Review of "Bedouin Ethnobotany"

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Bedouin Ethnobotany : Plant Concepts and Uses in a Desert Pastoral World
By James Mandaville (09/2001)

The author, James Mandaville, had worked in Eastern Saudi Arabia gathering plant names and plant-related terminology in the 1960’s. His work spewed out into his free time and he began gathering samples of the local plants and cataloging names extensively. The purpose of his ethnography was to shed light on the folk classifications of Bedouin Arabic plant lore; the report and devotion of the research performed by the author married the desert-adapted plants of Arabia and the people that followed them, believed in the cosmic connection to germination, named them, and depended on them for their livelihood for thousands of years.

Mandaville organizes his book from macro to micro. He gives a brief background of himself in relation to the place that he collected data; he then describes the nature of his initial data collection and the emergence of a continued relationship with the people, place, and subsistence and traditional ecological knowledge that he was deriving from field encounters with a number of Bedouin consultants. He describes the land, then the people that live in the area (Eastern Saudi Arabia); he goes on to describe the relationship that the people have with the land and their use of stars to signal changes in the seasons. After developing a working understanding of how the Bedouin’s reveal seasons and some of their fundamental working understandings of the environment he hones in on the Bedouin relationship to the ecology of the place.

I agree with his organization techniques, I like that the bulk of the data was described in the fifth chapter after getting to know the backstory. Mandaville describes himself, the nature of his data collection, then the place that he was researching, the people who were his subjects, then the beliefs and religion of those people, all before diving into the “point” of the work. This back-story allowed me to connect to the place and the people to understand the context that the data and research was taking place. Because of the absolute connectedness between all of the aforementioned pieces of the back-story and the data, this organization was crucial and very well delivered.

Mandaville gathered data from a number of Bedouin consultants, about twenty men that lived most of their lives as active nomadic herdsmen. Women’s local ecological knowledge was not publish due to restrictions in cultural norms; it was culturally inappropriate for Mr. Mandaville to interact with the women in this way or report what may have been inferred from the Bedouin women. It was important here for Mandaville to note the missing data from women, I believe his concern was that women may have been able to contribute largely to his study and he regretted his inability to adequately collect and divulge the information trapped by cultural norms.

Data collection began with a concentration on plant nomenclature, it became clear that the same “plant language” was spoken by all the northern and eastern Saudi Arabia based tribes. In Mandaville’s early research he noticed that the names of plants were often used in describing boundaries or characteristics of different geographical areas. Geography was often described in terms of botany and topography both. He points out that during this data collection the traditional way of life for the Bedouin was swiftly changing with oil revenues becoming a larger part of the local economy. Mandaville notes that the data was collected between 1960 and 1975, thus it is not a perfect account of contemporary Bedouin plant classification but instead an ethnographic “snapshot in time”.

I believe Mandaville’s concern for pointing out the non-static nature of the culture of these people is significant. He was concerned that left to further technological innovation and a changing economy much of the Bedouin’s traditional knowledge may have soon been lost to a...
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