The Wind that Moved the Bedouin

We’re crunching through sand where the wadi spills its guts out, the badlands of sand and dust and bits and pieces of stone carried with the floods that no one remembers, carried from Jebel Qahwan that you cannot see through the sandy haze of the afternoon churned up by the wind that blows three months a year, the wind that stops the fishing and sends even the Bedouin running for cover, deep inland, and their houses lie abandoned and we’re the only ones left, and we’re eating tuna biryani while the sand blows through the house, rice and chickpeas and lemon and fried onion and fish eggs and salad and vermicelli, and we’re eating so fast we can’t breathe and then there’s sweetened tea with a bit of bitter from the nana leaves dissolved.

And there in the dark we’re sitting in Mukhaynig, and there’s a photo over the doorway of a pickup covered in Kalashnikovs and skinned rabbits in Saudi Arabia, and the boy whose teeth are falling apart is telling me he wouldn’t leave this settlement because his heart is here.

Then the door is flung open and the sun is in our eyes and it’s all blinding white reflected off the haze of the sky and the sand and the pickup and we’re squinting through Wadi Danat al Rakah, looking for the roots of the rakah, the meswak, to clean our teeth. But everyone just buys toothbrushes now, even the Bedu buy them from the foodstuff shop at Ruways, along with the Barbican and Mountain Dew and Rani and Shani.

And that wind. That terrific wind that kills houses and roughs up the sea and turns daylight into a milky haze and throws sand over the road and sand into your eyes, and it’s in our hair and everywhere. A wind that slaps at the pickup and keeps you awake at night and blows the post-picnic plastic bags away, far enough so no one sees them.

But it is really just the remnants of a wind snatched midway between continents, and we’re nothing more than a passing thought. As the massive Indian land mass heats up, hot air rises, creating space that the air over the Indian Ocean tries to fill. These winds, starting over the ocean off Africa, flow towards India, giving it the monsoon that affects an entire subcontinent’s existence. Along the way, though, outcrops in Arabia snatch desperately at it: the southern Dhofar coast of Oman, for example, where the monsoon is called the khareef, and the Ja’alan: where the wind is known as the kharf. But the Ja’alan has only the last crumbles of mountains, so the winds pass over, without rain, and all we’re left with are three months of sandy haze, an annual migration away from the sea, and an entire coast of locked up houses and abandoned villages. The sea Bedu, with wives, camels and plastic mats stuffed into pickup trucks, have abandoned the fishing and are heading inland to harvest dates.

But the Ja’alan has always been a mix of things, caught between neighbors, driven through but barely recognized. It is a mix of desert sands and the ends of mountains and that fabulous coast, of Bedu who turn their backs to the sands and look to the sea for their livelihood, of Bedu scratching in the soft earth of the wadis between the sea and the mountains. And it’s constantly overshadowed: by the port of Sur to the north, with its famous wooden boats and liquid natural gas plant, by the desert to its south with its tourist camps desperately trying to offer the authentic Bedouin experience. And the Ja’alan? It is everything and nothing: it has sands but not deserts, jebels but not mountain ranges, and produces fish instead of dates and dates instead of fish.

We’re eating our tuna biryani so fast we can barely breathe. And all the while the kharf is blowing through the windows, through the house, bouncing around the abandoned village and the air conditioners wrapped up in cloth and the earthen ruins sticking out at the back. It is the kharf that destroys houses here, raking them with sand and seeping into them with a sickly humidity that only the crabs can survive. But the Bedu have reached an easy compromise: they let their houses crumble, patch them up every few years, but invest in their real pride: villas deep inland in the twin towns of Ja’alan Bani Bu Ali and Ja’alan Bani Bu Hassan.

And we’re walking over the bits and pieces of the machinery that stood half a century ago in the factory where the sheikh of the Saadis of Hedda used to make cement bricks, the tabook. But there is no factory now, only open space and salt flats and memories, and his sons show me the rusted remnants. These scraps used to be the machine that would mould the blocks, and that flat cement barely visible under the sand was where they’d lay the bricks to dry.

But brick-making changed along the way, and the factory was abandoned a long while ago. In Hedda you don’t really remove anything — you just leave it till it is broken down by the elements and disappears into the sand. And so entire lives and generations coexist side by side, one over the other, in various stages of construction, decay and abandonment, all tied together with humidity, wind and sand.

Right at the back, on a soft mound overlooking Hedda, is the oldest remaining structure, still wagging its last finger defiantly in the air, standing longer than any of the cement blocks and plywood and painted doors. Made of that signature earthen mix they call sarooj that you will find crumbling all over Oman, the watchtower is called Boma, though no one alive today knows who built it or when, or what its name means. Someone said that it could’ve been built to look out for the Portuguese, the Bortugalein. But another pointed out that there was nothing in Hedda that would’ve interested them anyway. Then, later, came the cement, and the cement blocks, and the early methods: when they’d stuff cement walls with rocks, and build layer upon layer, and sandwich each between planks of wood till it set. You can see these layers, each around a meter in height, in the oldest cement structures in Hedda, bristling with coral and rocks, at the back of the village halfway between Boma and the newer structures.

And after the tuna and rice and salad, after the sweet tea with the bitter nana leaves, and talk of ruins and houses, Rashid turns to me and says, “Bedouin life is baseeta. Without troubles.”

And then we’re in the pickup and, like every Bedouin down the coast, we’re listening to Mehad Hamed on the tape, just his voice over the oud and life is, indeed, baseeta. And it doesn’t matter any more if the houses stand or fall, or if they’re made of mud or cement blocks.

Because the kharf has moved in but the moon is glowing through the fog and Mehad is singing about the glow on his lover’s cheek, and we know everything will be alright.

The best songs have just the voice and the strum of the oud, and this one is called ikshif sanaa khaddak, where Mehad is beseeching his love to uncover the moon-glow of her cheek. Everything is a metaphor for the Bedouin, because you wouldn’t ever talk of a woman, or of loving a woman directly. And since the Bedu are so close to the earth beauty is always equated with nature.

And snatches of sickly sweet poetry are being played out of tapes in every pickup truck in the Ja’alan, sugary like the can of mashed pineapple we had as appetizer in Hedda: ‘Uncover the moon-glow of your cheek, to light up the night.’ And ‘Your eyelashes are like shelter / I die in them, I tremble.’ ‘Your lips are moist, they are my antidote.’ ‘Your cheeks are the morning after the night.’

But there are no songs in Mukhaynig, a place so removed from the outside world it looks like the ragged edge of a badly told fairytale. Because the light is dying and everything is grey, and we’re kicking up wadi dust and stumbling between goat enclosures of plywood and salvaged doors and branches and thorns, and a disemboweled Daihatsu Rocky 4WD, and wide-eyed children who speak too fast: it could be Arabic but it all tumbles out in one wild, fluid motion, and then everyone, including the camels, are heading around the corner to Lasloos, the oasis of deep water so startling in the desert landscape you think you’re in a dream.

Mukhaynig is a secret place, just a handful of houses of Suneidi, Bareeka, Saalmi and Hadmal slapped together in the earthen desert, downstream in the wadi that makes its way from Jebel Qahwan to the sea. But the sea is far away, an alien blue to these Bedouin, as is the easy charm of the people of the coast, or their exposure to the outside world. And I’m looking at the boy with the damaged teeth and his words flow out like water through the wadi, and we’re sitting under the gruesome photo of the Saudi Arabian trip, of the pickup with the skinned rabbits hanging by the side, a handful of Kalashnikovs and shotguns, and two hunting falcons.

There is a legend that says that some of the residents of Heddah, on the sea, had migrated from Mukhaynig. But this is what people in Heddah say. The people of Mukhaynig seem to live without a past, or future, sandwiched between the mountains and sea, life and death, the rains and the only constant: that incredible pool they call Lasloos.

Days later, I would stumble through a sandstorm to a lone figure, squelching through the mud at the far end of Lasloos, bent into the wind. It was one of the teenagers, going through Bedouin training: his father had hidden a camel kilometers away and the young man had to track it through the wadi: he’d get a rial if he found it.

The sun has set but the light keeps reflecting off salt and water and sand and clouds. And the light is slipping away and we’re sinking into the ground, because Wataed is where the desert meets the sea, where Mukhaynig, if you turn your back to Lasloos, spits you out down its dry wadi. And that wadi turns from dry earth to sand and then you’re past the well with its pump and bathtubs left out for the camels, slithering desperately towards the sea. And just as you hit the tarmac and smell the salt of Wataed a massive sand dune larger than a house has drifted over the asphalt, and it’d cost so much to remove they actually built a road around it.

So we sit on this sand dune, starting a bonfire as the light dies, cutting fresh chicken, smothering it with a mix of rough salt and fine turmeric, and adding onions and tomatoes and packing them into aluminium foil and then throwing everything into the fire. And it was almost romantic till a pale green scorpion scuttled over the plastic mat and then everyone jumped up in a haze of torchlight, darkness, dishdashas, chicken and sand. But the chicken is sizzling and somewhere beyond, in the dark, the Bedouin dogs are barking, and the gerbil — or gerboa if you’re a Bedu — is hopping about at the fringes of the mat, hopping at the click of our fingers, and the stars are shining and everything is fantastic.

Except if you’re a Bedouin child, in which case you’d be scared of the sea at twilight and anytime later because your parents would have frightened you away from venturing towards the open water with stories of Bint Iblis, the daughter of the devil, who’d stalk the shores in her silver abaya, with long hair and one foot of a donkey. And we’re all grown up now but Wataed is a magical place, and it plays tricks with the light, and we shiver in the half-light as that inevitable fog moves in with the kharf, and the headlights reflect back at you as you make your way desperately home.

High over the sea, on the cliffs of Daffa, the little boy with oily hair walks up to me and raises his little face in greeting. I stoop low, and we touch noses in Bedouin custom. And the sun is blazing but we’re alright because you can’t go wrong in Daffah, which comes from ‘daafi,’ which means neither too hot nor too cold. Because the little village is perched close enough to the sea and high enough above it, and also has a wadi behind, a little harbour beneath, and a half moon of sandy beach: just the right mix for a comfortable, if slightly sleepy, existence.

Things got so idyllic that Shakeel Khamis Mohammed al Harbi went on to have 11 children, funding his growing family with the 13 rials a day he earns with his minibus, driving the children to school to the village of Ruways down the road. When there were fewer schools he’d drive the bus all the way to Ras al Hadd, and did that for a decade.

We’re slurping at watermelons on the plastic carpet by the side of the road that dead-ends at the cliffs, leaning into the shade of the old minibus that needs to be replaced. His next buy, used, will cost 3–5,000 rials, but last enough school trips to keep the momentum running. And that’s the best you could hope for in Daffa. That and enough children to fill a minibus.

But far away from the sea and fishing and the sleepy life, deep inside Ja’alan’s interior wadis, the three month-old summer wind blows from the south, whipping an entire desert’s worth of sand across Sufayri, the plain named after its barren copper colored expanse, but our eyes are almost shut and the sand is in them and in our hair and in our mouth, and Said Nasser Walad Bareeka is trying to smile for a photograph but he’s really gritting his teeth and holding on to his headcloth, and there’s sand on the lens and we’re stumbling over tires and a stuffed toy horse. And Sayh Sufayri, the plain of copper, is just an expanse of nothing, not even a village. Because the only things you can really get your hands on are the scraps of wood that once made his areesh, or shack, and the soft blob of the hill in the background, so scraped by sand it doesn’t have an edge left in it. And that’s Jebel Abu Raslah, where the raslah sprouts after the rains, and the goats like it. When that mattered Said used to move from one shack to another, following the water with his goats, until five years ago when he built a concrete box of a house, and bought a pickup, and got municipal water delivered by tanker. The Bedouin used to make mats out of the raslah, but they’re buying plastic carpets from the towns now.

Khamis has lived in the wadi dust for a lifetime, without electricity, a phone or an address, with a donkey instead of a pickup truck, a hut instead of a house. “Call this Wadi Ghubrat, if you must,” he says, flicking his one good eye at me, “the wadi of dust.”

I pick Khamis Mohammed Ali Suneidi up from the battered corner of the wadi track that twists through the innards of the Ja’alan, running like choked veins through the names no one knows of: Danat al Rakhah, Abu Fashiqah, Mukhaynig, Abu Madra, trying desperately to reach the sea but mostly drying out before getting anywhere in particular. It is midday and we have just squeezed triangles of cheese spread between dry bread, but Khamis has had nothing all morning.

He was being given a ride back home when he turned to the driver and asked if they could stop to pray at the anonymous roadside mosque. But the driver insisted that it wasn’t the right time, so he off-loaded him instead, driving off and leaving Khamis waiting for the next car.

There is no one in the entire Ja’alan who lives so removed from the outside world as Khamis. In this day where even the Bedouin are perennially caught between pickups, Lexuses, cell phones and Mountain Dew, Khamis has a few huts in a desert wadi, huts of palm thatch and plywood and rusted corrugated metal and packaging, a few goats, one donkey and a brother, Jumma, to share this with. There is nothing else: no furniture, income, plumbing, phone, air-conditioner. He’s survived a lifetime on a diet of mostly rice, milk and dates. His handful of clothes are stuffed in a cloth hammock hanging on the side of a wooden wall. The home is a collection of huts: one for a kitchen, another for rest and a third for the goats and lone sheep. The most comfortable you could get is somewhere between a scruffy mat and the soft dust of the desert floor, comfortable till the little black desert bugs they call Abu Jaali come crawling towards you.

Khamis has lived here 40 years, getting water on his donkey, the hamaar, from wells: Tawi Sarafana, about four or five kilometers away, and Tawi al Oudh. But he gets water delivered by municipal tanker now, and 40 rials a month from the government. And he insists he is only 40, and that’s not true, but he’s right when he says numbers don’t matter here.

But the numbers mattered on the coast. “In the Eighties all the children were going to be teachers. You had to get good marks to get into college and then you’d come back a teacher and earn a good salary and start a family and that was happiness,” says Abdullah al Saadi, or Abood if you know him well enough, in a family majlis in Ja’alan Bani Bu Ali, as we eat sharukh, or lobster, in a massive villa far away from the ramshackle huts in the wadis, or the crumbling boxy houses of the coast.

Abdullah is from Hedda, where his father, Humaid, is the sheikh of the Saadis in the village, and the head of this typically massive Bedouin family. There is Khamis, the eldest son, who became a priest, Said the health inspector who drives a new white Altima, Mohammed the teacher, Hamed the teacher, Salim the driver at Larsen and Toubro, Ali the medical orderly who fell down from a date palm when he was a child, Rashid the PRO at Strabag who loves making arsiya on special occasions but kept getting lost as a child, Abdullah the pharmacy student who travels with his laptop between Muscat and the Ja’alan, Khalid who studies biology and loves football on the beach at Hedda and on the PlayStation, Sultan who will be a nurse and Juma, the youngest and still in college. And that’s 11 brothers and two mothers and innumerable children and cousins and a whole world in itself, spread over majlises and houses and lives, date palms and pickups and Hyundai Accents and PlayStations and Nissan Altimas. And each of the older children has a massive villa in the city, and a smaller house in Hedda on the sea, hopping from one to another as the wind blows to and fro.

Humaid Said al Saadi took care of all of them, working in his foodstuff shop, as a mailman, as a construction foreman in Saudi Arabia, and as the sheikh of the Saadis of Hedda. And after he’d learnt construction he came back to the Ja’alan and started making bricks, and building houses, and still does it to this day, now in his eighties.

And Rashid was always getting lost. He was three years old and the family had been stuffed in the back of the pickup, and there was such a jumble of wives and hands and children that no one noticed the little boy left behind, holding two ice cream cones in the souq. So he had set off, walking, in the general direction of pickup dust, sticking the cones into his dishdasha pockets for some reason, and holding his slippers in his hands. He’d been found by another Bedouin, tears streaming down his dusty face, ice cream streaming down his pockets. “What’s your name?” “Rashid.” “What’s your father’s name?” “Rashid.” But they tracked the pickup, and Rashid was returned, and grew up strong, and lived his life like a Mehad Hamed song: straight and simple, living for the moment, climbing up slow and steady. And you can’t go wrong with that attitude, not in the Ja’alan and not anywhere.

No one loves Mehad Hamed as much as Ali Musabba. But he stopped singing because it was the hottest month of the year, the time when tires explode in a mix of indiscipline, text messaging, speed and heat, and he was throwing up all over the highway between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates as he arrived at his first accident. There wasn’t much left except for the remains of a car driven into a truck, and bits of passengers strewn around.

Ali takes a long draw at his buri, the long, thin Bedouin pipe, on a little finger of land jutting out into the sea. Here in Ras ar Ruways — the ‘ras’ means head and ‘ruways’ little — the talk always used to be about escaping to the big lights of the city, far away from a future caught between fishing and harvesting dates. And, when Ali Musabba Jumma al Saadi was 17, that city was Abu Dhabi. “We didn’t care how much salary we’d get. We just wanted to be there.” And so he went, along with a generation of others, staying on across an easy border where all you have to do is flash your ID card, working for decades, returning home to a fishing village with your newly acquired second-hand Lexus.

But it was tough work. After seven years in the army he switched to the Abu Dhabi police rescue unit and now does 24-hour standby duty for four days at a stretch. There might be no emergencies to attend to, or many. You never quite know. But experience tells you that the summer is always worst. And you have to be ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice. So after each four-day shift he gets eight days to recover, when he cruises across countries to the village by the sea, whipping out his buri, parking his Lexus in the shade of the wall, playing with his youngest daughters Dhabia (named after a gazaala, or gazelle) and Nahla (Arabic for spring), walking over to the corner shop for a chat with his friend Hussein.

And Hussein Ali Nasser al Saadi is far away too, far away from the three months of slack business when the kharf empties most of the village and earnings drop by almost 100 rials to as little as 80 a day. Instead, he studied statistics in the capital, returning during his summer vacations but going back to a future behind a desk. “Milk, Mountain Dew and Pepsi sell the best. But there’s growing competition. There used to be just two shops in Ruways along the highway, and there are four now. But we’re still the largest. And we’ve got the filling station opposite.”

But I’m by the station that night, and it’s dark and abandoned like the rest of the village, like the rest of the coast. In the old days there used to be a hand-cranked petrol pump in Ruways, but not even electricity can keep things running as everyone leaves. And then there’s just you and the fog and the night, and the inevitable speed humps and a crab — a goob-goob in Ja’alan but saratan in Arabic — scuttling across the road. And all one can do is pray one doesn’t hit a camel, or jamal as they say in Arabic, or naqa as they call it here.

But sooner or later you have to turn around, away from the sea, and wonder where these wadis are coming from, where the source of the flood is, what’s behind that uninviting haze that we turn our backs to. And the answer to everything is the backbone of the Ja’alan that everyone would rather forget: Jebel Qahwan.

But Qahwan is really the beginning, because this is where the water comes from, this is where the wadis start. It’s named after its predominant mountain but to the Bedouin it is a general area, the extreme east of the Ja’alan. And it is hard and rocky and inaccessible, and dry and unfriendly, and everything the rest of the Ja’alan is not. Salim Humaid Said al Musharafi walks out of his dead-end wadi to greet us. There is no flair of the Bedouin of the coast, no fancy cell phone, no new pickup.

Somewhere over these stones, over the anonymous undulations of the mountain, lie three sources of water that never dry up: al Jaffar, Dourouq and Antalwaal. But these are hours away by donkey and it’s been years since anyone used them, because even the ramshackle settlements of Qahwan get water by 4WD tanker now. But the houses are so scattered over the rocks you couldn’t club them close enough to make a village: just a wave of a hand and you have around 30 families that make up Qamlol, surviving on wood, honey and goats.

And there’s nothing else to talk about, so we stand in the sun as the water flows over the spot they call al Sharha, while Salim’s dog Hawash barks in the distance, and dream of the coast.

Oman, June 2010

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The Ja’alan

Glossary

Wadi

Literally a valley, but here a dry remnant of a riverbed. In Oman wadis are notorious for flooding very suddenly with an alarming amount of water and can be very dangerous places to be in if it rains in the area or upstream. In the Ja’alan some wadis are so wide that you might not even be aware of them even when in the area, and might think you were in a large plain. Most wadis in the Ja’alan start in the interior from Jebel Qahwan, fanning out through the desert lowlands, making their way to the sea. While being inside a wadi can be dangerous at certain times, settlements are always around wadis for their water. Even in the most remote of wadis you will almost always find telltale signs of humans, if only a small pile of stones on its bank serving as a marker, or a circular shelter for an ancient goatherd, perhaps. Wadis might hold isolated pools of water even when not in flow, and generally have more vegetation than their surroundings.

Jebel

Jebel means mountain in Arabic. While most people usually picture the Arabian peninsula as a desert, Oman is as much about mountains as it is about sand. In the Ja’alan there are just the ends of mountains: the last bit of Eastern Hajar that turns into the Western Hajar that runs along the northern coast of Oman all the way to the Emirates, and hosts the region’s most famed peaks, wadis and settlements. But the Ja’alan has little more than Jebel Qahwan at its far end, and to most it is just a murky shape through the haze. But Qahwan is where the wadis start, where the water starts flowing, and is a lot more important to the region than anyone admits.

Bedouin

Academically, the Bedouin are an ethnic Arab desert-dwelling nomadic group. These days, in Oman, it might be hard to find your romantic vision of the Bedouin with his camel and palm-fringed oasis, and you’ll probably have to settle for a town packed with pickups, luxury 4WDs and cellphone ring tones. In Arabic, Badu is the plural, Badaway refers to two, and Badawi is a single one. I have used Bedu in this book as a compromise between the English word commonly understood and the sound of the word they use to describe themselves.

Foodstuff shop

The generic hole-in-the-wall establishment that you will find peppered all over the country, from the capital to the innards of the Ja’alan, all officially designated with the same words and all seemingly selling the same products: triangles of cheese spread, flat bread called khubz, soft drinks like Mountain Dew.

Mountain Dew

The reigning king of soft drinks among the young across Oman. Popularly known as Dew. A sickly green in direct contrast to the image its name conjures. Other soft drinks found through the region include Rani and Shani.

Sur

The city on the coast just beyond the reach of this book. Most tourists are fed its boat-building yards ad nauseam.

Dates

The fruit of the date palm, and the staple food of the Middle East for thousands of years. The twin towns of the Ja’alan, Bani Bu Hassan and Ali, host massive date plantations that the Bedouin tend to during the three months the kharf blows, forcing them to abandon the fishing. Abdullah al Saadi, or Abood, took me to his family’s plantation and showed me the three types they grew there: Abudan, the red ones; Jitmi, the ones he liked best because they were the sweetest and Sawadi, the yellow dates with a black tip (sawadi means black). Luckily for the Bedu, the dates come into season at the same time as the kharf stops the fishing along the coast.

Ja’alan Bani Bu Ali, Ja’alan Bani Bu Hassan

The twin towns of the Ja’alan stuck together till you’re not sure which is which. They’re so large they even host a Pizza Hut, because even a Bedu knows which side his bread is buttered. The towns sit just north of the Sharqiyah desert, and every Bedouin with a beat-up shack by the sea has a family villa here. This gradual shift of residence has probably been influenced by the fact that most young people now aspire to white-collar jobs far away from the life sandwiched between desert and sea. But what is amazing is that the annual migration between the date palm plantations of the oasis towns and the fishing of the coast is still strong, and so much a way of life it’s even taken pride in.

Sheikh

The head of a tribe, or a locality, or of a tribe within a locality. Now largely ceremonial, and incorporated into modern administration as the connection between the government and the people. Locals could come to the sheikh to resolve disputes, but he would act only as a respected elder, without any official power. You might also come to him to sign papers for documents like your passport, or birth and death certificates.

Sarooj

The earthen mix of mud and straw fired together that you will see all over Oman in innumerable ancient irrigation channel walls, forts, watchtowers and houses.

Pickup

The staple mode of transport for any self-respecting Bedouin. And not just any pickup will do. The undisputed king of the road and desert is the Toyota LandCruiser pickup. The current family of models is called the Abu Shenab, where ‘abu’ means father and ‘shenab’ moustache, the term roughly translating into ‘the moustachioed one.’ The name might owe its origins to the front guard on the first of the current generation models that resembled a moustache but it is also a reference to its macho appeal and legendary off-road abilities. Its 4.5 litre engine, high ground clearance and simple, hardy construction means that it is used to cross deserts, crawl through wadis and race over highways. The previous model, still seen in various stages of degradation around the Ja’alan, is the more rounded-looking model they call the Buri Masoud. Buri is also the Bedouin pipe, and Masoud might have been the first local owner, but the origins of its name are more difficult to guess than those of the Abu Shenab.

And then there’s the Sabaiya, the name given to the single cabin 2WD pickup that is preferred to transport camels because of its long cargo bed. Camels are quite easy to transport because their legs fold conveniently under them. Saba means seven and it probably got its name because it had a 2.7-litre engine. But while the Bedouin love to cross the desert they have also grown to love cruising the highway, and an entire generation has come of age exposed to the big cities of the Gulf, finding work in Muscat and even in the UAE. And their preferred car is the Lexus sedan, most bought used and cheap over the border.

Camel

Camels have lost a lot of their utility since no one needs to ride them any longer, and you can buy milk at the foodstuff shop now, but they’re still treasured as part of life around the desert. I saw very few camels around the coast of the Ja’alan, but Mukhaynig and the settlements of the interior have a few of them. There seem to be many more of them west of Ja’alan Bani Bu Hassan and Ali, and the highway, on its way to Muscat, always has to be tackled with care. There are few things worse than hitting a camel, because its thin legs buckle against a car, and the main mass of its body in the middle is at the perfect height to crash through your windshield. I’ve tried it once and don’t particularly recommend it. Camels are jamal or gamal in Arabic, though in the Ja’alan I heared them being referred to as naqa. Naqa, when used outside the Ja’alan, could refer to a female camel.

Road

Even a Bedouin loves his road. Roads mean that the Bedouin can drift easily from the coast to their dates inland, that they can get their fish to markets as far away as the UAE or even Saudi Arabia, and that they have access to education and medical care. A road over desert is like glass over a pillow. If you thump your hand down, the glass will crack as the pillow under gives way. But if your glass is on a table, its stiff top will support the blow. Which means that desert roads, like the one between Ashkharah and Khuwaymah, build themselves layer upon layer, each supporting the next, from soft to progressively harder. It starts with sand, moves up to filling, then the aggregate base, and is finally topped up with asphalt.

Dishdasha, massar, abaya

The men of the Ja’alan wear the generic dishdasha that you will find across Oman and much of the region. It is a loose-fitting single-piece ankle-length full-sleeved garment. Their headcloth is usually called a massar and is used to protect the head from the sun, sand, wind and cold, but is now mainly a ceremonial symbol. Different regions might feature different styles of wrapping them. The abaya is the black robe-like over-garment worn by women across much of the region, although in Oman it is the beautiful laysu that you will find in the interiors, and the thob in Dhofar.

Tawi

A well. Their importance has declined because everyone now gets water through pipes in their homes, and even the Bedouin living further afield get water delivered by municipal tanker.

Majlis

The meeting room that is a standard feature in every house, where the men get together (there might be a seperate one for women). It is generally devoid of furniture, and features wall-to-wall carpeting where one sits down, usually against heavy cushions placed along the wall. This is also where refreshments are served: a large mandatory tray heaped with fruit, dates, water and fruit juice which is impolite to refuse. The host will start by cutting the fruit for you, and the dates are next. You can wash your fingers lightly in the little bowl of water, and then end the session with Arabic coffee called kahwa. The majlis is also where guests can be served lunch or dinner, eating from a large common plate usually heaped with rice and meat. Meals are eaten with the right hand, sitting crossed legged, and bones can usually be deposited on a large thin plastic mat almost always placed under the plate.

Donkey

More common in the mountains far away from the Ja’alan but you might stumble upon the occasional one here. Known as hamaar in Arabic, but nicknamed Abu Sabr, the stubborn one.