© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

In this installment, Mark Lowey reminisces about living in Saudi Arabia in 1978-79, including his first invitation to a remote Bedouin encampment in the desert. The details herein are from three sources: Mark Lowey’s daily journal and the memories of Mark and his colleague, Stephen Taylor.

Looking for Adventure in the Saudi Desert

Coming straight out of university from California at age 22, my move to Saudi Arabia and life in a typical Abqaiq contractors camp was initially a challenge. Located across the road from the well-appointed Aramco community, the men-only barracks-style compound where I lived was, by comparison, spare but adequate. A single room in a portable trailer, dining hall, recreation room, and outdoor basketball court. Landscaping was nonexistent. Young employees like me were not assigned personal vehicles. If I wanted to venture outside the camp’s security gate, I had to find a shared pick-up truck or ask a favor of a more senior employee. Many residents spent Fridays, their one day off, hanging around the camp, sleeping, reading, partying, or working out.

Stephen Taylor

I had other ideas and couldn’t wait to visit the surrounding villages and cities and explore the wide-open desert. Fortunately, some of my colleagues were similarly inclined. Stephen Taylor was a construction supervisor at the remote GOSP (Gas Oil Separation Plant) construction jobsite at Fazran, where we were both assigned. We shared a common sense of adventure and desire to get out and about.

Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and having lived in Scotland and Germany, Steve had been working in Saudi and Kuwait for two or three years. He was married, but his assignment in Abqaiq was “single status.” A few years older than I was, Steve struck me as worldly and vastly more experienced. He was fluent in several languages and had mastered a jobsite version of spoken Arabic.

Faleh, The Bedouin

Steve and I were both acquainted with Faleh Al Hajri, the friendly Bedouin who had encamped with his family near our jobsite. Attracted to the permanent water supply and concrete camel drinking-trough provided by Aramco, several semi-permanent tent encampments of Bedouin families had sprung up across the road from the construction site. Faleh lived there with his wife, mother, two daughters, infant son, saluki dog, goats, and camels.

Faleh was fond of spending time in my little jobsite portable cabin. In previous writings, I described my first encounters, in 1978, with Faleh, the Bedouin:

Eventually, we and the Bedouins became friendly with each other and enjoyed long discussions through translators. The Bedouin family patriarch, Faleh, would often sit with me in my tiny site office trailer, and we would drink tea and coffee and try to communicate. Depending on the season, Faleh would be waiting at the door when I arrived at 6 a.m. – and wait for me to crank up either the heater or the air conditioner.

One day, in a memorable, light-hearted moment, Faleh donned western trousers, borrowed a hard hat, tucked in his long, white thobe as best he could and casually strolled around the construction site as if he were the foreman. Only his leather desert sandals betrayed his costume. We were quite amused, and Faleh appeared pleased that his antics had yielded laughter from all who witnessed the temporary transformation.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Faleh Al Hajri.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1978)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Faleh’s tent at Fazran in December 1978.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1978)

Bedouin Hospitality

Generous hospitality is one of the most important of Bedouin values. The greatest praise that a Bedouin can bestow upon 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. [1]

It follows that to refuse an invitation or a gift from a Bedouin is difficult, possibly insulting, and could result in loss of face by both parties. Initial refusals may be tolerated, though one is expected to eventually accept.

An Invitation

It was during the cool winter month of February 1979 that Steve and I received an invitation to visit Faleh’s beit (tent) on an upcoming Friday afternoon. Faleh had now relocated his household from Fazran to an off-road area deeper in the desert, following better grazing for his camels and goats. It was an honor, and we had no difficulty accepting Faleh’s generous offer.

Friday arrived. Excited for what might lay ahead, I woke at 6 a.m., rousted another work colleague and fellow American, Dan Reardon, and joined Steve Taylor in the dining hall for breakfast. In a borrowed pickup truck, we filled-up the petrol tank, packed some snacks and drinking water, and tied down several 1x6 wooden planks and a shovel in the truck’s bed, de rigueur equipment in case we became stuck in the sand. We set off for the Fazran jobsite, first due west to Ain Dar GOSP 1 and then due north – a 90-minute drive.

Once clear of Fazran, where the narrow, paved road ends, the desert changed rapidly and became very green from recent rains. This was prime grazing land. It was a pleasant ride for another hour on the rolling, sand tracks used by the Bedouins. These north-south tracks crisscross each other and form the unpaved “Bedouin Highway,” part compacted dirt, part sand, that stretches from Kuwait in the north to Haradh in the south and beyond.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
The “Bedouin Highway” north of Fazran.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
A mother and baby camel graze in the lush, winter desert.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
The route to Faleh’s tent in February 1979

Arrival

Despite our language barrier, we had no trouble finding Faleh’s place, thanks to the accurate directions given to Steve. Several tents and around thirty people were now encamped in an area around 100 meters square. One tent next to Faleh’s housed the family of Abdulhadi Alsy’ari, whose young sons we had met when they lived in Fazran in late 1978. Faleh and Abdulhadi were from different tribes, but they traveled together and lived beside each other like brothers. Their children grew up as siblings, and our paths would not cross again until decades later when I returned to Saudi Arabia in 2013.

Abdulhadi’s eldest son Mabkhout joined us during our visit in February 1979.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Mabkhout, age 19, with a baby camel.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Mabkhout in front of his father’s tent.
(Photo courtesy of the Alsy’ari family)

We parked near the east end of Faleh’s tent, the men’s section. It is customary and considerate for non-family, male visitors to approach the tent from the men’s side to allow female family members to retreat to the private areas.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
A typical Bedouin encampment near Ain Dar.
(Aerial photography by Mark Lowey, ©1979)

Meet the Family

In front of his tent Faleh welcomed us with, “Salaam Aleikum” (peace be upon you) and a vice-grip handshake. We responded, “Aleikum As Salam” (and upon you, peace.) As the children and cousins crowded around us, we asked each their names, “Aish asmuk?” “Moniah, Moodi!” We responded, “Aismi Mark, Danny, Steve.” As the introductions unfolded, we noticed the women in the tent peeking inquisitively over the ru’ag (divider between the men’s and family sections) to see these strange visitors. As was custom, we would not be introduced to the women.

Masturah, wife of Faleh, was one of the curious clandestine onlookers. I would meet her for the first time nearly four decades later, in 2015, when, having returned to Saudi Arabia with photos of her husband, like a long-lost relative I was considered unofficial family. In 2019, speaking to Masturah through her son, Bdah, she described the day that Steve, Danny, and I arrived at her beit.

Bdah translated, “My mother says she remembers that time that you came for the Friday meal. She was a little bit afraid, but she remembers.” “Did she see me?” I asked. “Did she go like this?” I pantomimed pulling down the ru’ag and peeking over. Masturah laughed. “She was surprised, because you were very tall and too white – whiter than you are now.”

Coffee for Visitors

Pleased that we had arrived, Faleh promptly began the traditional coffee ritual for his guests. He set about roasting a handful of coffee beans in a long-handled skillet over his open fire and then ground the beans in a brass mortar. Boiling water from the blackened tea kettle was added to the crushed, roasted beans in a shiny brass Arab-style coffee pot called a dallah. Soon, we were enjoying a welcome demitasse of cardamom-flavored coffee [a], served by young Mabkhout. From an early age, young boys are taught the traditions of courtesy and respect, including serving tea, coffee, and dates at all-male gatherings.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Faleh roasted beans over the fire; the brass dallah nearby.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Faleh ground coffee beans in a brass mortar.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)

Tea and Dates

In keeping with tradition, coffee was followed by sugary tea and dates, served in a small, round aluminum bowl with a removable lid to keep out sand and insects. During coffee, Steve and I noticed that the knob atop the lid had broken off, exposing a small hole in the center of the cap. Steve nudged me as we watched several flies enter the bowl and none exited. Soon the bowl was offered to Danny. He removed the cap, releasing the trapped flies. All eyes were on him as he politely selected a date and popped it in his mouth. As courteously as possible, Steve and I refused.

The Polaroid Factor

A few months earlier, when Faleh, Abdulhadi and their families resided near the Fazran construction jobsite, they had allowed me to take photographs of the male members and tent. Today, Steve and I hoped that we could capture some photos of the daughters and baby, but we were unsure if they would agree. In those days photography in public, especially of the locals, was seriously frowned upon.

Steve brought his Polaroid camera, and I, my trusty Olympus OM-2 single-lens reflex. Steve tentatively snapped a few images and handed the still-developing prints to Mabkhout and the girls. They were enthralled by the Polaroid’s instant images that slowly came into view, as if by magic.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
A Polaroid camera similar to Steve’s model.
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Mark’s OM-2.

The group was now quite happy to be photographed. For this occasion, Faleh donned his bisht, a brown, gold-fringed formal robe, and posed, cradling his infant son, Bdah, in the crook of his elbow. As a gesture of welcome, in his hands were the brass dallah and a stack of coffee cups, ready to be poured. The young girls were eager to have their pictures taken, as well, and got in on the fun. Steve distributed more instant photos, keeping a few for himself. The scene was happily chaotic. Faleh loaned me a red and white checkered ghutra and black igal. Using a small tripod and a delay timer, I captured a group shot that I would treasure to this day.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Polaroid prints from Steve’s camera.
(Photos courtesy of Stephen Taylor)

A Private Family Portrait

At one point, Faleh beckoned Steve to bring his camera to the women’s section. Faleh, carrying baby Bdah, and Steve disappeared behind the ru’ag. I could hear some shouting and commotion. Steve later related that Faleh had requested a photo with his wife and baby. As Steve was about to take the portrait, another young woman approached, wanting to be included. Faleh reportedly picked up a wooden stick or club and threatened the intruder, calling for her to go away. Clearly a family member or close neighbor, we were never quite sure who this woman was, but she was not to be in the photo.

When Bdah, now an Aramco employee and married with children, heard about this episode decades later, he confirmed that Faleh had just one wife, Masturah. Regarding the mystery woman, he explained, “Out of respect to her family, for sure my father would not agree to have the woman in the photo. He would not know if her father or husband agreed.”

Reminiscing about that incident during a recent video call, Steve confided that he had feared we might come to some harm if the tension had escalated that day. He felt that we had taken a considerable risk to go out in the remote desert in an unpredictable culture not our own. We had been permitted to meet and photograph a Bedouin family – something that would have been forbidden in Saudi cities and towns. As for me, I was blissfully unaware of any potential dangers and simply fascinated by the experience.

Lunch

At last, we were motioned to take a seat around a large platter laden with the generous portions of tender lamb on a mound of flavorful rice with vegetables. The sheep had been killed just that morning for the occasion and prepared by Faleh’s wife, Masturah. Suddenly, several strangers arrived in trucks, greeted Faleh, and were invited to enter the tent. The men, close relations of Faleh, wore bullet-filled bandoliers slung sash-style over their shoulders. Their pistols were holstered, and they carried long rifles. They put down their rifles and joined us around the single large platter, which had been placed in the center of the weathered carpet.

Barefoot and legs crossed, we sat in a circle around the platter and ate in the traditional Arab style with our right hand and fingers scooping up the rice and meat from the shared platter. Slightly curdled laban (goat curd) was poured over the mix for added flavor and to make the rice sticky and easier to roll into a ball. We enjoyed this delicious feast, where hands sufficed, and utensils were not necessary. What would my mother think, I thought to myself, as a smile came to my lips and I took another palmful of rice and lamb.

The mother of Faleh, Souda, age 90, was helped to her seat at the platter. Stealing a glance, I noted her dark, kohl-encircled eyes, wrinkled with age, the only part of her face I could see. She enjoyed her meal in silence, her left hand gently lifting her niqab (veil) slightly for each mouthful. She was the matriarch of the family and the lone female invited to the meal. I felt honored by her presence.

As we ate, the children watched and giggled with delight as we shared this unexpected bounty in the desert. According to the hierarchy of the desert, their turn to eat from the platter would come after the men had eaten. When we were satisfied, Faleh motioned for us to retire to the seating area near the fire, where we reclined against firm, upholstered bolster cushions and were offered more coffee and tea. The group sat back and casually discussed the latest news about their families, camels, hunting, and where the best grazing was to be found. I generally understood what was going on, thanks to Steve’s intermittent translations.

Group Shots

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Left to right: Mark, Mabkhout, Danny, Steve, Moodi (holding a Polaroid print), Faleh, Moniah, and a neighbor girl. The tent’s rear panel had been taken down to allow a cool breeze to circulate.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Faleh holding baby Bdah. Behind the men’s section was an area for young goats and camels.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Mark poses with Faleh and the family.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Left: Moniah, first daughter of Faleh. Right: Faleh with Mark wearing one of Faleh’s ghutras.
(Photos by Mark Lowey, ©1979)

Sick Bay

During our conversations during the past few weeks, Steve reminded me about the small, enclosed area adjacent to the men’s section. Young and vulnerable camels and goats were kept here for protection and to recuperate from sickness or injury.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
The small area at the back of Faleh’s tent where young goats and camels were kept.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Danny and Mabkhout with a baby camel in the “sick bay.”
(Photo courtesy of Stephen Taylor)
Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Baby camel and goats in the “sick bay.”
(Photo courtesy of Stephen Taylor)

Nebhan, The Loyal Saluki

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
Danny and Mabkhout stroke Nebhan, the family Saluki.
(Photo courtesy of Stephen Taylor)

During the 2019 conversation with Bdah and his mother, Bdah recounted, “When I was a baby, almost every day my mother would fight with a snake or a scorpion to protect me and the rest of the family. She would use a camel stick, and we had a dog, named Nebhan, in our tent to help. I think he was a saluki mix, so not a purebred.”

Salukis have traditionally been prized by Bedouins as companions, hunters, and guard dogs. [b]

“We all remember Nebhan and how he helped us a lot in the desert, especially at night. He never slept at night, always fighting with snake or fox that came near the tent. Nebhan supported my mother. He would follow us. He came with us that year, in 1993, when we transferred from the desert to here in Fardaniyah village.”

“People would say, ‘Why do you have a dog here in the house? He should go back to the camels.’ My father, who still spent a lot of his time in the desert with the herds, would bring him there, but Nebhan never failed to return to my mother and our house the following day.”

“My father would always give him milk. Faleh first found Nebhan on the road and he was very sick – he gave Nebhan meat and milk to help him recover. Nebhan became very loyal and protective. He never left us until he passed away.”

Ma'asalama

It was almost time for the afternoon call to prayer. We were about to depart when Faleh offered us “one for the road”—freshly drawn camel’s milk. Steve and Dan drank with gusto. I’m not sure why, but I only took a small sip and didn’t like it much. Since then, I have come to love and appreciate the benefits of fresh camel milk.

After Ma’asalamas (farewells) and more handshakes, we thanked Faleh, pulled out, and waved goodbye to our friends. That night, I wrote in my journal, “Amazing. A good time was had!” I couldn’t wait to get my rolls of film developed.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1
On our way out we waved goodbye.
(Photo by Mark Lowey, ©1979)

To be continued.
Next month, Travels with Stephen Part 2 will take us on a two-day excursion up the Bedouin Highway to Kuwait.


References

[a] THE COFFEE CEREMONY

The coffee ceremony, which takes place in the men’s section of the ten, is a central feature of Bedouin hospitality – and indeed an essential part of their ritual life. Bedouin drink weak coffee throughout the day, but it takes on a special importance whenever a guest arrives. Although a pot of coffee may already be prepared when a guest arrives, a fresh pot is always prepared. The youngest adult male takes charge. He has extra fuel put on the fire in front of the men’s section of the tent and then calls out to the women to give him some water and coffee beans. These are brought and handed over to him over the tent divider (ru’ag) without the women being seen.

Water is put on the fire to boil in a large blackened pot; the coffee beans are roasted to a light brown color in a long-handled skillet and then dumped into a heavy brass mortar. When they have cooled a bit, the man grinds them in a brass pestle, hitting the side of the mortar in such a way that it rings out – an invitation to whoever hears it to come and drink coffee. When the beans have been crushed into powder, they are dumped into a shiny brass, long-beaked coffee pot (dallah) which is set on the fire to come to a boil again.

The man now calls out to the women to give him some cardamom. A small handful of cardamom beans are handed over and these are crushed in the mortar and dumped into the pot, which is once again put on the fire and brought to a boil. The subtle fragrance of cardamom permeates the coffee. A plate or bowl of dates is handed over from the women’s section and these are passed around – first to the guest and then to all the others according to age.

The man who offers coffee takes five or six small cups stacked one on top of the other in his right hand. He holds the pot in his left hand and pours a few drops in a cup. He drinks some of it and pours the rest on the ground. Then he moves to where the guest is sitting in the center of a semicircle behind the fire and pours him about a third of a little cup of coffee. He proceeds around the semicircle until all the cups are used. He goes back and begins refilling the cups until the person indicates that he has had enough and asks him to take his cup. The server continues serving the other people present.

Only after a guest has drunk coffee does he state his business if he has any. Although tea does not figure in the traditional ritual and a guest is free to leave after he has drunk coffee, nowadays tea usually follows the first pot of coffee. Then one drinks one more cup of coffee “to take away the taste of the tea.” Dates and incense are often passed around, too. [1]

[b] THE SALUKI

Salukis, also known as Persian greyhounds or gazelle hounds, were originally bred, centuries ago, in the Fertile Crescent – the region spanning from Egypt to Iran. Slim, sleek, and swift, these dogs are well-suited for survival in the harsh desert environment. As noted by canine expert, Linda Case, Salukis are "sight" hounds—hunting by sight—and run their quarry down to kill or retrieve it. Historically, Salukis were used for hunting by nomadic tribes. Typical quarry included the gazelle, hare, fox, and jackal. [2]

In his book, Natural Emirates, Peter Vine described unique hunting techniques using Salukis. While pursuing hares, Bedouin hunters would sometimes ride close to their quarry on a camel holding a Saluki, which would be thrown towards the prey, while at speed, to give the dog a running start. [3]

Endnotes / Credits:

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

[2] Case, Linda P. The Dog: Its Behavior, Nutrition, and Health. Wiley-Blackwell. (2005). ISBN 978-0-8138-1254-0.

[3] Vine, Peter. Natural Emirates: Wild Life and Environment of the United Arab Emirates. Trident Press. (1997). ISBN 978-1-900724-02-9.

 

Mark Lowey
Abu Jack and Bdah Al Hajri (the infant in the 1979 photos) in 2015. Behind them is "Swaidah", a direct descendant of the camels owned by Bdah's father, Faleh.

About the Author: 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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