Swati Basu Das explores the ways of life preserved within Oman’s Bedouin communities and the indelible bonds that bind them to lands they wander.
From afar, the parched, arid desert with its rolling honey-gold dunes and scattered tufts of shrubs reflects nature’s scorching splendour. The vastness of the barren, yellow sand underfoot stands in stark contrast to the enormous blue sky that unfurls above. Here on the dunes each grain of sand bears witness to the wind-sculpted wrinkles that spread that move continually, across their crescents.
In the expansive heart of Oman’s edge of the Empty Quarter, the Sharqiyah Sands, the midday sun erases all cardinal directions without shadow. With no fixed destination, their coarse sandy paths wander into the middle of nowhere. Nearly 300 kilometres away from Muscat’s affluence and modernity, here there echoes the enigma of solitude in every possible direction.
Where the paved city roads hit the sandy topography of the Sharqiyah Sands (known formerly as the Wahiba Sands), soon all tracks vanish into a seemingly uninhabitable – and even hostile – terrain. Yet, it’s here that some of the Sultanate’s most elusive residents, call home.
We’re hesitant to enter, yet, in the unplumbed distance wedges of high dunes emerge – encircling and protecting the small inner valleys where the desert local inhabitants stay guarded, distinctive in their demography among this unmapped terrain where every dune tells a story.
And here, they tell tales of the Bedouins who have made their ever-shifting settlements and homes among the shifting sands in this corner of Ash Sharqiyah. Surrounded by high dunes on all sides, we make our way to Laiyima, a Bedouin village whose name means ‘well-protected’ – and so it is. Laying hidden among the dunes which surround it on all sides, this quaint yet secure enclave is just one among many such small sheltering spots for the region’s Bedouin population. With a small population of just 100 villagers residing in Laiyima, it’s a territory valued for its strategic position deep in the desert.
Dwellers of the desert, Bedouin life here surrounds the sand. While to us and our untrained eyes, all the dunes around us look the same…we are strangers lost in the desert. But for our 33-year-old Bedouin tour guide Bader Said Al Badri, it’s home – and he’s well-versed in the directions of the blowing winds and every undulating shift in the sand. Born here in these blazing-hot environs, his Bedouin instincts have never let him go astray. “I was born here,” he says, smiling with pride, “And I’ve lived here ever since. The desert is our life. Wherever I go, I know my way back home.”
Navigating his 4×4 through the dunes, he asks us to buckle up as we prepare to cross four high peaks of sand before finally reaching his 70-year-old tiny village. From atop the dune, camouflaged Bedouin huts reveal themselves…spread out in clusters that stretch out kilometres apart from one another.
Bader explains: “Bedouins love to stay isolated. We need space from our neighbour. Our cattle also need enough space to graze in the wild. By staying further from our neighbour we avoid scuffles.”
The startling view of these scattered houses and encampments, of camels roaming freely, and miles of emptiness stretching out beyond…it’s an awestruck feeling we’re left with. But for Bader, it’s home-sweet-home. Bashing his car down the dune and driving along the rugged valley floor dotted with bushy scrub-brush we’re soon at his doorstep where his daughters and son welcome him with a hug.
A typical Bedouin tent made of goat hair stands juxtaposed next to his modern abode. A fence made of wood and date palm fibres adorn the porch of the tent, while the gate of the stone house build adjacent is made of date palm wood – the space inside boasting yet another black-and-beige goat hair tent.
“Our requirements are minimal,” Bader says. “This stone house has one single room. We built it to protect our family from sandstorms in the hot summer months – but you’ll rarely find us inside this house. For all our daily activities like eating, resting, chatting, and music, we prefer our tent. We love to spend most of our time here, as we prefer the open sky above us and the bare sand beneath. We are Bedouins, and we move around a lot chasing the rain for water and searching for fodder for our cattle. Carrying the tent with us is compulsory to set up our temporary homes when we’re on the move.”
This tent beside the stone house contains a majlis where the family members meet and gather to greet guests in typical Bedouin style. Sitting on a red rug made of goat hair, sipping fresh camel milks and nibbling on fresh dates, we wonder how remarkable it is that life can survive in the face of adverse conditions such as these, in the middle of a beautiful yet treacherous desert desolation.
As these thoughts of remoteness creep in, the jingle of bridles from a herd of roaming camels catches our attention. Peering outside, there she stood – beauty in the form of a beast. “She’s Sadra, my beauty queen – my favourite camel,” says Bader. “She’s a gift from my mother. Camels are a part of our family, and a source of our income. I have more than 90 camels – and some of them even take part in races. But Sadra is different…she’s a priceless possession.”
Reveling in the pungent saltiness of the camel milk offered to us, Bader’s family invites us inside their stone home to taste authentic, freshly made Bedouin bread, camel meat with gravy, and fresh yogurt topped with cow butter. Bader’s wife offers us a cool glass of water. “We’re blessed this way,” he states. “Water is a requirement…we fetch it from the town nowadays. But in the past, it was harder; it took two days on a camel to bring water from the wadi running along the mountains. Things change…”
Our bellies full from the delicious meal offered to us by Bader’s family, and our hearts equally full from their hospitality, we leave Laiyima on a high note – wishing our new Bedouin friends the fortitude to move ahead in their migrations with vitality and prosperity.
On the threshold of modernity, the life of Bedouins such as Bader and his family interweaves a desire to explore the contemporary, while protecting their roots as wanders of the desert – planted firmly and deeply in the searing sands.
“We never think of leaving behind our Bedouin traditions and lifestyle,” Bader muses. “Some are moving to cities for job opportunities, but no one – neither you, or me – can go far away from home. Wherever we go, we make sure to come back to the desert. It’s our home.”