…He would now tell me I was in the Shabia Khawaneeji – the group of Bedouins in the Khawaneej area of The UAE. His wife soon placed a table in the middle and brought a glass of juice and a bowl of Tamar (Dates). Historically, dates and bread are the staple food of the Bedouins. Back in the old days, they would dig a deep pit in the desert and fill it with dates. The pit would then be covered and ash be spread on top of it. That way it was ensured that no beast, insect or bird would come anywhere close to the treasure house of dates. There have been instances where the dates have remained fresh even 60 years after it was dug into the earth, save for the first few layers, the ones deep down were fresh and edible. Back to the bowl of dates that lie in from of me, no knowledge of the etiquette of eating at a Bedouins house left me puzzled if to take the dates by fork or hand, eat a single date or eat as much as I wanted. Help soon came. As if he heard the battle between my conscious, subconscious, etiquette and culture, “Don’t eat dates in double”, he meant not to eat dates in even numbers. “Eat one, three, five or seven. Eat in single numbers. It forms a cover around you and the Iblis (Satan) can’t come close to you.” The Bedouin, be, modern or traditional, his day still starts with three dates, usually not more because of the high sugar content in them and up to seven in the afternoon.
As I look around the compound what was most prominent was the line of cars that were parked. I count four of them and am interrupted when he tells me his family consists of his wife and six children. Just then, his daughter drives into the compound. I can’t help but ask, “How many cars do you have here”. Promptly,” Six” he says. So excluding his youngest children, the boy who in his primary and the girl in her higher secondary, every other member of the family has one car each. Prejudice No 4- Bedouins raise camels and engage in agriculture and are not financially well off. WRONG. Though most Bedouins still raise camels and look after their farms also, the Ruler directly employs most of them. They are greatly supported by the government and many have government jobs.
Previously to having reached this house, looking through the gates, parked in grandeur was a line of cars in the compounds, some with four cars, some with five. Not only were they many in number, very few of them were not those of luxury. Parked and glistening in the sun was a luxurious display of Lexus, Benz, BMW, Porsche and of the like. Many had 2-3 digit registration plates as well. Clearly I knew what I crafted in my head was totally wrong.
Without further conjuring for the right words, “How are the Bedouins so rich?” the support from the Government is understood but yet…? “The Camels”, he answers. Be it for sale or for the races, the Bedouins today make a lot of money with the camel. “They are sold for 1 million, 2million dirhams and there have been times when a single camel was sold for 15 million dirhams “, he adds. Apparently the female camels are more expensive and are faster in races as well.
The origin of the Arabs is traced down to the Bedouins. They, without second thoughts, qualify as the purest Arabs and so is justified the support the Ruler extends to the Bedouin tribe and to their welfare and development.
Camel milk and meat are common in a Bedouin household but this. He is not a Bedouin. His wife is. He comes from Al Hamriya and in his English tells me he is “from the Beach”, very simply, a fisherman belonging to the Hadar tribe or the ‘settled people’ unlike the Bedus who are nomadic, pastoral people. He got married to a Bedouin after his sister was married to his wife’s brother. While his wife is truly in love with the camel, he does not seem to be too interested in either its meat or milk though they do have it in once in a while. Poking fun of his wife, with a laugh he makes mention of how the language of the Bedouins is different from the other Arab dialects in that they are extremely loud and seem to be shouting when in reality they aren’t and are only making a point.
Guests are welcomed with utmost warmth and special dishes are cooked for them. Starting with the dates and khahwa (Arabic coffee), the host gets a goat slaughtered and the women prepare it in the traditional style that is served with bread. Salutations are exchanged and each find out about the others’ family and nothing more. Once food is eaten and the guest feels relaxed, only then does each discuss about the purpose of the visit.
He struggles with the words, as his explanations get longer and he finds a solution. His daughter will now talk to me and welcomes me inside his home. I wait in the ‘majlis’, the seating area on a green carpet with cushions lying around. Prejudice No 5- Bedouin women are fully covered from head to toe at all times even at home. WRONG.A beautiful young girl walks up to me with a big smile. She is wearing a long blue top with black leggings. She wears dangling earrings and her hair is cut in a fringe and falls on her face and both her head and face is uncovered. She is Ayesha.
Can women leave their heads uncovered? “It is considered a shame for a woman, if a man sees her. At home, it depends on how lenient your father and brothers are” She speaks in fluent English and my effort of speaking in very simple English is now minimized. She is easy to talk to and understands the perfect sense of my questions. She very proudly adds,” Women are jewels to the Bedouins. There are restrictions, but they are greatly valued. “ She also adds, “Of course, now everybody is become less restricting and women have more freedom.”
After conversations covering a range of topics – their traditional homes and its’ comforts, the dahin arabi-oil made from cows milk -a Bedouin favorite, the home -made cow butter that her grandmother makes at home and the big houses and its’ large compounds, she took me out to see her hens and around her house. She would later take me to the desert to see the camels. We drive to the desert. “Lucky”, she tells me as a line of camels, with their legs tied with a small red twine walk around freely grazing. The desert soon becomes their territory. Everywhere we look there are more camels. It leaves me truly amazed. On having reached a sand dune, she gets down the car and runs up the sand with her feet sinking in the loose sand up to to her ankles. She looks a child in the beach, thoroughly sinking in the fun and the amazement as fresh as the first time when pointing out to the one, two, three, four and more camels. I follow slowly behind her shaking the sand off my slippers every two steps. In the midst of the struggle climbing up, I hear her laugh, “ You don’t wear your slippers in the desert. Just walk barefoot. This is great massage.” She would later explain how the strain is great for the calf, ankle and thigh muscles, also adding the benefits of sand for the eye. I remove my slippers and feel my feet sinking deeper in the cool of the sand. The feeling is beautiful. The beauty of the hue -bathed desert entwined in the life of a Bedouin awoke in me an inexplicable sense of accomplishment.
As the orange sun traveled across the sky and the camels formed silhouettes, the life of the Bedouin seemed to arrive at a stand still. The muezzin calls for the Maghreb prayer. The setting sun, the orange glow that soon engulfs the sky and the stretches and stretches of desert that joins in perfect harmony with the dipping horizon paints a mystical image drowning in the sound of the calls to prayer soon followed by neighbouring mosques. The sounds are soon lost in the cooling sand. There is then a long silence, the calm, and the tranquility of the night that spreads and dissolves the horizon, forming one large sky.