© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
For centuries, Saudi Bedouins have passed down their rich oral and poetic storytelling traditions. Their elders have recounted and embellished vivid tales of bravery, skill, and family values, often over a glowing campfire in their desert encampments. Since few written records were kept, the importance of collecting these stories has not been lost to the dwindling number of aging Bedouins who first heard these stories as children.
Recognizing their historical value, Quriyan Mohammed Al-Hajri shares his family’s stories in this series of Tales of the Bedouin, as told to his friend and fellow Aramcon, Mark Lowey. This is the second installment in the series.
In 1957, Quriyan was born deep in the Saudi desert, in the shadow of Jebel Bateel near As Sarrar in the Eastern Province. The stump of a tree and an old oil can remain as the only markers of the spot where his mother gave birth, alone under the stars, a respectable distance from their family tent.
Later, his family moved to a small house in Old Ain Dar. Quriyan first became acquainted with Aramco at age 10, when his Saudi school’s third-grade class went on a field trip to a drilling rig five kilometers from Ain Dar. He and his classmates were welcomed and shown a safety video and given snacks. Impressed by the workers and their busy activity on the rig, Quriyan was inspired to join Aramco, and became a valuable employee responsible for deep-desert surveying. Using his innate “human GPS” skills honed as a Bedouin growing up in the desert, he was instrumental in determining the best routes to access remote water and oil wells, airstrips, as well as the first heavy-haul roads for transportation of supplies and construction materials for the vast industrial complex of Shaybah in the Empty Quarter in 1995.
After a 36-year career, Quriyan retired from Aramco in 2015 and continues now as a part-time consultant. He spends much of his time at his farm in Juneiah, off the Dammam-Riyadh Highway, where he regularly hosts gatherings of Aramcons, students, foreigners, dignitaries, family, and friends. And in the best of Saudi tradition, he remains an enthusiastic ambassador and voice of Bedouin culture and folklore.
Quriyan, age 17. “After staying 1½ years at the G-3 Camp, Rub Al-Khali, I moved to the G-7 Camp at Sumaan Area.”
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
Mohammed Quriyan Al-Hajri
Quriyan’s father, Mohammed Quriyan, was born in 1927 near Naeriyah. Mohammed grew up taking care of his Bedouin family’s herd of camels. In 1939, at age 12, he traveled to the Makkah for the Haj. The caravan comprised 20 people, men and women, including his mother. Few people in those days had cars, so they traveled by camel and on foot. The pilgrimage took four months -- 45 days, one way, some 1,300 kilometers round trip. As a teenager, Mohammed worked for three years with Aramco and then took up a career as a surveyor for an exploration company that served Aramco. He spent time in remote desert areas and helped set the routes of the early railroads in the Eastern Province.
Mohammed Quriyan was an excellent storyteller, sharing the ways of the desert and many fascinating tales with his son.
Quriyan’s father, Mohammed Quriyan.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
My Father’s Son
As told by Quriyan Al Hajri
In July 1973, I started working with Exploration as a laborer on a seismic crew in the area of Sumaan, close to Naeriyah. We worked to the west and east and south and north of this area. At that time, I worked six weeks on, two weeks off. My monthly salary was SR 350, with no overtime pay.
Wintertime came and my family traveled with their camels. As you know, especially in the wintertime, the Bedouins move with their camels, with their animals, looking for grass. By April of the following year, my family and their camels were in the area about 50 kilometers southeast of Naeriyah, near the Radayef area. In Arabic, Radayef means a grouping of mountains or jebels.
I had my days off, and so on April 25, 1974, I went to visit my family. They were near my birthplace, north of Jebel Bateel. At that time, they were living in a tent, made in the traditional style, all black and made of goat and camel hair. There were no white canvas tents in that time, only black goat and camel hair tents. They welcomed me, and we had dinner that night.
The pleasant weather of spring was fading, there were fewer grazing areas, and soon the hot weather would be upon them, making the return travel more difficult. My family was ready to make the journey back home to Ain Dar. It was time for them to be inside their house, a simple cabin made of wood, like the ones you see in a Western film.
The next morning my father pointed to me and said, “Quriyan, we will move back to Ain Dar, and we will leave you alone with the camels. Take the camels to Ain Dar.”
“No problem, my Father,” I said, touching the tip of my nose as a gesture of respect.
Surprised, my mother said, “Wallah, Mohammed Quriyan, why do you want to leave Quriyan alone here? He doesn’t know the route to Ain Dar.”
“No problem. He is my son,” my father replied. “If he is my son, he will come to Ain Dar, and I believe that. He’s a strong man – he is my son.”
Always, I was very close to my father. “No problem, my Father, leave it to me.”
“Whatever you tell me, I will do it,” I told him. “You are on my head,” he said in the Arabic way (‘ala ‘aini wa raasi), meaning, “It is my obligation,” which is the proper reply when someone asks a favor.
I knew there was a good camel in the herd. We called her Makhulah. She was one of the camels born in Ain Dar, around 1969, five years before the first telling of this story. Yes, Makhulah knew the place where she was born. She knew Ain Dar very well. This will be important, as you will see.
And, so, my father told me, “OK, Makhulah, she knows the road. I know you are not familiar with the road, but Makhulah will lead you home.” This was a lesson I learned – to be reliable.
I said “OK, OK.” I would ride Makhulah back to Ain Dar.
So, instead of travelling with my family, I would lose four or five days from my two weeks’ leave to cross the desert by camel and take the herd home. Sometimes, life is not easy, but this was my duty to my father, to my family. They were relying on me.
I packed a saddle bag and put my food, my luggage, everything inside. I took water from the well. My family had left already. I was ready to go.
The road to Ain Dar is called Umm-Alnassain (Mother of the Markers). To prevent travelers from losing their way, due to shifting sands, Aramco placed many markers – steel signposts – along the route. This road was utilized year-round for transporting of materials and supplies to the remote drilling rigs. The signposts still exist, faithfully marking the way.
The first day, the camels and I traveled 35 kilometers. Then, at the Maghreb prayer time before sunset, Makhulah stopped and would not go. The other camels wanted to go hami-hami to Ain Dar. They would walk all night if you allowed them. No, instead, Makhulah was sitting, and all the camels began sitting around her. Somehow, she knew it was time to stop and get ready to sleep into the night. Though I was in a hurry, I realized it was futile to challenge Makhulah’s judgment. In the morning, we woke up and started again.
The second day we managed about 35 kilometers, the third day 40 kilometers, and the last day, I think, 50 kilometers. All in all, we covered about 160 kilometers.
I remember that journey. Near Sahaf, on the Umm-Alnassain road, lies an airstrip and helipad named “Arjun.” It was built to support the drilling activities by the Aramco Exploration Department. My father worked on its construction in 1943. To this day, you can still see the concrete helipad.
I also remember the many varieties of plants and shrubs along the way. Abal bushes, Arfaj shrubs. It’s still clearly in my mind. These days, I don’t know what happened. These plants are now rare or extinct in this area. What happened? Erosion? Lack of rain? The people? I don’t know. What a difference. Because of this, I don’t like a person to cut any piece of wood in the desert. The plants of the desert are precious.
During this trip, I learned many things. I was only 17 years old, but I learned how I could help my father. I learned to depend on myself, to be self-reliant. I learned what it feels like to be lost and to find my way. I learned that the journey can be difficult and lonely, but also enjoyable. I learned about the desert and about myself.
This is a good story for the next generation. As I told you before, life is not easy. There will be times when your parents will depend on you. Appreciate your parents, listen to your father’s advice. And when the time comes, trust their judgment and believe in yourself, because they believe in you. I learned that in life, you should taste the lemon before the honey.
Thanks to my father, these are some of the good lessons I have learned in life. That’s why I did it again in 2011 (excursion to the Rub Al Khali) when I took the camels from Nadqan to Umm al Hadidah, some 270 kilometers. It was not easy to prepare the people, the camels, supplies. But nothing is impossible in life. From many years ago and throughout his life, my father gave me important skills. I will always remember my father’s words as if it were yesterday, because I am my father’s son.
Quriyan, present day, with one of his prized camels.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
Makhulah the Camel
The Arabian Sun, November 2008
By Quriyan Al-Hajri and John Pint
Reprinted with Permission
Once upon a time in Ain Dar, my family had a female camel named Makhulah. She was beautiful creature and a natural leader. Now, usually we keep the camels hobbled (with rope around their ankles), but one time, my father forgot to re-tie Makhulah’s rope, and so she left Ain Dar – and took all the herds with her!
Well, we waited for them to come back, and then we waited some more, but they didn’t come back. Then my father said, “Pack up your things, we are going to get the camels.”
“But we don’t know where they are!” I said.
“But, father, how can you know that? The desert is so vast!”
“Oh, Quriyan, my son,” he said, “it’s simple. Makhulah was born near Sahaf, wasn’t she? So, that’s where we are going to find her.”
Now, the village of Sahaf is nearly 200 kilometers north of Ain Dar. My father and I drove straight there and arrived at 4 p.m. “We’ll go to the drinking trough,” said my father.
We went there and saw plenty of camels, but none of ours were among them. My father said, “They will come, you’ll see.”
So, we spent one night there and nothing happened. By the following night none of our camels had yet appeared. But then, at midnight, my father came to me. I was asleep under the car. “Pssst, Quriyan. Wake up. Wake up!”
I said, “What’s up, father?”
“Come, I’ll show you.”
Now he took me a little way away, and there in the distance, I could see the shapes of many, many camels. Now Makhulah knew my father’s voice very well, so he started to call: “Ma-khulaaaah! Ma-khulaaaah!”
Then my father went and hid underneath the car. And Makhulah appeared in the dark, and she went to the car and leaned over and kissed my father right where he was. And my father started to cry. He was so overcome that it seemed his lungs were going to burst.
“I love you, Quriyan,” he said, “but I love this camel, as well.”
And I began to cry, too.
As it turns out, Makhulah was, in fact, born in Ain Dar. Quriyan’s father would take his camel herd to the Sahaf area nearly every winter.
Quriyan explained, “Makhulah and the camels know the Sahaf area during autumn to spring -- during ‘green time.’ The camels know the grass. They spend summer in Ain Dar. By October, the camels try to go straight to that area, that’s why we lost them. Makhulah loves the green pastures there and the drinking trough!”