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Bedouin event in London highlights the challenge of balancing heritage with modernization

LONDON: an exhibition in honor of the cultural heritage of the Bedouins in Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories opens Wednesday in London.
“Arab Bedouin: No Future Without A Past” gives visitors the opportunity to meet members of the Bedouin community living in the Levant, hear their stories told through art, photography, film and audio, and gain insight into the challenges facing they are confronted with their hopes for the future.
The free exhibition, open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., from 15 to 25 January at Oxo Tower Wharf in South Bank in London, is an initiative of the Cultural Corridors of Peace project, which aims to promote the Bedouin cultural heritage in the 21st century.
It presents the Bedouin way of life as it is and highlights the “contradiction between the past and the present,” said Aphrodite Sorotou, project director of Cultural Corridors of Peace.

Gathering Bedouins in Jordan. (Photo: Stamos Abatis for CCP


“Bedouins had a nomadic way of life in the past when they roamed the desert freely, but now they are forced to settle in really bad circumstances – there is a contradiction between the two. We try to emphasize that and see how we can help these people to have a voice and presence. “
Bedouins were traditionally “semi-nomadic people moving in the desert, either in the Syrian steppe, on the Arabian peninsula or in other parts of the Middle East where there was desert,” Sorotou added. “They mainly practiced pastoralism and had camels, sheep and goats, and they are identified by a very traditional way of life that dictates the way they function as a society.”
A Bedouin descent, being able to pass on the story of someone’s ancestors, having a link with previous generations and identifying with a tribe were also requirements, she said.
However, the balance between modernization and tradition is a challenge for the Bedouins of today. Most have settled and no longer practice their nomadic and tribal traditions. Their livelihood has changed and in some cases their cultural heritage has disappeared.
“There are not many Bedouins who fit the traditional way of life,” says Carol Palmer, project coordinator of Cultural Corridors of Peace for Jordan. “Only a minority now live in tents, live off their animals and move around because modern life has created other opportunities; there was strong pressure to sedent. There have also been many government initiatives in the past to build houses and send children to school.
“Most Bedouins now live in settlements or villages and go to work. They often combine professions, perhaps have some animals and also have a business or go to work, so they earn a living with a number of opportunities, ”added Palmer.
Sorotou said that some Bedouins in Jordan have managed to preserve aspects of their cultural heritage by using their traditional identity to attract tourists and make money with it. By doing so, they “diminish the authentic character of the heritage,” she added.
“In places like Wadi Rum and Petra, you see Bedouins trying to approach you and sell you things, such as a camel ride or a handmade item,” Sorotou said. “In reality, they have lost touch with their own dialect or are presenting what tourists expect to see: a romanticized version of their lives.
“The reality is different. These people have been living in very harsh environments for centuries and have succeeded in finding ways to live in the desert; now they are forced to live in a very different way. I understand that they try to survive in every possible way, and if tourism is an option, they will of course take it. “

Rest after setting up a Bedouin tent for the regional meeting in Jordan. (Photo: Stamos Abatis for CCP)

The main challenges facing the Bedouin are political and economic, she explained. They have no significant political representation in the countries where they have settled, with the exception of Jordan. This raises a number of problems, including a lack of voice or influence in society, and economic marginalization to the point where they are just surviving. Some may have slightly more money than others, but they cannot do much with it.
As part of the Cultural Corridors of Peace project, a regional meeting took place in Jordan in October, so that Bedouin communities from Jordan, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories could come into contact with each other and discuss their shared culture.
The meeting was presented by Lebanese Bedouins who wanted to make contact with others from neighboring countries. There are around 300,000 Bedouins in Lebanon. A large part lives along the Bekaa Valley, where their cultural heritage is at risk due to socio-economic conditions and restrictions on movement across the border with Syria.
“We have found that the Bedouin communities have a need to stay connected,” Sorotou said. “They feel much more connected with each other than with non-Bedouin citizens around them.”
The Bedouin communities from different countries contacted each other almost immediately during the meeting in Jordan, she said, and “their body language showed that they felt very comfortable with each other and were ready to share anecdotes as if they were family.” I have never seen people make such a connection with each other in such a short time, and that happened within a few hours. “

Bedouin woman in Petra, Jordan. (Photo: Stamos Abatis for CCP)

The Bedouins celebrated their shared heritage through a variety of activities such as setting up tents, preparing traditional dishes and coffee, making artisan products, music and songs, stories and poems and exploring the use of natural resources to survive in the desert. Topics such as hospitality, identity, customary law and the role of women and men in Bedouin communities were also discussed.
Sorotou said that events such as the London exhibition and the Jordan meeting help young Bedouins move towards a more modern way of life, while also recognizing the value of their heritage and cultural identity.
“If we work with them now and make them feel proud of their identity, there is a chance that they will worry about it and save it ourselves,” she said. “As part of the Cultural Corridors of Peace project, we have trained many young Bedouins in documentation methods and presentation of cultural heritage.”
While sustainable change for the better requires a new generation and acceptance of the wider societies around them, Sorotou believes that if they get financial opportunities, Bedouins in Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories would perform “miracles.” They are trying to balance the demands of modernization with their traditional cultural heritage, something they didn’t have to do before, she said.
“They are not trying to make the mistakes that other cultures have made in the past,” Sorotou added. “That is the most important message we want to give through the exhibition. That is where the next phase of the project is going, and we will try to identify methods and strategies to keep their traditions and cultural heritage alive without the opportunity for young people to take away to flourish. “

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