Being Bedouin

Qatari nationals make up around 12% of the 2.3 million population of Qatar, at around only 278,000. Much of the population are or originate from Bedouin tribes.   The term Bedouin translates to 'desert dweller' and in Qatar they remained living in desert dwellings until around 50 years ago when they started to move into urban dwellings in what is now Doha city and vicinity.

There are few if any Bedouin who live in the desert now, but families continue to practice traditions, usually on weekends, spending time in desert camps, sitting around a fire, cooking traditional dishes and sleeping under the stars.  

I have the incredible fortune to have Bedouin friends from both Yemen and Qatar and learning about their culture and traditions has been a fascinating discovery.  I was lucky enough to spend some time with them in the desert one recent weekend when I was invited along to their private camp by the sea in the very far North of Qatar, 90 minutes drive from Doha.

Spending time, albeit only a brief encounter, gave me a joyful but calming education in how to approach life and I'm always learning from my Bedouin friends.  It was perhaps the closest one can come to touching their traditions and imagining what life was like in this region a mere 50 years ago.  As one of my dear friends told me, his family only moved out of desert dwellings in the late 1960s/70s.

There is something special about the quiet in the desert that is hard to find elsewhere.  It even lacks the rustle of vegetation you find in the English countryside.  There is a naturally contemplative atmosphere which instantly calms the blood and sheds the troubles of life.  It is now that I understand the Bedouin approach to life of living in the present.

New challenges will come with dawn but right now we are comfortable, safe, we have fire, we have food and as the sun sets and the sky darkens, we draw comfort from the familiar pattern of tiny lights above us, the intensity and brightness increasing with every passing minute.  As I said to my friend "what more do we need?"

I sat quietly and watched as he and his friend prepared the evenings refreshments including a traditional drink called 'zanjabeel' (Arabic for ginger), made from boiled milk and ginger.  The drink dates back to the time of the Prophet (may peace be upon him) and beyond.  " And they will be given to drink there of a cup mixed with zanjabil" (Qur'an, 76:17) 

The milk and grated ginger are boiled in a small kettle for around 30 minutes or so and then a significant quantity of sugar is added.  Sadly on this occasion, it curdled but the whey was pretty delicious and I could imagine how tasty it would have been if all had gone well.  

The kebabs of chicken and beef were marinated in the most incredible herbs…. one which I have seen in the souq but not tried myself is 'black lemon'.  It is in fact dried lime and gives an incredible effect when added to meat, the acidic flavour cutting through and enhancing the beef… utterly delicious.  The fire was stoked after the meal and kept us warm as the temperature began to drop.  

Quiet jovial conversation in Arabic ensued, sharing stories through the crackle of the fire.  I listened and tried to understand.  My Arabic still not quite good enough to join in to any great extent, but I was able to share a few words and phrases and as I learn more, a new world will open up to me even further!

On this occasion, I didn't spend all night beneath the stars but my brief encounter with Qatar's North shore,  the comfort of quiet conversation by a warming fire, the feeling of calm that comes with the feeling of space and the acknowledgement of ones unimportance under a big sky of stars gave me a hunger for more.  I think a longer trip to the desert beckons when I get the chance!!


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