© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

My Saudi friend, Quriyan Mohammed Al-Hajri, and I keep in touch every few days by video call. He is at his farm in Junayah, near Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, and I am in California. In these days of the COVID-19 crisis, both of us are keeping a low profile and obeying the instructions of our respective governments and communities. We keep each other up to date on personal news, and I press him for detailed information – stories from the past and present – to be shared in the series, “Tales of the Bedouin.”

Next month I plan to submit the second installment of “Bathan the Well Digger.”

Part 3

Following is an edited transcription of recent conversations with Quriyan and his recollections of his past:

March 2020 – Quriyan’s New Reality

Due to the Coronavirus, my government has recently imposed a Kingdom-wide curfew from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Schools and businesses in Saudi Arabia are closed, and everyone is requested to stay home, not to meet with others. I can no longer entertain friends and colleagues at my farm as I am accustomed. Instead, I decided to visit the desert as often as I can. Luckily, I can drive out to the open space and be alone and away from everything. I want to revisit my birthplace and the remote jobsites where I worked as a teenager. My friends say, “Abu Mohammed, you’re crazy! Why spend your time walking in the desert? You’re getting old!” Like that, you know. No one encourages me. I will go alone and enjoy the life!

Tales of the Bedouin - Part IV: Quriyan’s First Job and the Lure of the Desert
Quriyan walking barefoot, wearing traditional thobe and ghutra.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

July 1973 – Jebel Bateel

At age 16, I started working for Western Geophysical Service International, an American contractor, laying out surveying alignments in support of Aramco’s Exploration Department. I had no money and no work experience. I spoke a little English, and I was a fast learner. I worked hard, didn’t complain, and I liked working with the Americans.

In the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, in the area called Sumaan, near the town of As Sarrar, we surveyed in all directions. I was familiar with this area, because my birthplace at Jebel Bateel was nearby. Initially, I was a laborer with a salary of SR 350 per month (USD $90), not including overtime. We worked six weeks on and two weeks off. I was fortunate to receive overtime pay for the four additional hours I worked each day, and this nearly doubled my take-home pay. Later, I was assigned to the Seismic Crew, and before long, I was promoted to Line Foreman for the Recording Crew.

Cowboy Dan

My boss was a cowboy from Wyoming named Dan Houkey. He wore a large cowboy hat and towered over all of us – he must have been 6’ 6”. Dan affectionately called me “Bedu.”

“Hey, Bedu,” he would shout over the radio. “What are y’all doin’? Get back here! Over.” We were a three-man crew, placing surveying flags along a surveyed alignment of several kilometers. Walking forward, every hundred yards, or so, one of us would mark the spot, another would place the marker flag in its approximate position, and the third would fine-tune its position.

Cool Drinking Water

In a cloth bag over my shoulder, I carried a sandwich and a can of juice as we walked for up to 10 kilometers placing markers. The most important item I carried was my water bag. American “Desert Water Bags” were issued to each of us. Once or twice a day, a water tanker truck would come out to meet us to refill our water bags. It was summer and the weather was hot!

Tales of the Bedouin - Part IV: Quriyan’s First Job and the Lure of the Desert

The Desert Water Bag is an American Icon that uses the centuries-old technology of cooling water through evaporation. It is made of flax duck canvas from Scotland that has a higher thread count than ordinary canvas. “Duck” canvas has nothing to do with waterfowl. The name comes from the Dutch word for linen cloth, “doek,” and was originally used for ship sails and tents due to its durability and resistance to water and fire. [1]

Instructions are printed on the back of each bag: “Cools by evaporation. Saturate before using. Dry open bag in sun once a week.”

Desert water bags were once a common sight on the highways of the American Southwest. Designed to keep water cool under hot conditions, these bags were available at service stations and general stores, where they could be filled with water and hung on the outside of the vehicle to keep them cool. [2]

More recently, in August 1990, US Marines arrived in Saudi Arabia at the start of the Gulf War. The water in their regulation canteens became too hot to drink in the desert. Commanders quickly procured 10,000 simple, ventilated water bags made of flax cloth from Scotland to keep drinking water cool for the troops. [3]

The field operation team was 40-50 men – all Saudis except boss Dan. We would cover a 100-kilometer section in two weeks. At night we slept four-to-a-tent in a mobile “fly” camp that would be set up in a new location every seven days or so, depending on the distance covered as the surveying work progressed. Our water bags hung from the tent pole to keep them cool overnight. We used communal showers that were temporarily set up next to a water tank out in the open. There was no privacy – everyone could see you as you showered.

The Scorpion

One evening after dinner, my colleague had just finished his shower and was toweling off. Suddenly he cried out in pain, stung on the hand by a large yellow scorpion that had been hiding in his towel. Because scorpions are common in the desert, you must frequently check your bedsheets, clothes, and shoes. The yellow scorpion is larger and more poisonous than the more common black-colored variety.

My friends and I quickly killed the scorpion while the sting victim screamed and cried. Our remote camp had only basic first aid supplies and no doctor or nurse. I decided to go see boss Dan in his portable trailer.

“Hey, Bedu, what can I do for you?” he asked. I explained what had happened and asked him what to do.

“Go ahead, take him to the village in my truck,” was Dan’s response. He threw me the keys to his new 1974 GMC pick-up. It was a beautiful vehicle and, holding the keys, I felt like a prince. I had driven my cousin’s old truck a few times, but I wasn’t sure if I knew how to drive Dan’s truck.

The only vehicle in the camp, Dan’s truck had 4-wheel-drive and was equipped with a large steel “bull-bar” shield in front of the grill. When I pulled up to our tent, everyone crowded around, very impressed that I had been given permission to drive the boss’s truck. “Oh, Quriyan, how lucky you are,” they marveled. “You must be very important!” Their attention temporarily diverted, the group helped my poor friend into the truck. His hand was now very swollen, and he was still complaining loudly.

Medical Treatment

Comprising a few small mud-brick dwellings surrounding a simple mosque, the tiny village of Quraiyah Al Ulya was a 30-minute drive away. In those days, the Kingdom’s electrical grid development program established by SCECO had not yet reached most remote villages, so this area had no permanent electricity, and power generators were routinely shut down late in the evening. When we arrived, the unpaved streets were dark and deserted. We knocked on a few doors and learned that there was one doctor in town, a Pakistani.

We located the doctor’s home, and our knocking woke him up. He wore a wrinkled shalwar kameez and was grouchy and impatient. He glanced briefly at my crying friend and his hand, still swollen and causing much pain. I was surprised that the doctor administered no treatment, no heartbeat check, nothing. He just gave us a small bottle of aspirin tablets and dismissed us with a quick wave.

During the return trip, my friend’s pain began to subside, but I got lost in the darkness. There were so many tracks in the sand and gravel, and I couldn’t find the way. I stopped on a rise, a low jebel, and looked around. Nothing. I tried it again further on. Finally, far in the distance, I saw a little light on a pole that I knew must be our mobile camp. We arrived back at midnight after searching for over three hours. Finally, back in his tent, my friend was still not well. He dutifully took his aspirin and slept fitfully that night. By morning, he had recovered, Alhamdulillah, and took the day off from work. Thank goodness for the aspirin!

Walking into the Past

This year I wanted to walk the routes that I had once surveyed as a teenager. What a difference – now driving in luxury to the sites and returning each night to the comfort of my home in Junayah.

For several days in a row, I depart my farm at 6 a.m., arriving at the site around 7 a.m. I start walking at 8 a.m. Sometimes I go alone and walk a long loop back to my truck. Other times I am accompanied by my driver or one of my sons. We plan a long route for the day, maybe 20 kilometers. As I walk alone, my driver takes the vehicle ahead of me by a mile or two. Sometimes I can see him. I walk or run until noon. Then I stop for a break. I drink water and eat the dates that I carry with me.

I resume walking all afternoon. Sometimes, I see some wild camels. Normally, there would be many Bedouins and camels around. I think most of the people and the herds have returned to their villages, where it’s much easier to feed and water the camels. Barley and hay are readily available there.

Bedouin Tonic

I believe walking improves my health and increases my resistance to illness. The exercise benefits me. Being in the desert, it is quiet. You can see for miles. I am calm. These things refresh my mind and clarify my memories. I heard that the Coronavirus does not grow in the desert. Only in the house. Maybe this is true, maybe not.

The doctor also said to eat more greens and vegetables. Reduce sugar, salt and white bread. Honey is a good substitute for sugar. To prevent sickness or to soothe a sore throat or a cold, my mother used to prepare a traditional Bedouin remedy: mix lemon juice, ground ginger, and honey in warm water. Some people like to add ground lemon peel, too. Drink it in the morning and before bed at night.

Small Gestures of Kindness

Every time I go out, especially on trips to the desert, I prepare small snack bags to give to anyone I might meet. This time I carried a few bags, each with an orange juice, pastry, and a small bottle of water. I have done this for many years.

My mother taught me valuable lessons when I was a boy. She has a big heart and would feed any stranger who showed up at our tent or at our home in Ain Dar. “It is our duty to help our brothers and sisters whether they are family, friends, or strangers,” she would tell me.

Tales of the Bedouin - Part IV: Quriyan’s First Job and the Lure of the Desert
Quriyan met two camel herders during his desert walk.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

Camel Herders

Today I encountered a camel herd, being led by two herders, moving from north to south.

These days camel herders are typically expatriates employed by the herd’s owners. Most are Sudanese, while others might be from India or Bangladesh. Usually, they dress in Arab thobe and ghutra – the ideal attire for hours spent in the desert. Sometimes, they add a ball cap, with visor, under their head gear to better block the bright sun.

I approached the herders and asked for the news. They told me that winter rains had been plentiful in the north and the grazing there was excellent. Spring and summer are approaching, and they are making their way southward, heading for the area south of Haradh. They will stay there for the summer near many water wells.

The Knowledge

Strangers who meet in the desert always exchange the usual polite greetings and then ask each other for “the news.” For centuries, the main topics of conversation nearly always revolve around where each party has come from and what are the conditions along their route. Where has rain fallen? What are the locations and quality of grazing areas for the camels? Hearsay and second-hand information are also communicated as valuable collective knowledge.

Camel nomads depend on their camels to survive. The camels provide transportation and nourishment (milk). Bedouins have been known to survive on a diet of only camel milk and dates for weeks at a time. Camels can survive for long periods without water and feed, but milk production diminishes as the camel becomes thirstier and hungrier. The winter grasses contain a considerable amount of moisture, which the camels can absorb. [4] Therefore, the desert dweller’s top priority is to find suitable grazing. Possession of such knowledge can be the difference between survival and death.

Spiritual Healing

Each day as I retrace the footsteps of my youth, I am very thankful. I am walking in the beautiful desert. I chant and repeat prayers from the Quran, the Salat al Duha.

The Salat al Duha (the Duha prayer) is the voluntary Islamic prayer between the obligatory Islamic prayers of Fajr (before sunrise) and Dhuhr (midday). The time for the Salat al Duha begins when the sun has risen to the height of a spear, which is fifteen or twenty minutes after sunrise, until just before the sun reaches its zenith at noon. The Salat al Duha is done to forgive sins and as a form of charity. [5]

Tales of the Bedouin - Part IV: Quriyan’s First Job and the Lure of the Desert
Quriyan, in western dress and running shoes, takes a break from a recent long walk to drink coffee and offer prayers of gratitude.
© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.

I thank God for my health, my family, and all my blessings. I am so happy walking. I ask God to forgive me. Sometimes tears come to my eyes. Nobody is there. The skies are clear. The desert is clean. It feels much cleaner – almost shining – than it was 45 years ago. It is very quiet and peaceful. I think the environment is improving. Can it be that nearly a half-century has passed?

Before long, I find my companion waiting for me behind a jebel with my truck nearby. He has built a fire and welcomes me with coffee and tea. After this timely break, we get in the truck and head home to my farm. As we drive through the desert, I wonder how long before my footprints will disappear with the desert wind into the shifting sands.

Endnotes / Credits:

[1] Lee, Young. Textile Tales: Duck Canvas. Heddels.com. (2015).

[2] Corrigan, Richard. About Desert Water Bags. GoneOutdoors.com.

[3] Tessler, Ray. Desert Survival Is in the Bag for Marines. Los Angeles Times. (1990).

[4] Cole, Donald P. Nomad of the Nomads. Aldine Publishing Co. p. 46. (1975). ISBN 0-202-01118-6.

[5] Duha. Wikipedia. (2011).

Mark Lowey
Quriyan and Abu Jack visited the Fazran camel trough in March 2019.

Author's Bio: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.

A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.

Twitter: @molowey
Facebook: @bedouinconnection
Email: moloworking1@gmail.com

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