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Reviewed by:
  • Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev
  • Frank H. Stewart
Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev, by Clinton Bailey. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. xvi + 375 pages. $70.

The Bedouin of the Sinai and the Negev—and of Arabia and the Syrian desert in general—have a remarkable system of customary law. Nothing of the same degree of sophistication has been recorded from any other pre-literate society. The system is also interesting purely from the point of view of Middle Eastern studies, since the law can tell us a great deal about both the values and the social structure of the Bedouin, and indeed of some sedentary populations who have to a greater or lesser degree adopted that law. The African Bedouin have legal institutions that are broadly similar to those of their Middle Eastern cousins, but less complex in detail.

The first fairly full account of Bedouin law was written by the great John Lewis Burckhardt (1784–1817), and by now there are hundreds of publications that deal with it in one way or another. Recent decades in [End Page 304] particular have seen a flood of writing on the subject, most of it in Arabic. The English language literature is not extensive, and the publication of Bailey’s book is therefore welcome. He has been studying the Bedouin first-hand for over 40 years, and his name is well known to all specialists in the field. In addition to many articles, he has published a volume of Bedouin poems (1991) and another of Bedouin proverbs and phrases (2004), in both of which he presents the Arabic originals (collected in the field), together with English translations and explanations.

His latest book, here under review, has links to both of the earlier ones, but is different in nature. It is not a collection of texts, but an attempt to analyze the “workings and logic” of Bedouin law (p. 2). Bailey has chosen the best method of doing this, which is to illustrate his generalizations by reference to detailed case material. This method does, however, present a problem. A given case—and especially a complex one—may illustrate a number of different points, and so the question arises of how to mesh the particular cases with the general exposition. Bailey’s solution has been to divide almost all his material on specific disputes into 187 numbered cases, and to provide an index that makes it easy to track down all references to a particular case. He has not, however, always concentrated the narrative of a given dispute in one place, so that, for instance, while Case 16 is first mentioned on page 30, further details of it appear (though not in chronological order) on pages 44f., 94f., 191, 198f., 250, and 256. It is left to the reader to put together the whole story.

Bailey is meticulous about giving the sources of his case materials. Most of them derive from accounts collected by the author from informants (who are named), while a few are based on his first-hand observation of at least part of the process of dispute settlement. Other cases come from published materials, especially the work of Sasson Bar-Zvi (for the Negev) and my own publications (for central Sinai). For some cases, more than one kind of source was available. Most of the cases go back no further than the mid-20th century.

The book suffers from certain weaknesses. The author does not offer a survey of the literature on Bedouin law in Sinai and the Negev, and his bibliography omits a number of publications that would have helped him in understanding his material. Bailey has a good practical command of Bedouin Arabic, but he uses an idiosyncratic and inconsistent system of transcription, and his explications of particular words and expressions are sometimes questionable. The case material that he collected in the field is always interesting, but needs to be treated with a certain caution. One reason for this is that most of these case descriptions rely on the accounts of single informants; it is better to have the accounts of several informants, preferably with different points of view, and...


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pp. 304-306
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