Syria Table of Contents
The precise size of Syria's beduin population is not known, although in the mid-1980s it was estimated at less than 7 percent. The number of actual nomads among the tribesmen is steadily decreasing because of government settlement policy and the extension of law to the desert. Nevertheless, the nomad remains a highly romantic and admired figure in folklore, and his pride, independence, sensitive honor, and disdain for agricultural or other manual labor are influential values among villagers, especially near the margins of the desert. However, the Baath Party views the nomadic way of life as primitive and hopes to settle all beduin. Ordinarily tribesmen settle in their own villages rather than merging with peasant communities.
In Syria, only eight wholly nomadic tribes remain, sometimes overlapping international boundaries. They are the Ruwala (by far the largest) and the Hassana of the Syrian Desert; the Butainat and the Abadah, near Tadmur in central Hims Province; the Fadan Walad and the Fadan Kharsah of the Euphrates Desert; and the Shammar az Zur and the Shammar al Kharsah in Dayr az Zawr Province.
Tribal society consists of semiautonomous bands of kinsmen moving their flocks within their respective territories. Each band is defined by its members' descent from a common male ancestor, and bands are grouped together according to their supposed descent from a more distant male. Each tribal group, from the smallest band to the largest confederation, ordinarily bears the name of the common ancestor who supposedly founded the particular kin group.
The tribal community itself is defined in terms of kinship, with patterns of behavior, both within and between groups, governed by kinship relations. The kinship system also served to stabilize relations among different bands and groups of bands. The individual tribesman is placed in the center of ever-widening circles of kinship relations that, in theory at least, eventually link him with all other tribesmen within a particular region of the country--that is, with all tribesmen with whom he is likely to come into contact.
Within the basic tribal unit, the nomadic band, the individual's status is ascribed at birth in terms of the kinship relations existing between him and all other members of his band. He is considered subordinate to his elder kinsmen and equal to his age-mates. However, a tribesman may gain prestige because of his special skills at riding horses, hunting, herding animals, or handling men--particularly in the settlement of disputes. His standing within the band will also be enhanced by his relative wealth in terms of the kind and number of animals and the special gear and equipment he owns. Beduin in Syria are not considered poor or underprivileged people; in fact, many beduin tribes are regarded as very wealthy by Syrian standards because of their ownership of large flocks of sheep--a valuable commodity.
High-prestige animals are horses, camels, sheep, and goats, in that order. A tribesman who owns a horse has more prestige than one who does not; one who has two horses is more esteemed than another who has only one. Otherwise, the relative social differences between tribesmen, other than for members of the mukhtar's and shaykh's lineages, are slight.
The mukhtar has a special, superior relationship to other tribesmen in that band; he is elected from among the adult male members of a specific lineage segment within the band. Generally the most prominent member of the lineage segment, he is selected by his close kinsmen and approved by the tribesmen at large and by the leaders of the superordinate tribal group. Although the office of mukhtar does not necessarily pass from father to son, it tends to remain within the same lineage segment. This lineage segment is likely to have a good deal of the band's wealth in terms of animals and gear and probably most of the money to be found within the band.
The mukhtar exerts most of his influence as the leader in the majlis (tribal council), which is composed of all adult males of the band, and the views of its most senior and respected members carry the most weight in council. The mukhtar holds open majlis daily in his guest tent, where the tribesmen discuss all matters of importance to the band. In addition, individual tribesmen appear before the majlis to air their own problems and to press grievances against fellow tribesmen. The mukhtar and his majlis try to solve all these problems and disputes within the tribal unit.
When settlement within the band is not reached or when the dispute involves members of two or more bands, the problem becomes a matter for consideration by the leaders of superordinate tribal groups who stand in a senior position both to the mukhtar of the single band and to the parties to the dispute. Final appeal is to the paramount shaykh of the entire tribe. The Kurdish tribal groups have essentially the same structure as the Arab tribes but apply different titles to their leaders, and their political and economic tribal unit appears to be smaller than that common among Arabs.
Data as of April 1987
Syria Table of Contents