#ShelfieSunday: Bedouin Heritage

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Bedouin Heritage: The World of the Arabian Horse

by Matthias Oster
Review by Hylke Hettema

   In Bedouin Heritage (2016), Matthias Oster proposes to take his readers on a journey back in time to a world long gone.  The author argues that in order to grasp the nature and understand the concept of the Arabian horse, one must venture into its world; that of the Bedouin.  He aims to give the reader a new perspective by re-sketching the surroundings and society from which the breed emerged through “numerous citations from authorities from many centuries, disciplines and origins from all over the world.”

   The enormous amount of information presented in this work is organized in a surprising, yet familiar framework. Using the example of the notorious Lawrence of Arabia and his pillars[1], combined with the idea that biblical evidence supports such an outline, the author presents us somewhat a guidebook for understanding and breeding Arabian horses based on seven pillars. A brief description of the desert and most of its animal inhabitants sets the stage for the saga of the Arab Nomads.  A chapter about Bedouin history circles around the connection between the bible and Bedouin.  Three main arguments are made to support this connection; first the idea that the bible contains an accurate description of Bedouin society, and matches that of the early Orientalist renderings of encounters with Bedouin in the Middle East. Second the author links the camel, the center of Bedouin society and culture, to Abraham and Ishmael.  And third it is argued that Bedouin society is based on kinship systems that are found in the Bible. A chapter on Bedouin society follows. Using Orientalist writings and Biblical examples, the author elaborates on the social but also infra- structures of Arab Nomads. In this chapter the camel plays a more prominent role in the narrative and it isn’t until the aspect of religion is discussed that more examples about the role and position of horses are brought forward.

   This changes in the next chapter on Bedouin tribes, in which the author discusses the Arab tribes who have been known to keep horses.  To make it tangible, the connection to current breeding programs is made by showing which tribes bred certain horses that have been imported across the globe in the modern period. Subsequently the topic of strains (bloodlines) is brought up. A brief overview of the concept of strain-theory among breeders is provided before the author elaborates on the various strains, illustrated by photos of famous horses throughout recent history. A brief chapter called Bedouin Tradition discusses the role of Arabic poetry featuring horses and horse descriptions, followed by a chapter on the characteristics of the Bedouin horse and a scientific chapter about all things medical regarding horses and some genetic diseases particular to Arabian horses. A concluding chapter brings the reader back to the Bible and the proposed connection between Bedouin culture and biblical scriptures.

   Despite its popularity among Arabian horse enthusiasts, this work can not be compared to the average book on the breed. It contains far more detailed and carefully selected information about the Bedouin society and culture from which this breed is said to have sprouted. The author is also touching upon public debates about purity of blood and the concept of strain theory and subsequent breeding strategies. The chapter about the tribes is a treasure of information not only to breeders of Arabian horses but also to those who research migration and cultural exchange.

   A reader with a more general interest in both nomads and horses may however be overwhelmed by the amount of text and detail of the book. The focus lies with a specific type of Arabian horses[2] and many of the names and examples of individual horses given may be lost on a reader with no background knowledge of tribal systems and Arabian horse bloodlines of the Middle East.  An academic reader will notice the use of rather outdated or refuted sources, as well as an enormous corpus of Orientalist material. When it comes to the description of the desert and perhaps the animals it might not cause trouble, but using, and in this case, literally copying Orientalist works to sketch Bedouin society, tradition and ‘qualities’ is at least dubious. It would seem the author is not aware of the contextualization needed for both Oriental works as well as Arabic poetry. He does mention such poetry probably is more symbolic than real, but does not show the ongoing debate surrounding the idea of the existence of actual Pre-Islamic poetry.

   In conclusion Bedouin Heritage deserves to be ranked among the better works on Arabian horses as product of Bedouin society and culture. Especially when readers are looking for a detailed overview of the concept of both Bedouin life as well of the idea of the Arabian horse. To a more seasoned reader on the topic of Oriental horses this work however comes across as somewhat neo-Orientalist, mainly because of the constant efforts to tie the concept of Arabian horse breeding to the Bible as well as the justification of appropriation of the breed by others than Arabs/Bedouin themselves. It may be clear that the author admires the romantic adventures of the Orientalist writers on the topic very much and has tried to re-create his own story in a similar manner, therefore part of his goal is completed. While none of this information is in fact new, the book offers a unique perspective in terms of its enormous amount of information.

[1] Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. 1922

[2] Straight Egyptian/Asil Arabians

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