[Living with an Arab Bedouin family]

A Life with a Bedouin family in Syria
― from the Far East to the Middle East ―


[Arab - Bedouin of the Syrian Desert] In 2014, her book Arab - Bedouin of the Syrian Desert was published from Italian publisher, Skira.

Facebook page of this book
● Amazon USA: Arab. Bedouin of the Syrian Desert: Story of a Family by Megumi Yoshitake
● Amazon UK: Arab. Bedouin of the Syrian Desert: Story of a Family

At the age of 15 the story of T. E. Lawrence [Lawrence of Arabia] captured my heart and mind. Ever since, I have yearned after deserts and been enchanted by the Arab world, and wanting to convey the essence of these places in my own way is what caused me to choose photography as my path.

I first visited Syria in 1987, and have spent part of every year from 1995 onwards living with a family of Bedouin in the Syrian Desert. Initially I was single, but visited again on my honeymoon after getting married and introduced my husband. I returned there in 2004 with my 16-month-old son, and since then I have been accompanied by my son whenever I revisit there.

The time I have spent photographing the Bedouin ― amounting to some 17 years ― is unique among Japanese and rare even worldwide.

[ revised SEP. 2013 ]

The population of Syria is some 18,200,000. The name is taken from the ancient Assyrian Empire, which flourished during Mesopotamian times. Damascus, the capital, has a history that stretches from the time of the composition of the Old Testament to today, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. It is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bedouin (a word that arises from the Arabic Badiya, or "people who live in the wasteland") generally refers to a group of nomads of Arab ethnicity. They reside all throughout the Middle East and in some areas south of the Saharan Desert in Africa. Many speak Arabic as their native tongue and are adherents of Islam. Raising sheep, goat, and camels, they live a nomadic lifestyle guided by a tribalism that stresses the importance of direct blood relationships. They are of Arab ancestry and origin. Originally, the word Arab pointed towards the Bedouin in the Syrian desert or the Arabian Peninsula, who referred to themselves as Arab, taking it as a point of pride.

In recent years, the word Arab has mistakenly become equated with terrorist in the public consciousness. Worse, there may also be those that imagine the Bedouin as savages still engaged in looting and violence. This is truly a mistake, for by no means are they a fearful or violent people! Certainly, they have guns for self-protection, but they do not actually carry them. In fact, in my 13 years with the Bedouin, I have seen them use their guns only once ― for hunting at the opening of the Ramadan celebration ― and this was just for 30 minutes. The Bedouin are not harassed by others, nor do they harass others. For here they have peace!

The Bedouin of Syria are all Muslims. A polygamous people, each man is allowed four wives; each wife is given a separate house in which she lives together with her children. Their homes are tents woven from goat hair, separated into a few living rooms and rooms for guests. The head of the family that takes care of me is a calm and warm man blessed with 23 children: two with his now deceased first wife, 11 with his second wife, and 10 with his third. Interestingly, though all share the same father, the children of the different mothers don't particularly resemble one another. The father holds absolute power in the household and is to be accorded both affection and respect from his family

The house is situated about 100 km east of the city of Palmyra (a site housing ruins registered as a World Heritage Site) and from there in the area 50 km north into the desert (the migratory range of the Bedouin usually encompasses the trip between their summer and winter homes, and although the locations change somewhat every year they remain fairly fixed). The Syrian Desert is not some desert formed of waves of fine sand. It has soil and stones, and grass here and there.

In the morning, as the sun rises, the sand begins to sing and move. The sheer number of stars one can see in the sky at night cannot be conveyed in words. It looks like the sky has existed in this way since ancient times.

One can gaze at the sky all night and never become bored. On a moonlit night, is so bright that one can see one's own shadow in the light, while on a night without stars it is so pitch black as to be frightening.

What perplexed me when I first visited their house was the bathroom. There was no fixed place for the bathroom; if it was outside the house, anywhere was fine. Though in the barren desert, one can hide behind the rise of the earth. The first time I went to the bathroom at night, I was accompanied by another woman, since I might have been attacked by the pasture watchdog.

However, one day, I woke up in the middle of the night with a severe stomachache from the camel milk I had drunk that afternoon. At the time I remembered reading a book that had warned, "The first time you drink camel milk it will cause severe diarrhea." As everyone was sleeping soundly, this time I obviously went to the toilet alone. In one hand, I was carrying tissue paper, and in the other a stone to throw at the watchdog in case it tried to attack. Under the shining stars, frightened by the howls I could hear off in the distance, I laughed, imagining myself the only woman in the world squatting out in the middle of the night in the desert suffering a stomachache.

During my stay, life each day began at 5:30 in the morning when we woke up. The bedding the Bedouin use is about the same as the Japanese futon. They spread a mat on the ground in the house and sleep on top of the mat with mattresses and blankets. The pillows are twice as long as Japanese ones and are laid out underneath the mattresses. During the daytime, the pillows become armrests for guests. I always slept in a woman's room, huddled together with the children.

One night, while sleeping, the area around my shoulder felt awfully heavy. When I woke up, I found that during the night somehow a sheep had climbed up onto my shoulder! This was a definite first for me, to be trodden on by a sheep. The next morning, when I told everyone the story, they said this had never happened before, and insisted "that sheep must be quite fond of you!"

The men are in charge of the pastures, but the young men and children have much work to do as well. The women's jobs are also many; handling domestic affairs both inside and outside the house ― cooking, cleaning, washing, etc. ― they have no time to rest and work very hard. Every morning, the women bake their staple food, the Arabic bread khbz. It is a bread unique to the Bedouin, and made without yeast.

Putting rock salt in wheat flour, they make dough by kneading it together with water. Next, they stretch the dough until it's round and thin, and bake it on a pan shaped like an upside-down wok. It is an unexpectedly difficult process ― I have tried many times, but I just cannot get it quite right and always end up with holes in the dough.

Milking the sheep is also the women's job; twice a day for about an hour each time, regardless of the weather. Butter and cheese, among other things, are made from the milk, but the most delicious thing is a food called erube, made of milk from the first week after a sheep gives birth. The freshly-drawn milk is put under a flame for around five minutes until it resembles half-whipped cream. Though neither sugar nor anything else is added, it has a faint sweetness to it. Matching erube with some freshly-baked khbz, one can truly eat to his or her heart's content. Being the first milk, it is extraordinarily nutritious and quite valuable. Eating this is truly one of the privileges of being a Bedouin.

Also, one cannot miss shay, the Arab tea. Though the flavor varies from house to house, it is always very sweet. To these people with little time for amusement, chatting over a cup of shay is the greatest pleasure, especially at night, when families gather, light a lamp, and while burning the wood of the hatab tree, drink the delicious tea together.

The Bedouin also have very sharp eyesight and hearing. They have the ability to make out the terrain and identify stars, and their ability to unfailingly find their way home at night is impressive. At noon, from just seeing a cloud of dust beyond the horizon line, they can distinguish between a truck and an automobile. Perhaps this is an environmental adaptation. I also have never seen a Bedouin wearing glasses.

My first year, unaccustomed to the harsh desert lifestyle, I was fatigued and sick with a cold and fever. The family and relatives were very worried, and nursed me with great care. I heard that others I had met for the first time came to call on me as well. I quickly recovered, but part of my heart withered and had grown to dislike the desert life, and I grew tired of waiting for the day I could return to town to renew my visa. Then, after renewing my visa, I thought of giving up on returning to the desert entirely.

I spent some 10 days in town..., but could not feel at peace. The blue sky, the clean air, the naked earth-the desert still felt more clean. Compared to the western clothes and smooth skin of the townspeople, I thought the Arab dress and rough, weathered hands of the Bedouin were somehow more beautiful.

The abundant plates of food and shay at that time both to me did not seem delicious. I wondered why? I was in the hotel room that I had dreamt of, yet my spirits could not be lifted. I found I wanted to go back?I I wanted to hear the laughs and cries of the children; I wanted to return to my tent in my home in the desert! In the bright fluorescent light of my hotel, I yearned for that desert home with its simple lamp and a conversation with my family by a burning log of the hatab ?ITo drink cups of shay with them ― even if it was sandy! I wanted to sleep huddled together again! ― That was when, for the first time, I came to love the desert in my heart.

Bedouin marriages are necessarily between members of the same tribe and arranged by the respective parents of the betrothed. Many marriages are between cousins. One morning, I awoke to the cry of ?gA baby has been born!?h The third wife of my host father had given birth. The child was delivered outdoors, on the side of their home. The woman was assisted by her step-mother and the second wife. The children gathered around but were scolded and told to go away. The third wife was wearing her usual clothes, bent over on a jute bag spread out on the sand. As she made almost no sound, it felt like nothing much was happening at all.

The step-mother cut the umbilical cord with scissors, and afterward she and the second wife helped the third wife into the house to lie down. The child was wrapped tightly in cloth and laid to sleep alongside her mother. From there, the mother would have six days rest in bed. During that time, she did nothing but nurse her child. The second wife and younger women changed the diapers, and took charge of both the baby's care and household matters in general. Recently, hospital visits for difficult deliveries, or those that put the mother or child in risk, are not unheard of.

On this day, a sheep was slaughtered and everyone gathered for a feast in celebration. They avoid eating sheep except on the most special occasions. Usually they eat very simple meals. Food, clothes, and tools are purchased in town. Sometimes a truck also drives around the desert peddling wares.

Though they have no television, radio, or games ― nor even many books ― the children find amusement in their daily tasks in the home, and are quite cheerful, lively, and healthy.

One time, I happened to be carrying a plastic tank to a neighbor along with a six year old girl. Each of us held one of the two handles, but the one that I was holding was broken, making it hard to carry. Without hesitating the girl took the broken handle herself and handed me the working one.

Another time, a girl of seven years was crying next to the second wife as she cooked, asking for one particular dish from the meal. As men and guests are served first, the women and children eat what is left over. As I was being served as a guest, I ate along with the men. I didn't touch the food that the girl had wanted, as anything I ate myself would only decrease her portion. The girl noticed, and smiling, called out to me, "Why aren't you eating? Eat it all without leaving anything behind!" Even a child of four or five, though his or her own throat might be dry, would still give me a drink first.

On another day, on the way back from a friend's house, it suddenly began raining. A young boy came running towards me from the distance. As I wondered what he was doing, he began walking side by side next to me. "What's wrong?" I asked. He answered, "You have something important in here and it would be terrible if it got wet." The place the boy was standing against and protecting with his body was the pocket of my jacket, where I had put my Arabic dictionary. These people living in such a desolate wilderness have in this way wrapped me up in their warm hearts.

Of the children who attend school, most all are boys. The girls have too many jobs at home to have time to attend school. Consequently, the girls are unable to read or write.

Though the Bedouin all suffer to an extent, it seems especially hard on the women, who toil under the harsh natural environment until their skin becomes dry and chapped, breaking under the daily work. Many women suffer joint pains as a result.

I was once asked by a woman, "Do men marry only one woman in Japan?" When I replied that this was so, she responded, "That's better." Letting a sigh of dissatisfaction slip out, she explained, "It's no good for us for our men to have many wives." Within the male-dominated society of the Bedouin, there are likely things the women do not go along with willingly. However, it's not the case that the women are always strictly obedient to the men; they both complain to and quarrel with their husbands.

I was also frequently asked, "Do you have deserts in Japan?" When I answered, "No," they responded with pride, "That's no good. The desert is clean and has everything." These people have no intention of leaving the desert. Though they could obtain modern lives of convenience in cities, they have chosen instead the deserts they love.

Though obtaining money and convenient things and continuing on the road of increasing prosperity, we are restricted and used by our objects. To these people, a life of wealth is judged by a different standard. I believe their wealth is not one of objects but lies in their hearts.

Also, in order to live their daily lives, they have separated from the state. Though the boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by the British and French after the First World War, the Bedouin still will likely not go beyond them.

I have been considering the future of the Bedouin. The world around them is changing, and some cultures will disappear. Modest, possessing a strong sense of self-control, full of consideration for others, respecting their elders, cooperating, sharing, holding a deep love for their family in their hearts ― these are the traits of the Bedouin. I think these are qualities born out of their lifestyle in the desert. No others hold the time-honored customs of the Arab world in such a pure form, and I for one never want to see them vanish.

"Megumi, you're part of our family" they say, giving me their best in words and a kiss ― the men, women, and children all. I am often asked if it isn't dangerous for a woman to go alone among the Bedouin, but I am convinced there is no safer place. Of course, there are both good and bad among the Bedouin, but if I am together with my family, I have absolute faith that they will protect me.

I will continue to return to my Bedouin family in Syria every year. From now on, I will bring my son as well. Not only do I think it will be the best kind of experience and study I could provide for him, but I also want him to become friends with my Bedouin family. ― Perhaps my son too then will come to know as I did when young ― with T. E. Lawrence as my guide ― of the world that enchanted me, the world of the Bedouin.

August 2006

[Yoshitake Megumi]

  • Photographer
  • Born in Tokyo in 1965
  • Graduated from the Department of Broadcasting and Journalism of Tokyo Photography College
  • Worked as a contracted photographer in an editorial department of a major publishing company, then went on to do freelance work.
  • At present, involved with photography in many different fields, primarily for magazines.
  • Began photographing in the Middle East from 1987
  • Exhibited Bedouin Photographs in Tokyo and Osaka in 1995
  • Exhibited BEDOUIN ― A Simple Life A Traditional Life A Peaceful Life in the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, Tokyo in 2008
  • Exhibited Bedouin at the Ancient Orient Museum, Tokyo in 2009
  • Photo Exhibition: Bedouin at Okayama Orient Museum, Okayama in 2010
  • Photo Exhibition: ARAB - Bedouin of the Syrian Desert: Story of a Family at Yokohama Museum of EurAsian Cultures in 2015
  • Photo Exhibition: A Lifetime Journey with Syrian Bedouin Families at Kinokuniya Book World, Dubai Mall (UAE) in 2016, under contract with MONDA Gallery (UAE)

  • A member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society
  • A member of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan
  • An honorary member of the Syrian Arab Republic Photo Club

Photo Gallery

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[Morning mist]

[A bedouin father and his daughter]

[A bedouin girl drawing water]

[A schoolboy in the desert]

[Fresh sheep's-milk cheeses]


[shay (tea)]

[Men's Fellowship]

[Moonlight in the desert]

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