Every Bedouin Loves His Toyota

Cuttlefish ink drips down fishing boats, desert sands and Bedu fishermen, staining dishdashas and pickups black. Here, where the desert meets the sea, at the midpoint between endless water and endless sand, activity reaches fever pitch. This anonymous coastline is a stretch as strange as it is unknown. This is a land where time and space seem to stand still, a topsy-turvy bubble where everything is upside down: here, the Bedouin look to the sea for their livelihood, not the desert. And they drive pickups, not camels.

What is even more remarkable is that you will find only one model of this 4WD in the deserts of Oman, making the Land Cruiser pickup the only vehicle in patches of desolation that stretch hundreds of kilometers. In a fickle land where a car is as important as fresh water and survival, such a choice of generations quickly acquires legendary status. This pickup has become so ingrained into their culture that the tribes even have an Arabic nickname for it: Abu Shenab, literally the ‘father of the mustache’ but generally translating into ‘the mustachioed one.’

Various theories abound over the sands as to the origins of such a flowery name. Many will point to the earliest models, some dating back to the 1940s, that you will still find in the desert. The front bumper resembles a mustache if you look long enough. Others talk of a mustache’s metaphorical significance, pointing to leadership, manliness and strength. Whatever its origins, one thing is beyond argument: this is the undisputed king where the road ends.

When in doubt, look to the Bedu. Racing across the sands of the Sharqiya, Mohammed Wahaibi yelled approval over the roar of 4WD low gear. At the last outpost before the tarred road seemed to buckle under the weight of the desert and disappear into sand, Mohammed charged homewards on the little sliver of beach, tires deflated for maximum traction. As we slithered towards Ras ar Ruways, Mohammed talked of the two things he took most pride in: being a Bedu and driving the Abu Shenab.

While most city clickers would see an ugly, boxy, right-angled pickup, the Bedu practically break out into song. To understand just how much his Abu Shenab means to Mohammed, you have to first understand life in the desert. In a land of such bleakness outsiders can only superimpose GPS satellite waypoints, resident once-nomadic tribes took to this new transportation like a camel takes to water. In this landscape, where survival is broken down into everyday commonsense decisions, most things that money can buy are superfluous, perhaps even useless.

Bedouin are traditionally nomadic, moving across the desert from plantation oasis to waterholes, depending on the seasons. Although most have settled down, eased into modernity through government-sponsored housing, new roads and basic services, they still retain their free-spirited character.

This means that many still live on land they consider traditionally theirs, without the necessity of title deeds, or the need to adorn homes with dish antennas or carpets. They don’t eat at shawarma shops, or go to the movies on the weekend.

So their one big purchase of a lifetime boils down to the car they drive, the most important material possession. There is a late addition to the list these days — a fancy mobile phone — but at RO12,000 new the Abu Shenab is definitely at the top of the list. How does a Bedouin afford one? Simple: by buying nothing else. It is rumored that most walk in to showrooms with their money in fistfuls, sometimes bagfuls. Far away from the world of electronic money and installment cheques, the money they save on things we consider essential goes into an Abu Shenab.

There could be a lot of money in the desert. Some fishermen drive their pickups, laden with ice and fish, all the way to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where they could earn three times what they’d get at local markets. And that’s when you realize the full potential of the car: find another vehicle that can crawl through the Rub al Khali and touch 180kmph across international borders, laden with up to a ton of cargo. Such journeys see the occupants operating in shifts, one sleeping while the other drives. There’s no stopping, and at that rate they’re through in a couple of days. Try beating that with an SUV.

Far away from the romance of the desert and the glory of the Bedu, the legend of the Abu Shenab lives on. In the mountains of the Hajar range, extending from the ends of the sands up towards Oman’s most famous peaks, a network of pickups are delivering water and ferrying school children up and down battered mountain passes.

One such driver is Sayid bin Azzan bin Sultan al Ghadani. His name is as long as a sentence, and his route even longer, snaking up and down a mountain several times from 4am till 6pm. That dirt track starts at Fins, on the sea, and gnaws its way up to the Selma Plateau.

Sayid the water deliverer could be excused for being overshadowed by the presence of giants. Underneath him, one of the greatest cave systems in the world is poised for development, and the Majlis al Jinn — its star cave — has already premiered in National Geographic magazine. Such international fame, and the future fortunes it immediately conjures up, is a world away from the reality of flea-bitten goats and huts in which up to ten villagers might huddle together, as they have done for centuries. On the bare wind-ravaged limestone top of the plateau, there is nothing to mask the dead-end outlook of the three villages, and the lack of opportunity that stares back at you. Little has changed over the ages, and the villagers would follow a semi-nomadic life, moving with the water source.

Selma moved a step up with 800 rials of credit and a battered 1984 model Abu Shenab. That’s what Sayid cobbled together, and bought, in 2002. He won a contract to deliver water from the Ministry of Regional Municipalities, Environment and Water Resources, and followed this up with another to ferry schoolchildren. For the first time, the villages of Selma — Adab, Mukandali and Sharjat Mu Lahla — had easy access to water and education. This means that approximately 150 people benefited, and continue to rely on, the Abu Shenabs that now crawl back and forth.

Business brought profit: Sayid started earning RO1,400 per month for the water, and RO15 a day for the school. That sounds like a fortune when compared to the goatherds wandering above the caves, but do consider his expenses. He splits his contract three ways, subcontracting his work to a friend and a brother — that’s one third of the total income right there. They operate in shifts, sometimes four each a day: delivering water, picking up students, delivering more water, returning students. Then there’s RO300 worth of petrol for each Abu Shenab, and the costs of maintaining the ride over what can easily qualify as the toughest, steepest road in Oman. Such a track wrecks havoc even on such tough utility vehicles and tires have to be replaced every two months. Used Yokohamas cost RO40 each, but Chinese-made ones can be had for half the price. In time, Sayid paid back the 800 rials, and gave up his old pickup for a 1992 model, second hand from the Toyota dealer at Quriyat for RO106 rials a month. Such are the economics of working in Selma.

The three Abu Shenabs still remain the only vehicles owned and worked atop the Selma plateau. Why buy this particular vehicle? “Because spare parts are easily available and cheap,” says Sayid. “And because everyone says the Abu Shenab is number one.”

We are sitting under the sparse shade of thorns and dried branches, between goats, huddled women and the gaping yawn of the Majlis. Sayid has effectively shaken off the life he was born into, and might just be one of the most important people in the three villages. Although his 26 years are crammed into the weather beaten face, wiry body and penetrating eyes of the Shawawi of Selma, his cap is more intricately woven, and his dishdasha fresher. It was not always so.

Even the hardened road that occasionally destroys the differentials of Abu Shenabs didn’t exist when Sayid was a child. He lived with relatives at Fins, where his school was, and came home on weekends using the donkey path that ran up the mountain. Compared to those days, any road — even the near vertical crumbling one now — is better. For a first timer, the track is an exhilarating, scary, adrenaline-charged rush to the caves. Tourists and adventure seekers champion such bone jarring ways, bemoaning the ever-decreasing stretches of dirt roads in Oman. To many, such tracks are our last remaining connections to the land, elevated to almost sanctuary-status. Tell that to the people of Selma. “We want a concrete road,” says Said. “We want it today.”

Epilogue

This story would not have been possible without the help of Sayid bin Azzan bin Sultan al Ghadani, who offered me shade in Selma; Ahmed al Abri, who translated between us; Ali al Mingi, who brought me to the desert; Salim al Hajri, the rally champion who raced Abu Shenabs and the innumerable Bedu fishermen along the Sharqiya coast who love driving where there are no roads. Such people turn cars into legends.

Oman, September 2006

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The mouths of the Majlis al Jinn, over which Sayid Ghadani drives his Abu Shenab