© Mark Lowey 2022. All rights reserved.
(Photos by Mark Lowey, ©1978 and ©1979)
In this series, Mark Lowey, known as “Abu Jack” (Father of Jack) to his Saudi friends, tells the story of Bdah Al Hajri, whom he first encountered in the desert as a baby in 1979. Reunited in 2013, Abu Jack and Bdah have become close friends.
The story of the Bdah’s life unfolds through candid conversations with Bdah and his mother, Masturah.
Part 1 describes Bdah’s early years and his ancestral lineage.
In late 1978, Bdah Al Hajri was born in a Bedouin tent at the northern extremity of the Eastern Province oil fields, near the remote Aramco construction site at Fazran.
Faleh’s encampment and Bdah’s birthplace at Fazran, December 1978.
In 1978-79 I was posted at the Fazran jobsite, and I became acquainted with Bdah’s father, Faleh, who was temporarily encamped adjacent to Fazran for a few months that winter. Faleh was attracted to the location by the permanent water supply and camel trough provided by Aramco. By February 1979, Faleh had moved his household and herds of camels and goats farther north where the grazing was better. It was there that I first met Bdah and his older sisters at a Friday midday feast that I and a couple of expat friends attended at Faleh’s invitation. I wrote about that day in an article published in this publication in August 2020.
I described the impromptu photo session that day in 1979: “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.”
Faleh holds baby Bdah. Elder sisters Moodi and Muniyah and a neighbor girl join the group.
A proud Faleh holds Bdah.
Paternal Grandparents: Bdah Mutlaq and Souda
Bdah’s paternal grandparents were Bdah bin Mutlaq Al Hamra and Souda Al Qahtani. Around 1880, Bdah Mutlaq was born into a long line of nomadic camel herders near Fazran. His tribe, the Al Hamra, and the Al Marri tribe have traditionally raised their herds along this north-south swath of desert between Haradh and Naeriyah, and into the Empty Quarter, moving with the seasons. This region is known as Al Habl. During the hot summer months, Bdah Mutlaq and the herds would linger in the area near Ain Dar village.
Also, around 1880, Souda Al Qahtani was born in the village of Al Jelh, west of Riyadh. At an early age, Souda, her brother, and uncle moved to the Al Habl area east of Fazran. They raised camels and goats, and she and her brothers regularly visited the markets of Al Hasa.
A shepherd and his goats near Fazran.
Betrothed at The Camel Market
In those days, a Bedouin family’s wealth was measured by their livestock – camels and goats. The markets in Al Hasa were the focal point of commerce for trading livestock and for procuring supplies and staples required during long months spent in the remote desert.
In addition to business, Al Hasa’s markets provided opportunities for socializing and information gathering. Bedouin families who had perhaps not seen each other for years, would meet and catch up. Matchmaking, marriage arrangements, and family agreements regularly took place.
Abu Jack visits the Al Hasa camel market in 1978.
One day, in 1919, at the Al Hasa camel market, Bdah Mutlaq noticed Souda. Both were unmarried, 39 years old and from different tribes. Accompanied by her brother, she admired the several camels that Bdah had brought to market. He owned a herd of 100 Jihama – black camels famous for their delicious milk.  He was considered a wealthy man.
Bdah Mutlaq addressed Souda’s older brother, Mohammed. “Is she single?” he asked. Souda, standing a respectable distance behind her brother, listened carefully. “I will offer two camels bride-price to your father,” announced Bdah Mutlaq. After the necessary discussions, Bdah’s offer was accepted, the two were engaged, and a new family alliance was formed.
Bdah then returned to Old Ain Dar, killed two sheep, and hosted a feast for the villagers and nearby Bedouins in celebration of his engagement to Souda. A few months later, in 1920, they were married in the village. Souda joined Bdah Mutlaq’s family, and they resumed their nomadic lifestyle, eventually raising a family of four children, Muneer, Abdullah, Faleh, who was born in 1931, and Ratha’a, their only daughter.
From an ID card – the only known photo of Bdah bin Mutlaq, circa 1960.
(Photo courtesy of the Al Hajri family)
Souda, Aging Matriarch
I was fortunate to meet Souda at Faleh’s tent on that day in February 1979. She was invited to eat the Friday meal with us. She came with Faleh. Though her face was covered, she appeared very old.
In an earlier article I described that midday meal in detail: “The mother of Faleh, Souda, age 99, was helped to her seat at the communal food 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.”
Bdah and Masturah told me, “Even late in life, every day Souda would walk five or six kilometers. She would fast two times per week, Monday and Thursday. When she ate, we would say, ‘Jida, today is not Monday.’ She would say, ‘OK, I know.’ She knew. She had a good memory.”
According to family lore, Souda was 120 years old when she passed away. She lived 22 years beyond the passing of her husband, Bdah Mutlaq. In her final two decades, she split her time between Faleh’s tent and the Ain Dar home of her second son, Abdullah. Word has it that she preferred the desert life.
In the photograph, below, from around 1985, Souda, in black, and her eldest son, Muneer, right, host a foreign visitor in their tent. Souda is age 105 and Muneer is age 60. American Jerry Robinson, center, was a classmate of Muneer’s son Faleh Muneer who attended university in Portland, Oregon.
Interestingly, young Bdah’s cousin and first wife, Amal bint Muneer (daughter of Muneer) is one of the girls in the left foreground. Bdah and Amal were married in 1999.
A rare Al Hajri family photo from the mid-1980s.
(Photo courtesy of the Muneer bin Abdullah Al Hajri)
Maternal Grandparents: Muneer Mutlaq and Moodi
Less is known about Bdah’s maternal grandparents and how their marriage might have been arranged. Muneer bin Mutlaq was the younger brother of Bdah Mutlaq by some 25 years. Like her sister-in-law, Souda, Moodi was an Al Qahtani, the massive parent tribe of the Al Hajri and Al Hamra sub-tribes.
Moodi was the second wife of Muneer, and they were married in the desert in 1941. With his first wife, Muneer had two children, Mohammed and Jamla. With Moodi he had two daughters, Masturah and Najla.
Bdah’s Father, Faleh Al Hajri
Young Faleh lived a typical Bedouin life taking care of the herds from an early age. He loved camels and developed remarkable skills.
Bdah told me about his father. “I was discussing this today with my mother,” he said. “My father, Faleh, he was born in the middle of the desert, not around here, but in the Najd area, west of Riyadh. He grew up in the Al Habl, the area from Haradh to Naeriyah. He was passionate about the environment and an expert with camels.”
“He grew up with his brother and uncle and with the camels. When he was 10-15 years old, his father and uncle began to depend on him to look after the camels. They knew Faleh was smart and loved the camels. He decided to stay with the camels his whole life. ‘I don’t want to go to the city, I don’t want to live in even a small village like Ain Dar,’ he said. In those years Aramco started recruiting people to work in the oil and gas plants. Unlike his brothers, Muneer and Abdullah, who joined the Aramco Drilling company, Faleh refused, saying adamantly, ‘No, I will stay with the camels.’”
“This illustrated his love for the camels and that was his life. When Muneer and Abdullah started to build their houses in Old Ain Dar, my father said he will not build a house. He did not want to stay in a house in a village in a modern way. He had his tent and he wanted to be portable. Every month or two he changed his location. Where is the rain? Where is the grass? He would go there. Muneer and Abdullah would find him and visit.”
“The eldest brother, Muneer, encouraged Faleh and supported him with money and vehicles. He gave my father a good number of vehicles. I remember a 1970 Ford, I remember a Toyota Hilux in 1981, and I remember the water tanker in 1988. Muneer wanted to help him and encouraged him to continue. If not for Faleh, the family wouldn’t have been able to keep the camels. Other families that moved to the villages and cities sold all their camels, and that was the end of their family story, their age-old desert culture. They became city people.” Muneer understood and appreciated his family’s deep connection with the desert. He did not want to lose it. He understood that the key to continuing this tradition was to encourage and support his brother, Faleh, who felt drawn to this arduous life.
Faleh, in 1978, and his desert encampment. 
Faleh prepares coffee for his guests in front of his tent.
The rear of the tent.
Bdah’s Mother, Masturah Al Hamra
Masturah was born in the desert near Naeriyah. She knew her cousin, Faleh, and his family. They met often in Ain Dar village and sometimes encamped in the same desert areas with their herds.
A conversation between Masturah and Abu Jack, translated by Bdah, March 2019:
Masturah: “I still remember when I was a small girl. But I cannot remember my mother, Moodi. I cannot remember her face because she passed away when I was small.”
Abu Jack: “Where did you live when you were a little girl?”
Masturah: “First, I was in the Al Habl desert and then some of the time in Ain Dar village with my uncle.”
Masturah lived in the desert until she was age 20 and then moved to her brother’s house in Old Ain Dar after her father passed away.
How Faleh Met Masturah
Bdah explained: “They are cousins. My grandfather was Bdah bin Mutlaq Al Hamra. My other grandfather was Muneer bin Mutlaq Al Hamra. They were brothers. So, my father and mother were cousins, they are one family. She is the Bint ‘Am (daughter of father’s brother). They decided to have the marriage. Nothing special about the union, except my mother was thinking, ‘It will be difficult to go back to the desert. I know my cousin Faleh, he is a Bedouin guy, and I was thinking of marrying someone from the city or in the village. I am accustomed to living in the village now.’”
“The family said, ‘No, you must accept. This is Faleh, he is a good guy. Yes, he is living in the desert, but he will keep you couple of years in the village.’ So, she lived in the house of her brother Mohammed, where she would see Faleh. He would visit, and she would go to the desert to visit.”
“So, this was a good technique by my father. He wanted her to accept him step by step. He did not want to shock her. She had been in Ain Dar for a couple of years, and she was happy with the new lifestyle of the old Ain Dar City. You know, there is a mosque, there is shopping, supermarket, a small dispensary, water, hot water. Something new for her. There is not so much hard work like in the desert, like feeding the camels and working day and night.”
“Masturah was around 19 or 20 when she moved from the desert to Ain Dar. She married at age 26. She did not want to go back to the desert. Her dream was to continue living in Ain Dar or around Ain Dar. But her dream stopped with marriage,” Bdah chuckles good-naturedly at this detour in Masturah’s plan. “But she was also happy with Faleh, as well. ‘You can stay in Ain Dar, and I will visit you,’ he told her.” Faleh was a kind and patient husband, and he, too, had a plan to make their marriage work.
The Wedding of Faleh and Masturah
I asked Bdah and his mother about her wedding. “Was there a party or ceremony? How many people?”
Masturah exclaimed, “Masha Allah!” Bdah continued, “You know, my mother she says, yes, there was a big party that night in 1973. My father hired the Dossary Company, from Al Hasa – a big party organizer. Dossary is still in business today, doing weddings.”
“Dossary could provide many Chevrolet 4x4s and make the wedding even in the middle of the desert. He brings all the equipment, very big tents, portable generators for strings of lights. This same Dossary company organized my first wedding with Amal in 1999.”
“Dossary was the one in the region who knew all the Bedouin traditions. He brought a good number of cooks, Bengali and Indian cooks, who know how to cook the baby camel and a good number of sheep at the same time. Maybe 20 or 30 sheep. They made a big temporary, open kitchen.”
“My mother, she said a lot of people attended. People came from everywhere. Because the wedding was not in the desert, it was in the Old Ain Dar.”
Masturah was age 26 and Faleh was 42 on their wedding day.
“My mother said, at the time she became afraid. She was thinking to escape.”
“Before the wedding?” I asked.
“Yes, the night of the wedding. Ha ha. She was thinking to escape just one night. Even though he was ready, and so many people were coming. It was difficult to prepare and get advice about being married. Faleh was a famous guy, a strong guy, he was from the desert. There was a lot of pressure. She was worried.”
“The wedding party was a success. There were plenty of people, plenty of sheep. Separate parties for the men and the women. And the people around Ain Dar, the Hajri tribe, the A Marri tribe, they all came to Faleh’s wedding. There was no music from outside. But the men divided into rows for singing and traditional folk dancing called fraincy.  This dance is special only in the Eastern Province for Hajri and Marri people.”
Typical of many brides, Masturah’s wedding day jitters were soon quelled, and she entered the marriage ready for her new life with Faleh.
- - -
To be continued in Part 2:
- Faleh and Masturah raise a family.
- Bdah’s childhood.
- Salasil elementary school.
 Type of camels owned by Bdah/Faleh: Jihama.
Majaheem (also named Malah) is a characteristically black-coated camel originating from the north-east part of the country. A pointed hump, placed in the middle of the back, long hair covering all the body, long legs, wide feet, and well-developed udder are its main characteristics. It is one of the best dairy producers of the Kingdom.
 Bedouin Traditional Folkloric Dancing, Fraincy
Excerpt from a previous article by Mark Lowey: “… he arranged two rows of six men each facing each other. Arms linked and moving rhythmically in step, he led his row as they sang the first verse, and the opposite group would then repeat it. I could make out the words “Marhaba, Mark” (Hello, Mark) and not much else, but I sensed the power of the words and felt great honor. Then the real folkloric dancing ensued, led by the two pre-adolescent sons of Saleh who swayed back and forth, each with one hand held high and the other placed behind his back. One by one, we took turns dancing this way between the two rows.”
 A typical Bedouin encampment:
Aerial photo taken near the Fazran jobsite in July 1979.
Identity of residents unknown.