Saturday, May 19, 2007

Visit with a bedouin family

A string of camels appears in the distance of the rocky arid earth. They are headed toward a couple of Bedouin tents that seem the same beige color as the dusty ground.

We set off across the plain. Robert, my guide, approaches a twentysomething man and asks if we may visit the tent, take his photo.

The answer is yes. It almost always is, says Robert; “They are very friendly people.” But it is polite to ask.

We walk on.

An old man invites us to enter. We sit inside on a rug dotted with cushions; the pillows, we soon discover, aren’t for sitting but for leaning one’s elbow as one drinks tea or smokes a cigarette.

One of his nomadic neighbors, a fellow tribesman, is visiting. Out of deference to my status as a foreign woman, his wife joins us. It is the proper thing, we learn later; she sits between us. But when other men arrive, she moves into the women’s quarter.

The tent is made of grain bags and coarse goat hair fabric that allows filtered light – enough to see by but not so much as to blind or burn. There appears to be nothing inside save the fabric exteriors, a few rugs and some rough wooden tent posts; rope is used to keep the ridge line taut. It’s quite large – perhaps 30 feet wide and three times the length, with the women’s quarters separated from the rest of the space by a rug used as a curtain.

But what is here is family, we quickly see, and the incredible hospitality for which the Arabs are famed.

I am invited to the women’s quarters, where the old man’s wife is makes us tea, with help from her daughters and grandchildren. The baby is but 10 days old.

Back in the main living space, Robert and I sit with the men and chat. We are identified by our leader – we are from the country of George Bush, they from the company of King Abdullah. We learn that the Bedouins move locations twice a year in search of better grazing grounds for their many camels, goats and sheep; they have been in this place near the Desert Highway only a week. We discover that before the Gulf War, these nomadic people wandered freely to graze and visit family in Saudi Arabia; now they must have passports and get visas.

They serve tea, answer endless questions with good cheer, allow photographs. They smile and offer us a camel ride.

We rise to leave, and I slip to the back to give the wife a few dinars. A few minutes later, she chases me across the ground with a gift -- a bag of bread made with yoghurt. It is an expensive and dear treat, far more valuable than the few dinars I have given her. I am shamed by her generosity, and delighted.

“Even when they have nothing, these people, they will give you everything,’’ says Robert. “It is the tradition.’’