Tales from the Oasis
We recently went on a trip to the desert which began at an oasis. It was a lovely camping trip that was about 3 days and 2 nights. The trip took place in a land cruiser that was fully equipped for rough terrain, including a snorkel, which we didn’t end up needing in the desert. There was a driver and an English speaking guide, both of whom were Bedouin. The Oases in this part of the desert had for a long time been cut off from the rest of Egypt except for the very hardy. They were extremely traditional, as there was very little influence on them from outside until about ten years ago when the Egyptian government decided to build the Western Desert road, which runs the length of the country, and goes through a few of these Oases. All of a sudden a trip which used to take a week and would most likely have to be done by camels was cut down to four hours by car. It changed quite a bit in the lives of the Bedouin, and from my perspective, some of it was for the better (like the practice of marrying 12 year old girls). Apparently with the new road came new Sheikhs for the mosques, who informed them that they really couldn’t be marrying girls who were only 12, it just wasn’t right. It has since also made desert safaris from the Oases a practice which tourists flock to, because of its accessibility.
Anyway, one night as we sat around a camp fire drinking tea which had to be smuggled in from Libya because it was illegal in Egypt, the English speaking guide regaled us with stories of Bedouin life. I feel like it would be entirely selfish to keep these delightful stories to myself, so I thought I should write them down.
I should say that this particular Bedouin who told us these stories went to university in Cairo, and spoke quite fluent English. Apparently when he first showed up at university in Cairo he was wearing the traditional gallabeya (long flowing white dress like thing) and a turban on his head. He said it took him all four years to live that down, because even when new freshmen would come in, they would all be informed about the Bedouin who showed up in his gallabeya. He had a great sense of humor, and said everything with a twinkle in his eye. He also informed me (after learning that I was from the west in the U.S. where the cowboys are from) that he never used to smoke until he saw a picture of the Marlboro man on the back of a magazine lighting his cigarette with a burning log from a campfire. (Oh the power of advertising!)
So on to the stories!
1. This story is about his brother who was away in the army. As he tells it, in the Oases, when a man turns 25 he has to get married, because he has already waited too long and it is almost too late. So his grandfather was sitting drinking tea one day when another grandfather came up, and they started talking about their families, and their health and their camels, and all the usual stuff. The other grandfather then asked him about his grandson in the army, and how old he was. The grandfather replied that he was about to turn 25, and then asked about the other man’s granddaughter and how old she was, and was informed that she was already 16. The other man then asked him how his grandson was doing in the army and what prospects he had, and learned that he was soon to make officer. So they decided right then and there, that when Ahmed returned from the army on vacation in a week he would marry the 16 year old granddaughter. So when Ahmed arrived in the Oases and stepped off the bus, he was greeted with the traditional trills from the women and everyone chanting “long live the bride, long live the groom,” it wasn’t until a few people grabbed him and threw him up on their shoulders that he realized they were chanting for him, which caused him to immediately faint dead away. He didn’t awake until after the ceremony where he found himself a newlywed in his house with some woman he’d never seen before. The man telling the story, Mohammed, added that when he was around 25, he spent the majority of his time in the desert hiding out, but that he was eventually caught as well and married.
2. Another aspect of male/female relations is that women are only allowed out of the house if they are completely covered, including their eyes, because according to the laws of the land, if any man sees a woman who is uncovered, or touches a woman, they have to be married immediately. Mohammed introduced us to this cultural fact first and then pointed to a scar on his head and said, now let me tell you a story about how I got this scar. Before he was married, he was on a microbus going somewhere within the Oasis. Normally women are trucked around places separately from men to avoid the chance that anything untoward happens, like a man seeing them or inadvertently touching them. However this particular time, a woman got onto the microbus next to Mohammed, and to his amazement even said hello to him! He was of course terrified and tried to scoot over as far as possible towards the window to avoid touching her, especially since she was so forward, he felt for sure that she would try and trap him into marriage. It eventually became time for them to pay the bus driver, and to his horror, he realized that his money was in his right pocket, which was the side this woman was sitting on. To avoid any chance of brushing against her as he got his money out, he leaned out the window to get more room, and was immediately wacked by a passing palm branch. He let out a bellow of pain, which caused the bus driver to stop and everyone gathered around to check on him because he was bleeding quite profusely. He then saw that same woman coming over to him, and figured this would be the end for sure, but when she got close, she said, “Mohammed why are you behaving so strangely? Do you not recognize your own sister?”
3. The third story he told was about back in the day when they still married children, and it was a story to indicate just how wrong the practice seemed to him now. He said that an older friend of his was betrothed when he was 18 to a 12 year old. And that during the ceremony the bride got bored and so went to play with her friends in the mud. She got completely filthy, but had a great time and eventually wore herself out and fell asleep waiting for her wedding ceremony to finish. She was still asleep when it was over, so the friend went to find her and carried her home with her still sleeping.
Segue story to the next theme:
1. It wasn’t long ago when camels were the major form of currency in the Oases, especially when it came to marriage. A wealthy man’s daughter would fetch at least 100 camels, and a person’s wealth was determined on how many camels they had and how large their family was. Apparently there was a very poor man who wanted to marry the mayor’s daughter. So he went and asked the mayor how many camels he would need for the daughter. Now in general, such a breach of social hierarchy was unheard of, but the mayor didn’t want to appear as though he had something against poor people, so informed him that they could marry, but he would take no less than 1000 camels for her. So the man went away and worked in Libya for a wealthy Bedouin there, who had a huge flock of camels. The man promised the poor man that if he worked for ten years for free, he would give him 1000 camels. So the man agreed to work for the wealthy Bedouin, and when he had completed the 10 years he received the camels as promised. However upon returning to the Oasis to claim the Mayor’s daughter as his own, he saw that she had just been married! He was so distraught that he left the camels and went to live in the desert, singing songs of his love and how he had been robbed of it. Everyone was so upset about what had happened to this poor man that they all got together and decided to no longer use camels as a dowry.
Bedouin and their camels:
1. Camels were still a large part of a Bedouin’s life though, and the desert camels were much more intelligent and strong willed than the more domesticated version that can be seen and ridden in places like Cairo. Often there would be a head camel, who would understand the boundaries of people’s property and would take it upon himself to keep the others in line. If any of the other camels would look to stray into the adjoining property, he would run over and bring them back. Another interesting tidbit about camels is that when they fight, they don’t kick with their back legs like horses or donkeys, but they punch with their fore legs.
2. There was one friend of theirs who’s mother died in childbirth. One of the family’s camels had recently had a baby, and so they fed the boy on camel’s milk alongside the baby camel. Of course the boy and the camel grew up to be like brothers to each other, and were very protective of each other. The other boys would sometimes jokingly pretend to beat up the camel’s brother, and the camel would come rushing over and disburse everyone. The camel ended up getting shot in the leg at one point by marauding Bedouin who thought he looked good to eat, but they didn’t manage to catch him and he came limping back to the Oases with a bullet in his leg. The young men were all very concerned, so they loaded him into a truck and took him to the nearest vet, which happened to be four hours away in Cairo. When they arrived at the vet, they took the camel inside (much to everyone’s concern) and were informed that they would have to keep the camel outside until it was their turn and the vet had a chance to look at him. Just as it was about to be their turn, a very rich man rolled up in a Mercedes and hopped out with a tiny white dog in his hands. The dog looked perfectly happy, but the man apparently thought it was time for the dog’s check up or something. So he went strolling up to the front and informed the vet that he was there and needed his dog looked at. The young Bedouin men were all very upset by what was happening so they told the rich man in no uncertain terms that it was their turn next and that their camel needed to be looked at. The rich man turned to the camel’s brother and slapped him for daring to speak to him when he was only a lowly Bedouin. It so shocked the young man that he went outside crying. As soon as the camel saw this, he broke free of his rope and went running inside the clinic, straight to the man with the tiny dog and punched him through a window! He also managed to step on the dog in the process, which didn’t end well for the pup. Needless to say, they had to high-tail it out of there before any of the panicking clients called the police on them and had them all arrested. I never did hear what ended up happening to the poor camel.