© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

This is a brief history of two women, mother and daughter, and their fateful journey to Al Hasa in 1948. As told by a devoted descendant, this chronicle of their lives, unfolding and expanding to the simple rhythm of bygone days, serves as a testament to the inner strength of the Bedouin woman.

Shaikha Al Qahtani, was born in 1912, and her daughter, Hamsah, in 1934. In the words of the Holy Quran, “Paradise is under the mother’s foot,” and so Muslims are taught to love and respect their mothers. Hamsah, now 86, is the mother of Quriyan Al Hajri, and it is Quriyan who shared this story of his grandmother and his mother with writer Mark Lowey.

Shaikha

In the small town of Ar Rayn, 250 kilometers west of Riyadh on the road to Mecca, lived a 17-year-old girl, Shaikha Al Qahtani. Not far away, 28-year old Mathker Al Hajri lived with his uncle, a member of the Al Qahtani tribe. In 1929, Mathker and Shaikha married and would raise their family in Ar Rayn. Mathker was a man of some means, the owner of a herd of around 40 camels that he bred and sold when he needed cash for food and supplies. He divorced six previous wives with whom he had eleven children. Shaikha was his seventh and final wife. [1]

During their 18-year marriage, Mathker and Shaikha had five children, three girls and two boys. At the time of Mathker’s passing, in December 1947, four children had been born and Shaikha was pregnant with the fifth, a boy. Their daughter Hamsah was the first born. The next child, daughter Setah, died from disease, possibly measles, and lack of treatment or medical care. Abdul Rahman came third, born in 1936. Daughter Norah was their fourth child.

Before he died, Mathker made sure that Shaikha and their children were properly provided for. He asked his first cousin to accompany his family to Riyadh. There they would meet Mubarrak, one of Mathker’s sons from another wife, who lived and worked there. Mubarrak would take then-pregnant Shaikha and her children to Al Hasa, where it had been arranged for them to live with their relatives. Part of Mathker’s plan was to distribute his wealth to his sons and family. The journey to Hasa was to include 20 camels, half of his herd, to be sold in the Al Hofuf camel market.

Mathker also made an agreement with the Al Hajri family of Ain Dar, arranging the union of his daughter, Hamsah, then age 13, and Mohammed Quriyan Al Hajri, then age 19. The wedding was to take place in 1948 in Al Hasa.

A Tragic Journey

The two-month journey from Ar Rayn to Al Hasa was beset by tragedy.

Led by Mathker’s cousin, the camel caravan set off on a slow, but steady pace, with the family on camelback and Mathker’s herd following behind. The group comprised Shaikha, Hamsah, Abdul Rahman, and Norah. They traveled from Ar Rayn to Riyadh, where they stopped for one month. Young Norah became very sick with smallpox and died. In Riyadh, Mubarrak took over and guided the remaining group to Al Hasa. Along the way, Abdul Rahman, age 11, was killed falling off his camel when it suddenly became frightened and took off galloping uncontrollably towards a wadi (dry creek bed).

At last, Mubarrak, Shaikha, and Hamsah completed the 650-kilometer trek, arriving in Al Hasa in February 1948. Shortly after their arrival, Shaikha gave birth to her second son. He was named Mathker in honor of his late father. Sadly, this baby boy survived only two months.

Of the five children of Mathker and Shaikha, only Hamsah remained. She was now age 14 and soon to be married to Mohammed Quriyan.

The Plague

Measles and smallpox spread throughout Arabia in the 1940s and ’50s killing thousands. Both diseases are highly contagious—90% of people without immunity who share a household with an infected person can catch it.

At age 12, back in Ar Rayn, Hamsah had been exposed to smallpox and suffered with a high fever for two weeks. Luckily, she survived, but lost many of her cousins and friends. The smallpox vaccine existed but the eradication program in Saudi Arabia did not start until 1959. A vaccine for measles did not become available until 1968. Prior to that, there were no medicines for treatment – only isolation. Those who fell ill would be quarantined in a separate, small tent and given food, milk and tea. When he was a young boy in the 1960s, Quriyan recalled that families who had lemons appeared to have had fewer cases of illness. Those with stronger immune systems, perhaps boosted by the benefit of Vitamin C, were often spared the worst of the disease.

The Marriage of Mohammed and Hamsah

In October 1948, Mohammed and Hamsah were married in a brief, simple civil ceremony, as was customary with Bedouins at that time. [2] They sacrificed one sheep, and the immediate family from both sides celebrated with a khabsa dinner. They began their honeymoon by traveling 75 kilometers, with four newly-purchased camels, due north, to the Al Hajri home in old Ain Dar village. [3] The route took them through Al Uyun and Shedgum. They stopped for one night near Shedgum and slept in the caves under the distinctive jebels that can be seen from the highway today. Back then, there were only narrow, unpaved camel tracks marking the route.

A modest bridewealth had been agreed upon by the couple’s fathers the previous year. Hamsah’s dowry would consist of clothes and household items for her to take to her new home in Ain Dar. Before departing Al Hasa, Hamsah visited the Qaisariah Souk and purchased silver jewelry, new clothes, including an abaya, as well as food staples, such as coffee, cardamom, dates, flour, and rice, and other provisions in preparation for her new life. [4]

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VI: A Mother’s Journey Part 1
1948: Hamsah’s Route from Ar Rayn to Ain Dar
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Shaikha Remarries

When her daughter Hamsah married and moved away, Shaikha remained in Al Hasa and, in 1953 at age 41, married an Al Qahtani. Her new marriage yielded five children, three girls and two boys. The two boys and one of the girls did not survive childhood, leaving two daughters.

These two daughters are now married with children and grandchildren. One or two years older than Quriyan, he has remained close to his eimat al'um (maternal aunts) and keeps in touch weekly by telephone. One, Nafla, lives in Al Hasa, and the other, Shafiyah, lives west of Riyadh.

After a life of ups and downs, filled with joys and sorrows, grandmother Shaikha finally passed away in 1980 at Mohammad Dossary Hospital in Al Khobar. She was 68 years old.

A Dual Life: Ain Dar and the Desert

Arriving in Ain Dar in Autumn 1948, newlywed Hamsah was welcomed to the household of Mohammed Quriyan’s mother, Handa, and father, Quriyan. In those days, Ain Dar had no permanent houses, only tents. After one month in Ain Dar, Hamsah and Mohammed moved their camels 20 kilometers west to an area called Jaww Laban. This was a flat area between low jebels. The rains had come early that year, and the grass and grazing were abundant.

In Jaww Laban they joined another recently married couple, Mohammed’s brother and Hamsah’s sister (each having the same father, but a different mother). They stayed in adjacent tents while the herds enjoyed the rich pastures.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VI: A Mother’s Journey Part 1
Ain Dar Well No. 1 and Jaww Laban
(GOSP: Gas Oil Separation Plant)
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Oil Well, White Men and Fire

During their stay at Jaww Laban, a peculiar sight began to emerge. A black, steel structure was rising out of the desert day by day.

Aramco had discovered oil in Dammam in 1938, followed by further discoveries in 1940, at Abu Hadriyah and Abqaiq. After World War II, Aramco geologists identified the possibility of a large oil reservoir stretching from Ain Dar in the north to Haradh in the south. The first exploratory well to test their theory was Ain Dar Well No. 1. [5] [6]

In 1948, erection of the rig’s steel columns and girders began. Until then, no oil and gas infrastructure existed west of Abqaiq. The growing number of Aramco oil workers in Jaww Laban, many of them non-Muslim foreigners, were then commonly called “white men.”

In those days, the Bedouin living nearby, including Hamsah and her family, were largely uneducated and unfamiliar with modern technology, and so, they observed the growing rig, with wonder and curiosity.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VI: A Mother’s Journey Part 1
An Early Ain Dar Oil Well
(Marka / Alamy Stock Photo)
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Ain Dar Well No. 1 soon struck oil and the Ghawar oil field later proved to be the largest in the world. Since it was the first well drilled in this reservoir, the subterranean pressure was immense. According to standard practice, natural gas emissions were set alight. Huge flames from the top of the rig structure lit up the sky at Jaww Laban. The Al Hajri families were alarmed at this unfamiliar sight. “Wallah (I swear), the white men are burning!” they exclaimed. Quriyan recalls his mother telling him how they panicked and were frightened at the thought of all the oil men being burned alive.

After having spent two months in the Jaww Laban, the two couples quickly took down their tents, loaded the camels with their belongings, and fled back to Ain Dar village.

To be continued in Part 2:

  • Hamsah And Mohammed Raise a Family.
  • Ain Dar Village Grows
  • Young Quriyan Falls Ill
  • Hamsah, the Matriarch, Family Historian, and Arbiter

REFERENCES

[1] REASONS FOR DIVORCE
Among the Bedouin, seldom is divorce attributed to incompatibility of the individuals involved. The major factors that contribute to divorce are problems associated with living together in a joint household, especially conflicts between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and between the wife’s people and the husband’s people. Less often, a man divorces an old wife in order to marry a younger woman. The divorce rate is relatively high. Of the seventeen married men of the Al Kurbi (Al Murrah) clan, six (35%) had divorced at least once. [a]

[2] WEDDINGS
Weddings of the city and town-dwelling sedentary population in Saudi Arabia always involve a great deal of revelry – poetry contests, rhythmic beating of drums and dancing. By contrast, Bedouin wedding celebrations are small affairs with only a few relatives and an occasional guest in attendance. [a]

[3] AIN DAR, CARAVAN HUB
For hundreds of years, Bedouin and merchants visited Ain Dar to water their camels on the caravan route between Al Hasa and Naeriyah. To satisfy the demand for goods and supplies in the north, merchants would hire Bedouin and their camels to transport goods procured at the souks in Al Hofuf to the north region of Naeriyah. Camel caravans went back and forth year-round. The sweet and plentiful water at Ain Dar made it a desirable rest stop; one of several water wells along the 300-kilometer route.

[4] BRIDEWEALTH AND DOWRY
The fathers of the bride and groom agree upon how much bridewealth should be given to the family of the girl. Non-cousin marriages involve transfers of approximately SR 1,000 (USD $265) to the bride’s family, most of which they spend on a dowry of household items which the bride takes with her to her new home. [a]

[5] AIN DAR OIL WELL NO. 1
After World War II and with the resumption of drilling, the most obvious location to resume wildcat drilling was the Ain Dar structure, because of its proximity to producing facilities at Abqaiq. Ain Dar No. 1 was drilled in 1948 and flowed oil to the surface during testing. It was put on production in early 1951 and is still producing today with the original well casings. This well has been producing for more than 58 years with the aid of best-in-class reservoir management practices. It has produced 152 million barrels of oil and is still producing 2,100 barrels per day (bpd). (as of 2008) [b]

[6] NAMING THE AIN DAR OIL FIELD
During the years leading up to the drilling of the first exploratory well in the Ain Dar in 1948, Aramco (then CASOC) geologists spent years conducting exhaustive surveys and drafted comprehensive maps of the area. The nearest village was Ain Dar, with its ample water supply at its well. Legend has it that Max Steineke, Aramco Chief Geologist, on his way to and from his base in Dhahran, would stop off in Ain Dar to meet with village elders, including the grandfather of Quriyan, to keep the locals informed of Aramco’s development plans. Over coffee and tea, Steineke learned the name of the famous water well that had served travelers between Al Hasa and Naeriyah for centuries, Ain Dar. The name stuck.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

[b] Fischbuch, Darryl B. and Soremi, Adeyinka X. Ghawar's Magnificent Five. Aramco Expats. (2008) https://www.aramcoexpats.com/articles/ghawars-magnificent-five/

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]

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