Bedouin Hospitality by Amy L. Bovaird
Rocks from the arid desert jostle against the wheels of our 4 x 4. Swirls of dust whip at the windshield, hindering our view. We arrive when we see “Sa’ad Village” scrawled in thick, black Arabic script on a sign.
Inocenta, our campus liaison from Spain, positions herself so everyone can hear. “It’s a historic day. We are the first invited guests to the village of Sa’ad by my Bedouin brothers and sisters here in the United Arab Emirates.” She had once lived and studied the Bedouin lifestyle in the village, creating lifetime friendships and an “in’ to the Bedouin tribe.
Inocenta greets an older woman, kissing cheeks several times. Then, she turns to our group and motions us forward.
The sheikh, village elder and a few other men greet us in a formal line. “Marhaba!” The sheikh repeats his welcome many times to show his hospitality. Our western men shake hands with them, too conservative to greet in the local manner—the same way women do—with kisses. We women do not touch the Bedouin men at all.
Other village women arrive covered from head to toe in sheylas and abiyas—traditional black head scarves and long, black outer garments—worn as proof of their modesty.
They bustle around and shortly, we sit on canvas tarp munching dates and sipping strong coffee, heavily-laced with cardamom. The gahwa, poured into miniature glasses, tastes bitter, with a hint of black licorice.
“You want more? Yes? Hold cup like now. But no like more, maybe you full? You do like this.” Our bearded host demonstrates by tipping the cup back and forth several times. He works his way around the green-plaid tarp, administering only to the men. His floor length white kandura sweeps against the canvas as he bends to tell a joke. A moment later he stoops down to refill a cup, then lifts a plateful of sweet, gooey dates. Only when the men refuse more food does he pause.
The sheikh issues a sharp order.
Two long-haired girls with thick bangs cart out freshly-churned cheese. The first type, thick and soupy, is made from goat’s milk and honey. It tastes like sweet cottage cheese.
We take turns tearing pieces of round bread, wrapping it around a date and dipping the bread into a shared bowl of the cheese. I don’t mind the communal dipping; it seems warm and friendly.
“Taste.” The taller girl extends a second dish. “Jibneh arabieh.”
Both girls chatter in a smattering of English and Arabic as they demonstrate how to
eat the cheese.
We nibble the crunchy pellets, delighted at the girls’ efforts to share their traditions.
After, the women bring out apples, oranges and bananas. “Halwa.” Delicious. As we eat, a musician plays music from the simsimiyya, a traditional harp-like instrument.
Inocenta compliments our hosts and moves among the Bedouins with ease. Dressed in a thin, black scarf and green floor-length skirt, she looks more like a Bedouin than a cultural anthropologist working on a western college campus.
We tour the village, which holds several date farms and camel herds.
“Will any of you ride a camel?” the chieftain asks.
I eyeball the enormous beast at the end of the chieftain’s tether. “I’ll go.”
The chieftain steps my way and cups two hands for me to place my foot. Even though the camel bares its ugly, yellow teeth at me, I slide onto its mottled hump. I rise up into the blue sky, clutching on for dear life. At first, I am surprised by the ungainly forward movement, then smile at the well-wishers, praying that the chieftain holds tightly to the reins. We circle around the area before finally stopping. The sheik gives an expert tap to its front legs and the camel swoops down and kneels on the sand, too fast. With my heart thumping like crazy, I hold onto its hump then jump off.
“No one else dares ride the ship of the desert?” The chieftain sounds disappointed.
But with no takers, we then continue our tour to the sheep and goat pens.
“Oh, look at that sweet lamb,” one woman coos.
“You may choose the sheep we will eat for dinner.” He smiles at the woman as he bestows this honor upon her.
She laughs at what she thinks is a joke until she hears the elder order a tribesman to slit the throat of one poor creature.
The sheikh suggests an outing during the slaughtering phase of the visit. He dips one hand into a pocket and retrieves his cell phone. It seems out of place amid the palm trees and tranquil village life.
We drive to the desert to watch some of the village boys show off their falcons’ powers. Falcon hunting is the traditional sport in the Emirates. We spend the rest of the afternoon learning about falconry.
When we return to the village entrance, Inocenta consults with the sheikh and a few other leaders. None of the women participates in the discussion. Granted the status of western professional as well as beloved tribal sister, Inocenta enjoys more freedom than her local counterparts.
“Our visit to Sa’ad Village has come to an end,” Inocenta informs.
Before we depart, young village boys hand out clear, plastic bags of the recently slaughtered meat. I long to taste the grilled chunks of mutton slathered in humus and stuffed into pockets of traditional aish along with the Bedouins as the sun sets. But the women clear the tarp and roll it up.
“Mashkoora.” I say to the women, hoping ‘thank you’ in the Gulf and Bedouin dialects aren’t too far apart.
Our Arab hosts clasp their hands to their hearts in a final show of hospitality. “Marhaba,” the sheikh repeats, all smiles.
I climb into our four-wheel drive, preparing myself to ride back through the dusty desert as clouds of sand follow me, reminding me of life back in Sa’ad Village.
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