Breaking Bread With The Bedouins

The sun was sinking fast, but we knew we were close to the well at Al-Abr. The lone mountain of volcanic rock rising from the sands is a well-known landmark for the bedouins. But the three guides riding with me in a Toyota Land Cruiser hadn't been here in 10 years, and they debated whether Al-Abr was east or west of the mountain.

Al-Abr is Yemen's last watering place before entering Arabia's Empty Quarter. The next well is 450 miles away, in central Saudi Arabia. English explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed this "desert within a desert" in 1949, used Al-Abr as a base camp, where he filled his goatskins with water and bought dates and flour for the month-long journey into "the Sands," as the desert is referred to by the bedouins. Having come to Sana'a, Yemen's capital, to visit the family of my Yemeni wife, I was determined to visit this area, despite its being off-limits to tourists because of what the government calls "perpetual insecurity" among the bedouin tribes. So I went.

Soon, a group of six white tents appeared on the horizon, and we headed for them to ask directions. As we approached, I could see a dozen women cooking around a fire. Suddenly, a handful of men emerged from a tent, brandishing automatic rifles and staring at our truck. They looked serious, and our driver, Abdullah, slowed down.

The men eased up when they saw me, a foreigner. We shook hands with each of them, making the customary kissing noise as we did so. They invited us into the tent, and we learned they were from the Karab tribe, about whom Thesiger had written in Arabian Sands.

VANISHED BORDER. I tried to hold my questions until the bedu knew me better, but I couldn't. That I had even heard of the Karab aroused their suspicions. When I explained that I had read a book by an Englishman who traveled here decades ago, they relaxed.

I asked the apparent head of the camp, Kuhaylan, why they had been so nervous. "We thought you might have been from the Jidan," he answered. The Jidan live 200 miles west. Kuhaylan explained that some 40 years ago, a group of 26 Jidan tribesmen raided Karab lands, taking a large number of camels. The Karab quickly assembled a large group of men--including young Kuhaylan--to chase them. They fell upon them at a well west of Al-Abr, and all but one of the Jidan were killed.

Shortly after that, the government in North Yemen restricted the movement of the Jidan, and in 1969 the socialist government in South Yemen sealed the border. Since unification of north and south in 1990, the Karab worry that the Jidan may dash across the borderless desert in their pickups, kill a few of them, and race quickly back.

The Karab know that the Jidan have never forgotten there's a score to be settled. Since well before the advent of Islam 1,200 years ago, revenge has been part of bedu culture. It serves as a deterrent to violence because a man will think twice before killing when he knows that he, his sons, or even a distant cousin may suffer the same fate. The only way to avoid this eye-for-an-eye retaliation is for two tribes to agree on a payment of blood money.

After the sunset prayer, we sat on a large carpet on the sand near the tents. The Karab are constantly on the move, more or less within the traditional confines of their tribal land. They stay in one place for about two months, until whatever grazing there may be is gone, then move on. Kuhaylan said he, his oldest son, and a younger son had just returned in their pickup a few hours earlier from Abu Dhabi. Another son is studying in London. I was a bit disappointed, wanting to feel that I had gone back in time out here in the desert.

However, my disappointment ceased when I showed them photos in Arabian Sands of the bedouins Thesiger had traveled with some 50 years before. As Kuhaylan leafed through, he pointed to the first picture, a young boy on a camel: "He is from the Manahil tribe." I thought he had read the picture caption until I realized he couldn't read. He knew from the face. He continued in the same way with the other photos, correctly listing each subject's tribe.

Finally, he looked at the last photo: two bedouins of the Rashid tribe standing on a rock, rifles slung over shoulders, with piercing eyes and long, curly hair. "I remember when all the bedu wore their hair long like this," he said. "Now they think you're a woman if you do." I told him their names were Bin Kabina and Bin Ghabaisha. "Is that Salim Bin Kabina of the Rashid?" he asked. I nodded, and he continued. "I know him well. In fact, I saw him just two months ago in the Emirates."

I was flabbergasted. Here was someone who actually knew one of the leading figures in Thesiger's book. I didn't even expect him to be alive. I told the bedouin that Bin Kabina didn't even own a shirt 50 years ago and that he guided the Englishman twice in the 1940s. Kuhaylan said Bin Kabina is now close to 70 and keeps an eye on his herd of 20 or so camels from the cab of an expensive pickup truck.

SNAKES AND LOCUSTS. As we talked, two goats were killed and cooked. Camel's milk was brought and passed around. Then the goat meat, on rice, was set in the middle of the carpet. As two boys carrying the large silver tray came closer, one of them said to Abdullah: "What's that moving by your hand?" One of the Karabis brought a flashlight, and we quickly saw that a small horned viper had crawled to within three or four inches of Abdullah's hand as it made its way across the center of the carpet. Ahmad, another of my companions, jumped up, unsheathed his dagger, and cut the snake's head off. "You would have been lucky to have lived an hour if that had bitten you," Kuhaylan remarked.

Nothing else was said, and we began to eat. But I was astounded. I couldn't resist asking about the snakes. "They kill many of us, especially the children," I was told. I asked how many died each year from snakebite. "It all depends on God," came the answer in unison from all, even my three companions, and they changed the subject.

HEARTY APPETITES. After I gulped down the goat's heart--as guests are expected to do--the food was removed and tea served. One diner swatted down a passing locust and took it in his hand. Locusts are swarming all over Yemen this year, eating everything in sight. He came over to me near the light and slowly plucked off first the wings, then the legs, and finally the head of the still-moving insect. Then he peeled away the shell and pulled out the meat, which looked like a large silkworm. I feared he would hand it to me, but he popped it into his own mouth with a wide grin. The others reprimanded him, saying that the government had sprayed chemicals to kill the locusts, and the bugcould be poisoned. "But we are far from the government here," he pointed out.

Are locusts acceptable food according to the Koran, I asked? That sparked a half-hour debate on which desert animals were haram (forbidden) and which halal (permitted). The discussion ranged from gazelles to snakes to lizards to beetles and other insects.

It was getting late, and we were all exhausted. The Karab women put down blankets for us near the tents, but Abdullah refused to sleep outside. Afraid of snakes, he slept in the car. I was afraid, too, but remained outside, where camels came to a nearby trough to drink in the night. I imagined one accidentally stepping on my head, and I slept fitfully.

We left just after dawn, with hardly a word to our hosts. Bedouins rarely say thank-you for anything. They expect hospitality for themselves and offer it generously, unstintingly to others.

As we headed for Sana'a the next week, Ahmad pointed out a fortlike mud house on a hill overlooking the road. "This is the beginning of Jidan territory," Ahmad said. "The tribes in this area are not quick to accept blood money. They usually insist on revenge." He assured me that any Karab found in this area would almost certainly be killed. He may have been exaggerating, but I didn't want to hang around to find out, and we moved quickly on toward the capital.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.