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Bedouin Ethnobotany

By James P. Mandaville

Publication Year: 2011

A Bedouin asking a fellow tribesman about grazing conditions in other parts of the country says first simply, “Fih hayah?” or “Is there life?” A desert Arab’s knowledge of the sparse vegetation is tied directly to his life and livelihood.

Bedouin Ethnobotany offers the first detailed study of plant uses among the Najdi Arabic–speaking tribal peoples of eastern Saudi Arabia. It also makes a major contribution to the larger project of ethnobotany by describing aspects of a nomadic peoples’ conceptual relationships with the plants of their homeland.

The modern theoretical basis for studies of the folk classification and nomenclature of plants was developed from accounts of peoples who were small-scale agriculturists and, to a lesser extent, hunter-gatherers. This book fills a major gap by extending such study into the world of the nomadic pastoralist and exploring the extent to which these patterns are valid for another major subsistence type. James P. Mandaville, an Arabic speaker who lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, focuses first on the role of plants in Bedouin life, explaining their uses for livestock forage, firewood, medicinals, food, and dyestuffs, and examining other practical purposes. He then explicates the conceptual and linguistic aspects of his subject, applying the theory developed by Brent Berlin and others to a previously unstudied population. Mandaville also looks at the long history of Bedouin plant nomenclature, finding that very little has changed among the names and classifications in nearly eleven centuries.

This volume includes a CD-ROM featuring more than 340 color images of the people, the terrain, and nearly all of the plants mentioned in the text as well as an audio file of a traditional Bedouin song and its translation and analysis.

An essential volume for anyone interested in the interaction between human culture and plant life, Bedouin Ethnobotany will stand as a definitive source for years to come.

Published by: University of Arizona Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

I have to slip into a bit of personal history to explain how a study like this comes crawling out of forty years’ woodwork. I began collecting Bedouin Arabic plant names and plant-related terminology in the early 1960s when I worked for the Arabian American Oil Company at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as a practical Arabist attached to the company’s Arabian Research Unit. This unit was an...

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pp. xv

I owe thanks, first, to the University of Arizona faculty in the Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Arid Lands Resource Sciences, in particular former members of my dissertation committee headed by Suzanne Fish and including Michael Bonine and Steven McLaughlin, whose encouragement and critique were more valuable than they probably realize. Cecil Brown, professor emeritus, Northern...

Bedouin Ethnobotany

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pp. xvii

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pp. 1-13

More than one university professor of linguistics has gently let me know that my affair with Bedouin Arabic plant classification “falls a bit behind the cutting edge of linguistics studies these days.” Methodology and interests in the larger discipline have indeed changed since William Sturtevant proclaimed “the new ethnography” and told us that “a culture itself amounts to the sum...

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The Land

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pp. 14-37

The geographical area of this study, in eastern Saudi Arabia, is portrayed in figure 1.1. The part enclosed by the dotted line is what I would refer to as the “core area,” which is that region ranged by my primary consultants’ tribes and in which I have fairly complete scientific taxonomic knowledge of the flora. Tribal names shown outside that area indicate the range centers of other groups...

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The People

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pp. 38-52

The brief description of Bedouin life given here refers to the state of tribal affairs during the period of my primary data collection from 1960 to 1975. Many of these points are still valid today. Some changes that have taken place in more recent years, largely as a result of economic developments in Saudi Arabia, are discussed in chapter 7. All the Bedouin tribes are characterized by a segmentary...

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Stars, Land, and Plants

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pp. 53-78

The story line given here—the inset parts in this somewhat unconventional chapter—involves fictitious names and imaginary events but is based largely on personal experience and field notes. Its objective is to provide a more intimate feel for some aspects of Bedouin life than is provided elsewhere in this study. Plant uses and terminology are treated here only in brief because they are discussed...

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Plants for Use

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pp. 79-155

For the bedouins of Arabia, the use of wild plants as livestock forage, defining as it does their very subsistence mode and ruling virtually all aspects of their annual cycle of movements and activities, dominates their interest in desert plant life. During my data gathering, I did not follow grazing field activities per se at length or in great detail but had occasions for field observations of many aspects...

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Plants as Concept and Name

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pp. 156-239

My bedouin consultants expressed a clear belief that plants were formed in all their kinds as an act of creation by God and were intended for the benefit of man. Both of these ideas clearly reflect the tenets of orthodox Islam, expressed in the Qur’an in such verses as “It is He who created for you all that is on earth” (2:29), “It is He who sends down from the skies for you water to drink and from which...

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Generics and Subgenerics: A Descriptive List

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pp. 240-330

This chapter gives a list of all folk generic and subgeneric names arranged under the broader folk categories that include them. A list of the same plants arranged by scientific plant families can be found as appendix C on the CD inside the back cover of this book. The presentation here is given according to the following outline, with groups listed in the numerical order indicated:

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Bedouin Plant Lore in Space and Time

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pp. 331-343

Use of the bedouin system of plant names and classification is not restricted to eastern or central Saudi Arabia or even to the Arabian Peninsula. It in fact extends westward for some 5,000 km, more than 55 degrees of longitude, and at least seven present nation-states, to the far western edge of the Sahara and within a stone’s throw of Atlantic beaches. This is the great western part of the...

Appendix A: Present-Day and Early Islamic Plant Names

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pp. 345-353

Appendix B: Plant Remedies Collected from Herbalists’ Shops

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pp. 355-361

Works Cited

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pp. 363-371

General Index

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pp. 373-380

Index of Arabic Plant Names

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pp. 381-389

Index of Scientific Plant Names

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pp. 391-397

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About the Author [Includes Back Cover]

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pp. 399

James Mandaville resided in Saudi Arabia for most of his life. His early work there for the Arabian American Oil Company (now the Saudi Arabian Oil Company) included research in tribal lore and geographical names for mapping programs and research on international boundaries. His interest in desert plant life and Bedouin plant nomenclature led to his extensive specimen collections for...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816503438
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816529001

Publication Year: 2011