The Aufis of Wadi Bani Auf

Wadi Bani Auf was quietly flooding. As the 44-degree day dissolved into 34-degree twilight, rain pitter-pattered over unending layers of slate mountains and soggy fortifications. It fell on the three Hatali families digging in the soft earth on their farm at Ruma, on the Aufi grandfathers and grandsons who kept bees in Gafar and the century-old Said Abdullah al Aufi of Farah, who could barely see or hear, but felt the water instead. It turned the air in Bir muggy, so that the circle of elders sitting on the plastic carpet over wadi rock were soaked as they ate melons, while dates dried inside rooms and wasps took shelter.

The Aufis never had it this good. Tracing their lineage back to the holiest of cities, dabbling on the fringes of royalty, settling down in faraway colonies, the history of this tribe is one of migration and success. You will find all of that color between the rock that holds Wadi Bani Auf together, the wadi that was named after the tribe.

Turn your back to the rock and water that are the attractions for most tourists, and explore the wadi floor. It is here that you will find the tribes, the beekeepers and farmers. This is the real story: how the wadi lives now.

Said Khalfan bin Salim al Aufi licks a bit of honey off his dishdasha. Outside, under the sun, between the tons of rock, through the kicked up wadi dust, there is not the wildest hint of anything that will prepare you for the shock of honey in the deepest recesses of an ancient tributary.

The most treasured attraction of Wadi Bani Auf is actually just outside it, when you take the turnoff towards Wadi Sahtan midway that will eventually lead you to Rustaq. Here, three brothers continue an ancient tradition handed down through more generations than you can count. Said, close to 60, started working his bees when he was 13 and now teaches it to his grandsons, the eldest just about a teenager.

Hamed Khalfan Nasser al Aufi, 13, is at it outside, killing a species of bee, more reddish in color, that attacks those that the Aufis nurture for their honey. Hamed is whacking at the reds with a slice of date palm frond, keeping busy during a break from school.

In the old days when only a donkey could get through, they would take the honey to markets in Rustaq and al Awabi and auction it there. Now, buyers hammer their 4WDs through the wadis to them, and a bottle of Vimto filled with honey could cost you up to RO40. Each season might yield 50 bottles.

Outside the bee enclosures, a mostly empty can of tuna is bait for the red bees, and the rocks around are splashed over with glue that traps them. Nearby, a tap drips constantly over a wall now covered with moss, and the bees fly around lazily, quenching their thirst. The housing itself consists of hollow date palm trunks that shelter the bees and their hives. The ends are plugged with a mixture of ash and stone, with a little opening for the bees. The insects are smoked out when the hives are collected for the honey they hold.

There are two seasons for the honey, and the time to harvest the hive is tied to the life cycle of the bee, in turn tied to the flowering of two species of tree, sammar and sidr. So when you ask for honey, you will ask for either asil sidr or asil sammar, but your choice will probably be made for you, for you will get the sammar variety in May and sidr in October. Sidr is considered sweetest, but both usually cost the same, at least from the Aufis.

“When we have a drought and there isn’t any water,” explains Said, “the trees don’t flower. This might make some people feed the bees artificially, but this will never yield the quality of honey that we produce here, naturally.”

Suleiman bin Saif bin Darwish bin Mohammed al Hatali might sound like a paragraph and look like a legend, but he is real. He stands perhaps two meters tall, broad shouldered, barrel chested, shaven headed and bearded, with a knife where a belt buckle could have been. Straight out of the 1,001 Nights, he looks like he could skin a goat or a man with a flick of his dagger. But he lowers it instead, dipping it into the bowl offered to us on the cold concrete floor, plunging it through the thick sweetness of honey and beeswax. Forget jars and spoons. You have to scoop a piece of beehive off the tip of the knife, and squish it in your mouth till you get as much honey and as little wax down your throat as possible. It’s always a bit of a compromise. When Suleiman first offered a piece to me I thought I had to chew it, so I downed everything — honey and wax honeycomb — only to see everyone else spit their pulpy remnants out.

Suleiman is the son of Saif bin Darwish bin Mohammed al Hatali, an old man who lowered himself to the edge of the mat spread out for us in Bir, in a nook of a little tributary wadi that unravels itself between Wadi Bani Auf and Wadi Bani Kharus, far away from the traffic that grinds over their rocky beds. We would eat melons over that carpet, between dates and coffee, surrounded by farms of chili, radish, watermelon, sweet melon and something they called gilgilan. Saif is brother to the sheikh, Said bin Darwish al Hatali, an old man with a grand beard and kind eyes.

Bir was soaked in the kind of humidity that comes when you think it’s about to rain but doesn’t — there’s just that much water in the air. Your glasses go foggy, and everything gets a shade darker. We all sat soaked on the carpet, and Suleiman dangled a bead of perspiration from a large, aquiline nose. Every tree that grew around the 24 houses and government-built well was a sidr, host to the bees that make the best honey. “They should be parched,” Suleiman said, “but they’ve turned green with the rains.” Indeed, Bir was all lush green vegetation and soaked rock under grey skies.

It wasn’t always so serene. All you have to do is look up at the ancient watchtowers, perched high on the cliffs along Wadi Bani Auf. They tell of tribal warfare, little, ever-present feuds rather than epic battles. This was for the sure survival of the tribe, for the little that mattered in the little sliver of flat ground that snakes between canyons: goats, agriculture and water. Such enmity was typically present between the Aufis and the Hatalis, but you wouldn’t guess it if you sat down today over sweet melons.

Far away from the large-scale enterprises and hired labor that characterizes modern agriculture in Oman, three families of Hatalis are busy on their collective farm deep in the wadi, outside Ruma. Stray drops of rain hit the freshly dug soil, and we take cover between a bank of vines and the walls of their well. Just above, as the rock walls begin to climb behind the fields, are the remnants of ancient houses, pointing to the settlement’s history. Plantations are common through the nooks and crannies of Wadi Bani Auf, fed by an extensive falaj network that channels water from the mountains above and wells below. Ages ago, this area is believed to have been home to a lot more water than is now present, so much so that it sported forests — and its residents cultivated grapes, eating the fruit and, some whisper, even fermenting it into wine.

Musabba Said Abdullah al Aufi might look like any other Aufi, clambering down the steps of his house to spread a carpet on the pebbles of the wadi for us. What you would never guess is that he used to jump out of planes a few years ago, a paratrooper for the Omani military.

His taxi that he drives around Rustaq and Awabi, and which isn’t a 4WD, stands parked kilometers away, where the wadi meets the main road.

Barely a few minutes after sitting down under his house, in the deserted curve of the wadi, we are surrounded by his family. There are more children milling around that we can keep track of, and then his allegedly century-old father joins us. He can barely see through his thick glasses, and his hearing isn’t much better, so he sits in silence, half-seeing in the twilight, as the last drops of rain seep through the pebbles and away into the night.

Inheriting the title handed down from generation to generation, Bashir Hamid Salim Muhsin al Aufi, 73, has been sheikh of Wadi Bani Auf since 1968, responsible for all its residents. There was a lot to work for in the old days, and the sheikh looks back at achievements such as getting electricity through the wadi. While GSM coverage, transport and educational facilities have transformed life through Bani Auf, the one glaring hollow left is the absence of a road. What you have is a freeway of rock and pebbles that gets worse after every rain, before being crushed into submission by the next wave of 4WDs. This issue is foremost on the agenda, says the sheikh, who hopes that “the road will be finished as soon as possible.”

High above the wadi, 1,100m up the mountain, Haat seemed deserted when I got there, apart from a few shawawi tribesmen on its fringes, heading out with their goats. Most able-bodied men were in the mosque, and I waited nearby till they trickled out. Salim bin Said bin Nasser al Hatali was the first to greet me, with his old wizened face and a mostly toothless smile that he broke into regularly over the next hour. Salim has been earning his income through his crops and the fronds of the date tree. These, he explained, are plucked out, laid across each other at right angles and woven together to make baskets. He called the finished product khasaf, or darf, which means an envelope. They were huge, longer than wide, and their sides ran parallel, not curved, and would hold up to 20kg of dates. Salim sells each at one rial a piece, and will make a couple of pre-Eid trips a year and sell up to 200 baskets in markets across Rustaq, Bahla and Seeb. He’ll pay RO5 as petrol money to get a ride on a passing pickup there, and return with halwa, fish, meat and bread.

Who taught him how to weave? “Necessity,” he says. “I have nothing else.” At 60, Salim gets RO40 a month from the Ministry of Social Affairs, and asks for only one thing more: “My health.” Haat has nothing: its 600–700 strong population doesn’t warrant a school, or hospital.

Rashid bin Masood bin Saleh al Abri could have been a soothsayer with his kohl-lined eyes and thin smile, but has been a farmer and a businessman instead, living in the secluded village of Bilad Seet, wedged in a pocket of mountain. Over the last 57 years of his life he has seen enormous change take place, from the dirt road that now connects it to the outside world to the electric lines that mean you can sit in his majlis in air-conditioned comfort, your back to a wall that zigzags its way over the contours of the mountain. Nothing is straight in this 80 year old house.

In the old days, you would have to walk with your donkey to al Hamra, on the other side of the mountain. Just look out of Rashid’s window to see how mammoth a task that is: hundreds of meters of sheer mountain cliff greet you. These are slopes so steep even the road now clawing into the mountain had to be patched with concrete around its worst curves, and which still are best survived on low ratio 4WD. That walk would usually start at 4am and end in al Hamra at half-past two in the afternoon.

Most of the 1,500 people — al Abris, Dohlis and Miyahis — who live here tend to their fields, depending on water that flows through the year, channelled through an ancient falaj system that is still the life of the village. “There are nine eyes of water,” reveals Rashid, referring to the sources that empty into the irrigation channels. This is too large a settlement to depend on honey, unlike the Aufis of Gaffar. “Only one person used to breed bees, but he passed away. And now there is no more honey.”

Being an al Abri means that Rashid traces his lineage to al Hamra, over the other side of the mountain, although the tribe can now be found in Misfat al Abriyeen, Wadi Sahtan and the slopes in-between. “People get tempted,” starts Rashid. “My ancestors from Dohli came to Bilad Seet 200 years ago to visit relatives, and stayed. Coincidentally, it is in such a way that the village got its name. It was originally called Sana’a, for the earliest settlers came from Yemen. A long time ago someone came to this village, but he forgot why he was here, or that he had to return, and so settled down. ‘Bilad’ means settlement, and ‘Seet’ comes from ‘Niseet,’ which means ‘to forget.’

Bilad Seet might be little more than a bump in the mountains, accessible over hours of dirt track, but it does sport its own football pitch, perhaps the only patch flattened for as far as the eye can see. Even the village doesn’t have so much blank space.

It is here that you will find Ahmed bin Hamood bin Saleh al Dohli, a 17 year old defender in a purple jersey, who hopes to go to Muscat after he finishes school to become a professional football player. Till then, he makes do with the mountain: running four kilometers a day over its slopes, playing in the evenings on the pitch, under distant peaks. Bilad Seet sports around 30 young players, and the size of the teams that play here each day is determined by how many young men turn up in the evening. Team Bilad Seet got its field 12 years ago, after asking the local road department to level it out between the rock walls. It’s beaten Tikha twice, but got a long way to go: it is ranked second-last in the mountains.

Oman, July 2007

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The mountain oasis of Bilad Seet