The Bedouins of Oman

I don’t understand why they don’t live in Muscat or any other towns, now that the facilities are so good in our country” said Mohammad al Shukairi, our guide in Oman.

Fact file:

* The Bedouins of Wahiba Sands can be visited at various camps such as Hamdan’s camp, which is adjacent to Desert Nights camp, a luxe bush camp in the Wahiba Sands area of Oman
* The Women’s souk at Ibra (a two-hour drive from Muscat) is open from dawn until noon
* Read— Wilfred Thessiger’s The Sands of Arabia for insight into the lives of the Bedouins

He was speaking of the Bedouins, many of who continue to live a Spartan existence in the vast desert, sharing their beautiful landscape with desert hare, side winding vipers, beetles and sand foxes.

Shunning modern existence, these nomadic denizens of the Wahiba Sands and the Rub al-Khali (The Empty Quarter) live as they did centuries ago, herding their camel and goats, living in tents made of palm fronds, and animal skins and wandering in search of water. To them, an unfettered existence, freedom under the stars and the continuation of tradition far surpass the lure of twenty-first century conveniences. They bear allegiance only to their families, their tribe and to the crescent moon.

Khanjars, camels and the great outdoors

We drove to Wahiba Sands, three hours south of Muscat, into what has been described as “a perfect specimen of sea sand.” Muhammad took us to visit his Bedouin friend, Saif and his family. They greeted us warmly, and Saif invited us in.  Saif wore a long white dishdasha robe with a traditional embroidered Omani kummah, or cap. On his waist was a sash, and tucked in it, was a curved knife, called a khanjar. A tassle dangled from the neckline. After washing and dousing his tunic with sweet smelling frankincense (a product of southern Oman) Saif’s wife, Khadija, would have added a few drops of perfumed oil on his tassle.

Khadija wore brightly coloured, multi-patterned clothes herself — a sirwal (salwaar), a jallabia (kurta) and a muslin lahaf (dupatta) covered her head. Her face, except her eyes were covered with a burqa, a cloth mask that covered her forehead, cheeks and nose.

Inside, we sat on hand-made camel-hair carpets and cushions and were offered Omani black coffee in tiny cups as well as a mash of dates and jelly-like halwa. Had we been Bedouin strangers lost in a dust-storm, the hospitality would not have fallen short. “Welcome. The door is wide open for you and your camel,” they would have said, as they have, for eons.

Saif explained that often there is no water to be found on their journeys, and they drink only camel and goat milk. “Sometimes, when there is a thick fog at night, we put out a cloth over a tree and the next morning, we squeeze out some water”

Saif loves his camels, meeting friends and family and enjoys the beauty of the shifting dunes every single day. He can tell from a hoof-mark how long ago a camel walked by, if it had a rider on it, or even if it was pregnant.

Women’s souk at Ibra

Khadija weaves rugs from camel hair and sells them at the souk every now and then. She tells her children stories and believes in Djins. Each year, she looks forward to meeting her family during Eid.

The next morning Mohammed took us to the souk in the town of Ibra. There were female vendors who sold silks, brocades, trimmings, clothes, make-up and jewellery to women buyers. I found myself amidst hundreds of striking-looking, kohl-eyed Bedouin women who had come from afar. They came with female relatives —sisters, mothers and cousins to select yards of fabric, sequins and gold and silver thread. My negligible Arabic led me to sign-bargain for some beautifully embroidered textiles.

There was much exuberance, and nowhere had I seen so much colour and pattern, all at once. Underneath the black abayas, (coveralls) each piece of clothing contrasted wildly with the next. Since this was a women-only zone, the abayas and burqas had been largely set aside and what ensued was a riot of floral and geometric patterns in fuchsia, green and purple.

That evening we sat on the hump of a dune watching the stars shine out loud at night, admiring the Bedouin spirit and its visceral connection with wilderness.

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