© Mark Lowey 2022. All rights reserved.
In this piece, Mark Lowey, known as “Abu Jack” (father of Jack) to his Saudi friends, is escorted deep into the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) to meet, for the first time, the son of an old acquaintance. In Part 1, Abu Jack and his Saudi traveling companion, Quriyan Al Hajri (Abu Mohammed), are guided to a remote desert encampment. They pause two kilometers short of their goal to refresh themselves after a long day of travel. Finally, they start the car and proceed slowly towards the encampment. In the moonless early evening, a single, distant light draws nearer.
Shots Ring Out
We stopped at the edge of the camp. I stepped out of the Landcruiser and called out “Salaam Aleikum!” to the group of men standing facing us.
“Ya Allah Haya! Ya Allah Haya! Ya Allah Haya!” (Warm welcome!), came the response from Bakhait, son of Bathan. “Marhaba! Marhaba! Marhaba!” (Hello to you), continued Bakhait.
Suddenly, multiple bursts of loud gun fire filled the air, punctuating the shouts of warm welcome we received. Bakhait held one rifle and stood at the front of the entourage that had gathered. He was flanked by a senior cousin who held another firearm. Bakhait’s sons and grandchildren stood behind them.
Bakhait, in white, and his cousin fire shots in the air to welcome us.
As the echoes of the deafening gunfire faded, Bakhait and I walked towards each other. After a brief handshake, we embraced, touching right cheeks several times in accordance with Arab custom when close friends meet. “I can see your father’s face,” I said as I pointed at him and then touched my own cheek with my hand. He patted his breast with his right hand and said, “Masha ‘Allah, Masha ‘Allah.” (What God has willed.) It was a very touching moment for me and, I could sense, for him, as well.
Abu Mohammed and I were then introduced to the other family members. Shaking hands, I greeted each one in my limited Arabic. Bakhait’s granddaughter, Baina, and grandson, Abdul Aziz, ages eight and six, were invited to meet us. I had to bend over as each of them gave me a timid but warm hug.
A hug from Baina.
Abdul Aziz greets Abu Mohammed.
Coffee, Tea, and Conversation
We were shown to our seats on carpets arranged on the sand near a cooking fire. Coffee, then tea with dates, were served by a male teenaged family member in typical Bedouin fashion. With my elbow supported by a sturdy bolster cushion, I relaxed and took in the scene.
Bakhait and his family travel the desert in three large mobile portables, one with two bedrooms and a sitting room, another for the women and children, and a third as a dining room. Generators power lighting and other equipment. Gone are the days of Bedouin tents made of camel and goat hair, taken down, transported, and erected again and again along the migration routes.
As we relaxed, Bakhait held court and shared the latest local news with the group. He described where they had recently found grazing for the herds and said that they planned to migrate north in a week or two. The grasses in this area were plentiful for his camels, but it would soon be time to move on.
Bakhait, center, leads the conversation after our arrival. His son, Muteb, on his right.
Young Baina joins the group.
Coffee is served.
Bakhait tells Abu Mohammed, right, about the local grazing conditions and weather forecast.
The camels begin to arrive in the background.
Shahin Makes an Appearance
During our conversation, the camels passed by behind us, looking for a place to spend the night near the portables. Encouraged by calls of “O’! O’!” from young Abdul Aziz, a young female camel wandered nearer than the others. The boy ran out to meet her and gave her a hug around her forelegs.
Abdul Aziz and his favorite camel, Shahin.
Abdullah with Shahin.
Baina and Abdul Aziz are happy to pose with Abu Jack.
Khabsa, Of Course
It wouldn’t be a Bedouin gathering without a satisfying meal of lamb khabsa. A goat or lamb is slaughtered, boiled whole, and served on a bed of well-flavored, yellow rice with vegetables. Inside the dining portable, I took my place with six others on the floor around a large circular communal platter, that held succulent morsels of lamb atop a beautiful mound of rice and proceeded to enjoy the feast, and, as is the custom, being careful to use only our right hands to scoop rice and lamb, lightly molding them together with our fingers before popping them in our mouths. From the platter to our mouths, we dined together.
Assisted by Abdul Aziz, Muteb and Abdullah carry the khabsa to the dining portable.
After dinner, Muteb and Abdullah had something to show us – their grandfather’s rifle. It is a well-worn, antique long gun. Years ago, this rifle had been modified: wood was added to the rifle’s shoulder stock to make it more comfortable when firing and a circular brass ornament was attached. Abu Mohammed and I inspected the rifle and found identification markings on the underside. 
I realized that this must have been the rifle carried by Bathan on the day I met him in 1979. It had the same leather strap, now frayed and broken, that appears in the single photo I took that day so long ago. I recall seeing the rifle and even mentioned it in my daily journal. But the rifle is hidden from view in the photo.
I brought this up to Abdullah and Muteb and, upon close inspection of the photograph of their grandfather, it was agreed that this was the same leather strap.
Abdullah and his grandfather’s rifle.
Modifications to the rifle's shoulder stock.
Bathan and his rifle’s leather strap in the 1979 photo.
The identifying markings on the rifle’s underside.
I was intrigued by Muteb’s dagger, proudly worn on a leather belt over his thobe. It is somewhat rare for Saudis to wear a belt and dagger. However, in the Kingdom’s southwest region, the dagger is an important part of a man’s wardrobe, a status symbol and a mark of manhood, especially among Bedouins and farm owners. The dagger is also commonly used in traditional events, such as celebratory dances. 
Muteb’s dagger is a beautiful example of an antique Jambiya from southwest Arabia. It is adorned with silver granulation hand work and the hand-carved wooden hilt is half-covered by silver plate.  The short, curved, double-edged, forged steel blade has a medial ridge, a distinctive style that originates from the Hadhramaut region in Yemen. 
Muteb keeps his dagger in a simple leather sheath adorned with a silver, hand-worked collar. The bottom of the sheath has, apparently, been repaired with green duct tape.
Despite the cultural significance of the jambiya, it is still a weapon. Although people have used it in times of dispute, there are societal norms that must be followed to avoid defamation. The jambiya should only come out of its sheath in extreme cases of conflict. 
I was relieved when Muteb agreed to unsheathe his Jambiya so I could photograph it.
Mystery Eggs: Ostrich or Dinosaur?
Later, Muteb and Abdullah produced a curious sight, two large, white eggs. They seemed to be very old and, perhaps, fossilized or petrified. Their surfaces were porous with hundreds of small holes. Members of the family had discovered them at the eastern edge of the Empty Quarter at the base of large dunes.
Their origin? My guess was that they were ostrich eggs, but did their size and age point to something else? Perhaps they were ancient. Could they be dinosaur eggs preserved for millennia beneath the desert sands?
Abu Mohammed asked if we could be taken to the site to investigate, but it was decided that the location deviated too much from our planned return route. Abdullah agreed to visit the site soon, record the location’s coordinates, and send them to Abu Mohammed. We carried the two eggs back to Abu Mohammed’s home – he intends to submit them for scientific analysis.
The mysterious egg.
Abu Mohammed holds one of the eggs and Bathan’s old rifle.
A Quiet Night
It was a mild night illuminated by a half moon with a gentle breeze out of the west. I was given a place to sleep in one of the portables’ sitting rooms. After a comfortable night, I rose before 4 a.m. for a short stroll outside. On my way out of the portable I could hear Abu Mohammed in the next room, awake and softly reciting aloud the Quran – a daily practice of his before the fajr prayer.   
On my way back to the encampment I noticed some activity. Muteb was already up and stoking the cooking fire. I thought about the extraordinary experience yesterday had been. How fortunate was I to have been escorted to this stunning and distant corner of the world – a place considered by many to be hostile and forbidding?
I greeted Muteb and wondered, what wonders would this next day bring?
Muteb builds the breakfast fire before first light.
- - - - -
Next installment: further surprises for Abu Jack.
 Bedouin Rifles.
Rifles found in Saudi Arabia are typically imports from Turkey and the West. Bedouins modify and decorate their rifles for utility and according to the styles employed by the craftsmen of their tribal ancestors. Traditionally popular among the Bedouin are muzzleloaders and flintlock rifles. 
Farid Bukhari, Arabian antiques expert and co-founder of Desert Designs, the unique, family-run interior design studio, home décor gift shop and art gallery, in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, dedicated to Saudi culture and Islamic design.
 Jambiya Dagger.
 What is a Jambiya used for?
 Daily Quran Readings.
Each morning, before fajr prayer, Abu Mohammed reads ten or more pages from the Surah Al Baqarah, the first chapter of the Quran. Doing so helps him start his day on a positive note, to help clear his mind and feel happy inside. 
 The Benefits of Reciting Surah Al-Baqarah.
There are many benefits of reciting Surah Al-Baqarah, and the most important benefit is that it protects one from Shaitan (Satan) and all evils. People who recite it are protected from evildoers and those who wish harm upon others. The recitation of the Surah will protect one from black magic, witchcraft, and nazar or evil eye.
 Fajr Prayer.
Fajr is one of the five mandatory salah (Islamic prayers), to be performed anytime starting from the moment of dawn, but not after sunrise.
 Reference Maps.
The 700 km route from the Abu Mohammed’s farm in Junayah to Bakhait’s encampment.
My iPhone records the quantity and location of photos taken during the journey to meet Bakhait.