Every Syrian I have ever met, and you can throw the Jordanians, Iraqis and Saudis in there too, has claimed that his family was badu, Bedouin, and not all that far back either. It’s an ancient boast and has to do with, among other things, the belief that it was the Bedouin who spoke the purest form of Arabic. And if Islam is the chiefest religion of the Arabs, it can be argued that the Arabic language is a very close second. The descent claim is in part true, but only deep down where it doesn’t count, in the seventh or eighth century. For the last fifteen generations or so, any given Syrian is far more likely to have had a taxi driver or a pistachio vender as his forebear.
But it’s a harmless boast, akin to saying that one of your grandfathers was at the Polo Grounds when Bobby Thompson hit his home run or that your mother was at Woodstock and, well, you know… Most Syrians now live in cities and good sized towns and so their actual contact with Bedouin is likely to be more fanciful than real. The Bedouin themselves, whatever they once were, are now a pretty shabby lot, except maybe the Saudi Arabian variety who are loftily subsidized as a Saudi monument to themselves, a Mount Rushmore of the steppe, or in the Negev where the Israelis maintain them as a kind of tented theme park for tourists.
The badu have fallen upon hard times or, perhaps better, remained in hard times while their more sedentary brethren moved from villages to towns and cities, trading in their camels for donkeys and then for cars as they slowly climbed upward from the ranks of porters and taxi drivers to the government job they all aspired to. It certainly beat chasing sheep (les petits Bedouin) or camels (les grands Bedouin) hundreds of miles back and forth across the steppe. Once the great tribes swept across the steppe, minding the large herds with which and on which they lived, making off in season with the chattel, beasts and women of their sedentary neighbors, and then returning home to sing of their little skirmishes in the wilderness—male life on the steppe was far too fragile and precious to risk losing it in anything much more serious than a shouting match—as if they were cuirassed warriors before windy Troy. As a matter of cold fact, T.E. Lawrence’s little Arabian adventure in WWI may have been the last discernible Bedouin thumbprint on the page of history.
Most Bedouin have had the sense to move, or been driven, off the steppe into towns either by necessity or by the government, which has never taken kindly to armed men wandering unsupervised across the landscape, even if they spoke a very pure Arabic and the guns they bore were far more likely to explode in the hands of owner than to do any damage to the putative target. And the few nomads left in the great Syro-Arabian wilderness are not the determined defenders of a noble tradition but simply those without the wit to kill and eat the last goat, cut the horsehair tent into placemats and head for the nearest electric light.
My own encounters with those once proud people were in odd circumstances and places in the shallow steppe just beyond the sown lands and 250 ml. annual rainfall line which marks the limit of “the sown,” where agriculture is possible and outside of which the steppe begins; or in the towns along its edge where once the Bedouin raided and traded and where their now humbled descendants come to bargain for tobacco and coffee. Deep within the steppe, beyond the 100ml. isohyet lies the true desert, where little life beyond lizards and National Geographic photographers survives. Bedouin do not live in the desert, where there is no vegetation; they and their animals inhabit the steppe whose expanding (winter) and contracting (summer) grassland they chase back and forth across its wide breadth. It is that contracting summer pasturage that drew the badu into the farms, backyards and eventually the bedrooms of the terrified agriculturalists. Well stocked with tobacco, pistols and fresh wives, the Bedouin wave eventually receded, though all concerned understood they would be back the following June.
Those days are long over. There are no great herds or great tribes moving across the steppe; their humbled successors now eke out a marginal existence in or near the towns they once terrified. No one claims to be their descendants; when my Syrian friends boast their Bedouin ancestry, they are dreaming of some pre-Islamic paladin or, for the more romantically inclined, of that master shot of Omar Sharif riding in toward that waterhole on his gaudily caparisoned camel. It was one of those dreamers who told me, with great excitement, that there was to be a “Bedouin wedding” in the steppe-edge town east of Homs where we were spending the night. “We must go,” he insisted. “I am, as you know, from badu.” Excellent. And I am, don’t you know, a direct descendant of Francis of Assisi.
We arrived at the wedding about eight in the evening, at what point in the proceedings it was difficult to tell in this rambling liturgy. My knowing guide headed directly to the major attraction, the bride. She looked about fifteen as she sat rigid upon her throne in the glaringly lit, suffocating room, her hands fiercely gripping the arms. The beldames of the village crowded around her, fixing and fussing, clucking, singing, scolding. Her heavily kohled eyes were half-closed, head tilted back. She was, I thought, drugged, or at least heavily sedated, wrapped like a not terribly expensive doll, head to toe, in polyester swathing every unpleasant color of the acrylic spectrum. It was terrible to behold, more terrible to think what the rest of the night held in store for her.
The groom was outside in the courtyard, gotten up in a suit an odd color black, white shirt and tie to which he was clearly unaccustomed and which was equally clearly unaccustomed to him. He and his bravo pals were exchanging ribaldries and swilling arak as fast as they could refill their glasses. It was not going to be a pleasant evening for either bride or groom, that is, unless Allah in his well-known mercy caused them both to pass out, he from drunkenness, she from terror, even as they were crossing the lintel into the marriage bower.
All this grew thin rather quickly, and we withdrew to an alley at the side of the house to sit in the darkness, smoke and contemplate the folly of human affairs. After a while a small boy appeared —most of the ordinary tasks in Middle Eastern societies, from hauling water to watch repair, are performed by boys between 9 and 14— carrying a tin dish with a napkin draped over it.
“The father of the house sends this to his honored guests.”
Anywhere and everywhere among the Arabs, anyone who wanders into a house, invited or uninvited, is an honored guest.
My friend took the dish in his hands and instructed the boy to carry our most effusive thanks back to the father of the house.
“A Bedouin delicacy, I’m sure,” he murmured in a tone I could not quite identify, and he settled down on the ground, his back ever so symbolically against the house wall.
The delicacy the head of a very dead sheep.
I knew about this, my knowledge deriving as usual from movie depictions of Bedouin feasts in tents the size of velodromes, on carpets so thick you needed to be winched out of their depths with block and tackle, and surrounded by vigorous, battle scarred badu shouting “I am a river to my people.” If my friend fantasized Omar Sharif, I preferred Anthony Quinn.
My fantasies were highly detailed, the result of many profitable hours spent sitting in dark movie houses. I had always imagined the sheep’s head centerpiece, the host’s token of esteem for his most estimable guests, as a white and curly woolly thing, its soulful Disney eyes turned heavenward like those of a Christian martyr, resting on a large silver salver and surrounded by mountains of the fluffiest white rice in the entire shaykhdom.
How life refuses to imitate art! Here the scrawny naked sheep’s skull lay dark brown and desolate in the tin plate. My friend, dripping courtesy, and with perhaps the slightest undertaste of nausea, passed the dish to me.
“Please! First my honored guest.”
The game was already over, of course, but I was not above scoring a few points in overtime. My fantasies provided no sure guidance on how to eat a sheep’s head. I made a quick decision on where there might be some actual meat on that withered skull and pinched a bit of leathery flesh from the poor beast’s cheek. My friend watched closely as I put it carefully into my mouth and started to chew. It not only looked like leather; it tasted like leather. But I got it down.
“Delicious,” I said as I handed the dish back to him. “An eye perhaps for my esteemed host?”
A momentary pause. Then, hand to heart, his head tilted back in the unmistakable Arab gesture suggesting everything from “No, thanks” to “You’ve got to be out of your friggin’ head!” I think it was the latter he was trying to convey.
“Not tonight, my friend. I think I may have had some bad fish for lunch.”
Maybe, but what I had for dinner was a very bad badu pretender. In a single instant he had tumbled from prince of the desert to village knave; worse, a soft apartment dweller who got his knowledge of the Bedouin from the same tainted Hollywood springs as myself, where no one ever served up a sheep‘s head without at least a dollop of mayonnaise and a sprig of parsley.
Well, not entirely from movies perhaps. True Bedouin survived in some places well into the nineteenth century, when Englishmen and other Europeans began roving the steppe in search of exotic adventure. Before the more flamboyant T. E. Lawrence had his Arabian adventure, there was, for example, Charles Doughty, a rather tight-buttoned Englishman— no barracks canings for him— who wandered Western Arabia and left an account, Travels in Arabia Deserta, that makes Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom sound like a rather pedestrian tale.
One place of Bedouin resort for which we have detailed accounts is Ha’il, an oasis in the midst of the North Arabian steppe where the canny shaykhs of the Banu Rashid had discovered, like others before them, that trade and tribute—the Bedouin had a lock on the camel, the chief means of Middle Eastern overland transport and a formidable weapon of rapid deployment—were more profitable than animal husbandry, and in the nineteenth century they were living in some degree of mud-brick splendor, while the occasional European came and went through their low doorways and tent flaps.
That Ha’il is no more, and the Saudis, who succeeded the Rashidis and had both an ideology—they were fundamentalist Wahhabis–and, as it turned out, oil, live in real palaces in Riyadh and Jidda. But vestiges of their style survive. Once, while visiting Dayr al-Zuhr on the Middle Euphrates, I was invited to join a municipal official who had some business to conduct with the local shaykh, “a real Bedouin prince,” I was assured. He was the head of the tribe of the Banu Halima who lived scattered across the steppe along the south bank of the Euphrates.
Dayr al-Zur is not a terribly imposing place to begin with—zur are the brush that grow along the Euphrates—though there’s no reason it should have been; the only really imposing elements in Syria are what the Greeks and Romans built there in antiquity, the Christians in late antiquity and the Muslims in the Middle Ages. Modern times have been pretty much of a washout, imposing wise. The Syrians have electricity and paved roads and indoor toilets; they even fly MIGs. But a glance up at almost any Syrian office building reveals that they have no idea of how Venetian blinds work. My hotel room in Dayr had a flush toilet; the flush chain was not attached to a tank, however, but firmly to the concrete ceiling. Videtur, ergo est.
Anthropologists who use the paper clip scale to divide developed societies into those that have eliminated paperwork entirely (“utopian”), those that keep their paperwork together with staples (“advanced”), with paper clips (“developing”), and with straight pins (“primitive”). Syria is currently somewhere between the new-fangled paper clip and the beloved straight pin, which is tenaciously hanging on in banks, whence the inevitably tattered Syrian currency is dispensed to the public. Happily, none of this depresses the Syrian who was, until recently, a good natured fellow, affable, hospitable and generous in the best Arab fashion; and I suppose, after all, there are more important things in life than leveling the Venetian blinds.
Early Dayr al-Zur was one of those target and/or market villages on the south bank of the Euphrates that the Bedouin simultaneously supported and looted. The modern town is the product of the Ottoman Turks’ nineteenth century attempt to turn Syria into a real country. The Bedouin were advised to stop the raiding and settle down; Dayr was made the capital of a large but sparsely populated prefecture and given the rudiments of a municipal government. Between the wars the French tried to turn Syria into a French-speaking country, but their efforts never quite reached Dayr. It was now an actual town, however, with a straight main street that runs parallel to the river, a few shabby office buildings faced in gray concrete, with off-kilter blinds and an army of pin-pushers within.
My Michelin guide to Syria lieth not about Dayr al-Zur. It is dubious about consuming the local fish. It regretfully confesses that there are no acceptable hotels in town, no grande mosquée, no fortresses, lighthouses or hippodromes; not even a decent set of ruins to entertain and enlighten the traveler. There was, however, a vue, in this case of the Euphrates, which might be had from Dayr’s one and only landmark, an extremely modest suspension footbridge across the Euphrates. But I was not in Dayr for the vue or even out of a more general curiosité, but for more sober business that now included, inshallah, a visit to “a real Bedouin prince” of the Banu Halima.
The shaykh visited the black tents of his people from time to time but his actual residence was a rather grand house standing solitary at the very margin of the steppe about ten miles south of Dayr. It was a two-storey affair and, though there were no neighbors for miles around, was surrounded with a high enclosing wall. Arabs have little care or thought for public space. The French made little squares in the towns and plunked down an elegant clock tower in the midst of it in the vain hope that the Syrians might make note of the time and get on with it; the more practical modern regimes prefer to use these places for monuments to themselves. But even now, public spaces like sidewalks, parks and plazas are somewhat alien notions in an urban Arab society, and the principal monuments of an Arab city are likely either portraits of contemporary rulers or a splendid mosque funded out of private piety in the thirteenth century.
Private space is another matter entirely. A man’s home is his castle resonates nowhere more loudly than in the Arab world. Utter privacy begins at the gate and is guaranteed by a high surrounding wall. And it is more than the ladies of the house that are being shielded; behind the blank face of that wall lies concealed whatever prosperity the owner possesses, protected from the envious gaze of others, the greedy hand of the tax collector and government’s rapacious tendency to confiscate what it cannot collect. Our shaykh may have never paid a tax in his life on the dues he collects from his tribal brethren just over the horizon. Some of that income is doubtless invested in commercial properties in Dayr al-Zur, but a goodly portion rests, in one form or another of splendor, in his mansion sitting unassumingly behind its wall near the Euphrates.
Splendor is a relative thing, and modern Syrian splendor is a far cry from its Damascene counterpart of centuries past with its precious inlays and hammered gold and silver, its imported Persian miniatures, gloriously illuminated manuscripts and glowing Central Asian carpets. The urban bourgeoisie now flutter their wealth before public eyes in the form of American cigarettes, Scotch whiskey and the glint of car keys thrown carelessly on café tables next to the Marlboros and the Dewars.
The shaykh was immune to such conspicuous galanteries. His riches, if not spiritual, were interior. His house was furnished in the finest Italian Overstuffed style, with sparkling near-crystal chandeliers from the ateliers of China, pristine carpets from the mechanical looms of Turkey and a coffee table that would have been comfortably at home in the three bedroom ranch of a contractor in East Meadow, Long Island.
On arrival we had been told that the shaykh was not at home. My companion went off to deal with the shaykh’s bailiff, but, I was informed, the lady of the house would be most honored to receive the distinguished visitor from abroad, which was apparently me. “Lady of the house,” sitt al-bayt, seemed a little grandiose for a badu, but I suppose proximity to the urban sophistication might soften even the toughest old nomad. But the house too did not fit into my idea of how a shaykh might live, so I had no idea what to expect. Some kohl-eyed exotic, veiled to the eyeballs but whose sinuous body somehow managed to signal unspeakable pleasures from beneath her concealing robes?
But whatever the splendors of the house, and even my gaudy imaginings of its mistress, they were quickly eclipsed by the rising of a bright new star in the heavens. Or I should say descent, since this particular luminous presence was even then descending the broad carpeted stairway from the private quarters on the second floor. It was the shaykh’s wife. She came down slowly, step by delicate step, the hem of her gauzy white robe daintily raised to reveal two red velvet slippers. She paused at the bottom, as if to allow me to absorb the tableau.
What stood before me was a doll-like woman of perhaps forty, her lightly powdered face the whitest of whites, lightly kohled hazel eyes, gentle red lipstick, with jet black hair that descended to her shoulders in delicate curls from beneath her gauzy head cloth. A red sash the color of her slippers circled a waist that whispered, ever so quietly, that she had borne the shaykh some children.
Her voice was of her essence. Ahlan wasahlan, “Welcome,” she said in a musical whisper. She extended a tiny hand, as white and delicate as porcelain. I had a sudden urge to seize her hand and graze it with my lips in a gesture that was probably invented on an MGM back lot. But no. Even I realized that would be somewhat less than appropriate, especially since there was standing in the doorway a large male person swathed in a bandolier and with what may or may not have been a ceremonial dagger tucked into his waistband. I merely touched the end of her fingers. It was enough.
Asseyez-vous, je vous prie, ”Please be seated.”
The lady spoke no English, and at that stage my Arabic would not have carried me much beyond asking for a glass of cold water or coolly inquiring “What is the exact extent of the circuit wall of this interesting ancient site?” So we labored along in French. It soon became clear why I was honored with an audience. The lady of the house rattled around in her mansion alone, except for a cook, a chambermaid and a couple of guys in bandoliers. There were no shopping excursions to Aleppo, no taste of the much-vaunted nightlife of Dayr al-Zur. (Ca n’existe pas, I assured her.) So an exotically garbed guest—in the clueless 70s I often took the field in blue trousers with vertical yellow stripes—from abroad was a rare treat indeed. If the shaykh had been at home, she would have witnessed the proceedings from the top of the staircase, but here we were, seated almost knee to knee—actually about eight feet apart—chatting on and on, lubricated with plentiful tea and I at least filled with peanuts and pistachios and stoked with numerous Marlboros offered from the ultimate sign of Syrian gentility, a freshly opened pack.
She, Umm al-Tarifa—“Please, je m’appele Jamila,” she said about twenty minutes in—was a Circassian, a descendant of the North Caucasus people, the fierce warriors whom the Ottoman Turks transplanted into villages around the perimeters of their empire in the nineteenth century. Every Arab with red hair and/or blue eyes, a type that pops up with some regularity in the Middle East, now claims that he is a descendant of the Frankish Crusaders. He is in fact invariably a closet Circassian. But here the lady freely admitted her origins since her husband had paid dearly for them. The white-skinned Circassian was a high priced commodity on the Arab bridal market and, like most trophy wives, more valued for the show than for the performance. No matter. The shaykh had other outlets for his needs. There were three more wives, Bedouin mortar, so to speak, spread with care among the black tents out on the nearby steppe and, it was admiringly whispered in town, a comely concubine in Dayr al-Zuhr.
Jamila was the crown, however, of his taste and opulence, framed in this lavish setting of a house for all to see and admire when the shaykh held his levées there and the sitt al-bayt glided silently and gracefully from upstage left to upstage right, untouchable but highly visible. No veils for Umm al-Tarifa. Veils were for townspeople; the Bedouin disdained such. Besides, if you own a Bentley, you don’t want to hide it in the garage.
The shaykh’s tribe, what was left of it, did not wander far from the Euphrates these days. It was now semi-nomadic at best. They shifted their encampments from time to time, now no longer to follow the great herds across the steppe in search of pasturage but simply to remove themselves from their own garbage. Their “herds” were now in fact a dispirited passel of goats who, themselves in the grip of modernity, would much rather munch than trek in any event. The entire enterprise floated on a government subsidy, issued to and distributed by the shaykh. He was indeed a river to his people, but the water came from farther upstream. The old Bedouin ways were maintained, but they were now on life support, a shadow hybrid somewhere between Colonial Williamsburg and the real thing.
I never did get to see the shaykh, but my visit was anything but a disappointment. Already on the trip back to Dayr al-Zur I realized that my unexpected peek into his “harem”—it is difficult to imagine anything more remote from a “harem” than that lonely lady in that house—was likely to have been a far more rewarding experience than an hour of peanuts and patter with her husband.
My actual encounter with the elusive badu occurred, like much else in the Syrian Arab Republic, by the sheerest chance. A friend and colleague at the Syrian Department of Antiquities was commissioned to inspect the site called Nemara, a small collection of tombs famous as the locus of the earliest example of written Arabic. It occurred on a funerary inscription memorializing an Arab shaykh named Imr al-Qays and, happily, dating itself to 328 A.D. The inscription itself, carved on the lintel of a tomb, had long since been removed to the Louvre by the acquisitive French archeologists who discovered it, and so this was simply a routine site inspection, to check up on the condition of the place.
There are two ways of getting to Nemara, 60 miles southeast from Damascus or 30-odd miles due east of Suwayda on the Jebel Druze, both of them bad. French ordinance maps of Syria are crisscrossed with thin broken threads described as mauvais pistes, “nasty tracks.” But, as it turns out, there is mauvais and mauvais, and some of the nastiest of all lie in southeastern Syria, the lava lands where volcanic eruptions have covered the landscape with their by-products, from the rich red soil of the Hawran to the boulder-strewn impassable triangle called the Leja, the “Rough Place” (Trachonitis) of the ancients, that has harbored ruffians of all types. I have enjoyed the fruits of the first—the Hawran is the breadbasket of Syria—and, like everyone else, avoided the second. This trek was, however, to be my introduction to the unpleasant middle ground, the harra, the steppe blanketed with black basalt rocks ranging in size from golf balls to basketballs.
We set out from Damascus in the inevitable Toyota pickup truck, a driver, my friend Kassem in the middle, and I at the window. A little tight perhaps on the spring-sprung bench, but we were among friends, were we not, and it was only sixty miles. We began with the falsest of false starts, a concrete paved highway leading south from Damascus. Then we turn east onto a nice asphalted road. Easy going. Windows open, billows of Marlboro smoke spewing over the countryside. Then onto a dirt road. No big deal in Syria where the surfaces are hard and generally clean. Some dust now, so the windows go up.
Part of the nastiness of the piste is that it creeps up on you and doesn’t show itself until after you’ve gone too far to think of turning back. How much farther can it be, you think in your folly. Might as well keep going. At first there are some basalt grapes on the road; ping-ping, you can hear the crunching down below. Now walnuts—pong-pong—then handballs, tennis balls, baseballs, softballs-bing, bang, boom. Full stop.
We are twenty miles short of Nemara, twenty miles of undulating, sun bleached harra, all glaring yellow above, all menacing black underfoot. The driver pretends insouciance, an affect well beyond the range of any Syrian, living or dead. He shifts into a low gear unmentioned in the manual and which I imagine as “LL/Barely Moving.” The speedometer does not feel it worthwhile to record our forward progress. I do the math in my head: twenty miles at .01 mph: we should reach Nemara in the middle of next week. We creep on, literally feeling our way, man and Toyota.
It was late afternoon when we stumbled upon a solitary black tent pitched in a wadi, one of the dry arroyos that snaked across this blasted black landscape. We stopped. If we were surprised, the inhabitants of this homestead, a man, a woman, two small children, a goat and what appeared to be a pack of wild dogs, were dumbfounded. Well, the dogs were not exactly dumbfounded: they rushed out and surrounded the truck, barking and baring their yellow teeth until the woman drove them off with a hail of stones and curses.
It was decided that crawling over basalt beach balls in the dark was even worse than doing it at high noon: we would spend the night with the badu. The decision seemed not in the least to discomfort out putative host, or rather our hostess, since the man of the tent stood rooted and slack-jawed while his wife welcomed us with a thousand welcomes. And of course we would stay with them a week, or perhaps a month, this all the while with one slack eye upon the ajami, the foreigner in the chinos and the polo shirt. Shu hadha? I could almost read her mind: What’s up with this one? The meditation was brief. She fell to lighting a fire, grinding the coffee, rinsing out some cups in some liquid I could only hope was water; Mr. Badu dithered about with the goat, apparently still collecting his very random thoughts.
We had our coffee, very black and very bitter—no sugar in this household—seated on carpets in the tent. Kassem spun out some unlikely tale of why we were there—Why would anyone want to visit rock ruins?—and the lady listened intently, still doing her own mental calculus about the three precipitous hombes who sat before her. Her husband sat silently beside her and the children just stared, already thinking that when they grew up they too would have a lavender Lacoste polo shirt.
Their own sad tale unfolded over coffee and cigarettes—the lady smoked, greedily. This couple had once been part of a “tribe,” in reality a group of five related families. They shared a herd, of goats, to be sure; a herd of camels had not been seen in these parts for a very long time. One by one the other families drifted off, inevitably into some town, where the men found menial but salaried jobs, but the children went to school and, it was thought, eventually to something better than their late life. Abu and Umm Rashad never had the courage, however, or perhaps the wit, to pack up the tent and the tin pots and move to Shobha or Salkhad.
The wind shifted slightly and the tent pole creaked. Even I, whose cache of lore derived in its entirety from the Bronx, heard it and looked up. We sat and smoked in silence. Suddenly Umm Rashad stood up and bolted out of the tent. “Yalla! Yalla!,” she shouted, not to her husband but to her children. “Let’s go!” The tent was now shaking from top to bottom, not merely because the wind was rising but also because the lady was dismantling her house. We were on our feet, snatching up whatever lay about us, pots, pans, bedrolls, carpets. The children were chasing the goat, the dogs were now barking, now whining with fear, and Abu Rashad stood rooted, caught somewhere between panic and paralysis. “Yalla!” once again as the tent came down with a thud behind us as we barely scrambled out. The wind was howling now and the rain had begun.
I was city born and bred and, with any luck, I’ll get to stay there. But even I knew that you don’t pitch your tent at the bottom of a wadi, which is, if you’re paying attention, a watercourse! Water put it there and water was now beginning to fill it up. It doesn’t rain often out on the steppe, but when it does, it is quick and it is fierce. And since there is little topsoil to absorb it and even less vegetation to impede it, the water runs off and into and down its natural channels with great speed and incredible power.
By the time we were all in the truck, host and hostess, children, goat and all, the water of the flash flood was beginning to lap at our tires. Allah, invoked many times and in many registers, caused the engine to turn over—Ya latif! O Gracious One!—and we slowly edged down the wadi, then turned ever so gently right and began to edge up out of the water onto higher ground. The dogs, with more sense and better traction, were there ahead of us, marking the new campsite with growls and urine.
Since there were no options whatsoever, we decided that we would spend the night “chez les badu,” as Kassem put it or, more realistically, the last struggling descendants of a once noble tradition. Umm Rashad put up the tent with some fumbling help from her guests; the children—young Rashad seems to have picked up some remarkable swear words from his mother in the course of the evening—unrolled the carpets and the bedding; Abu Rashad was apparently comforting the goat, who in fact took the whole thing with remarkable equanimity.
We sat down in our new home and returned to the familiar rituals: tea, stale bread, a bit of cheese, and a special treat from our own larder, jam and canned corn beef, the field traveler’s staff of life. Clothes maketh the man perhaps, but settings maketh the food: it was as delicious a meal as I’ve hand in my life. And so, exhausted, to bed, whatever was the hour. Bed was a carpet laid down on the hard earth, where we three guests reclined, stiffly supine, like sardines in a can, while another carpet was dragged over us. The children were plumped into bedrolls, Umm and Abu Rashad repaired to the tappeto matrimoniale—Nothing going on there, I thought—and the Coleman lamp was extinguished.
I lay there rigid—I had little experience of sharing a bed, or a carpet, with two other men, even fully clothed—while I considered the possibilities. Never mind fire or snakes or the traditional scorpion in the shoe. My mind fastened on a far more likely event: after all that coffee and tea I would almost certainly have to urinate sometime during the night. How would I ever extricate myself, the middle kipper in that sardine sandwich, from the leaden carpet atop me and from the two gentlemen already snoring peacefully on each side of me? And that accomplished, how in that darkness should I ever find my way across the connubial pair and out the tent flap. In an instant my sweaty anxiety turned to ice. The dogs! How would I ever deal with those semi-feral beasts who even then I could hear prowling outside, excited no doubt by the smell of—Sacre chien! Is that corned beef?—the remains of our supper? Was I really going out there amidst those yellow-toothed killers and mark out a little territory of my own?
Allah must have validated my altar boy credits because the next thing I remember was waking up in a gray dawn, possibly by the clatter of Umm Rashad at the coffee grinder but more likely by the throbbing of my very full bladder. Slowly I slid up and out from between my still sleeping bedmates, pretended to stretch so that the lady would know that I meant her no harm, stepped over Abu Rashad and headed leisurely toward the tent flap as if I had no other intent than a morning stroll over the basalt. Outside the dogs lay crouched in a semi-circle around the tent opening. Marhaba, “Hi,” I said to them and then, as the dogs watched motionless, I delivered myself of the longest, most diffuse and quietist pee of my entire life. Marratayn inshallah, I bade my canine friends, “Another time perhaps,” and went inside and had breakfast.