Saudi Arabia: The Tribal Tree

Conducting monthly interviews with individuals in Saudi Arabia or interested in Saudi Arabia have led to many pleasant virtual friendships from around the world.  Earlier this month, American Bedu had the opportunity to interview Behzad, who is an American working in the educational sector in Al Jouf. He was kind enough to share this recent interesting photo he had taken of the “Tribal Tree” and gave me permission in turn to share it with American Bedu followers.

How though does one define and understand what makes up the tribal tree?  Anthropologist Donald Cole explains that “four to six patrilineally related lineages are grouped together in a clan (seven clans comprise the Al Murrah tribe). However the subdivisions of a tribe are defined, they are formed by adding larger and larger groups of patrilineally related kin. The system permits lineages to locate themselves relative to all other groups on a “family tree.”

He further adds that marriages and divorces increase the number of possible kin to whom an individual can trace a link and, concomitantly, of the ways in which one can view potential alliances and genealogical relationships.

Can you imagine though what the tribal tree would like look for King Saud bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud who had 110 children – 57 girls and 53 boys?  One Arab who is an expert on Family Tribal Trees is Ali Mohammed Al-Matroushi, a historian and expert in Arab genealogy.

In the times of nomadic tribes, says Mr al Matroushi, the only way travelers could introduce themselves was through their oral connection to a particular tribe; back then, geographical location meant little.

“Whose son or daughter you were determined your status in the tribe as well as your reputation when you travelled and left your tribe,” he says.

“This tradition of judging someone based on their family still exists today, and is not fair as within the same family you can have a bad apple that ruins the reputation of the entire family.”

One of the biggest problems associated with tracing Arab ancestry is that “they never put the women into the family tree, and so we have lost a lot of information because of that”, he says. Children of the slaves, however, were included, although recorded differently from the children born to the wives of the free men.

According to genetic theory the entire human race came from one man and one woman, labeled as “Adam” and “Eve.”

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25 Responses

  1. How fascinating!

    ‘One of the biggest problems associated with tracing Arab ancestry is that “they never put the women into the family tree…’

    This reminds me. When we went to Syria, we were invited into a few homes. One had a picture of a crowd of maybe fifty or so people that we were told was taken at a family reunion. It was on a wall behind the couch where I was sitting. I turned around for a closer look and piped up, “Where are all the women?” It was a family reunion with no women…apparently only the men get together and are photographed. My Syrian friend jokes with me about this even now – he says it shows “how American” I am. Aha, yes…women in the family. What a stretch. :D

  2. Thank you Behzad.

    @Susane430 – ‘Aha, yes…women in the family. What a stretch.’

    I agree. Very odd to track family yet the girls of the family are not worthy of counting. But I’m sure that Medina will explain how it is because of the love that the family has for the girls that they are protecting their honor somehow.

  3. @susanne430

    “Aha, yes…women in the family. What a stretch” – that’s exactly what I was thinking! children of slaves were included but women weren’t…
    interesting article :) thank you for sharing it with us :)

  4. I love learning about the whole family tree. I have a book dedicated to both my lineage and my husbands lineage; both in arabic, but I want to get them transalated in english, and i hope to teach my children one day.

    As for the books, I noticed that my book does not have the name of the mother, but rather her family tribe. I am guessing their reason is because the family lineage is linked from grandpa to dad, to son, etc. It still would be nice to get to see the names of the mothers, after all we are the ones who gave birth to these men :)

    Great post!

  5. I’ve looked at a genealogy of the royal family that’s displayed in a compound and it’s pretty fascinating to see the breadth of it. Its no wonder there’s a hundred Princes and Princesses around!

    Its a shame that the women are left out because it would give us a better understanding of the connections between the tribes and families within these tribes.

  6. fascinating .. i like the factthat you cantrace your roots generations back. Wish we could do something like this with our families, will span countries and cultures… maybe whenwe’re retired we should start something. or maybe i’ll suggest it to my grandmom, she probably remebers our ancestors invivid detail :-)
    but great work . i likethe concpt of a tree and writing the names on it. and the king had som many kids!!!

  7. This is a tribe tree. These leaves hold sub tribe names and ladies are protected under these leaves and they are proud of it. If she just mentions her family name, people will understand where she if from and who is her ancestors and she will be served very well. That is why I am telling you that Saudi society is different socially from America. People know each other in Saudi and they are connected by these trees.

    women names are left out since Adam and Eve. Read the Bible, where women mentioned there? It is all male names when they speak about family trees.

    I would expect your full name will be something like Lynn Robert Jim William James. etc, it is all male names except yours. is not it?

  8. I was thinking pretty much the same thing about those large family trees displayed in many Arab homes…never a female name to be read…but slave names are prominent. Sweet.

    Do these men even care to understand that without the females in their family they wouldnt even have a tree…just a NUT????

    Arabs are very proud of their “pure” roots…or a family name that stretches back eons…many of them would never consider an impure or nontribal member non arab to marry into the family and thus dilute the name. One of the most heated arguments I had with some Bahrainis…was when these women of these sort of families basically told me that MY children would never be allowed to marry THEIR children (hypothetically speaking as I wouldnt allow it either) because mine were not from a pure family bloodline…simply because I was their mother..thus polluting the family arab blood line. Sweet.

    Needless to say, that didnt sit well with me…and when I said so these women were surprised and seemingly unable to understand why I was upset…after all THEY accepted that fact.

  9. Also, that guys comment that ONE bad apple can destroy the reputation of the ENTIRE family name and tree seems so dramatic. Why do they give such power to one person among so many that ONE person can have the power to bring the whole tree down in the eyes of everyone else? I dont get it.

  10. Coolred’s comment about how people are proud of their pure roots reminded me of Jesus’ family tree as recorded in Matthew 1 of the New Testament. Mostly men are named,true, however,four women are named/mentioned.

    Rahab a former prostitute; not a native Israelite

    Tamar — who acted as a prostitute in order to have a child …by her father in law

    Bathsheba — the one with whom King David committed adultery

    and Ruth a Moabite woman….yes, a non Israeli.

    So not all Jewish and not all pure in the moral sense, yet Jesus was one great guy!

  11. @Medina
    There are quite a few women mentioned in the bible. Eve, Rebecca, Leah, Sara, Rehab, Ruth, Ester just to name a few. In the genecology of Christ two women of other cultures are named. One a harlot one a Moabite. Also I have two female names and then I have taken my husband’s last name to show we are a family

    Is this why in Saudi culture the women keep their maiden names while all others in the family take the (husband)father’s last name.

  12. A very odd sense of family when women aren’t on the tree (where do you think all those boys spend their gestation periods?). I know the west has an equally paternalistic past but at least women were recorded in the family trees.

  13. @blooming in the sand,
    I know there are female names mentioned in the Bible and even in the Quran like Maryam but do these females carry their mothers’ names or their fathers’ names in the Bible?

    To answer your question, well, to be honest with you, there is a tragic history of Arab women before Islam. I think it is the main reason that made people not to mention females’ names in the family tree. Women used to be much protected and a secret thing that others should not know about it. Women were taken hostages at wars. So people used to hide their related women names because they are afraid of revenge or they may become a military target. There is also a norm that children must hold their father’s name and their last tribal name and in the hereafter people will hold there mothers’ names. So, Arabs’ last names start with the initials “AL” which denote his/her tribal or family name.

    You can read my post in the link below; it will give you some information about how women were treated before Islam and why.

    I hope it helps you to get the broad context of women social status and it may explain why people used to hold their fathers’ names in the past and not to mention women names.

  14. Medina,
    Am I good or what? How could I have predicted that you would say that it was to protect the women? You crack me up! But seriously, women aren’t stolen anymore are they? So would it be some tragedy if the women started getting placed on the Tribal Tree now?

    Also, Stacy’s comment was ‘Its a shame that the women are left out because it would give us a better understanding of the connections between the tribes and families within these tribes’

    And your response was ‘women names are left out since Adam and Eve. Read the Bible, where women mentioned there? It is all male names when they speak about family trees’

    Your response was pretty much irrelevant and not really anything more than the same old line from you which is ‘they did it too!’ Do you now recognise what I’ve been trying to tell you about your commenting?

    BUT, what you said was obviously wrong since you DO know Eve’s name and you know where she came from! lol

    My name is also 2 women’s names and then my father’s last name until I got married and like Blooming in the sand, took my husband’s name to show we are a family. I didn’t HAVE to take his name, I could have kept my name as it was or I could have hyphenated my birth name with my husband’s last name or he could have taken my last name or we could have made up something altogether new if we had wanted to. I do have Greek friends whose second name is their father’s names (even the girls)so I think that is probably where you are getting that idea from. I’m sure that there are other cultures that might follow that same pattern but there are also some cultures that follow the family through the women. So, what about that? lol

  15. @lynn
    yes of course you are good, do you have doubt? lol This tribal tree is thousands of years old lynn. And still there is fear that women will be stolen if they let free lol. It is still in the mindsets of people that women are still are unable to protect themselves. So, the fear of the past is still active in the mind or at least it is concern.


  16. The practice of maintaining family tree is really great, I am from India where there is no such practice and recently I stumbled across a person with whom I had common relatives; however it was difficult to find how exactly we would relate to each other. But if we had a family tree the process would have been easier and simpler

  17. Wow! I had no idea that this picture would illicit so many comments. It’s difficult for me to place a judgement on the tribal tree. The reason is that it really has nothing to do with my life. My wife still has her maiden name. Before we got married I told her that I don’t mind if she keeps her name. She told me that she wants my last name.

    We might work on that when I return to the United States. My family comes from Iran and I have no idea about my family tree past my great grand parents. I prefer not to have a detailed history because it leaves me free to follow a path that is not locked in the past.

    Family names is like astrology in my opinion. If your name was Smith several hundred years ago you probably were a blacksmith. I’m a Libra so I must carry the traits of a Libra. In my opinion names, astrological signs, and religions are external issues that have nothing to do with my heart and soul. Just because we are “fallen” into a time and place not of our choosing doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have free-will.

    I think they’re interesting to study, but that’s the extent of it for me. If other people like to indulge themselves with lineage, history, religion, or astrology to help define who they are I can’t condemn them. I also can’t condemn how they pick and choose information from those fields of study.

    I only learn those things to understand those that use those things to define themselves. Learning how others define themselves gives me a clearer idea of who they are and enables me to better communicate with them. I may not agree with them, but I’m not going to condemn them.

  18. I think the family tree is an interesting thing, even if in this case it only traces back the males in the family. I do not know mine much past my great-grandparents either, so I find it a bit interesting that some people are able to trace theirs back for generations and generations. I feel sorry for the person that tries to do that with mine. LOL. It would be nice to tell people what my “ancestry” is when they ask me, since most do not believe that “US American” is good enough. What I find even more interesting than the family tree are any stories about the family that are passed down from generation to generation.

  19. We have a family tree. This kids made it for school. It was a fun project to do and they got to interview their grandparents and learn some family history. It is very interesting to search through the now on-line records from Ellis Island (used to be the port of entry for immigrants to the US) I don’t think that people who are into researching family trees do it to find out who they are or anything like that. I think it’s just an interesting puzzle for some people. So, I come from royalty but what good has that done ME? But perhaps it explains the way my pinkie insists on sticking up when I drink my tea. And would anyone here really be surprised that one leaf on my family tree was hung for being a witch? My husband isn’t! LOL

  20. “Children of the slaves, however, were included, although recorded differently from the children born to the wives of the free men.”
    and what about children, born by slave women to free men?
    are they recorded differently too?

  21. LOL Lynn!

  22. Lynn, I was walking in the grocery store recently and saw a display of brooms. I smiled to myself as I considered getting another vehicle.

    “Women are angels and when someone breaks our wings, we simply continue to fly…on a broomstick…we’re flexible like that.” :)

  23. Only in patriarchal societies are women’s names left out. In earlier societies inheritance went through the female line, so everybody knew their mother line. In these instances the motherline is lost. Which is a pity as in vertebrate animals at least 65% of the genetic material comes from the mother, so a child will always carry more genetic material from the mother than it does from the father.

    I was therefore far more interested in the dam of my horse than his sire.

    Remnants of the importance of the female line can still be found by the Jews, when the mother is Jewish the children are supposed to be Jewish as well.
    And in England the oldest titles can be inherited by a daughter as well as a son.
    And in Arabia the families of the Arabian horses were counted by the mother lines. Lord and Lady Blunt were amongst a very small number of European travelers who understood the matriarchal system of Arab horse’s bloodlines.

    I drew a tree for my horse Rabhar who was almost exclusively Crabbet Park and whose ancestors go back centuries, and were brought back by the Blunts to England.

    Of course my own family tree is fascinating: there was the 17th century pirate ”Thundering Berend” who was the scourge of the seven seas, and went through 6 wives, until the seventh who was too quick for him and ran him through with a cutlass. they were my ancestors from my Father’s family.
    Before Thundering Berend my father’s ancestors used to be ”the Black Knights” who ruled much of the northern Netherlands. btw all the women were recorded on the family tree as they were the most dangerous and therefore brought in the most booty.

    From my mother’s family I am descended from ancient royal bloodlines, hence the blue color of the blood in my veins, All the women were renowned warriors and carried Germanic names like kriemhild, Sieglinde etc. (Those names mean things like ”Victorious in battle” ”Shield of the snake tree” my mother’s name meant ”Brave and compassionate in battle” (really!)) My mother’s line goes all the way back to the goddess Freia, three thousand years ago and the Walkure which explains my tendency to beat up men whom I don’t like.
    Actually both bloodlines explain that. :twisted:

  24. @Aafke – I knew there was a flaming Princess inside of you! (big smile)

  25. [...] was kind enough to provide another of his photographs to share with American Bedu readers.  This one depicts how Saudi guys will typically enjoy [...]

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