They move from one province in the south to the other, for pasture and water, and they come to the cities to sell their cattle. They are the Arabs of the desert and their numbers on the outskirts of the southern city of Basra are increasing.
For many years the Bedouin groups of Iraq were proud of the fact that they were able to roam the nation’s deserts, surviving by herding their cattle. But that statelessness and nomadic life is becoming more and more of a problem. For one thing, many Bedouin do not have the identity cards that most Iraqis carry.
“When I was a young man, I deserted the Iraqi army and went back to the desert,” Sabah Bandar, 60, tells NIQASH. “And that’s why I don’t have an identity card.”
Bandar hardly ever visits the city but when he did go, he was arrested almost immediately. “Because I wasn’t carrying a card that proves I’m Iraqi, I was accused of being a terrorist. I was released after a long time – the head of my tribe helped to bail me out. But I was arrested again later too, this time by US troops, for the same reason. I was in prison in Basra for several years. When I was released I went back to the desert,” he says.
For the Bedouin, the desert is their home.
“We are famous Iraqi tribes,” notes Ibrahim Abu Nasser, another elder Bedouin in his 60s. ”We’ve inherited our traditions from our fathers and grandfathers. But we’ve started to lose the desert and we cannot move as freely as we did in the old days.”
In many places the Bedouin must be wary of mines in the sand. If they try to cross borders into Kuwait or Saudi Arabia – because the desert covers all of these areas – they are faced with further threat of imprisonment or expulsion. Additionally they are often forced back out into the desert if they approach Iraqi cities. Because of their nomadic ways, many Iraqis see them through prejudiced eyes, and they are discriminated against in the same way that gypsies, or Roma, are discriminated against in Europe.
In law, Bedouin women suffer even more because of their lack of official identity. Their marriages are not documented in the Iraqi courts as they get married via verbal agreements. So they have no marital or property rights. Their children are also stateless.
The local authorities in the Zubair area insist that they are trying to help. “We monitor their conditions and we’re trying to get an accurate idea of how many of these families are actually working, grazing,” says Mahdi Rikan, the head of Zubair’s security committee. “We’ve got data on them and that makes it easier for them to access healthcare and social services. There’s also a security permit they can get that allows them to pass close by oil industry or military sites as they’re travelling in the desert.”
Getting an identity card however is beyond the reach of the Zubair authorities – that is something that must happen in Baghdad, they say.
“And actually some of the Bedouin do have official documents in provinces where they were originally registered, or where their fathers and grandfathers registered them,” adds Abbas al-Haydari, the mayor of the district. They could journey there and get official identity cards, al-Haydari argues.
Meanwhile human rights organizations in the area are also trying to help, by getting lawyers to aid the Bedouin in obtaining marriage, birth, death and naturalization certificates, free of charge.
“These people have inherited incredible knowledge of the desert and of breeding cattle and camels; they provide the people of Iraq with essential services,” activist Sami al-Maliki says. “They are part of our wealth and they should receive the help they deserve.”