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Facing an uncertain future.

Twentieth century living - in the shape of pick-up trucks, canned drinks and television soap operas - have reached the Bedouin tribes people of the remotest regions. However, not all the changes have been for the better as many of Syria's nomadic people have discovered to their cost.

FUZZY IMAGES of an Egyptian soap opera flicker on a television screen powered by a tractor battery, illuminating the face of a dark, bearded man wrapped in a heavy, wool-lined cloak. In his lap sits a young boy, and next to him a woman with blue tattoos on her chin. The man, Ashour, is a Bedouin tribesman who lives in the remote Abu Fayad region of central Syria. His entire existence revolves around raising sheep in the unforgiving expanses of the Syrian steppe, a vast area where annual rainfall ranges between 50 and 200 millimetres.

To the lay person, the steppe might as well be the desert. The terrain is rolling and unvaried, the monotony broken only occasionally by dry river beds, wadis or distant hills. In summer the steppe is parched, hot and dusty, in winter bitterly cold, muddy and windy. The only respite from this severe climate comes in spring, when the steppe turns a brilliant green after the winter rains. Despite the harshness of their surroundings, families like Ashour's somehow manage to make a living and a few can even watch television soap operas.

Ashour and his family are fully-nomadic Bedouin. There are three kinds of Bedouin: settled, semi-nomadic, and nomadic. The distinction is fundamental, and indicates the local environment's ability to sustain life. Settled Bedouin live at the wetter edge of the steppe, where rainfall normally allows them to cultivate crops and maintain flocks all year round. Semi-nomadic Bedouin stay in villages from late autumn to mid-spring, then move to wetter areas to graze their sheep on more abundant vegetation while the fully nomadic Bedouin live in tents all year round, following whatever pasture can be found.

Rainfall on the steppe is not enough for wheat, but is sufficient to coax a meagre crop of barley from the dusty soil. The settled and semi-nomadic Bedouin feed barley to their sheep, although this, plus the steppe's natural vegetation, is hardly enough to sustain flocks for more than about two months. To make up the difference the Bedouin must buy, often on credit, feed from merchants in cities or towns. Rolf Wachholtz, a German researcher conducting a survey of Bedouin in the Syrian steppe, says approximately 25% of those surveyed had been forced to sell gold to pay for feed.

This state of affairs is relatively new. Until recently the steppe provided an abundant source of feed. According to Rifai al Rifai a lively old bedouin, better known as Abu Ghazi who clearly delights in talking about the past, until recently sheep were fed for six months on bought fodder and the rest of the year they grazed off the steppe.

Once, nature set the limits of human exploitation of the steppe. Livestock could only stay in one area as long as there was adequate water and pasture. As soon as the supply of either ran out, the Bedouin moved on. Today pick-up trucks and water tankers bring water and feed to flocks or transport the sheep to remote areas to graze. As a result, the Syrian steppe has become severely over-grazed. In many areas the natural vegetation has all but disappeared and the thin layer of top-soil eroded by wind and rain.

Another important change has been the advent of peace. Hussain al Habel, the burly headman of Kharbat Habel, a modest collection of mud huts, recollects that in his youth raiding and violent tribal feuds were commonplace. Tribes or clans stayed together, finding safety in numbers. No one dared to live without the protection of his fellow tribesmen. The Bedouin maintained flocks at manageable levels to allow for mobility and protection. Once the government gained effective control of the steppe in the 1940s and 1950s, the Bedouin were able to settle down, build houses and reduce dependence on the tribe as a source of protection.

Security, plus the introduction of trucks to the steppe in the same period, encouraged the Bedouin to raise larger flocks. By the mid-1980s the Syrian steppe was home to nearly 10 million sheep, compared to only 1 million, 50 years before.

Unfortunately, the steppe cannot sustain such a large animal population for long. And the climate is so unpredictable there is always a chance disaster will occur. Rainfall in 1991-92 was generally good, but accompanying frosts damaged the barley crop. Says Abu Ghazi: "For the past three years I prayed to God for rain. This year He said "Take as much rainfall as you like, but you'll have to take the frost with it." The last truly "good" season - one with abundant rains and mild temperatures - was 1987-88. But even then there were problems. According to herdsman Dheib al Hamed, 1988 was marked by an especially high incidence of animal disease, killing 120 sheep out of his flock of 1000.

One development the Bedouin insist has occurred, but for which no data exists, is climatic change. They say that in the past winters were milder, rainfall higher, and springs longer. Wachholtz, however, says the perception of climate change may be linked to changes in vegetation caused by over-grazing, not actual trends in temperature and rainfall.

To outsiders, life on the steppe may seem vaguely romantic, but the Bedouin have no illusions. Life is difficult at the best of times, and those are few. Hussain al Habel reels off a list of hardships: "Bitter water. Dust. It's hot in summer, cold in winter. Scorpions. We have to go 20 kilometres to find drinking water. What kind of life is this?" he asks. Given a choice, many Bedouin would move to the town or city, but that option poses problems as well. Says Abu Ghazi: "I'd like an easier life, with a nice house, a warm bath, central heating and all; but in the city I wouldn't be able to afford more than a sandwich and a pack of cigarettes." The literacy rate among the Bedouin is low, and they lack the skills and money to get by in the rapidly growing towns and cities that ring the steppe. The difficulties of today make many Bedouins nostalgic for the old life. "The blessing of God has vanished from everything," says Aloua Dakhil, an aged herdsman of around 70. "There is no dew in winter. Before there were gazelles and foxes and the pasturage lasted from one year to the next," he says, shaking his head slowly from side to side.

Abu Ghazi agrees. "Fifty years ago there were no cars or trucks, only camels, people lived on barley bread, dates, yogurt, burghal |cracked wheat~ and dried pomegranate seed. We were living on the bounty of God. We were happy."

According to Nasser Muhammad, a fully-nomadic Bedouin who normally spends his winters in the Abu Fayed area but this year is camped out south of Aleppo within sight of the busy highway to Damascus, his grandfathers "had no money and no problems. Life was better back than." Nasser Muhammad's flock of sheep has shrunk from 400 to 50 over the past four years. Every year he is forced to sell more of his wife's gold jewellery to pay for feed. The future of his children, he says with stoic resignation, "is in the hands of God."

Relaxing in front of their black-and-white television, Ashour and his family do not seem overly concerned with what tomorrow will bring. They have fallen into the habit of watching television, and enjoy the images of a life which bears no resemblance to their own. On screen, well-fed, fair-skinned women wearing party dresses, tight blue jeans and too much make-up prance around fountains and in western-style homes, singing the praises of shampoo, greeting cards, refrigerators and chocolate biscuits. In the steppe, there are no fountains, no gardens; diets are nutritious but simple and electricity comes from a tractor battery. As the evening wears on Ashour's wife retires silently to the women's section of the tent. Ashour and his son doze off before the soap opera ends. When they wake up the next morning, the troubling reality of their precarious life on the steppe will intrude once more.
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Title Annotation:Syria's nomadic people adjust to changing lifestyles
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
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