© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

AramcoExpat readers may recall my short piece published in May 2018 that described a random encounter with a lone, enigmatic Bedouin deep in the Saudi desert in 1979.

Read The Solitary Bedouin

Here is an excerpt from that story:

As we were driving along an empty desert track later that afternoon, we encountered a handsome, dignified gentleman walking alone in the opposite direction…Through the ensuing years, I often wondered about this mysterious man on his lonely trek across the desert expanse. (Who was he and) what was his story?

As I described in Part III of this series, in 2019 my friend Quriyan Al Hajri helped me track down the identity, and family, of the man whom I had briefly met in 1979. The man’s name was Bathan Mohammed Al Ulayyan Al Marri and his son was Bakhait. At my request, Quriyan kindly reached out to Bakhait and his sons several times, revealing fascinating details about Bathan the Well Digger, his life and his family.

Part 3

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
"Bathan Al Marri, 1979"
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

By coincidence, Quriyan was already quite familiar with Bakhait and one of his sons. The revelation that the mysterious man I had photographed in 1979 was, indeed, the father of his friend came as a complete surprise to Quriyan.

A Lifetime of Wells

To this day, Bathan’s name is well-known, and his reputation as a water well digger is legendary throughout the Bedouin migration routes and grazing areas of Saudi Arabia. People depended on his wells to survive.

Over a 34-year period, Bathan completed at least 50 water wells. He never received nor requested any form of payment for these wells. Instead, he saw a need, and, working alone or with his wife and children, it became his mission and his personal contribution to his fellow desert dwellers to find and provide water where there was none.

A Blessing from God

Healthy and fit throughout his life, Bathan had no known diseases and never visited a hospital. He was perceived by others as focused, serious, and hard-working. A strong, quiet man, he could at times appear a bit aloof and rather intimidating. Throughout his life he helped people. At the age of 103, in 2005, Bathan suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep in his tent at the family’s desert encampment. While some of Bathan’s wells have been abandoned, now covered in sand and debris, many are still active and continue to be a valuable source of water in the desert. For this, Bedouins refer to Bathan as a blessing from God.

Always on the Lookout

Bathan was always on the lookout for new well sites or abandoned wells to refresh. He relied on his memory and exceptional knowledge of the desert to find them. Possessing an uncanny and time-honored skill in the Empty Quarter, Bathan could recognize potential well sites from the terrain, vegetation, and character of the surface topography. Even the holes and burrows of desert fox, hare, and jerboa (hopping desert rodent) or a cluster of age-old camel dung could indicate water below.

Hidbah, located 220 kilometers southeast of Haradh, was Bathan’s first well, excavated with his bride during their honeymoon in 1945. More wells followed in the ensuing years. Umm Al Kharatis well, located around 325 kilometers south of Haradh, was excavated in 1975 and, in 1977, the well at Khuzam was completed. Located in the southwestern sector of the Empty Quarter, 575 kilometers southwest of Haradh and northeast of Najran, Khuzam remains in use to this day.

Resurrecting Old Wells

In addition to excavating new wells, Bathan was adept at resurrecting old, long-disused wells. For millennia, water wells have been sunk to provide life-giving water on the Arabian Peninsula. Some well shafts, up to 50 meters deep, have existed for time immemorial. When drought or tribal warfare forced nomads to move to other regions, a well could be neglected for decades and consequently suffocated and erased by shifting sands. Reestablishing a dead well or discovering an ancient well and bringing it back to life were equally as essential and praiseworthy as digging a new well where none had existed before.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
Three of Bathan’s wells in the Empty Quarter
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Dhamah of the Al Azib

In 1945, Bathan Al Marri married Dhamah Al Azib; he was 43 years old, and she was 25. Together they had eight children – seven girls and one boy, Bakhait. Two of their daughters did not survive beyond infancy.

Dhamah comes from the legendary Al-Azib clan of the Al Murrah tribe. Famed tribesmen of the Empty Quarter, they are among the most traditional Bedouin tribes in contemporary Saudi Arabia. The Al Azib are notable as the primary subject of Donald P. Cole’s remarkable 1975 book, “Nomads of the Nomads.”

For two years from April 1968 to May 1970, Donald Cole lived with the Al Azib and joined them on their seasonal migrations. Cole, a graduate student from the University of California, Berkeley, completed academic anthropological research for his doctoral dissertation. The research program was financed by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and was personally approved by His Majesty King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Faisal Al Saud. [1]

Dhamah was the niece of Ali ibn Salem ibn Al Kurbi Al Azib. Donald Cole lived in the tent of Ali, whose sons, Kurbi and Merzuq, along with their cousin, Hurran, welcomed Cole as a brother. “They taught me how to ride camels, took me herding and taught me most of what I learned about the desert itself.” [1]

Not the bint ‘amm

The partnering of Bathan and Dhamah was an unlikely one. Both were members of the same parent tribe, the Al Murrah/Al Marri, but they came from different clans. Throughout the Middle East, the strong preference is for marriage between a man and his bint ‘amm, his father’s brother’s daughter. The pairing of choice among the Al Murrah is for a man to wed his first cousin. Accordingly, the Al Murrah most often marry within a small group of kinspeople. [1]

We do not know the details behind how their marriage was arranged, other than the Al Murrah/Al Marri people are connected by a widespread network, and Bathan was certainly an eligible bachelor.

This union enabled Bathan to become connected closely to the Al Azib, with whom he interacted many times during his wanderings. At the end of this piece are interesting details about the Al Murrah as observed by Donald Cole.

Teamwork

Bathan and Dhamah operated well as a team. To recover a dead well clogged with sand and debris, Bathan would place a timber beam across the well’s opening with a pulley in its center and string a rope through the pulley with a basket attached to one end. He would then dig the sand and earth using a small shovel or his bare hands and fill the basket. He was lean and sinewy, with remarkably large hands and long fingers.

Grasping the other end of the rope, he would pull, hand-over-hand, thus raising the basket to the surface. Dhamah then emptied the spoils a short distance away and sent the empty basket back down to Bathan. During the process, Bathan often had to repair or replace the pit’s lining with a wattle frame, wood members interlaced with twigs or branches, to prevent the collapse of the soft alluvial soil. The pair would labor all day and night until the well was completed.

Imagine Bathan and his wife, Dhamah, covering vast distances by camel, roaming the Empty Quarter, toiling together to bring water to the desert’s surface. They completed two or three wells each year as their family started to grow.

The Souq in Al Hofuf

In return for their hard work and expertise, fellow Bedouins would sometimes offer food and provisions in-kind. However, Bathan normally declined any form of compensation or barter. In those days, Saudi citizens, including Bedouins, were provided with a government stipend, collected quarterly.

Since life in the desert was not self-sufficient, trips to Al Hofuf would combine a visit to the government offices to receive payment and then to the main market (Qaisariah Souq) for provisions. Typical staples included dates, flour for bread, rice, onions, coffee, tea, sugar, salt, and cardamom. Combined with camel milk and goat and camel meat from their herds, these staples from the market would sustain Bathan and his family for months at a time.

Donald Cole described the Al Murrah’s experiences in Al Hofuf, in his book, “Nomads of the Nomads.”

Occasionally Bedouins acquired household items such as panels of rough, woven wool for the making and repairing of tents, cloth, ready-made clothes, cooking pots, utensils, trays, and cups. The women bought rings and gold and silver jewelry from the jewelers in the Souq while the men obtained knives, daggers, guns, and ammunition. All the items used in herding – leather buckets and troughs, ropes, saddles, wooden blocks and pulleys for their wells and bamboo camel sticks were found at the Souq.

But the Al Marri does not love the city. He makes his stay as brief as possible. He is not at home there, feels no kinship or sense of community, rarely finds camel milk to drink, and might catch a cold during the winter. On his way out of town, he and his companions inevitably burst into song as soon as they get past the outskirts of the city and off paved roads. [1]

Walking to Al Ain

In 1950, Bathan’s cousin, Abu Abdullah, lived in Al Ain, a mountainous emirate, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It lies on the eastern border with Oman, 725 kilometers from Haradh, Saudi Arabia. Abu Abdullah had two sons, ages 10 and 12. One day, Bathan decided to visit him, walking for thirty days to reach Al Ain.

During their reunion, which stretched several months, Abu Abdullah expressed to Bathan his strong belief that his sons were not fully experiencing their history and heritage while living in Al Ain – away from desert life. He told Bathan that he had health problems and could not make the journey back to the family in the desert. Would Bathan take his two sons to live with their grandmother, Bathan’s aunt? Bathan agreed and soon the three were on their way back to the area near Haradh, covering an average of 25 kilometers per day on foot.

Guided by Bathan and the rest of the family, the two boys learned the ways of the desert as their father had hoped. A few years later the eldest son, Abdullah, joined Aramco in 1955 and embarked on a career in the Operations Department at the Haradh and ’Udhailiyah oil facilities that spanned 36 years, until his retirement in 1991.

Eventually, in 1965, Abu Abdullah and his wife traveled by car to pay a long-awaited visit with his cousins, his grandmother, and his sons, now adults. They spent a month together in the desert enjoying their family, their heritage, and the herds.

Bakhait Names his Fourth Son, Bathan

Bakhait grew up in the desert with his father and their herd of camels. Today, with the help of his sons, Bakhait now owns and cares for approximately 150 camels that he leads north and south to pastures, in the traditional Bedouin manner. He remains a genuine Bedouin. The widow of Bathan, Bakhait’s mother, Dhamah, still lives and travels with them in the desert. She is 100 years old and in remarkably good health.

Bakhait has four sons, ranging in age from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties: Muteb, the eldest, Abdullah, Salem, and Bathan, the youngest, named after his grandfather.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
Bakhait Al Marri in 1979, age 16
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
Bakhait and his son, Bathan in 2011. Young Bathan is married and has two sons.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Through the years, the elder Bathan lived in a tent, relocating with his herds to find the best pastures. He had no permanent house, nor does Bakhait. The grandsons have followed their grandfather’s and father’s ways by living as camel nomads and tending to the herds.

In Bathan’s day, the family traveled from the region north of Naeriyah to the south, deep into the Empty Quarter, venturing as far south as the northern frontiers of Oman and Yemen, near Najran. Nowadays, their range has narrowed to an area spanning around 150 kilometers north of Riyadh to the edge of the Empty Quarter near Haradh. In summer they prefer to remain near ’Udhailiyah. There, they seek refuge from the heat in a portable trailer on wheels – equipped with an air conditioner – and gather at night in their traditional tents pitched nearby.

Bathan’s Twilight Years

Bathan and Dhamah continued to live a peaceful life migrating with their herds and enjoying extraordinarily good health. They watched their grandsons grow and take on more and more responsibility for the herds.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
1989: Bathan Al Marri, age 87, Umm Al Kharatis, his last well, to check on its status. The wooden frame and pulley had, by then, been replaced by steel tackle.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
1996: Bathan, age 94, wearing a formal bisht. The last known photograph of Bathan.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Home Schooling in the Desert

As children, the grandsons were “home-schooled” in the Bedouin style, carrying their textbooks and lessons with them into the desert. When it came time for exams, they would visit schools in ’Udhailiyah and Haradh. Loyal sons, they not only abide by their father’s wishes to live the traditional desert life, but, as modern Saudis, they have also planned a small, but permanent, summer house that is being built in Haradh and should be completed next year.

Quriyan’s Connection

Quriyan has known and worked with young Bathan on several occasions, having hired young Bathan to provide camels for the Empty Quarter Expedition that Quriyan led in 2011. The group included representatives from Saudi Aramco Public Relations, international journalists, and a Saudi archaeologist.

Young Bathan provided four camels well-suited for transporting the men and equipment required for the seven-day journey. The expedition traveled from Nadgan Well, south of Haradh, deep into the Empty Quarter and back. Bathan has similarly assisted Quriyan on other occasions, and the families remain in frequent contact either by phone or visits to the desert.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
Bakhait Al-Marri, 2011
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
Grandson Bathan Al Marri in 2014. On a trip with Quriyan in the Empty Quarter, 150 km south of Shaybah.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

The Legacy Continues

Umm Al Kharatis Well

Bathan’s offspring have often utilized his wells over the years. One well, Umm Al Kharatis, fell into disuse in the late 1990s. It was not until August 2014 that Bakhait and three of his sons would rediscover and uncover Bathan’s last well.

They located the well mouth by detecting a raised mound of sand encircled by years of camel dung and debris. They carefully removed the crude wooden covering that had partially caved in and allowed sand to enter and accumulate for more than a decade. They cleared five meters of loose sand and debris using a basket and pulley – as the elder Bathan had taught them. It took ten days. There was a keen satisfaction in noting that the original sandstone walls of the well, cut by the elder Bathan in 1975, had held up despite the passage of time.

At last, they exposed the water far below, around twelve meters down. They inserted a small sump pump and ran it until the water was clear. The level of the water rose to around ten meters from the well mouth with a depth of 25 meters. Adjacent to the well, they placed a steel water tank, cut in half, to create a camel trough. This they filled with water from the well, using a bucket on a pulley.

To their delight, Umm Al Kharatis has remarkably sweet water – clean and clear. It is fit for both humans and camels. The water of Hidbah well, by comparison, is very salty. It is not for humans, but suitable for watering camels.

Now that the well had been revived, Bakhait vowed to maintain it in honor of the well’s creator, his father, Bathan. They dispatch a laborer to visit the well on a regular basis to make sure the water is available. Wild camels and Bedouin passersby can access the water any time.

Sir John Philby, in his 1932 book, “The Empty Quarter,” described the process of opening a remote well:

They worked at the well mouth. They removed the first overlying sand and then the covering of skins and rafters which serves to protect the deep shaft from suffocation. The bucket attached to a long rope, always carried by nomads and travelers where deep wells may be encountered, was then harnessed to a camel and then lowered to the water.

With a little expert dangling it filled, and the camel was ridden or led down a long incline of the well-mound dragging the rope over a pulley set upon a wooden bracket. As the water came to the surface it was poured out into our great dish for the waiting camels.

Then our skins were filled, and so the drawing and drinking went on for the length of our stay. Then the covering was replaced as carefully as possible to keep the well intact for the next comer. A hostile raiding party might leave such a well open to spite the home tribe or even purposely fill it with sand. The owners might do the same to deny its water to an enemy. Otherwise the desert rule requires the cover to be replaced in the common weal (for the people’s general welfare). [2]

The Honeymoon Well

Hidbah, located 220 kilometers southeast of Haradh, was the first well excavated by Bathan and Dhamah, as newlyweds, in 1945, and is, coincidentally, 45 meters deep. The 2011 expedition team, led by Quriyan Al Hajri, visited Hidbah on Day 2 of their journey into the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter). Bakhait and young Bathan accompanied Quriyan and provided the transport camels.

Members of the team are pictured extracting water for the camels before embarking on a long route through the sands. Quriyan, pictured center in the brown thobe, is holding one end of the rope. Instead of camel power, they used a pickup truck to lift the water from the depths. Concrete walls were placed in 1990 for stability and to prevent it from caving in and from being covered with sand.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
Watering at Hidbah well in 2011
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Today Near Hidbah Well

In their most recent conversation by telephone in April 2020, Bakhait told Quriyan that he, his four sons, and mother Dhamah are enjoying a bountiful spring season, grazing their large herd of camels around ten kilometers from Bathan’s first well. Winter rains have brought a sheen of green over much of the Empty Quarter this year, more so than in the past decade.

Bakhait’s Prized Herd – the Al Rakba Breed

Originating from the camels of his father and their fathers before them, Bakhait proudly breeds a pure stock that is known as Al Rakba, a subset of the Majaheem breed. The Al Rakba line is over 100 years old and the camels are muscular and black-brown, stable and graceful in the sands and produce delicious milk. The herd’s identifying wasm (camel brand-mark) is called Mutrik and Al Bab, meaning “the camel stick and the door.” Anyone in the desert can recognize, at a glance, that these camels belong to Bakhait.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
The wasm of Bakhait’s herd. Each camel is branded on the right upper hind leg.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

As the holy month of Ramadan began, Bakhait told Quriyan, “I am now near Hidbah, Alhamdulillah, there is much grass and abal shrubs for the camels. My family is with me. It is peaceful here. I am happy and relaxed – no headaches.”

Documenting the history of Bathan and his family has been rewarding and educational. I now feel acquainted with the man I met for a few fleeting minutes over 40 years ago. I find myself daydreaming about being there with his family at the Hidbah well, watering the camels. I will join them there one day, Insha’Allah.

 

-end-

Specialized Skills of the Al Murrah Nomads

In his book, “Nomads of the Nomads” Donald Cole described some of the attributes of Dhamah’s family, the Al Azib of the Al Murrah:

Traditionally, sedentary people in Arabia have scoffed at the Bedouin for being rough-hewn simpletons. They view them as inferior and joke about their difficulty in comprehending the sophisticated ways of modern society. At the same time, villagers respect and admire the special skills Bedouin possess within the desert environment and their traditional values.

Trackers

The Al Murrah are famous for being skilled trackers. They can easily identify the tracks of people and animals. All the members of a bayt (family – household) know the footprints of each of their own camels. Any youth or adult can observe a set of footprints and tell whether any of his camels are among them. This is useful when searching for strayed camels as well as when searching for one’s bayt when one has been away, or it has moved.

Any boy or girl can distinguish the tracks of all animals that live in the desert. By the time they are teenagers, everybody can tell the elapsed time since the tracks were made and how many animals were involved. They can distinguish whether a set of human prints are those of a woman or a man, young or old and, if a woman, whether she is pregnant or not. Similar information can be discerned from the tracks of camels.

Until recently, Al Murrah were attached, as trackers, to every major police station on Saudi Arabia. When a crime was committed, the tracker went to the scene and observed footprints in the area. Then he went to the town’s souq (marketplace) and observed the feet of the people there. Trackers were credited with solving many crimes in this fashion and their testimony in court was as an expert witness. This skill led to the Murrah being feared as having extraordinary powers and possibly being associated with jinns.

Jinn: in Arabian and Muslim mythology, an intelligent spirit of lower rank than the angels, able to appear in human and animal forms with the ability to possess humans. Related to “Genie” – a supernatural spirit. [5]

Nowadays, these services of the Al Murrah are not required in all but a few traditional villages – and anyway, most town-dwellers now wear shoes!

Desert Guides

Another skill considered extraordinary is the Al Murrah’s sense of direction. Camel nomads must possess a keen sense of direction using landmarks, wadis and dunes, vegetation, the texture of the sand and gravel, the sun and the stars. They have no maps or GPS. Wherever they have once been, they can recall the detailed characteristics of the landscape and how to get there. This is a survival skill; how to reach the next water well or grazing area. They can also find their way to a place not yet visited by hearsay – having been “given directions” from another person.

The Al-Murrah are careful observers of the land, the plants that grow there, the location of the wells and the people who live there. Bedouin from other tribes are amazed by the Al Murrah’s ability to not get lost and to keep on a direct course of travel.

Hospitality

Generous hospitality is one of the strongest of Al Murrah values. The greatest praise they bestow on a person is to say that he is a man who is generous and who kills an animal – whatever he might have – for his guests. A guest is a sacred trust and is highly honored, even if he is from an enemy group. The coffee ceremony, which takes place in the men’s section of the tent, is a central feature of Al Murrah hospitality – and indeed an essential part of their ritual life. The Al Murrah drink weak coffee throughout the day, but it takes on special importance whenever a guest arrives. [1]

Notes about Camels

The Majaheem (Bakhait’s breed) is a characteristic black coat camel that originated from the northeast part of the country. A pointed hump, placed in the middle of the back, long hair covering all the body, long legs, wide feet, well-developed udder are its main characteristics. It is one of the best dairy producers of the Kingdom. [3]

Bedouin Arabs are intimately connected to their camels and they want to preserve this heritage. Beauty competitions are held to encourage preservation of the pure-breds. The beauty of the camel is based on the size of its head, whether its lips cover its teeth, the length of its neck and the roundness of its hump and big eyes, long lashes and a long neck. The nose should be long and droop down, that's more beautiful. The ears should stand back, and the neck should be long. The hump should be high, but slightly to the back. [4]

Wasm

The wasm (camel brand) is applied by heating a steel rod in a fire and “drawing” the desired symbol by firmly pressing the hot rod against the camels’ coat and skin. The resulting scar is permanent. A wasm can be placed on either side of the camel’s neck or lower cheek, or, in the case of the Al Rakba herd, on the right upper hind leg.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
The distinctive wasm on the cheek of a camel from the Al Jubran family of the Al Murrah. (1978, Al Hofuf camel market)
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
A wasm being applied to a camel’s neck by the Al Hasna family of the Al Sharab.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued
The complete Al Hasna wasm, sketched in the sand by the owner with a camel stick. (2019, King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, Riyadh)
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Endnotes / Credits:

[1] Cole, Donald P. Nomads of the Nomads. Aldine Publishing Co. p. 46. (1975) ISBN 0-202-01118-6.

[2] Philby, St. John. The Empty Quarter. Constable & Co., Ltd. 1932. (Reprinted 1971) ISBN 0 7126 1282 3.

[3] Abdallah, H.R. and Faye, Bernard. Phenotypic classification of Saudi Arabian camel by their body measurements. (2012)

[4] Reuters. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2007-04-28/saudi-tribe-holds-camel-beauty- pageant/2534244. (2007)

[5] Google. https://www.google.com/search?q=jinns+meaning.

Mark Lowey

Author's Bio: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.

A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.

Twitter: @molowey
Facebook: @bedouinconnection
Email: [email protected]

Part 4