Iraq’s Bedouin forced to settle down

EAST BABIL, Iraq — Iraqi Bedouin living in areas of the Babil and Wasit provinces, directly to the south and southeast of Baghdad, constitute a group of people that left nomadic life in the desert and took up residence in villages close to cities. In this context, Mohsen Lafta, writer and researcher on the origins of Iraqi society, told Al-Monitor, “These tribes could no longer move with all their members from one place to another. That is why they chose stability. It is no longer an unusual choice.”

SummaryPrint Although many Iraqi Bedouin tribes have had to give up their nomadic lifestyle and have settled, they do not have access to basic services such as health care and education due to the Iraqi government’s neglect.
Author Adnan Abu Zeed Posted September 2, 2015, al-monitor
TranslatorPascale Menassa

He said, “The ancestors of most Iraqis were Bedouin and those [with Bedouin origins] cling to their traditions — such as hospitality, generosity and tight family and tribal relations — despite having settled in agricultural lands.”

Lafta listed several Iraqi tribes with Bedouin origins, such as the Suwaidi tribe from southeast Hilla, the Bueij tribe that is part of the Adnanite Anazzah tribe, the Harakisah tribe in Babil, Diwaniyah and Najaf, and the Shammar tribe that settled eventually in the central Euphrates Basin.

Sheikh Ali al-Hardan from the Harakisah tribe in Babil told Al-Monitor, “In the 1970s and even before, we would not settle anywhere but move according to the seasons of the year. We would go where there was grass and rain. That is how many Bedouin lived. Many of them would cross the Iraqi borders with Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Today, we have chosen stability over a nomadic lifestyle.”

Al-Monitor headed to the camps of the Harakisah tribe situated 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the center of Babil province. The road is unpaved and leads to a wide desert that is filled with plants and shrubs due to rainfall. Hardan pointed to a small truck loaded with goods and said, “This belongs to street vendors who head to nomads’ regions to sell goods such as water bottles to spare [the Bedouin] the effort of shopping in cities.”

Hardan took his cellphone from his pocket and called his brother who lives in a Bedouin camp deep in the desert. “Get ready to welcome some guests, and prepare food and accommodation,” he told him.

Hardan said about the technology that connects him with his brother, “We are no longer disconnected from modern communications. We have televisions, radios and even computers and digital cameras.”

While touring the area, we spotted shepherd Abu Nasser who wore Bedouin clothes and waved a stick at 40 sheep that were dispersed in the field. He told Al-Monitor, “I do not have official papers such as a civil status card, and I haven’t visited the city for more than 30 years.”

He added, “Many Bedouin refuse registration with the civil status department to evade required duties such as military service.”

Al-Monitor entered the home — a tent made from sheepskin — of Hazlan Hamad’s family. Hamad offered his guests camel milk and talked about its benefits.

“You won’t find a drink that is tastier or healthier than this one in an environment where temperatures reach 55 degrees Celsius [131 degrees Fahrenheit] in summer,” he said.

He added, "At night, I light a fire from wood logs that women collect in the desert. This is considered one of the women’s main duties, in addition to tending sheep, milking cattle and preparing food that is mostly derived from dairy products."

While we gathered around the fire, our hosts talked about the Bedouin’s new circumstances. Rahim Hussein told Al-Monitor, “Tending sheep might be the last job for the Bedouin. This tribe had over 300 camels, but now there are only 90. Pickup trucks have replaced the camels.”

The Iraqi governments over the years have tried to make the Bedouin settle down. In the 1990s, the authorities sought to settle Bedouins in the western desert located between Najaf and Karbala, 108 kilometers (67 miles) southwest of Baghdad, by distributing lands to them at no cost. But this project failed as the Bedouin were use to their nomadic lifestyle.

Hardan said, “These projects failed since the Bedouin cannot settle in one place. They sold their lands that they were unable to cultivate due to financial hardship. The government's projects to settle them also lacked basic services, such as health care and education.”

Salama al-Salihi, researcher on Iraqi society’s affairs, confirmed what Hardan said and told Al-Monitor, “Iraq’s Bedouin are still a group that relies on itself in making ends meet — they have not received government subsidies.”

Perhaps the lack of interest in their lifestyle and their hardship have pushed some Bedouin to smuggle goods and cattle across the borders with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Some even were forced to migrate due to a lack of security. Sheikh Mohamad al-Hazza’ from the Anazzah tribe, who is related to the Harakisah tribe, told Al-Monitor, “The military operations between the Islamic State [IS] and the security forces pushed [me] to settle here in September 2014 and leave the Nukhayb desert in the southwest of Iraq.”

Hisham al-Hashimi, researcher on security affairs, said in a press statement on June 22, “Some Bedouin are cooperating with IS, especially when it comes to smuggling various goods.”

Writer Ferhan Abo Fadi explained this phenomenon and told Al-Monitor, “The nature of the desert has made Bedouin tough fighters, and tough living conditions have pushed them to become experts in smuggling.”

Reporter Toufic al-Tamimi, who has written movie scenarios and reports about Iraqi life, told Al-Monitor, “The Bedouin’s environment has become tense due to the fear of IS and military operations.” 

The results of the last census in 1997 indicated that out of a population of 19 million people at the time, 100,000 were Bedouin.

The Iraqi government must provide water and electricity services in areas where the nomadic tribes live, or they must be resettled in agricultural regions. This would strengthen their relations with the government, in addition to making them citizens who contribute to the economy, instead of being isolated in a secluded desert with no rights or access to education.