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Issue 4, Fall 2021

Is the Relationship Between the Bedouin and Fellahin Dichotomous? An Anthropological Case Study

By: Tomer Mazarib


This article discusses interrelations between Bedouin and Fellahin (Arabic for “peasants”) living in the village of Yafa (also known as Yafa of Nazareth), in the western Galilee region in Israel. This article documents the daily lives of Bedouin and Fellahin living together from an anthropological perspective, focusing on how shared communal life both conserves and creates social and cultural differences between the two groups. Ostensibly, the distinctions between the two populations are blurred in almost every aspect of life; however, there is also conflict, feeding into the existence of a dichotomy between the two. The current research, which seeks to develop a scholarly understanding of the relationship between the two groups, is based on ethnographic fieldwork in the form of in-depth interviews, participatory observations, anthropological literature, and a review of archival information of Yafa local council.


The phenomenon of Bedouin settlement in Arab towns and villages has been recognized since ancient periods. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century historian and sociologist, was the first to fully describe Bedouin society’s development and its transition to permanent settlement in Arab towns and villages (Ibn Khaldun, 2010). He classified the Arab population into two categories: the Bedouin (al-Badu), and the sedentary people (al-hadari: rural-Fellahin and urban dwellers). He claimed that the differing lifestyles of the two groups, deriving from their distinct ecological conditions, is the key factor distinguishing the groups from one another.

As a starting point, it would be useful to define the term “Bedouin” and its inherent relationship to the concept of “tribe” (qabila). The term Bedouin (badawi, in Arabic) derives from the word badia, which means “desert.” Thus, the term emerged etymologically as a designation for “desert dwellers.” In the past, Bedouin traditionally lived in a tribal framework. Over time, ecological factors have played a significant role in shaping the Bedouin lifestyle (Marx, 1984). A tribe consists of a grouping of people constituting a social, cultural, economic and political organization, whose members generally reside in a single geographical unit that they have chosen for themselves or that they have come to dwell in as a result of tribal rivalries or other external pressures (Khazanov, 1984).

I now turn to the terms “Fellah” and “village” (kafr). The Arabic term Fellah, connoting a farmer or agricultural worker in the Middle East and North Africa, derives from the description of those who work the soil/farm (as the act of plowing and sowing) to yield a crop (Abu al-Dahab, 1968). The Fellah of the Middle East usually worked two agricultural plots. The first plot was ordinary soil, where the Fellah grew wheat and barley in winter, and sorghum, sesame, watermelons, legumes, and so forth in the summer; the second plot was mountainous soil, where the Fellah tended orchards (olive trees, figs, pomegranates, grapes, etc.) (Shimoni, 1947; Baer, 1960). Land is at the heart of the Fellah’s life. He and his family or the extended family (hamula/clan) live in villages.1

Traditionally, scholars have assumed that maintaining the Bedouin lifestyle, based on the ecological needs of locating good water sources and pastures for the Bedouin’s livestock, demanded raids on the cultivated areas of the Fellahin. Consequently, this lifestyle created tension and hostility, underpinning an inherently dichotomous relationship between the two communities (Feinberg, 1950; Ibn Khaldun, 2010). In opposition to this construct, this article argues that the reciprocal relationship between Bedouin and Fellahin should not be viewed as “the desert against the sown” or as a “war” between the desert and the sown (i.e., the existence of two conflicting subcultures in the Arab region).2

History studies on the relationship between Bedouin and Fellahin during the periods of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent British Mandate are rich in intellectual challenges and multidisciplinary experiences, which can be classified into three genres: Western/European travelers, historians, and geographic researchers. All three tended to rely on a narrow interpretation of communal life, casting the Bedouin and Fellahin as two opposing groups disinclined to mixing or building a shared communal life.

The first genre authored mainly in the 19th century was the work of Western travelers like John Louis Burckhardt (1995) [1822], James Finn (1878), Henry Baker Tristram (1865), Edward Robinson (1970) [1856] and others. Despite the relatively brief tenure of these travelers’ visits, these works, collectively, are a rich source of information about the population in the Middle East, including Palestine, at the time. The works, however, present descriptions of the Bedouin population and the relationships between them and the urban and village residents in somewhat essentialized terms, relying on stereotypical and largely uncomplimentary descriptions of the Bedouin population. Unsurprisingly, these accounts have been subjected to pointed criticism by contemporary scholars, not least for their hostile approach (Said, 1978; Ellingson, 2001; Marx, 1978; Ben-Arieh, 1986; and other anthropologists as described in detail later in the article).

The second genre consists of works authored by historians of the mid-to-late 20th century, including Uriel Heyd (1960), Moshe Sharon (1964), Moshe Ma’oz (1968), Adil Manna’ (1979). The accounts of these scholars all relied on works produced within the first genre, the memoirs of Western travelers. There are linguistic and archival reasons for this. With regard to the late Ottoman period, Orientalist historians often favored English and French sources because (1) these were the languages that they were trained in, and (2) these languages tend to dominate the content of archival records. It is only in the last three decades that historians able to review archival records in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish have begun to develop an alternative research approach to the historical record of this era (these historians include: Norman, 1987; Ze’evi, 1996; Deringil, 2003; Kasaba, 2009; Amara, 2016, 2018).

The third genre of literature on the interrelations between the Bedouin and the Fellahin is by geographical researchers, authored mainly in the second half of the 20th century. These include Gideon Golani (1966), Avshalom Shmueli (1980), Arnon Medzini (1983), Joseph Ben-David and Amnon Barkai (1996), and Gil Kaufman (2005). These academics have studied the Bedouin population in Palestine during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, under British rule, and in the modern State of Israel. Their descriptions of the Bedouin population are presented mainly in geographical terms: settlements; immigration; and the transition from a nomadic existence, via a semi-nomadic way of life, to permanent settlement in mainly Bedouin villages.

The current article combines abstract and coherent epistemology to propose a far more complex relationship than portrayed in the existing literature. Historically, there have been integrative relations between the Bedouin and Fellahin. The anthropological study of Daniel Bates, which describes the relations between nomad and Fellahin populations in Syria (Bates, 1971), provides a good example. Bates proposes that ecological conditions contributed to the symbiosis between Bedouin and Fellahin. One example is in the integration of the land uses of the Bedouin and Fellahin. Bedouin sell livestock products, such as milk, cheese, butter, meat and skins, to the Fellahin, and buy agricultural products from them in return. The Fellahin work the land; after harvesting, the Bedouin bring their herds into the fields, contributing to land fertilization ahead of the forthcoming planting season (ibid).

This article proposes that the social categorization of the Bedouin and Fellahin populations is based on flexibility, structuring, and formulation, and not on essentialist differences or dichotomous relations. The similarities and differences constantly undergo parallel formulation and structuring processes; such that the cultural identity of the Bedouin does not disappear, but rather undergoes a restructuring, informed by modernization processes. The anthropologist Donald Cole addresses these trends in his article: “Where Have the Bedouin Gone?” He found Bedouin working as truck drivers transporting petrol in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria; transporting water for field irrigation; or working as sheep and cattle merchants in Syria. While loyalty to the tribe has shifted to allegiance to the nation-state, this has not necessarily changed self-ascription. Cole’s insight is that changes to a lifestyle do not necessarily mean that social or cultural identities are lost or assimilated (Cole, 2003). Francoise Metral summed it up in one sentence “Lifestyles change but identities remain” (Metral, 2000: 127). In other words, the means and tools may have changed, but the cultural identity remains the same.

This article will present the dynamics of Bedouin-Fellahin relations in mixed permanent settlements, using the Yafa village of the Western Galilee as a case study; it pays particular attention to differences in the social and cultural aspects of the
two populations, emphasizing the dialectics of the assimilation-unification processes and separation. Following this, my research questions are: what forms of interactions take place between Bedouin and Fellahin? To what extent have Bedouin, integrating into a Fellahi village, maintained their unique Bedouin identity, separate from that of the Fellahins in the village?

The study method is ethnographic fieldwork, conducted in the village of Yafa, in the Western Galilee, including observations and participation in community activities such as weddings and funerals (both Bedouin and Fellahin). Ethnographic observations were supplemented by six in-depth interviews with Bedouin and Fellahin inhabitants in the village, and a review of the extant research literature, and archival information of the Yafa local council.

Joint interactions: Bedouin and Fellahin at Yafa village

Demographic background

The village of Yafa is west of Nazareth, on the main road between Haifa and Nazareth. It shares architectural, geographic, and demographic traits with most Arab villages in the Galilee. It consists of 12 neighborhoods. According to the last census (2016), the population of Yafa is 17,674 inhabitants: 80.7% Muslims (14,262) and 19.3% Christians (3,411) (Israel Bureau of Statistics (IBS), 2016 Census).

Each neighborhood is home to several extended families, who are known to most of the village people. There is a mosque for every two or three neighborhoods. The main roads to the neighborhoods branch off the main Haifa-Nazareth road. The Bedouin community, comprised of six tribes, make up 13.4% (2,385 people) of the population of Yafa. Most of the members of these tribes live in the southern neighborhood of Yafa, Marah Alghazlan. With regard to the Bedouin population of Yafa, the correlating percentage according to tribe is as follows: Na’arani – 35.6% (850 people); Ghazalin – 31.8% (740 people); Al-Na’im – 14.6% (350 people); Hajajra – 9.2% (220 people); Hamdoun – 7.7% (185 people); Majli – 0.83% (20 people) (IBS, 2016). In almost all areas of life, these Bedouin have social, economic, religious, and cultural interactions with the Fellahin.

Social interactions: weddings as a way of assimilation

Wedding ceremonies in Yafa are similar to those of other Arab towns and villages in Israel. The celebration can be divided into several distinct patterns. One, the “traditional wedding,” is celebrated close to the home of the bridegroom’s parents, and is considered a light traditional wedding;3 the second, the “modern wedding,” is usually celebrated in a hall or garden in the same town or village; the third, a “religious-Islamic wedding,” is held near the bridegroom’s parents’ house or in a sports yard, or next to the neighborhood mosque in the same town or village; and the fourth, a “Christian wedding,” is celebrated in a hall or garden in the same town or village.

For Bedouin living in the same town or village, the dominant mode of celebration is the traditional wedding. The bridegroom’s parents strive to preserve the pattern of the traditional wedding by convincing their children to hold the wedding near their home. Fellahin weddings are also mostly held near the bridegroom’s home, and less frequently in a hall or garden close to the residences of the marrying couple.

According to a review of marriage certificate registration portfolios in the Shari’a court in Nazareth, between 1990 and 2010 there were a total of 1,629 marriages and 13 divorces in the village of Yafa (Bedouin marriages were identified by the family names recorded in the register). Of these, the number of Bedouin marriages was 294 cases (and only three divorces), (Shari’a court, Nazareth, 2010). That is to say, about 18% of the Bedouin population are married to members of the Fellahin population (intermarriages).

Over time, mixed marriages have increased in number, establishing a trend of exogamic relationships between Bedouin and Fellahin. This reinforces Ibn Khaldun’s claim that “intermarriages disrupt genealogy” (Ibn Khaldun, 2010: 85). On the one hand, this indicates a certain degree of social flexibility, and porous social boundaries between these two social groups. But on the other hand, not all marriage patterns are exogamic. There are still established endogamic marriage patterns, which ensures the conservation of each group’s uniqueness.

Economic interactions: raising cattle and salaried employment

During the period of the British Mandate in Palestine (1918-1948), the Ghazalin family and other Bedouin families in Yafa (who had moved to Yafa from the Jezreel Valley in the 19th century) raised livestock, producing milk, meat, and wool (Mazarib, 2016). After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, some of these Bedouin turned to trade and commerce, or became salaried workers in industries in the Arab or Jewish towns in the immediate vicinity. At present, most of the inhabitants of Yafa are salaried workers. There are about 5,734 salaried employees, and 487 self-employed (Yafa Village Archives (YVA), 2016). The average monthly salary in 2016 was about 5,150 NIS (1,568 $) for men, and 3,976 NIS (1,210$) for women, and about 7,644 NIS (2,327$) for the self-employed; the national average salary was 8,018 NIS (2,441$) (ibid).

However, this change in working patterns does not mean that the Bedouin stopped raising livestock. Some continued to do so, mainly sheep and goats, near their homes, both for profit and for their sustenance needs. Sammy Ghazalin, about 65 years old, is married to a Bedouin woman and lives in the Marah Alghazlan neighborhood. In an interview, he told me: “I am raising a small herd of about 15 animals [so that my family can] have fresh mutton whenever [we] need, especially for the holidays. Also, my wife and I make Labaneh and sometimes cheese” (Interview with the author, March 25, 2016). This indicates that the practice of raising livestock is not only for commercial purposes. This economic aspect of raising livestock near the home still exists. The Bedouin build sheds for raising sheep and goats, which they do mainly to supplement the family income.

In another interview, Muhammad Hamdoun, a resident of Yafa who raises calves and cattle, said that he currently has 75 animals, grazing south of Marah Alghazlan neighborhood (between Yafa and Migdal Ha’emek). He and his sons raise the livestock for trading purposes. He sells the calves to the butchers after slaughtering them in his own cowshed (Interview with the author, April 20, 2016).

Fatma Ghazalin is about 60 years old. Married to a Bedouin, she also lives in the Marah Alghazlan neighborhood. In my interview with her, her comments illuminated the cultural difference existing between Bedouin and Fellahin communities. She said: “The Bedouin today in the village live separately from the Fellahin. It is true that we grow livestock near our homes, and sell them livestock products, but we live in our [Bedouin] neighborhood…”. (Interview with the author, March 25, 2016). This is another indicator of the bifurcated path of social relations; the Bedouin do have economic interactions with the Fellahin, but still live in a separate neighborhood in the Fellahin village.

Joint religious interactions

Birth rituals

There are few differences between religious services in the Muslim Arab society, especially “birth” ceremonies. These are all conducted according to Muslim Shari’a laws, accompanied by quotations from the Koran. Birth ceremonies are held either in mosques or in family homes. Events of this form can be divided into two main types. First are celebratory events, such as a housewarming, celebrating a birth (especially the birth of a firstborn son), or a “replacement” for a wedding ceremony, such as when someone in the bridegroom’s family has died, when a wedding is converted into a birth ceremony. The second type are connected to sad and traumatic events, such as after recuperating from a grave illness, or after a serious accident, etc.


There are four imams in Yafa, serving the four mosques in the village: (1) Sheikh Abu al-Walid Ghazalin, Imam of al-Rahma mosque in the Marah Alghazlan neighborhood (mostly attended by the Bedouin inhabitants of the neighborhood); (2) Sheikh Muwafaq Shahin, Imam of Omar al-Mukhtar mosque in the Khalah Baher neighborhood; (3) Sheikh Amin Abu Naji, Imam of the al-Nur mosque in the northern (al-Jabal al-shamali) neighborhood; and (4) Sheikh Khaled Al-Ahmed, Imam of the Old mosque in the Latin neighborhood.

There is some heterogeneity and confusion concerning the social-religious boundaries. For example, Sheikh Abu al-Walid Ghazalin, Imam of al-Rahma, the Bedouin neighborhood mosque, is Bedouin, but not all of his congregation are Bedouin. While the majority of his extended family pray in this mosque, a significant proportion of Bedouin families, such as the Hamdoun, Al-Na’im and Hajajra families, do not go to mosques at all. Most pray at home. There are about 60 regular attendees in al-Rahma mosque, both Bedouin and Fellahin – excluding Fridays, when the congregation is larger, sometimes reaching as many as 320 worshippers. It should be noted that, in general, Bedouin are more religious than Fellahin. This is reflected in the large number of Bedouin who pray at home, and who undertake the Omra and Haj pilgrimages.

Pilgrimages: Omra and Haj to Mecca

Yafa is characterized by a distinct religious conservatism, reflecting a religious ideal. Many of its inhabitants try not to work during the holy month of Ramadan. The village has a weekly contingent of around 50 people, from both communities, who go to worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

In an interview with Sheikh Khaled Al-Ahmed, Imam of the Old Mosque in the Latin neighborhood, he told me that about 450 (men and women) perform the Omra (lesser pilgrimage) each year, of whom approximately 90 (20%) are Bedouin.

In addition, approximately 80% of pilgrims perform the Haj (main pilgrimage) each year, of whom approximately 16 (20%) are Bedouin (Interview with the author, April 24, 2016). The share of Bedouin performing the Omra and Haj each year is about 20%, significantly higher than their share of the general population of Yafa, which is 13.4%. This is a clear indicator of the religiosity of the Bedouin population of the village.

Funeral Ceremonies

The village has five cemeteries. There are few differences between the Islamic funerals of the Bedouin and those of the Fellahin. Over the course of my observations, I participated in two funerals. The first was for a member of the Ghazalin family, which took place on September 5, 2012 (cause of death was a tragic road accident); the second was for a child from Hariri family from Manzal al-Nur neighborhood, at the center of Yafa on July 21, 2015 (cause of death was illness). The funerals, which were both led by Sheikh Abu Al-walid at Yafa’s southern cemetery, were conducted according to Shari’a rites.

“Literary Arabic” is the official form of the Arabic language, uniting all Arabic-speaking peoples. Most Arab people use the literary form of the language for official purposes such as education, literary writing, composing official documents, and the like. But hardly anyone uses this form of Arabic in everyday life; instead, people tend to use “spoken Arabic,” one of a variety of dialects determined by geographical location. The spoken Arabic of the Arab population of Israel consists of a number of different dialects: urban dialect, Rural-Fellahin dialect, and Bedouin dialect. Even within these three dialects, there are differences, which speak to the origins of the speaker. The dialects, however, all have shared pronunciation forms, morphological forms, syntactic structures, and lexical elements.

In Yafa, there are four common categories of Bedouin speech usage. The first category is the usage of the Fellahin dialect. Usage is, in the main, by the third generation (grandchildren) of Bedouin in Yafa. While Bedouin pupils tend to speak at home in Fellahin jargon, this is not typical of the whole Bedouin population. The distinguishing characteristics of the Fellahin dialect speech are mainly in pronunciation. Most 

Fellahin pronounce the letter ‘k’ as it is ( ك), not like ‘ch’ the way the Bedouin do. The letter ‘q’ ( ق) is pronounced correctly and not the Bedouin way as ‘g’. To note, that Fellahin inhabitants of Iksal, Ein Mahel and Kfar Kana villages pronounce ‘q’ as ‘g’ like the Bedouin in a Fellahi-B. They use ‘ch’ instead of ‘k’. This is apparent when they meet and speak in the same village jargon showing their historical past.edouin garbled style. It is interesting that among Fellahin villages there are often different dialects. Village inhabitants of Yafa whose origins are 1948 refugees from villages such as Ma’alul and Al-Mujaydil (Migdal Ha’emek), have jargons and dialects unique to them

The second category consists of Bedouin who use the Bedouin dialect at home, but the Fellahin dialect in public. In an interview with Salim Al-Na’im, a Bedouin from Yafa, he said: “I am a Bedouin, I speak Bedouin dialect at home, but outside where there are Fellahin I speak their dialect, same as all the other Bedouin here” (Interview with the author, January 14, 2016).

The third category is Bedouin who use the Bedouin dialect everywhere. Most first-generation Bedouin in Yafa use the Bedouin dialect. Its pronunciation characteristics are ‘q’ is pronounced as ‘g’ or ‘j’ like ‘jasem’ instead of ‘qasem,’ a person name; ‘Jird’ instead of ‘qird’ which means monkey, and ‘jish’ instead of ‘qash’ meaning straw. ‘K’ is pronounced as ‘ch’ in certain words such as ‘chif halak’ instead of ‘kif halak’ (meaning ‘how are you?’). In addition, there are a number of unique words that only exist in the Bedouin dialect.These include “Aji” and “Ajia” meaning boy and girl; “dahijj” meaning looked; “Ilk” meaning chewing gum; “ybci” meaning cry; “harabjat” meaning burnt; “khusa” meaning knife; and “snun” meaning teeth (see also Rosenhouse, 1984). Thus, dialect usage affords an immediate opportunity to identify the ethnic affiliation of the speaker as a Bedouin.

The fourth category comprises of Bedouin, who speak a mixed dialect, combining Bedouin and Fellahin words and letters. This practice contributes to the hybridization of the language. The use of different dialects, as described above, shows that the social-cultural interactions between these two communities will not necessarily lead to one of the two adopting the culture of the other. Rather, these interactions contribute to a new model, as can be seen with the hybridization of the dual dialect.

Summary and conclusions 

The article describes several social, economic, religious, and cultural interactions between the Bedouin and Fellahin residents of Yafa village. While these communities are drawing closer culturally – with, in some cases, a synthesis emerging between the two communities – they still conserve and even create social and cultural differences that serve to distinguish one from the other. The Bedouin population of Yafa, although living in a Fellahi and non-Bedouin village, maintain a Bedouin tribal identity separate from the non-Bedouin village population. This segregation is expressed in social dimensions, economic activity, and cultural practices. Concomitantly, the Fellahin similarly preserve their own social, economic, and cultural patterns.

The key insight of this paper is that behavioral patterns of the individual in the society where s/he lives in may lead him/her to develop special epistemology and awareness, operating based on values, norms, and practices with unique traits. Accordingly, Bedouins who live within Fellahinsociety differ in material aspects from Bedouins who live in uniformly Bedouin localities (and are, also, different from the Fellahin). They even objectify and embody unique norms and practices, expressed in uniform behavioral patterns, differing from other social groups. Conserved over lengthy periods of time, these behavioral patterns undergo improvement, change, and even upgrade; but the momentum of these changes remains, possibly related to an earlier past and connected to cultural determinism. <


1. Hamula is the name of the extended family in Arab society (meaning clan). The Bedouin do not use the term hamula, it is called tribe (qabila).

2. The term “Sown” is the past participle of the verb “to sow”. The term is used to describe settlers who worked their own agricultural land, such as the Fellahin.

3. This is a short ceremony (one day), not as long as it was in the past, when the ceremonies lasted for a week or more.



Al-Ahmed, Amer, Interview on April 24, 2016, Yafa village

Al-Na’im, Salim, Interview on January 14, 2016, Yafa village

Hamdoun, Muhammad, Interview on April 20, 2016, Yafa village

Ghazalin, Khaled, Interview on March 25, 2016, Yafa village

Ghazalin, Fatma, Interview on March 25, 2016, Yafa village

Ghazalin, Sammy, Interview on March 25, 2016, Yafa village

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The opinions and findings expressed in this Brief belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA.