© 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 (the 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. In Part 2 the hosts welcome Abu Jack and Abu Mohammed with a fusillade of gunshots into the air and they are invited to a khabsa dinner. After an eventful evening and good night’s sleep, Abu Jack awakens before dawn.
Around the Fire
Before first light there was a slight chill in the air, and the men gathered around the cooking fire. Coffee and tea were served, and conversation ensued. Inevitably the discussion turned to the herd. What female camels are soon to give birth? In which direction is the better grazing? How is number three son, Bathan, doing in the Emirates? (Bathan was at a camel market, south of Abu Dhabi, showing two of the family’s prized females in the hopes of selling them for a good price.)
Sweet, hot tea to start the day.
A lively, pre-dawn conversation.
Abu Mohammed and Abu Jack at first light.
Abu Mohammed relaxes at daybreak.
Got Milk? Saudi-style.
After a night spent nestled in the sand, the camels behind us were beginning to awaken and rising on their spindly legs. Abdullah walked over to a female camel to collect a special pre-breakfast treat, camel milk. He returned with a large aluminum bowl full of warm, frothy goodness. As a playful gag, Abu Mohammed scooped up some of the foam with his finger and placed it on his nose. Then, we both took long draughts directly from the bowl. It was delicious.
The herd awakens.
Abu Mohammed enjoys a drink of camel milk, courtesy of Abdullah.
And there was more. A brimming glass of fresh female camel urine was produced and offered to me. I carefully considered this rare opportunity and decided, “no, shukran.” I passed the glass to Abu Mohammed, and he confidently decanted a small portion of the urine into another glass and added some camel milk. The mixture was now more palatable, and he downed it in one go. “Very good for stomach and digestion,” he said. 
Camel urine mixed with camel milk has medicinal properties.
The sunrise was beautiful, the lighting perfect and I arranged a photo portrait with Bakhait and his sons. It wasn’t long before granddaughter Baina joined the fun.
Sunrise and the rolling dunes in the distance.
Bakhait and I, bracketed by sons Muteb and Abdullah.
The Grand Ashou
Suddenly a giant male camel named Ashou ambled over. To restrict his movements, his forelegs were hobbled by green rope. As he towered over me, I immediately recognized the wasm (identifying brand) on his right hind hip – the distinctive mark of Bakhait’s herd that signifies “the camel stick and the door.” 
The great male, Ashou, bears the wasm of Bakhait’s herd.
We were invited to breakfast in the dining portable, which had been fitted with colorful carpets and floor seating. An array of seasoned omelets and savory dips had been prepared for us. Again, we ate in traditional fashion, sharing the various dishes, scooped up with chunks of Arab flatbread, as we sat cross-legged on the floor.
Bakhait invites us to a nourishing breakfast.
Breakfast for the Camels
Unaccustomed to sitting on the floor with my legs crossed for any length of time, my legs soon began to stiffen, requiring me to move around to prevent muscle cramps. It’s a little embarrassing when, during a meal, I suddenly turn sideways and straighten out my legs.
So, soon after our breakfast, I stood and walked to the open end of the portable. The view was wide open desert and seemed to go on forever. As I gazed into the distance, I was surprised to see Bakhait’s camel herd approaching at a steady trot. Apparently, they knew it was time for a breakfast of barley to supplement their natural grazing.
The view out the portable - open for ventilation.
The herd approaches in time for breakfast.
I exited the portable to see what was going on. Muteb had driven his pickup a short distance away and was in the process of dragging a few steel feed troughs out of the truck bed. He filled the troughs with barley, and the camels gathered around, vying for position. Bakhait stood near me and observed. He mentioned that they were the Al Rakba breed.  “Al Rakba,” I repeated.
Bakhait affectionately called out to the camels, “Doh! O! O!” Then he stood very still and watched with delight as his healthy, growing herd enjoyed their daily ritual.
Bakhait motions to me that the camels would soon be eating.
Muteb puts down the troughs and barley.
Bakhait is captivated by his herd having their breakfast.
The herd began to disperse in the westward direction to spend the day grazing. The young female, gentle Shahin, stayed back to see the boy, Abdul Aziz. Abdul Aziz borrowed a red and white checkered ghutra and carefully tied it around her long neck. She seemed to enjoy the attention.
Abdul Aziz was soon distracted and ran off to play with Baina. The decorated Shahin remained, Bakhait dutifully removed the ghutra and, at Bakhait’s urging, she wandered off to join the herd.
Shahin pauses to visit with Abdul Aziz.
Bakhait is left to tidy up for Abdul Aziz.
Now was a good time to offer the modest gifts I brought from the USA for Bakhait and his family. It would soon be winter, and I gave Bakhait’s sons light, quilted vests for warmth. For Bakhait I brought a Leatherman multi-tool that he immediately gave to Abdullah, the technician and chief mechanic of the family. The vest I brought for Abdullah was too small for him but fit Bakhait perfectly. For others, I brought several pairs of sleek sunglasses to combat the desert glare.
Finally, a small, framed portrait of the family patriarch, Bathan Al Marri, was unwrapped by Baina and Bakhait. Baina didn’t want to let go of it, but eventually handed it to Abu Mohammed who read aloud the Arabic translation of my inscription. I wrote: “Bathan Mohammed Al Ulayyan Al Marri. Dear Bakhait, Muteb, Abdullah and Bathan, thank you for sharing your father’s story! Very truly yours, Mark Lowey (Abu Jack) October 2021”
Baina helps her grandfather unwrap the gift.
Abu Mohammed translates my inscription to Arabic.
Bakhait and Baina with the portrait of Bathan taken in 1979.
Abu Mohammed inspects new sunglasses while Bakhait and Muteb don their new vests.
Bakhait’s brother-in-law likes his new shades.
Abdul Aziz commandeers his grandfather’s vest.
Bathan’s Old Rifle
Bakhait asked Abdullah to fetch the old rifle that his father, Bathan, had carried everywhere. He then handed it to me and said it was mine to keep. Quite honored, I thanked him profusely and told him I could not carry such an item on the flight or in my checked baggage. He insisted I should take it but then agreed that the family would keep it for me until I had the opportunity to bring it home to America.
Baina guards the photograph of her great grandfather while the others discuss gifting the rifle to Abu Jack.
I am privileged to receive the cherished rifle of Bathan Al Marri.
Eida the Camel
Then Bakhait gave me the biggest surprise of all, a camel of my very own. Eida, a pregnant young female would give birth in a month or two, and it was explained to me that she, and her future offspring, would be mine.  Again, I was profoundly touched. I smiled and joked, “I don’t think I can keep a camel in my community in California.” Abu Mohammed supported my argument, and it was agreed that Eida would remain with the herd and Bakhait would take care of her for me.
I have a theory that the generous gifts of the rifle and the camel could be part of a strategy to guarantee my return someday. After all, I would need to check in on my growing camel herd, wouldn’t I?
Bakhait presents Eida to Abu jack.
Abu Jack and Eida get acquainted.
Baina and Abdul Aziz have no shortage of diversions and things to do around the encampment. In addition to playing with the camels, one of their favorite games is holding on to the back of a moving vehicle and either running or sliding behind it. The adults must be accustomed to this because they drive very slowly when being held on to.
Abdul Aziz plays tag with Eida.
Baina runs behind a departing Landcruiser.
Abdul Aziz slides on a piece of cardboard while being towed by a moving pickup.
Ready To Go
It was mid-morning, and Abu Mohammed and I had a long return journey before us. Abdullah filled up the Landcruiser by siphoning petrol from the large blue barrels. Last minute discussions were brought to a close and we were off.
“Shukran Bakhait, Muteb, Abdullah, Baina and Abdul Aziz! Ma’ Salama!” What an amazing experience this had been.
Fill ’er up!
Ma’ Salama to Muteb.
The encampment receded from view as we departed.
Abdullah had errands to run back in town, so he was kind enough to accompany us to the beginning of the paved road south of Haradh. We retraced our route along the “Marker Road,” a thirty-kilometer stretch of gravel and sand that was made in the 1950’s by Aramco Exploration. Every kilometer or so, a tall steel marker was installed to indicate the route. Aramco was mapping the subsurface layers and geological structures of the Arabian Peninsula to better predict where to drill for oil.
In 1950, Aramco drilled the Rayda water well located 70 kilometers due west from Bakhait’s position. Rayda is still in use today and quite popular. Every few days, Bakhait and his sons visit the well after sunset, and return home around midnight, because it is very busy all day long with tanker trucks filling up.
We continued to the now-familiar Umm Al Abel water well and stopped to drink. I poured the sweet water over my head and felt refreshed. From there we took a shortcut through soft dunes towards the Haradh road.
Marker Road, we stop at one of the 20-feet-tall markers.
Poetry in Motion
On our drive northward, Abdullah and Abu Mohammed maintained a continuous conversation on the radio. Abdullah would point out landmarks and vegetation and the bleached white bones of a camel, long ago perished. Bedouins are born storytellers and Abdullah is something of a poet. Over the radio, he would recite rhythmic verses from memory.
Abdullah leads us through the desert.
A camel skeleton in the sand.
Andab and Algha
We stopped for coffee in an area relatively lush with two remarkable shrubs. The andab is a soft-leafed plant with large, succulent roots that retain moisture. A thirsty man can survive if he finds andab and sucks on its roots.
Andab is often found at the base of dunes.
The algha is more widespread and is the favorite food of the houbara (bustard), coveted by falconers. In October and November, houbara come from the mountains and visit the Saudi desert to find algha. Falconers know that if they find algha, houbara will not be far away. Abu Mohammed also explained that both plants are good grazing for camels.
Abdullah serves coffee and tea.
It was now 2:30 p.m. and our guide for the past six hours, Abdullah, needed to get a tire repaired and purchase some provisions. He planned to return to the encampment late that night. Abdullah is a dignified, talented, and kind person and a valued friend. We said our heartfelt farewells and went our separate ways.
Abdullah Al Marri.
Soon, Abu Mohammed and I were speeding along the paved road towards his farm in Junayah. We fell silent, and I thought about all that had taken place in the past twenty-four hours. The road signs and desert landscape flew by, and the sun sank low behind us. At nightfall, Abu Mohammed stopped for Isa prayer near Shedgum.
The paved road begins.
Isa prayer on the home stretch.
At last, around 7 p.m., we arrived at the farm. Abu Mohammed had called ahead to his wife and a small platter of baby camel Khabsa was waiting for us. Our journey completed, we ate heartily and talked about future adventures to come.
- - - - - -
 Camel Urine
Mandaville, James P. Bedouin Ethnobotany: Plant Concepts and Uses in a Desert Pastoral World. The University of Arizona Press. (2011) ISBN-13: 978-0-8165-2900-1.
Camel urine (that from females is always preferred) may be caught in bowls and used as a hair wash said to make the hair shiny and rid the scalp of vermin. I once saw a friend run up behind one of his female camels and catch a double handful of fresh urine, which he used as an immediate mouthwash, saying it was good “to make the mouth clean.” Camel urine was also used to bathe newborn infants.
 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.
 Eida and Her Baby
Eida gave birth in January 2022.
Eida, left, and her female baby (one month old and yet unnamed) in February 2022.
The 700 km route from the Abu Mohammed’s farm in Junayah to Bakhait’s encampment. Also shown is Rayda Water Well and the Marker Road.