National Geographic : 1956 Jul
Desert Sheikdoms of Arabia's Pirate Coast One by one, half a dozen others repeated his performance. My attempt to photograph the ceremony faltered as several of my flashbulbs failed. I turned to the Arab who was assisting me, to find him violently shaking, his lips quivering. Used bulbs were mixed with the unused ones, and he was haphazardly handing me any one he happened to pick up as he stared blankly ahead. I had him led away. The next performer to enter the circle drove in the stiletto and, when he withdrew it, a trickle of blood ran down his chest. This was the first sign of any injury that I had seen. After the apprentice had beaten himself with the sword, without suffering further injury, the leader rubbed a handful of sand into the wound. When I saw this person later he was still bleeding. After one more youth had entered the circle, the leader stopped the ceremony and every one fell exhausted onto the carpets, where they were served coffee and sweetmeats. Then they disappeared into the night. Demonstration in Author's Home There was a sequel to this ceremony, two months later. An old Iranian, whom I had helped earlier when he had been ill, came to my house and said that he had heard that I was interested in the mureed (apprentice) ceremony. In his trembling hands he held a stiletto. The other people I had seen were nothing, he informed me, and he would repay me in the only way that he was able. The leader I had seen had been his pupil many years ago. Without further ado, and before I could stop him (for I was uneasy lest his intentions should prove too much for his frail body), he drove the stiletto into his shoulder and stood there trembling. When he removed it, I examined the spot and saw a dark mark, about the size of a dime, where his skin had been broken. Lower down was a cluster of small scars. No, he replied in answer to my question, they were not caused by stilettos. They were the marks of revolver bullets fired at him by a former leader! Many times I made reconnaissances on wheels into the hinterland, as well as one or two by camel, during my stay in the Trucial sheikdoms. Among the most exciting of these were trips to the westernmost of the Jiwa villages, inland from the town of Abu Dhabi. Traveling westward along the coastal strip from Dibai, our trucks passed through a bleak land of mirages. One can journey along this coast for hundreds of miles without finding sweet water. Unrecorded numbers of Moslem pilgrims have perished in this wilderness on their way to Mecca. Sun-bleached camel bones are the only milestones. About 150 miles west of Dibai our route turned inland. Here the guide took over, and the convoy of three vehicles slowly made its way through the dunes. Despite low-pressure tires, all the vehicles were sometimes stuck at once in the white, powderlike sand and had to be dug out. Shade temperature rose to 120° F. When pushing the vehicles, we had to hold the burn ing metal with pieces of cloth. Three days later we reached the mountains of sand that envelop the Jiwa settlements. Some of the giant dunes in this range are 500 feet high (pages 78 and 79). It was here that I heard the most amazing of all desert sounds-the roaring of sand. En camped at the foot of one of these high dunes, I heard what sounded like a low-flying aircraft and instinctively glanced upward. The Bed ouin laughingly pointed to the dune and ex plained that the rumbling was caused by sand sliding down its steep face. It is in regions such as this that the bearded Bedouin is frequently found traveling alone. No, never alone, he will tell you. He always travels with God. Five times a day the devout Arab kneels on the cruel sands and pledges his faith. Camels Make Life Possible On occasion I have encountered a young boy many miles from the nearest tent, grazing his camels in some desolate wilderness. The key to his existence would be on his head, a small metal bowl into which he would milk the camels and so provide his food and drink. Wherever he is, the Bedouin depends upon camel's milk as the staple of his diet. The camel, apart from its use as a steed and as a load carrier, furnishes many benefits for the Bedouin. Its milk and meat provide food. Its dung is mixed with herbs and used to dress wounds; dried, it becomes fuel. Camel's hair is woven into a coarse cloth. On rare occasions the animal's reserve of water can be used to save the life of its master. When desperately thirsty the Bedouin thrusts his camel stick down the beast's throat and drinks the water it regurgitates.