© Mark Lowey 2022. All rights reserved.

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 continues through candid conversations with Bdah and his mother, Masturah.

In Part 1 we learned about Bdah’s grandparents and the family history leading up to the 1973 wedding of Bdah’s parents, Faleh and Masturah. Part 2 begins with the early years of their marriage, and describes their growing family, and Bdah’s childhood years.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXI: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 1

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
Bdah and his mother discuss their family’s history in 2021.

Married Life

Bdah’s mother, Masturah, reflected on her life as a newlywed. “As a young girl,” recalled Masturah, “I lived in the desert and then, some of the time, in Ain Dar village with my uncle (mother’s brother). When I married Faleh I happily went back the desert. Most of the time I was with Faleh’s mother, Souda.”

“It was hard work taking care of the tents and the animals. I made the tent material and erected and took down the tent by myself. We mainly ate dates and laban camel milk. If we had no other food, Faleh never asked for it, he would just eat dates and laban. If Faleh found something, fine. If not found, he would not ask me to cook anything.”

“Faleh was unselfish and very giving. We had around 150 sheep, so we never starved. We could always kill one. Also, we had 150 camels. We always had meat and milk. We were never hungry. But no snacks, no luxuries. And always dates. Even year-old dates were never thrown out – always eaten. They don’t spoil.”

The Six Children of Faleh and Masturah

One year after their wedding, Faleh and Masturah were blessed with their first child, daughter Moniyah, born in 1974. Her birth took place under a tree beside the house of Faleh’s brother Abdullah in Old Ain Dar village.

While Faleh remained in the desert with the herds, Masturah resided, parttime, in the small house in Ain Dar or in the tiny settlement near the Ain Dar GOSP-2. This assortment of simple dwellings consisted of a few wooden cabins with sheet metal roofs surrounded by fenced-in pens for goats and camels. There were also several other temporarily encamped Bedouin families here, their tents nestled amongst the trees. Faleh’s tent was here when their second child, daughter Moodi, was born in in 1975.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
The settlement near Ain Dar GOSP-2 in 1978.

In subsequent years, the family moved around with the herds, and Bdah, their third child and first son, was born in the family tent at Fazran in 1978. Then, in 1981, Noura was born in the kitchen at the house of Faleh’s brother Abdullah. Their last two children, Mohammed and Nouf, were born in 1983 and 1985, respectively, in desert encampments a few kilometers east of Fazran.

In those days, it was commonplace for an expecting mother to give birth wherever she happened to be living at the time. Female family members, and sometimes neighbors, assisted during the labor and childbirth. Masturah recounted that no medical assistance or midwives were involved in her six childbirths.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
The family tree including the six children of Faleh and Masturah.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
Birthplaces of the six children.

Faleh’s Tent at Fazran

In 1978 and 1979, when I was working at the remote Fazran Gas-Oil Separation Plant (GOSP) on the northern edge of the Saudi Arabian oil fields, each morning before 6 a.m. we would pass the nearby Bedouin encampments. Their occupants already engaged in the day’s activities, sometimes I would catch a whiff of the fragrant smoke from their cooking fires.

The encampment closest to our site offices was the residence of Faleh Al Hajri and his family. One chilly December morning I snapped a photo of Faleh’s tent, a place I had visited several times at his invitation. Decades later, when shown this photo, Bdah’s mother, Masturah, confirmed that this was the birthplace of Bdah.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
Faleh’s encampment and Bdah’s birthplace at Fazran, December 1978.

Pregnant with Bdah

When asked, Masturah spoke about her pregnancy and the birth of her first son. “When I was pregnant with Bdah I had already had two children, so I was big,” she said. “I put an extra cloth, a strap, below my belly, like this, to support it because I was so big with Bdah.”

“And I was still working right up to the end,” she continued. “Faleh’s friends would come to the house and ask, ‘Masturah, why are you still working? Take care of yourself! Masturah, don’t do this – don’t feed the animals.’”

Bdah interjected, “My father would tell them, ‘She can do what she wants to do.’”

Masturah continued, “I went out in the morning to collect firewood. I put the wood on my head with one rope. I would kill a sheep and prepare everything with boiling water. And cook the dinner in a big pot.”

“Like you did when I visited in 1979?” I asked. “Yes,” answered Bdah. “There was no house maid, no one helped her. She was very strong.”

“Usually, there was no one to help me,” continued Masturah. “But sometimes, Moniyah Alsy’ari (a close friend from the Al Marri tribe) would come to our tent to help. She was the wife of Abdulhadi and mother of Mabkhout, Suhaim and Saleh. Moniyah was a lovely woman, and we were good friends. We supported each other as much as we could.”

“They were good friends and my father respected her a lot,” explained Bdah. “My parents named their first-born Moniyah in her honor, as a sign of respect and gratitude.”

“When I delivered Bdah, I was alone,” Masturah recalled. “My mother-in-law, Souda, was a little old by then and gave me some support. After Bdah was born, I was overjoyed. I told Faleh, Faleh’s father, everyone: ‘Mabrouk, there is a son!’ Everybody was happy.”

Bedouin Baby Bdah

The conversation continued. “So, please tell me, was Bdah a good boy? A good baby? Didn’t cry too much?” I asked.

“Oh, I was very happy, because we had a son,” exclaimed Masturah. “I was very proud and looking forward to our future. We already had two daughters, Moniyah and Moodi. Our family was growing. Masha ‘Allah, we were blessed. And, yes, he was a good baby.”

Bdah added, “When anyone came to visit, my mother would protect me. She made sure nobody could see me. She was afraid. She covered me. From the eyes, maybe someone has ‘hot eyes.’ Or Evil Eye. I might get sick.”

Masha ‘Allah, he survived,” said Masturah. “There was no medicine, no dispensary. I made him food and anything he might need.”

“Almost every day I had to fight with a snake or a scorpion to protect him and the rest of the family. I used a bamboo camel stick.”

Bdah said, “And we had a dog, Nebhan, in our tent to help. He was not a saluki, just a regular dog. My father first found Nebhan on the road, very sick. He gave him meat and milk to help him recover. He became very loyal and protective of our family.”

“Nebhan supported my mother. He would follow us everywhere. 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 never left us until he passed away.”

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
1979. Abu Jack looks on as Nebhan the dog sits between Dan Reardon and Mabkhout Alsy’ari.

“He came with us that year, in 1992, when we transferred from the desert to the house in Fardaniyah village,” said Bdah. As dogs were not considered suitable indoor pets in those days, people would say, “Why do you have a dog here in the house? He should go back to the camels. My father would bring him to the desert, but Nebhan would always return to our house, to my mother, the following day.”

The Day I Met Bdah and His Family

Excerpt from Tales of the Bedouin – Part VIII: Travels with Stephen Part 1

Friday, February 9, 1979.

In front of his tent Faleh welcomed us with, “Salaam Aleikum” (peace be upon you) and a vice-grip handshake. We responded, “Aleikum As Salaam” (and upon you, peace.) As the children and cousins crowded around us, we asked each their names, “Aish asmuk?” “Moniyah, Moodi!” We responded, “Aismi Mark, Danny, Steve.” As the introductions unfolded, we noticed the women in the next section of the tent peeking inquisitively over the ru’ag (divider panel between the men’s and family sections) to see these strange visitors. As was customary, 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.”

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
Abu Jack with Faleh and his two daughters, Moniyah and Moodi, in February 1979.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
Faleh dons a formal bisht (robe) and holds baby Bdah.

Home Turf in the 1980s

Bdah told me about his early days. “We lived in the desert in the area north of Fardaniyah village, east of Fazran. We changed the location of the tent every year, according to my father's decision. He took into account the easiest way to fill the water tanker, as well as the presence of trees and grass.”

“My father prioritized access to a water source and the ease of transporting it by water tanker. This area was close to the villages but still in the open desert for the herds. Faleh took care of his own camels and cared for lost camels that might have strayed from their herd. Faleh provided them with water and food until the arrival of their owners which sometimes took months or even years.”

Life of a Bedouin Boy

Bdah told me about his childhood. “Up until I started attending school, at age 7, I used to help my father take care of the camels. He entrusted me with small tasks that were within my ability. I often went with him to visit his friends. I got to know them and listened to their stories about the challenges they faced in the desert. And I helped my father prepare for guests when they came to us.”

“I was allowed to be present with the adult men. As the youngest male in the group, my duty was to serve coffee and tea for the guests and welcome them to our tent. If my father was absent, I helped my mother provide breakfast or lunch for our guests.”

Chores

“One of my domestic duties was to fill the basin, a low, steel tub, with water and to make sure that it never dried out. This water was for animals to drink, and the family used it to wash clothes and for general cleaning. I remember that we liked to sit near the basin because it was a little cooler there. I suppose this was due to evaporation.”

“When the tent needed adjustments, my sisters and I would help my mother as much as we could. Sometimes she would urgently call us to assist.”

“My mother could predict the arrival of sandstorms or rain often minutes before they occurred. She sensed this through her insightful vision of the weather. She would suddenly call us and urge us to help fix the tent. We tightened the ropes to make sure that it would not relax. We secured side panels, closed the tent from all sides, and placed sandbags around it. The wooden support poles needed to be in place and well fixed.”

“In some cases, when the weather was completely clear, my mother could see something from afar that we could not see. She would shout a warning of the coming of a strong storm, and it was true. After a few minutes strong winds would blow. Without her warning us and making the necessary preparations in time, it could have been a disaster. High winds can easily lift a tent from its place if it is not well supported.”

Al-Saglah

“For fun, we played a game similar to ‘jacks’ called Al-Saglah. We collected small clean pebbles and played it in a special way.” In Al Saglah, pebbles are tossed onto a carpet or a flat area of sand like dice. A few pebbles come to rest on the back of the player’s hand. Then, in a skillful maneuver, the player tosses one pebble up and quickly snatches another off the board, before catching the thrown pebble out of the air – all with one hand.

“I think this game has now disappeared,” said Bdah. [1]

The Young Family Celebrates Eid

Masturah added, “When the children were young, during Eid celebration, I gathered all the camels and tethered them so they would not stray. Then Faleh and the children and I went to Ain Dar to celebrate the end of Ramadan – Eid Mubarak! (Happy Eid!) Only for one day. Next day we returned to the tent. I wore new clothes and gold jewelry. Then, after a couple of days, the Ain Dar family came out to the tent, and I prepared a feast for them, and we all celebrated together.

Money for Faleh

Bdah told me about the special relationship between his grandmother, Souda, and his father, Faleh. “During that time, Souda would split her time between living with us at Fazran and at Uncle Abdullah’s in Old Ain Dar. Whenever she found or collected some money, she would save it for Faleh. Faleh took good care of her.”

“Faleh had no income – only looking after our camels. He had no job or salary, so this was the only money he had. She would say, ‘Here, Faleh, take this money. Don’t tell anybody, take it.’”

“The brothers, Munir and Abdullah would give her money sometimes. They had salaries, working at Aramco. They lived in Old Ain Dar in little houses with electricity. Faleh would not live there during that time. He would only look after the camels. Both brothers were proud and appreciative of Faleh. He kept the reputation of the Al Hamra-Al Hajri name in the traditional ways.”

Faleh the Camel Whisperer

Bdah described some of his father’s unique skills and deep knowledge of camels. “He helped them when they were sick or injured or if they had trouble giving birth. Neighbors from all around came to Faleh and seek his advice.”  

When it was time for branding, to apply the unique tribal wasm symbol onto the neck of a camel, the animal had to be laying down. I asked, “Can the camel injure itself when being forced to go down?”

Bdah answered, “No, for sure. Camels are almost designed for it. It’s natural. My father would squeeze the tail, or pull the tail at a special angle, and the camel would come down. The correct angle. It’s a technique rather than power. But you also need power to help you sometimes.’

I guessed, “The camel might think, ‘Oh, that’s going to hurt when he pulls my tail. I am going to do whatever Faleh says. I will obey him.’”

“Yes, they trusted him,” Bdah said.

“Al Hajri and Al Hamra people and Bedouins from different tribes came to my father to seek help and advice in finding their lost camels or to ask for help in solving medical problems of camels. Such consultations often occurred in the wintertime during the season of camel births.”

“My father was known for his extensive experience and insight into recognizing the problems of camels and resolving them effectively. Most of the time his remedies and treatments were successful.”

“One of the reasons for my father’s popularity, and people’s love for him, was that he understood and was kind to animals. He did what he could without any financial compensation from those seeking his advice.”

“Are there camel experts around nowadays?” I asked.

“Yes, there are a few. In my family, we have my uncle, Fohaid. He’s the youngest brother of Faleh, and the father of Khalid who came this morning and made us coffee. Fohaid retired from Aramco a couple of years ago, and he now always sits with the camels. He is knowledgeable like my father, powerful, too. He is a tall guy. He knows the ways of camels like my father did. It was passed on to him. Also, he is a good friend of the Alsy’ari tribe. If you ask an Alsy’ari about Fohaid, they will know him.”

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
Abu Jack meets Fohaid Al Hajri, right, in 2021. Also pictured is Abdul Rahman, son of Bdah.

Faleh’s Role

Camel knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, and Faleh played an important role in maintaining the family’s wealth of knowledge about traditional desert life and nomadic customs.

- - -

To be continued in Part 3: Bdah goes to school.

References

[1] Al-Saglah. A traditional game in the Arab culture played with small pebbles, similar to “jacks.”
https://youtube.com/shorts/rOUPY_ZZR5k
https://youtu.be/apL5qGaBkpI

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXII: The Remarkable Life of Bdah Al Hajri – Part 2
Pebbles are tossed and caught on the back of the player’s hand in Al Saglah.
Mark Lowey
Abu Jack and Bdah outside his weekend tent in 2015.

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 21