The Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture Comes to the National Library of Israel

Irreplaceable documentation of ancient nomadic culture to be saved and made freely available online

Clinton Bailey interviewing a Bedouin elder, 1972 (Photo: Boris Carmi). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel archives

  • 100s of hours of singular audio recordings, photos and slides from fifty years of research
  • Materials document a lost ancient culture; do not exist elsewhere and will not be found in the future
  • The collection will be made freely accessible online by the National Library of Israel

Over the course of more than five decades, Dr. Clinton Bailey has conducted research throughout the deserts of Sinai and the Negev, establishing himself as a world-renowned expert on the Bedouin, Arabic-speaking nomads whose ancient culture survived largely unchanged for thousands of years.

Bedouin men riding camels by the Gulf of Eilat (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

The Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture is now coming to the National Library of Israel. The archive includes one-of-a-kind treasures, including approximately 350 hours of interviews and recordings from Dr. Bailey’s research, as well as hundreds of images, slides and video clips documenting Bedouin tribal culture over the past half century.

Dr. Bailey collected these materials immediately before his elderly Bedouin interlocutors passed away, taking their knowledge and memories with them. The archive therefore presents invaluable authentic primary-source materials from the last generation of elderly Bedouin who grew to maturity in the pre-modern period of Bedouin culture.

These materials will not be found in the future. They are a treasure of orally transmitted ancient culture now irreplaceable, and not available via the younger generations of Bedouin who grew up exposed to modernity.

Traditional Bedouin milk churning (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

According to Dr. Raquel Ukeles, Head of Collections at the National Library of Israel, “The irreplaceable materials in the archive will serve members of the Bedouin community interested in learning about their past, as well as scholars in Israel and abroad for generations to come. Safeguarding and opening access to these materials is central to the mission and mandate of the National Library of Israel, as we work diligently to preserve the treasures of all of Israel’s communities and share them with diverse audiences locally and internationally.”

The materials cover a range of facets of ancient Bedouin tribal cultures, making their preservation that much more significant. Subjects recorded include: traditional poems; legal trials; oral traditions and histories; information about economic life, social organization, values, laws, religious practices, poetic creativity, knowledge of the environment, and more.

Bedouin panel of judges in court (Photo: Clinton Bailey)
Unmarried Bedouin women (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

The archive presents a remarkable asset reflecting the singular mission of the National Library, an open and inclusive institution dedicated to preserving diverse expressions of cultural heritage and encouraging engagement with them by audiences in Israel and around the world.

The materials will be made freely accessible online through a comprehensive process that will include:

  • Transcribing all audio materials in order to make them searchable and easily accessible
  • Comprehensively describing and cataloguing their contents in Arabic and English, including explanations of specific vocabulary and customs encountered in the recordings, many of which are not familiar to modern scholars
  • Converting audio materials from analog to digital, optimizing sound quality and undertaking quality assurance measures
  • Opening full digital access to the materials via a dedicated online portal in three languages (English, Arabic, Hebrew) and the National Library of Israel’s catalogue

Preserving and opening access to the Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Marcie Polier Swartz/Grantors Foundation and other donors.


About Dr. Clinton Bailey

Dr. Clinton Bailey has studied Bedouin culture firsthand for more than fifty years. Originally from the United States, Dr. Bailey holds a BA in Middle Eastern and Islamic History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a PhD in Political Science with a focus on the Middle East from Columbia University. In 1994, he was awarded the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award for his life’s work in studying and preserving the history of the Bedouin in Israel and promoting their civil rights. He has received numerous research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations throughout the world.

His many works on Bedouin culture, poetry and law include four highly-acclaimed books: Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev: Mirror of a Culture (Oxford University Press); A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev (Yale University Press); Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev: Justice without Government (Yale University Press); and the recently published Bedouin Culture in the Bible (Yale University Press).


About the National Library of Israel

Founded in Jerusalem in 1892, the National Library of Israel (NLI) serves as the dynamic institution of national memory of the Jewish people worldwide and Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths. While continuing to serve as Israel’s pre-eminent research library, NLI has recently embarked upon an ambitious journey of renewal to open access to its treasures and encourage diverse audiences in Israel and around the globe to engage with them in new and meaningful ways. This is taking place through a range of innovative educational, cultural, and digital initiatives, as well as through a new landmark complex designed by Herzog and de Meuron. The new home of the NLI, currently under construction adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem, is on schedule to open its doors in 2022.

Simulated night image of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem, on schedule to open in 2022 © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

The Library’s treasures include the largest collection of written Judaica ever assembled, significant handwritten works by luminaries such as Maimonides and Sir Isaac Newton, exquisite Islamic manuscripts dating back to the ninth century, and archival collections of leading cultural and intellectual figures including Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Natan Sharansky and Naomi Shemer. The National Library holds the largest collection of Jewish and Israeli music, as well as world-class collections of manuscripts, ancient maps, rare books, photographs, communal and personal archival materials, and more.

For English press inquiries and interview requests:

Emirati Underground

With Israelis ready to flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Katie Wachsberger spoke to the National Library about the cutting edge of culture in the UAE

The streets of Dubai, with the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world's tallest building, in the background; photo by Katie Wachsberger

Four hard-core rockers are wailing away in a dimly lit garage. The long-haired, headbanging guitarist and bassist are playing faster than seems humanly possible, and the lead singer’s gravely growl sounds like the voice of Satan himself. For those who love it, the song, “Demean,” by the band Nervecell, is four minutes of Death Metal perfection.

It may be a shock for some to learn that Nervecell’s musicians do not hail from London, Stockholm, or San Francisco. Instead, the well-established group is the leading representative of a thriving Death Metal scene in the United Arab Emirates, one of Israel’s newest partners in peace in the Arab world.

If you ask Katie Wachsberger, though, there is no reason for surprise; Israelis should set aside their prior assumptions about what culture is and isn’t in the UAE. In a recent lecture that was part of the National Library’s “Reading Room” series of online events, Wachsberger uncovered the vibrant cultural scene in the Gulf nation. A research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking and the co-founder of the Unas Cultural Foundation, Wachsberger spoke to listeners from Dubai, where she spent over a month meeting with Emirati partners in the wake of the September 15 peace accord between Israel and the UAE.

Check out Katie Wachsberger’s lecture on the underground culture scene in the UAE:

The United Arab Emirates is a young country. Seven kingdoms, which had formerly been under British colonial rule, and located on the south-western reaches of the Persian Gulf, jointly founded the independent state in 1971. However, Emirati culture, as Wachsberger explained, is diverse and deep, with roots stretching back thousands of years to pre-Islamic times. As the country has grown into a cosmopolitan center for finance, trade, and business over recent decades, the cultural scene has expanded in stride. Major cultural institutions have opened branches there, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the American University in Dubai in 1995, and a planned Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi.

What’s more, the Emirates is more and more a center for new creativity in visual arts, film, performance, and music–the head-thrashing Nervecell is just one example–rather than being only a passive recipient of western cultural exports. However, culture is complicated, and Emirates-based artists face their own unique challenges.

A Dubai art studio, photo by Katie Wachsberger

While the population of the UAE numbers almost ten million people, only some twelve percent are actually citizens. The rest are foreign workers and expatriates from all over the world, including South and Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and the rest of the Middle East. This diversity makes the country a cultural melting pot where different traditions can mix and recombine. Wachsberger cited a number of examples, including the CHI-KA women’s fashion line, created by a designer of mixed Emirati and Japanese heritage, that sells kimonos, abayas, and other clothes inspired by both cultures.

The CHI-KA shop & gallery, on Alserkal Avenue – the leading art district in Dubai, photo by Katie Wachsberger

Such innovation exists alongside traditional Emirati culture, which is largely similar to that of other Gulf Arab countries. While no longer the true popular culture of the UAE, traditional dress, dances, and music are supported by the government as part of its larger goal of preserving a certain national narrative.

“Emirati Boatman”, municipality authorised graffiti on an external wall of Al Satwa, Dubai, photo credit: Lxs

Although grassroots and innovative cultural projects are receiving more attention and support, they also still face a difficult path to success. Non-citizen residents, even those who have lived in the UAE for decades or generations, must have a work visa to remain in the country. For that reason, cultural entrepreneurs are obligated to quickly turn their projects into for-profit ventures, to find external support in government or academia, or to keep their day jobs and spread their work through social media rather than more standard avenues.

“Emirati Boys Playing”, municipality authorised graffiti on an external wall of Al Satwa, Dubai, photo credit: Lxs

Nevertheless, Wachsberger underlined that now is a moment of fascinating cultural transition in the UAE. New, critical, and innovative cultural projects are growing organically throughout the country and attracting attention at home and abroad. Artists are more optimistic about the future of Emirati culture than ever before.

The new connections between the UAE and Israel, she added, can help accelerate this momentum. Israel has a rich and robust cultural scene, with grassroots movements, activity in all the arts, and a long and developed tradition of cultural criticism. While Israelis are already imagining what peace with the UAE might mean for Israeli society, economics, and politics, the cultural effects in the Emirates could be just as deep and profound.

A Sufi Journey to Jerusalem

A seventeenth century travelogue by a famous Sufi mystic describes a strange and surprising image of Ottoman Palestine

Two ecstatic Muslim holy men in Jerusalem, photographed by the Christian missionary Robert E. M. Bain in 1894. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Late one night in the spring of 1690, the Sufi saint and scholar Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641-1731) had a dream. In his mind’s eye, al-Nabulsi saw himself leaving his house and making his way to one of the markets in Damascus, his home city. As he later recounted, (in Elizabeth Sirriyeh’s translation), he found there

one of the finest Arab horses offered to us to ride and we rode it and went on our way. Suddenly we encountered two strong and energetic young men; they were well-dressed, magnificently clothed in green and red. Each of them put the palm of his hand under my foot while I was riding and their palms took the place of stirrups, each on one side, and I rode the horse like that with the two young men.

The author of a notable–and still popular–book on dream interpretation, al-Nabulsi was an expert on deciphering the symbolic content of our nighttime visions. But not even he could see the dream was in fact a premonition. A few days later, al-Nabulsi set out on his famous journey to Jerusalem, which served as the basis for one of the most important accounts of seventeenth century Palestine. At the head of the caravan, as prefigured in the dream, marched two young majadhib, Sufi ecstatic holy men, who seemed “like angels.”

Illustration of Qays, known as Majnun, “the mad one,” as an ascetic surrounded by wild animals from a 1798 copy of Nezami Ganjavi’s Khamsa, from the National Library of Israel collections. Majnun, driven mad by his unrequited love for Leila, served as a model for Sufi ecstatic piety.

Al-Nabulsi was one of the leading Muslim intellectuals of his age, a wide-ranging figure whose over 250 works include treatises on Islamic law, the benefits of smoking, agriculture, poetry, commentaries on the classics of Sufi mystical literature, and more. Dozens of manuscripts of works by al-Nabulsi are included in the collection of the National Library of Israel. While a copy of al-Nabulsi’s Jerusalem travelogue is not among them, the collection does include an early 1902 printed edition of the work, acquired by the scholar and collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda.

The scion of a wealthy family of judges and religious authorities that traced its own origins back to Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi garnered an early scholarly reputation and was teaching already at the age of twenty. As his engagement with Sufism (especially the work of Ibn Arabi, whom he considered his spiritual father) deepened, al-Nabulsi increasingly withdrew from public life. During one seven-year period, he is said to have remained confined in his house, letting his hair and nails grow long, and achieving a spiritual transcendence which he attributed to the overwhelming experience of God’s presence.

A late nineteenth century manuscript of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s agricultural treatise, ‘Ilm al-malāḥa fī ‘ilm al-falāḥa, from the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Nabulsi’s six-week-long journey to Palestine, which included seventeen days in Jerusalem, was only one of four long excursions that followed this period of seclusion. Aside from that journey, al-Nabulsi traveled through today’s Syria and Lebanon, completed the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca (on which occasion he returned to Jerusalem for a second stay) and visited Egypt as well. Each of these trips became the subject of a travelogue.

In composing these travelogues, a genre known as rihla in Arabic, al-Nabulsi was following a well-worn tradition, the most famous example of which is Ibn Battuta’s (1304-1368) account of his thirty-year-long wanderings that took him from Morocco to China. However, al-Nabulsi’s travel writing is distinguished by his focus on Sufi themes and characters; it is no accident that the journey begins with an encounter with the two ecstatics. This is clear even from the title of al-Nabulsi’s Jerusalem travelogue: Al-hadra al-unsiyya fi al-rihla al-qudsiya (“The Intimate Presence on the Jerusalem Journey”). The “Intimate Presence” refers both to the name for the Sufi spiritual gathering, often held on Thursday nights, and to God’s own presence, which al-Nabulsi hoped to experience on the journey.

A 1902 edition of al-Nabulsi’s Al-hadra al-unsiyya fi al-rihla al-qudsiya, formerly owned by manuscript dealer Abraham Shalom Yahuda, from the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Nabulsi crossed into the country via the Golan Heights, passing the snow-capped Mount Hermon. He complained of the cold and the lawlessness of the country, reporting murders, the looting of a mosque, and even a plot to kidnap him near Jenin, which, he said, was foiled by divine intervention.

Arriving in Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi and his party were met by a delegation of dignitaries, including members of a local Sufi order, who, along with a growing crowd, accompanied the group as they entered the Damascus Gate and made their way to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). On entering the sacred precinct, al-Nabulsi recited an appropriate verse (here in Samer Akkach’s translation) on the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, from where he ascended to heaven:

You journeyed by night from a sanctuary to a sanctuary

As the full moon journeys in the thick of darkness.

The travelogue, written in rhymed prose and interspersed with similar verses, includes descriptions about Jerusalem’s Muslim landmarks, including the Mamila cemetery and the Mount of Olives, as well as the city’s Christian sites. Al-Nabulsi and his party also made a side trip to Hebron to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, venerated as the burial site of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Curiously, in his account of seeing the Dome of the Rock, which follows a long section recounting the powers and virtues of the site, al-Nabulsi erroneously states that the building was constructed by the Crusaders, rather than, as was also well known at the time, the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (644-705).

While the travelogue provides fascinating details about Jerusalem and his visit there, al-Nabulsi’s primary concern lies elsewhere: seeking out and describing spiritual experiences, particularly his encounters with holy men and sacred shrines and tombs. In terms of the latter, for instance, al-Nabulsi records stopping to pray at the tomb of Samuel, located just north of Jerusalem, before entering the city. As for living holy men, these included both the members of established Sufi orders, and, even more so, the majadhib, ecstatic mystics who lived on the margins of society and its norms. Al-Nabulsi describes some of these majadhib as wandering unclothed and others as wearing only rags, endowed with special powers to read others’ minds and see the future.

Al-Nabulsi met large numbers of such holy men in both the city and the countryside. He describes a party of majadhib from Jenin who meet him as he arrives in the city, having learned of his coming by divine inspiration, and another ecstatic near Nablus who would march armed through the market. Near the village of Yabad, just outside Jenin, al-Nabulsi encounters an ascetic named Sheikh Za’id. A former slave, he was overcome one day by a sudden divine illumination and moved to a cave where he sat, naked, grinding coffee beans and dispensing coffee, blessings, and advice to those who came to consult him. Za’id, al-Nabulsi relates, was both fantastically strong and could see the future, and predicted a happy ending for the author’s journey.

What’s fascinating about al-Nabulsi’s description of a country teeming with miracle-working saints, venerable tombs, and ecstatic holy men–and his other travelogues paint a similar picture–is the fact that it has almost entirely vanished. While such figures continued to be part of the rural and urban landscape for generations, by the first decades of the twentieth century there were few of them left. They had been obliterated by the combined forces of modernization, and colonialism, as well as competing Wahabi and Salafi ideologies, which denounced Sufism as un-Islamic. One of the pleasures of reading al-Nabulsi is the glimpse he provides us into this strange and lost world.

This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.

Mawlid al-Nabi: The Birth of the Prophet of Islam

A look at the miraculous tales and sacred biographies of Muhammad, in honor of "Mawlid"

A 1746 Ottoman copy of Qadi Iyad’s Kitab al-Shifa, one of the most popular handbooks on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, with marginal glosses in Turkish, the National Library of Israel collections

The Quran tells us very little about the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Although the sacred text describes his revelation, his mission, and his relation to the long history of prophecy that preceded him, the events that make up Muhammad’s own biography appear at most as hints and allusions, passing references that follow no clear chronology; the Quran’s concerns, after all, lie elsewhere.

It was up to later generations of scholars to piece together the relevant Quranic passages and oral hadith traditions to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography. A critical question, among others, concerns Muhammad’s birth. When, where, and under what circumstances did that world-changing event in human history take place?

A late 18th century Ottoman copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, the National Library of Israel collections

Today, Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, Mawlid al-Nabi, on the 12th of the Islamic month of Rabi al-Awwal, which corresponds this year to October 29th. The holiday originated hundreds of years after Muhammad’s own birth in the sixth century; some of the earliest Mawlid accounts describe the state-sponsored celebrations held by the Ismaili Fatamid dynasty, which ruled Egypt and surrounding territories from 969 to 1171. Nonetheless, Mawlid observances, whether with family at home or with large public festivities, are now common throughout the world.

One of the central elements of many Mawlids, historically and today, is the recitation of narratives describing the ancestry, birth, and early life of the Prophet. The earliest biographies of Muhammad, such as Ibn Hisham’s (d. 833) recension of a work, now lost, by Ibn Ishaq, already describe the birth as a miraculous event. For instance, Ibn Hisham includes a tradition that the Prophet’s mother Amina had a visionary experience during her pregnancy. However, the early biographers are much more interested in describing Muhammad’s military victories than his birth, and birth narratives play a minor role in their accounts overall.

True Mawlid texts have a far different orientation. Abu al-Hasan al-Bakri’s Kitab al-Anwar (the Book of Lights), one of the earliest and most influential of such works, is a representative example. Almost nothing is known of the author himself, though he must have lived sometime before the end of the ninth century CE. Al-Bakri’s entertaining and dramatic work recounts gripping scenes and extensive dialogue even when such descriptions have no basis in earlier sources. The work’s main subjects are the preexistence of Muhammad’s divine light before creation and its passage through the generations, as well as his birth and infancy. Kitab al-Anwar concludes with Muhammad’s marriage to his wife Khadija; his revelation, prophetic mission, victories, and leadership are not mentioned at all. Kitab al-Anwar, like later works written in its model, “reflects the devotional reframing of the Prophet’s life,” as Marion Holmes Katz has written, “in which priority is accorded to his major life-cycle crises, rather than to his public career as the Messenger of God.”

An 1802 copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, from Saloniki, the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Bakri’s account of the birth itself, for instance, is narrated from Amina’s own perspective. A white bird rubs against her heart, removing all the pains of labor, and she drinks a miraculously-appearing white liquid that causes light to shine from her. Women bearing perfume and angels appear. Then, after the birth, clouds descend twice to take the infant: once he returns having traveled across the entire world, and the second time he is presented to all earlier prophets and blessed with a quality of each. Finally, Ridwan, the guardian of paradise, arrives and stamps his shoulder with the seal of prophecy.

Kitab al-Anwar was quite popular; reports abound of the book circulating widely in medieval book markets. However, al-Bakri also attracted the ire of scholarly authorities. Among others, the important historian and Quran commentator Ibn Kathir (c. 1300-1373) denounced him saying “the lies produced in al-Bakri’s sira are an offence and a grave sin; their fabricator has fallen into the category of those warned by the prophet: ‘He who reports lies about me deliberately shall be condemned to Hell.’” Today as well, Mawlid narratives, and the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday overall, are condemned as unlawful innovation in certain corners of the Islamic world.

An 1815 Ottoman copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, the National Library of Israel collections

The Islam and Middle East collection of the National Library of Israel is home to over a dozen manuscript copies of and commentaries on another of the most popular works on the life and birth of the Prophet Muhammad. This is the Kitab al-Shifa bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa (“The Remedy by the Recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One”), written by the scholar and jurist Iyad ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, known as Qadi Iyad. The son of a prominent scholarly family, he was born in the North African city of Ceuta in 1083 and pursued his studies there and in Muslim Spain. Iyad served as a judge (qadi), and authored numerous works on Hadith, law, biography, and history.

The Kitab al-Shifa is arranged by topic, collecting sources from the Quran and Hadith on the Prophet Muhammad, along with the author’s commentary, on various themes. For example, different sections are dedicated to God’s kindness and gentleness toward Muhammad; the Prophet’s matchless character, intellect, and physique, as well as his ability to predict the future. Rather than a traditional biography, the Kitab al-Shifa is more of a handbook of traditions and remains a popular devotional text.

This is true of the chapter devoted to Muhammad’s birth as well, in which Qadi Iyad collects stories stretching back to al-Bakri and other sources. Iyad recounts how a light that outshined the stars in its brilliance issued from the Prophet when he was born; how because of his presence, his wet-nurse Halima always had abundant milk for him, and her animals were fertile and abundant as well; and how those who ate with him were never left unsatisfied. As befits a man who would change the course of history, all of nature and the works of man convulsed at his arrival. As the translation of Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley puts it:

These are the wonders that took place on the night he was born: the arcade of [the Persian emperor] Khusrow shook and its balconies fell down, the waters of Lake Tiberias ebbed, and the flame of Persia, which had not been put out for a thousand years, was extinguished.

This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.