© Mark Lowey 2022. All rights reserved.

In this piece, Mark Lowey, “Abu Jack,” is escorted deep into the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) to meet, for the first time, the son of an old acquaintance.

To The Empty Quarter

It was October 30, 2021. This day had been long planned. I rose early in anticipation of meeting a special man – the son of the mysterious Bedouin I had met, briefly and by chance, in the Saudi desert in 1979. The man was walking alone, and I stopped my truck to say “Salaam Aleikum.” Before parting ways, I took a single photo of him, capturing a random encounter that has lingered in my memory ever since. I described the scene in a story published in May 2018 on this website.

The Solitary Bedouin

The man’s identity remained unknown to me for decades, until one day when his name was finally revealed to me and my Saudi friends in 2019. He was Bathan Al Marri, and he had passed away in 2005. I was looking forward to meeting his son, Bakhait, on this day.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1

Bathan (1979) and his son, Bakhait (2019).
This photo of Bakhait was taken before I met him, around the time we discovered Bathan’s identity.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part III: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait

Tales of the Bedouin - Part V: Bathan the Well Digger and His Son, Bakhait – continued

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
The route from Quriyan's farm in Junayah, 702 kilometers to Bakhait’s Encampment.

Predawn Departure

I departed the Aloft Hotel in Al Khobar at 5:30 a.m. It was still dark outside. The hotel’s dining room was not yet serving breakfast but, luckily, the self-service coffee machine was primed and a cappuccino with an extra shot was delivered into the to-go cup, piping hot.

Soon I was heading west to Junayah on the Dammam-Riyadh highway. Before reaching Fardaniyah, I passed through the camel access underpass and over sandy tracks to the farm of my host and guide, Quriyan Al Hajri, Abu Mohammed. A dear friend, we sat and relaxed in the peaceful, coolness as we watched the sun rise. Abu Mohammed’s man, Yosef, brought us coffee and tea. We enjoyed a simple breakfast of dates and flatbread.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
The roundabout approaching Abu Mohammed’s farm.

We finished loading Abu Mohammed’s Toyota Landcruiser and we set off at 7:15 a.m., heading south past the Shedgum Cement Plant, the turnoff to Aramco’s Udhailiyah Community, and by 10 a.m. we had reached the Haradh Gas Station and its adjacent “supermarket.” We had traveled 230 kilometers from the farm.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Abu Jack and Abu Mohammed prepare to depart.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Approaching the Shedgum Cement Plant.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
The familiar jebels near Shedgum.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Abu Mohammed at the wheel.

Provisions and Gifts

The small “supermarket” at Haradh was typical of those found along remote Saudi desert roads. Often run by Yemeni businessmen, this shop was packed with flats of fresh fruit and vegetables, food staples, dry goods, snacks, water, camping equipment, and hardware.

Clearly on a mission, Abu Mohammed stepped into the sleepy shop and immediately commanded the attention of at least four of the store’s employees. As his old friend, Richard Moffitt, once wrote: “Quriyan is at ease with the vegetable sellers, speaking to them like he knows them, maybe he does. ‘What is this? Bring me that one! Where are the bananas?’ They scurry about to assist their demanding but friendly customer. Quriyan tastes the produce and buys it by the box.” In his comfort zone, Abu Mohammed was a man accustomed to orchestrating provisions in large quantities.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
“Let me taste that one.”
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
“Are these your best quality dates?”
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
“Put that one in the box!”

A flat, wheeled cart appeared as the amount of produce and supplies kept growing. I observed from a safe distance, impressed, and highly entertained. Here was a man accustomed to orchestrating provisions in large quantities, expeditiously and with an eye for quality. Quriyan was accumulating a bounty of food and gifts for our Bedouin friends in the desert.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
“Abu Jack, we are nearly finished loading!”

Al Khin Junction

One hour and another 100 kilometers southward brought us to a crossroads with another petrol station and small shop. After a few phone calls, Muteb and Abdullah, who are the grandsons of Bathan (sons of Bakhait), turned up in their Toyota Landcruiser pick-up. We stopped our vehicle beside theirs, and I got out and introduced myself. They already knew who I was and were expecting us. I was immediately taken by their dignified manner, confidence, and grace.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
We meet Muteb, Abdullah and another friend at Al Khin junction.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Muteb bin Bakhait Al Marri.

Abdullah popped the hood of our vehicle and began connecting cables for the two-way radio communication system. Muteb and Abu Mohammed discussed the route to reach his family’s desert encampment.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Abdullah bin Bakhait Al Marri connects the radio’s power cables.

Abdullah popped the hood of our vehicle and began connecting cables for the two-way radio communication system. Muteb and Abu Mohammed discussed the route to reach his family’s desert encampment.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Filling the petrol barrels in Muteb’s truck.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Abdullah, center, rides with us in case we become separated from Muteb.

The Pavement’s End

Soon we came to the end of the asphalt road and continued southward, following Muteb along wide, well-traveled, soft-sand tracks. The radio would crackle to life when Muteb announced a turn to the west or pointed out a particular landmark or thicket of shrubs. “Look, good abal,” Muteb would shout when we passed a thicket of his favorite shrub – and his camels’ favorite, as well. Abu Mohammed joked that these Bedouins, “won’t stop at a building – only dunes, grasses, shrubs, and trees.”

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
The end of the paved road.

Al Ghada Trees

As we advanced, we saw more and more vegetation, especially al ghada. This beautiful and hardy shrub, whose extensive root system prevents erosion, can grow into tall trees that provide shade and a habitat for wildlife. Here and there we also saw patches of dead al ghada, parched by drought or decimated by humans and animals.

Efforts by Saudi environmental agencies are underway to protect the al ghada and other shrubs and trees that are being stripped from the desert for firewood and fuel. The plants of the desert need to be given time to recover and make the landscape beautiful again.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Taking a break for afternoon prayer amongst the al ghada.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Abdullah relaxes beside a stand of al ghada shrubs.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Al ghada shrubs dot the landscape in this area.

Flat Tire

At kilometer 510 it was 3 p.m. and Muteb’s right rear tire was losing pressure. Earlier that day, in his haste to load the empty petrol barrels and come to meet us, he had neglected to repair his spare tire. Now he had no working spare, and one tire was flat.

From our vehicle, Abu Mohammed produced a 12-volt portable tire inflator that, unfortunately, was found to lack the proper connection adapter to fit the flat tire’s stem valve. The problem was resolved by pushing the end of the inflator nozzle hard against the stem valve. Progress was very slow, but it worked. Accompanied by the compressor’s high-pitched whine, we all took turns holding the nozzle as the tire gradually filled with air.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
It takes a team effort to fill the flat tire.

Muteb’s notified his father of our delay and soon we were headed southwest again. The road alternated between soft sand tracks, hard packed gravel fields and rolling dunes.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Muteb speaks to his father, Bakhait, on the satellite phone – there is no cell signal in this area.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Muteb points out the route to Abu Mohammed.

Umm Al Abel

It wasn’t far to the legendary water well, Umm al Abel, where the odometer read 602 kilometers. We stopped to refresh ourselves and have a drink. Abdullah told us the story of the man who discovered the miracle of the well’s waters.

Tales of the Bedouin–Part XV: The Water of Umm Al Abel

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Muteb approaches Umm Al Abel well.

A Desert Prayer

Thirty minutes after departing Umm al Abel, a magnificent sunset signaled it was nearly prayer time.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Sunset in the Empty Quarter.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Abu Mohammed captures the desert sunset.

As twilight descended, we stopped atop a breezy dune. Abu Mohammed took the lead and, with his right forefinger, traced an arc in the sand indicating the direction to Mecca. In centuries-old tradition, a temporary mosque and qibla had been created.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1

Isha prayer in the Empty Quarter.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
The qibla in the sand.

The White Fox

It was now almost dark as we followed Muteb’s taillights over the soft sand tracks.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
Following Muteb.

Suddenly, a white blur crossed in front of our headlights. “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh, it’s a fox! A white fox! Go, go! Wow. It’s so cute! Awww.” The fox ran ahead of our vehicle, and we followed. “Abu Jack, take, take! Take picture! Hami-hami!” urged Abu Mohammed. “OK, hurry up,” I said. “Where did he go?”

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XVIII: Journey to Meet The Son of Bathan – Part 1
The elusive albino fox.

Abu Mohammed asked, “Did you take it?” I replied, “I think so – wait – look how small he is!” My phone’s camera had defaulted to a low-light, time-exposure setting. The photos were not clear. I had trouble adjusting the settings as our vehicle careened right and left as we tracked the agile fox, who had increased both his speed and evasive tactics. Abu Mohammed called out to the fox, “Salaam Aleikum!” and then, as the fox abruptly disappeared safely down a hole in the sand, he said, “Oh, he went inside!”

Approaching Bakhait’s Encampment

Our trip odometer now read exactly 700 kilometers. It was 6:30 p.m. Two short kilometers ahead was a faint light – the encampment of Bakhait and his family.

It was decided that Muteb and Abdullah would go on ahead, and Abu Mohammed and I would hang back and prepare ourselves for arrival. I gave my phone to Abdullah so he could video our appearance. He and Muteb proceeded to their home. I changed my shirt and rinsed off my face with water from Umm Al Abel. Abu Mohammed donned a fresh shemagh and agal.

I was excited and a little nervous. What would it be like to meet Bakhait and the rest of his family? Abdullah had let us know that Bakhait was planning a special Bedouin welcome. “There will be a surprise for Abu Jack,” he told us.

At last, I was refreshed and ready to meet Bakhait. We started the car and proceeded slowly towards the encampment.

Next installment: Bakhait and Abu Jack meet.

Mark Lowey
Abu Jack and Muteb Al Marri in the Empty Quarter.

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.

Email: moloworking1@gmail.com

 

Part 17