Review Rating 4/5
Seraj Assi’s study on nomadism sheds light on previously obscured understandings which have contributed to the Bedouin being discussed from a colonial context. The History and Politics of the Bedouin –Reimagining nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge, 2019) explores the history behind the external impositions on the population. The earlier narratives, mostly from representatives of the British Empire, influenced policy and rhetoric against the Bedouin “rooted in the territorialist outlook on nomadism.”
Drawing upon post-colonial theory about how the representation of colonial subjects facilitated “moral justification” of European domination, Assi’s book is an anthropological critique that gradually builds an intricate picture of how power defines state competency and, as a result, what to manipulate and who to exclude.
The book explores five main themes: the Palestine Exploration Fund’s ethnographic legacy; British perceptions of nomadism; the British Administration’s legacy in Palestine’s South; Arab perceptions of nomadism; and how Zionist historiography portrayed nomadism.
Assi commences with an important question: “Why does Israel, which prides itself on its democratic character, continue to dismiss Bedouin land rights as ‘tribal invasions’ on state lands?” His research shows that Britain represented Arabs as nomads, thus starting a trend in identification which would in time find common ground with the Zionist propaganda of the barren land.
Recovering Bedouin narratives and challenging the prevailing colonial concepts, Assi states, requires a shift in historical focus and analysis. He identifies three main problems which hinder such narratives: focusing on periods of emerging Palestinian national consciousness; the focus on urban Palestine, which marginalises the subaltern groups; and scant focus on British rule in Palestine due to the bulk of studies concentrating on contrasting Palestine and Zionism.
The book reminds us that a linear historical classification of nomadism is ineffective. The British Mandate period, on the other hand, provides the departure point for studying concepts of nomadism and how these influenced both colonial and national narratives. Assi describes nomadism as a “shared legacy”. He analyses how “nationalism and colonialism are equally involved in the dual process of denial and invention, erasure and redemption, association and assimilation shaping colonial perceptions and attitudes towards nomadism.”
Assi’s research shows that attributing nomadism to the Bedouin primarily served imperial interests in Palestine. Racial categorisation and attributes by British explorers in Ottoman Palestine created dissonance over the right to land. The Bedouin were classified as a pure race, distinct from the “fellahin” and the “townspeople” but also deemed invaders who, through their nomadism, “made the land barren”.
These early misconceptions were integrated into British political aspirations and set the foundations for colonial domination in Palestine. Assi quotes Colonel F. R. Conder, who said that, “the happiest future that could befall Palestine seems to me to be its occupation by some strong European power, which might recognise the value of [its] natural resources.”
The Bedouin are also attributed with tribal loyalty which, according to British explorers, excluded national character. However, given the efforts to limit the chances of nationalism in Palestine, these attributes must be read within the colonial context. In classifying the Bedouin as nomads, tribal and alien to Palestine, the Bedouin were automatically excluded from any notion of state formation.
Assi is clear in stating that British concepts of nomadism served colonial purposes. The exclusion of Bedouin land ownership while imposing the British system led to an affirmation of the earlier nomadic attributes. The Bedouin economic situation was labelled as “a primitive economy of poverty… that lacks the kind of economics that exists among the settled population.” By employing superiority in order to avoid constructively recognising Bedouin politics and society, the British dissociated the Bedouin from the Palestinian national cause.
The three main characteristics imposed upon the Bedouin by the British rendered them as a separate race distinct from other ethnic groups in Palestine, external to Palestine through depictions of a conquering tribe and stateless due to colonial designations of nomadism.
While efforts by the Palestinians were made to integrate the Bedouin into the national struggle, the initial efforts bore a similar departure point to the British colonialists, in terms of ascribing racial purity. Assi traces the efforts of Palestinian historian Aref Al-Aref, a British Mandate official who acted against Zionist and British interests and whose work on the Bedouin is deemed a historical narrative that “borders on political anthropology.” Al-Aref, however, sought to overturn the British and Zionist parameters of exclusion by showing how the Bedouin “were not outside history, but the agents of Arab return to history.”
The author also describes how Al-Aref sought to involve the Bedouin in establishing tribal land rights through private rather than communal ownership. In this regard, Assi says, “In his mind lingered the notion that governing property was equal to the making of a nation-state.”
For the Zionists, conquering the Naqab desert was equated to “the final fulfilment of Zionism.” Assi describes how the early settlers initially assimilated to the Bedouin but it was a transient phase in Jewish land reclamation which ushered in the Zionist links between agro-nationalism and settler-colonialism.
The author quotes Ben Gurion with regard to this Zionist settler strategy: “If the State does not put an end to the desert, the desert is liable to put an end to the State.”
This quote by Israel’s first Prime Minister is best analysed in juxtaposition with Assi’s analysis of Al-Aref’s views on the Bedouin and nomadism. Al-Aref stipulates that the Bedouin cannot be considered as external and nomadic due to the fact that their movement happens in their own territory which is governed by Bedouin ownership. Colonialism sought to eliminate traditional land ownership of the Bedouin, hence the assimilation to earlier British concepts of nomadism to describe the Bedouin community.
Assi’s detailed study raises particular awareness with regard to the links between imperial perceptions and Zionist impositions, and how these have shaped external narratives about the Bedouin and nomadism. Inventing nomadism suited British and Zionist interests to establish the lengthy colonisation process. At a time when the forced displacement of the Bedouin community remains a priority for the Israeli government, this book is a must read for an understanding of the political invention of the indigenous narrative.