Bedouin tents

The tent has been a dwelling-place for man since the dawn of history. Varying geographical features and differences in the culture of its dwellers may have altered its design, but its essential qualities are unchanging: a tent needs to be flexible, and it must be lightweight.

The Bedouin of the Arabian Desert uses a black tent known as the beit al-sha'r, or 'house of hair'. These tents are woven from the hair of domesticated sheep and goats, and their design is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia. The animal hair is woven into strips of coarse cloth known as fala'if, which are then sewn together. The natural colour of the animal is retained — mainly black goat's hair, with occasional addition of sheep's wool, which gives the tent a streaked, brown/black appearance.

The size of the tent depends on the importance of its owner, or on the size of his family. An average family would use a tent made up of narrow strips, each seven and a half metre long, supported by two tent poles. An important personage, such as a tribal sheikh, would have a more imposing dwelling, made of about six broad strips, each about twenty metres long, supported by four tent poles. Anything larger than this would not be easily transportable.

When the strips of cloth are sewn together, they make up one long rectangle. This is then raised up and supported on tent poles, known as amdan, with tent ropes (atnab) being used to keep the sides taut. A brightly decorated curtain, or qata, hangs inside across the middle of the tent to divide it into a men's and a women's section. The women's section is the larger of the two and is never seen by any man except the owner of the tent. Ruaq, or tent flaps, are long pieces of material attached to the tent sides. These hang down like a curtain at the back of the tent and are sufficiently long to wrap around the entire tent and enclose it at night.

The life of a tent cloth is about five or six years, with sections being added and renewed periodically, as they wear out. The spinning of the goat's hair is done by the women of the tribe on a simple drop spindle or maghzal. The thread is then woven on a horizontal ground loom (natui), which is extremely portable and can easily be rolled up and carried when it is time for the tribe to move on. An ancient measurement is used for the width of the loom, making the cloth strips of a standard breadth. This measurement is based on the length of the forearm.

The process of sewing the strips together is undertaken by groups of women working together, and is an occasion for celebration. The sewing is a skilled job, as the seams need to be strong and durable. Thread made from black goat's hair is used for this task.

The tent cloth is woven loosely to allow heat dispersal. Although the black colour absorbs the heat, it is still between 10 and 15-degree cooler inside the tent than outside. The tent provides shade from the hot sun, as well as insulation on cold desert nights. During rainstorms, the yarn swells up, thus closing the holes in the weave and preventing leaks. The goat's hair is naturally oily, which has an added effect of repelling the water droplets, so the tent's occupants can remain comparatively dry.

The flattened shape of the tent roof is aerodynamically designed so that it cannot be blown away by sudden gusts, or by more prolonged windy conditions common in the desert. The exceptional length of the hempen tent ropes also assists wind resistance, as the ropes act as shock absorbers. An additional advantage of these long ropes is that they can act as trip wires to protect the tent's occupants from unwelcome intruders.

It is the head of the family who directs the pitching of the tent, but the job is mainly done by the women of the family. The tent's owner chooses a suitable spot, on clear, level ground, often near the high-banked sides of a dry watercourse. The tent is unrolled and pitched so that one of its long sides faces the direction of the wind, and the men's section is always situated at the eastern end facing towards Makkah.

Tent furnishings are extremely simple, consisting of carpets and mattresses (dawashaks) spread on the floor, with pillows (masanad) placed on either side of the owner's camel saddle, so that guests can sit in comfort. Hammocks may be stretched between the tent poles. The women's section contains food stores, cooking utensils and spindles, together with the camel litters in which the women ride.

Marco Polo once described a tent used by Kublai Khan on a hunting trip. Its ropes were made of silk and it was lined with ermines and sables and coated with the skins of lions. The interior was large enough to accommodate 10,000 soldiers and their officers. Impressive indeed and a far cry from the humbler version used by the Bedouin people. However, for practicality, durability and adherence to tradition, the beit al-sha'r, or 'house of hair' is a winning design proved by centuries of use.