SIOUX CITY -- The Bedouins, the traditional nomadic people occupying the deserts of the Middle East known for wearing flowing robes and riding on camels, surprisingly have a few things in common with the Plains tribes: Camels were the center of the Bedouins' livelihood, as buffalo were a lifeline for American Indians living in the western region of North America.

"The Bedouins occupy a place similar to what Native Americans do in our society," said Matt Anderson, curator of history for the Sioux City Public Museum. "They're people who are very closely connected to the land and have been there the longest."

Traditional Arts of the Bedouin, a program of ExhibitsUSA, a national division of the Mid-America Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts, makes this connection and others. The traveling exhibit of approximately 50 artworks and artifacts, including elaborately embroidered textiles and embellished metalwork from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Syria, is on display at the Sioux City Public Museum through mid-October.

"These are items from a part of the world in some ways that we're very familiar with because of the unfortunate events of our recent history, but in other ways, I don't think the average person has a real good idea about the traditional way of life in that part of the world," Anderson said.

Traditional Arts of the Bedouin

Matt Anderson, curator of history at the Sioux City Public Museum, stands by Bedouin clothing, which is designed for modesty and to protect the body from the desert's harsh conditions.

The objects featured in the exhibit, which date from the late 19th century up until the 1980s, were acquired by Dr. Paul J. Nance, who worked for the oil industry in Saudi Arabia. Nance served as a liaison between the Bedouin of eastern Saudi Arabia and the Arab-American Oil Company. Nance's collection includes colorful woven camel bags and saddles fashioned from palm wood and sinew.

While camels were rarely used for meat by the Bedouins, as buffalo were for American Indians, Anderson said these animals were essential in sustaining life in harsh environments.

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"Camels provided transportation. Oftentimes, water wasn't really suitable for drinking by people, but the camels could drink it and the milk that they produce could be drank by the people," Anderson explained. "They rarely used camels for meat. They were just too precious for that."

Traditional Arts of the Bedouin

A Bedouin face mask adorned with coins is shown at the Sioux City Public Museum.

Coffee originated in the Middle East and is an important part of Bedouin culture. The coffee ceremony, which is conducted by men for male guests, is an extension of Bedouin hospitality and generosity. Raw coffee beans are roasted over an open fire. The ceremony host burns incense to perfume the house and ward off evil. The guests rinse their hands with rosewater before the coffee is served in small cups. Guests must drink their coffee quickly before it cools.

The exhibit includes tools for roasting and crushing raw coffee beans, as well as serving pots and cups made of brass and copper. A case from a World War I-era artillery shell is repurposed as a container to hold serving cups. 

"The cups are so small because (the coffee) has to be drank while it's super hot," Anderson said. "If it gets cold, they'll thrown it out and fill it back up right away."

Traditional Arts of the Bedouin

Traditional Bedouin clothing is designed for modesty and to protect the body from the desert's harsh conditions.

Silver jewelry and hand-made cotton apparel round out the exhibit. Clothing is long, flowing and robelike to maintain modesty, which is highly respected in the Bedouin culture, while protecting the body from the desert's harsh heat, sun and sand. Face masks, jewelry and belts worn by the Bedouin are made of and decorated with coins.

"In that society, at least in a traditional way, the actual money probably didn't mean a lot to them, because your wealth would be in terms of the animals you had more so than cash money," Anderson said. 

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