Lone Song of the Shawawi

The singsong voice of the Shawawi, Oman’s nomadic goatherders, is flowing over the slopes of the Western Hajar, east of Jebel Shams, far away from roads and tourists, money, development, doctors, schools and time. Welcome to the smallest, loneliest settlement on the jebel, a place where time stands still, where people don’t know how old they are, where the village is made up of ten people. This is the story of how one family walked up the mountain and made a village.

Two hours of scrambling up the canyon walls above Misfat al Abriyeen, itself nestled on the slopes above al Hamra, will get you to piles of stones thrown together to make a few rooms, rising up and falling down into the rocks of the mountain slope. This is Aqabat al Hamra, translating roughly into the place where you can see al Hamra (the town at the base of the mountain), or if you’d like it neatly packaged, view of al Hamra. Aqabat translates into slope, so in a way it is also the slope leading down to al Hamra.

“Our parents were poor,” Amir tells me, “and so we became poor too.” And then he cracks into a grin of half teeth, laughing at his own dark humor, stark against a lone stone house on a bare mountain slope. The family’s story starts with poverty. They were not originally Shawawi, the mountain tribe, but al Abri, residents of Misfat al Abriyeen (commonly referred to as Misfah), owners of a house and land. For reasons lost in translation, they lost their money and, to support themselves, sold their property, turned to goats and walked up the mountain. Misfah was too full of people and closed plots to keep livestock — you’d have to buy them fodder, and they wouldn’t be able to roam free through the cultivation. On the mountain slopes the 30 goats have everything they need, for free. They also have three donkeys, a collection of chickens and two dogs, who dutifully barked at us as we walked up the slope.

The father looked for a good spot: a patch on the mountainside that was relatively flat, protected from the wind by a rocky ledge to one side and where the grazing was good. The wadi that eventually leads you up to Birkat Sharaf, the 5–7 hour hike that I’d done in October 2004, would get them water. Now that is made a lot easier by a water tank a short walk away, which in turn is fed by pipes from another one, higher up, on an opposite slope, fed by a water tanker.

Roads are hours away from Aqabat, and the lack of access governs the harsh reality of life in the middle of nowhere. It is the reason they don’t have jobs, why they don’t have access to medical care and, most telling of all, why the children are uneducated. It is the reason why one has to run down to Misfah in a medical emergency, from where a call for help will ring out over the plains, bringing a helicopter that will land on the ledge above the stone houses, goat pens, donkey corral and flea-bitten dogs. It is why (perhaps a year away from now when the government school in Misfah persuades them) the children will hike down an hour and up over two to go to school. It is the reason why you have not seen Aqabat.

The father founded the single hut village, and his two sons, Amir and Rashid, now run it, both somewhere north of 70. Amir was so poor he never could come up with the money to marry, and has been single his entire life, roaming around the mountain slopes with the goats, sleeping alone in a little one-room hut near the donkey, wishing for his own.

Rashid, also around 75, was luckier. With help from his father he drummed up the money to marry Salima from the next village, and in this way steered his family into the ways and blood of the Shawawi. The children bear the unmistakable marks of the mountain tribe: a heart stopping raw, raging beauty, as delicate as it is cruel. Stare at it in their long, fine faces, delicate complexion and, above all, in the haunting green eyes of the mountain people.

How do you earn a living wandering the slopes of the mountain? You hike down to the biggest town below, al Hamra, and sell the occasional goat for RO25–80, depending on its size. But that obviously is as unconvincing a reality as it sounds. In truth, the government now pays them an allowance every month, and it is with this handout that they survive, buying whatever they need when they head down the mountain once every couple of weeks. Being single, Amir gets RO30 a month, while Rashid, with his wife and seven children, gets RO70. The government also installed the water tank just below them, and supplies the water from one further up. While desperate for a road, though, the chance that the higher powers will build one over mountain slopes for ten people seems far-fetched.

They are not the only ones living here like this. Up ahead, somewhere over the folds of the mountain, are three other villages, each self contained: Sahef, with two houses, Duwayra, with just one, and al Hail, with two. All three get their water from the same government supplied tank near Aqabat.

Amir laughs when I ask him if his dogs have names. It is a silly question for him: of course they don’t. Later, when one walks over to share my lunch, I notice that his ears are just stubs. The family had cut off the two dog’s ears because they used to bite each other’s. Such is a dog’s life. It is quite remarkable to find a dog in a village in Oman, but if you look closer you will find that many Bedu, as well as other Shawawi have no problems about caring for them. Rashid and Amir got both of theirs from a wadi near al Hamra, and brought them up to guard the goats and chickens from mountain wolves and foxes, and the occasional wanderer, although the prospect of a mountain thief is a remote one.

I asked Amir if perhaps he had them to scare away djinns, and this made him laugh out again, with even more bits of teeth than I had seen the first time. “Djinns and humans live in the same world,” he explained, “but we cannot see each other. If a man enters the djinn’s world he will be his slave, but if he tries to leave it he will go crazy.” All of us shivered in the afternoon breeze at such a prospect, and the donkey dutifully brayed.

Oman, March 2007

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Aqabat al Hamra