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Arabs: Semisedentary Peoples of the Sahel

The Arabs of Chad are semisedentary (or seminomadic) peoples who herd their camels, horses, cattle, goats, and sheep on the plains of the Sahel. Except in the extreme north, they live among sedentary peoples, and in the region around N'Djamena some Arabs have adopted a more settled existence. In the rainy season, Arab groups spread out through the region; in the dry season, they live a more settled existence, usually on the dormant agricultural lands of their sedentary neighbors. They leave the far north to the Toubou, avoid the mountains of Ouaddaï and Guéra prefectures, and move south of 10° north latitude only in times of extreme drought.

The Arabs were not state builders in Chad, a role played instead by the Maba in Wadai, the Barma in Bagirmi, and the Kanembu in Kanem-Borno (see Era of Empires, A.D. 900-1900 , ch. 1). The Arabs exercised great influence over all three empires, however, either by conquest (in the case of Wadai) or by converting their rulers to Islam (in the cases of Bagirmi and Kanem). As with nomads and seminomads elsewhere, the possession of camels and horses translated into military potential that commanded the respect of the settled states. For example, the Awlad Sulayman of Kanem, despite their small numbers, gained fame and fortune during the second half of the nineteenth century by playing the increasingly aggressive empire of Wadai against weaker Kanem-Borno. In the decade after 1900, they used the same tactic to enhance and enrich themselves at the expense of the French and the Sanusiyya, a Muslim religious order of Libyan origin with political and economic interests in the Lake Chad Basin.

Chadian Arabs are divided into three "tribes": the Juhayna, the Hassuna, and the Awlad Sulayman. Members of each tribe believe themselves to be descended from a common ancestor. Among the smaller social units, belief in a shared genealogy (rather than common residence or a common faith) provides a major ideological rationale for joint action.

As is true for the Toubou, the basic Arab social unit is the kashimbet, a minimal lineage made up of several generations of men, their wives, and children or grandchildren reckoned through the male line. Members of the same kashimbet live near each other and more or less follow the same route during migration. Each kashimbet is headed by an elder male, or shaykh. This aspect of the social structure is visible in the disposition of tents (or houses among the more sedentary Arabs of N'Djamena). The residence of the shaykh is often at the center of the camp or settlement, with the woven straw tents or adobe houses of his relatives arrayed around it in concentric circles. The area is surrounded by a fence or some other boundary that defines the zariba, or walled camp. Within the kashimbet, loyalty is generally intense, institutionalized relationships being reinforced by bonds of common residence and personal acquaintance.

Kinship bonds also provide the ideological basis for broader units. Led by the head of the senior lineage, who is more a "first among equals" than a chief, the shaykhs of neighboring kashimbets sometimes meet to decide matters of common interest, such as the date of the annual migration. The shaykhs' leader, or lawan, may also deal with outsiders on their behalf. He concludes contracts with farmers to allow Arabs to pass the dry season on agricultural lands and levies tribute on strangers who wish to use the group's pastures and wells.

Unlike what is found in Toubou society, marriage among the Arabs strengthens kinship ties. First, marriage is more a family than an individual concern; senior males from each family make initial contacts and eventually negotiate the marriage contract. An ideal union reinforces the social, moral, and material position of the group. Second, parallel cousin marriage (that is, union between the children of brothers or male relatives more removed), is preferred. This custom encourages the duplication of bonds within the group rather than the creation of a far-flung network of more tenuous, individual alliances, as occurs among the Toubou. Finally, the marriage ceremony is itself a community affair. Among the Toubou, marriage is associated with the feigned "stealing" of the bride from her family, whose members respond with grief and anger, but marriage among the Arabs is an expression of solidarity. The ceremony is celebrated by a faqih (Muslim religious leader), and a joyous procession of neighbors, relatives, and friends escorts the bride to the house of her husband.

Despite their wide distribution and numerous contacts with sedentary peoples, Arabs have never played a preponderant role in Chadian affairs. During the colonial period, they resisted the French, who attempted to impose a territorially defined administration but who ultimately governed through the Arabs' kin-based social structures. This inability of the colonial authorities to penetrate and change Arab social and political institutions allowed the Arabs to resist Western education and employment in the emerging capitalist economy. Their pastoral lifestyle also saved them from the forced cultivation of commercial crops that so disrupted the societies of their sedentary neighbors.

Since independence the Arabs have remained on the margins of Chadian national life. The government, dominated by southerners, suspected the Arabs of a major role in the civil strife of the late 1960s. In the Sahel, however, settled non-Arab peoples (such as the Moubi and Hajerai of Guéra Prefecture) have played a much more important role in resisting central power. Although it is true that the Arabs have opposed the government at times, they also have rallied to it. Such a pattern suggests that the Arabs have followed their time-honored prescription of keeping the state off balance to ensure maximum freedom of action.

Data as of December 1988

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