raged among Jordanians and observers of Jordanian society over the appropriate role tribal influence and tradition should play in a modern state. In early 1985, in the midst of this debate, King Hussein publicly supported the role of the tribe and tradition in Jordan's past and future by stating, "Whatever harms tribes is considered harmful to us. Law will remain closely connected to norms, customs, and traditions. . . . Our traditions should be made to preserve the fabric of society. Disintegration of tribes is very painful, negative and subversive."

Thus, the role of tribes and tribalism, although transformed, remained a fundamental pillar of both society and political culture in the late 1980s. Although numerically few Jordanians lived the traditional life of the nomadic beduin, the cultural traditions based on this life-style were hardly diminished. Indeed, conceptions of modern Jordanian cultural and national identity were deeply intertwined with the country's beduin heritage.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress