There's a saying in Saudi Arabia, Fi al Sama barqiyah, Fi al ard Marriyah, which means, "In the sky the telegraph; on the ground Al Murrah." The saying, in couplet form, pays a subtle tribute to the tribe of nomads which more than any other has given birth—and considerable substance—to the colorful image of the desert Bedouins: Al Murrah, one of the largest and most important tribes of the country.
Behind the tribute lies an admiration verging on awe. For the tribesmen and kinsmen of Al Murrah are trackers of such repute that their feats would be scarcely credible if not based on incontrovertible fact. Their ability to follow trails over miles of difficult terrain and through milling crowds, or to pick out unerringly a single track of man or beast from among hundreds is not only famous, but is accepted by Saudi Arabian courts without question. As courts in most parts of the world accept fingerprints, so courts in Saudi Arabia accept Al Murrah.
Yet, remarkable as it may be, the tracking skill of Al Murrah is but one thread in the tapestry of fact and fiction that has been woven into extravagant legend for many years and extended to all those tribes of nomads called generally, and often inaccurately, "Bedouins." The term "Bedouins," an English word going back to Badiyah, Arabic for the arid regions where nomads live, springs directly from Badawi—or Badu in the plural—and is used to distinguish the nomadic Arab from his sedentary countrymen in the villages and oases. It is significant, however, that the Bedouin often rejects this term when speaking of himself and says simply, "Arab." It is significant because in using "Arab," the Bedouin excludes all Arabs but nomads and infuses the word with more than a hint of arrogance which suggests the pride and independence that has helped him survive and even prosper in the midst of that great wasteland in the southern half of Saudi Arabia, the Rub' al-Khali, or, as it is more commonly known, The Empty Quarter.
The Rub' al-Khali is an enormous expanse of sand covering some 250,000 square miles of the Arabian Peninsula. Forbidding, barren, remote, it was for many years one of the largest unexplored regions of the world and consequently subject to the misconceptions, rumors and exaggerations from which legends are born. The very name "Empty Quarter" with its implications of mystery came to suggest a region somehow ominous and dangerous when in fact the name does not mean an area destitute of life, but is actually a direction—southeast of the settled points of central and eastern Arabia. It was cartographers who applied the term "Empty Quarter" to the area, not the Badu who call it al-Rimal, "The Sands." If less mysterious than legend would have it, however, the Empty Quarter is nonetheless a harsh land demanding of its inhabitants knowledge, fortitude and courage. And it is here, anywhere from Najran near the border of Yemen to the foothills of Jabal al-Akhdar, the mysterious Green Mountain of Oman, that Al Murrah make their home.
Like the deserts in which they lived and found refuge from whatever threatened them, Al Murrah were for years the subject of conjecture and legend, partially because of a decided lack of information but also because the tribesmen themselves, with admirable cunning, spread grossly exaggerated tales of their exploits and of the rigors of their habitation, thus perpetuating and adding to the legends and, behind this screen of myth, carefully guarding their secrets. Contributing to the legend too were British intelligence reports which were written prior to and during World War I, but which were, nevertheless, the most authoritative sources of information about both the tribe and its place of habitation for many years. One such report, for example, stated flatly that Al Murrah tribesmen, although brave, were "ill provided with any domestic apparatus or clothing in advance of the Stone Age." The same report even speculated that these particular desert tribesmen might be some sort of freakish survivors of a pre-Arab civilization.
In the 1930's, with the explorations of Bertram Thomas and H. St. John Philby and the subsequent publication of their documented findings, and with the initial explorations by the company that was to become the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), the distorted picture of Al Murrah began to come into focus. Then, with the intensive exploration of the Empty Quarter after World War II, the last traces of mystery were dispelled forever. During the initial explorations oil men not only gathered comprehensive information about the topography and geology of the desert, but learned a great deal about its inhabitants. As the explorations went on, the Arabic-speaking research men of Aramco began to delve into the background and history of Al Murrah, and the full story of the sturdy, independent nomads slowly emerged.
The tribe of Al Murrah traces its origins back to Qahtan, the progenitor of a group of Arabs known as the South Arab. From Qahtan a lengthy genealogy ascribes the noble bloodlines of the tribe through Yam and Jusham to Murrah and his two sons, 'Ali and Shabib, who lived in the far southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia near the ancient town of Najran. Once, long ago, the seat of a Christian bishopric, Najran more recently has been in the news in reports about the Yemen conflict.
The tribe of Al Murrah still maintains blood ties with kindred groups among both nomadic and settled Arabs in the Najran area—chief of whom are Al Hindi, Al Dimnam and Al Hutailah. The Arabic word Al which precedes these three names as well as that of the tribe itself means simply "the family of," just as ibn means "the son of." The naming system of the tribes is very similar to that employed in Scandinavia where, until quite recently, a boy named Gunnar, the son of Nils, the grandson of Harald, would become Gunnar Nilson, the son of Nils Haraldson. The system was important to historians who could trace by such means the ancestries of societies whose bloodlines are considered important; and the recent change that has begun among some Arabs of standardizing their names has been a blow to such research.
Research has traced the tribe of Al Murrah back to two main branches, the descendants of 'Ali ibn Murrah and those of his brother Shabib. Those branches in turn are divided into sub-groups which, to historians accustomed to ancestry patterns in neat pyramidal shapes, grow increasingly confusing because intermarriage among branches of the tribe goes on continually.
The Shaikh of Al Murrah, or Amir as he is commonly called, is Amir Talib ibn Muhammad ibn Shuraim from the family of Al Shafi' of the sub-tribe of Al Fuhaidah. Al Shuraim is the traditional ruling family of the tribe and has provided its Amirs for many generations. The rule of primogeniture, however, does not hold in the desert where every man must prove his mettle. The most worthy man, as decided by the councils of the heads of families, is chosen as Amir. While Al Shuraim is so large that a worthy chieftain can always be supplied from among its members, no bearer of the family name has positive assurance that he will succeed to the leadership of Al Murrah.
Precisely why the tribe migrated from its place of origin is unknown, but it was probably because of some disaster, the nature of which is now lost in history. The direction of the shift from the southwest to the northeastern parts of Arabia fits into the pattern of movements of other tribes at about the same time, suggesting some kind of upheaval so enormous as to alter the environment of many thousands of people and make emigration mandatory. In any event, Al Murrah moved—so far that they can be found today ranging from Najran in the south to Kuwait in the north and the Oman mountains in the east.
In the years that followed, Al Murrah slowly accumulated the lore essential to survival in their hostile environment, such as the location of the grazing lands for the beasts that have permitted them, more than any other tribe, to penetrate regions where other Bedouins fear to go, and there survive and flourish. Those beasts are, of " course, camels, and because of their dependence on and close association with these animals, Al Murrah are sometimes given the name ahl al-ba'ir, the "people of the camel."
Unlike the Bedouins of the north who travel frequently in hordes—as depicted in motion pictures—Al Murrah today travel in small groups, usually carrying no more than three or four of the small black tents which are the mark of the Arabian nomads. The size of the groups is determined by the amount of grazing area available for their camels and water is generally no problem, for if there is any at all there is enough for the usual numbers of tribesmen moving as a unit.
To those who know it well the trackless sands of the Rub' al-Khali can provide an ample living. When grazing has died out on the plains to the north and wells are running low, Al Murrah may be found in the midst of their reputedly barren lands tending well-fed herds and living comparatively well. During certain periods of the year the pastures of the Rub' al-Khali, provided one knows where to find them, are greener than elsewhere. In the summer months when the other tribes are constantly on the move to the north seeking grazing areas and water, Al Murrah camp by briny water holes in the deep sands. Although this water is too salty for human consumption, camels can and do live on it for long periods of time, and in addition provide the milk on which the tribesmen largely survive. To this they add rice and dried dates and occasionally desert game, and on special occasions, such as the advent of an honored guest, a sheep.
The fame of Al Murrah is based upon other foundations too. Throughout a great part of their history, Al Murrah were also noted as breeders of fine horses, a reputation reflected in an old saying of the desert which compares the Al Murrah tribe to the 'Awazim, a tribe that maintained large flocks of sheep as a source of mutton: "The horses of Al Murrah were as numerous as the sheep of 'Awazim." The fame of the Arabian steed, of course, has since spread throughout the world and many a rider is justly proud of a mount whose bloodlines go back to the desert of Al Murrah.
Breeding and raising horses in such a land as theirs, however, was a luxury that few tribesmen could indulge in on any scale without the ancient and honorable custom of raiding. After that was outlawed Al Murrah reluctantly turned away from their fine horses to concentrate instead on fast greyhound-like saluki dogs.
Prior to the decree of the late King 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud outlawing raiding, Al Murrah had carved another niche in desert history with daring exploits that added to their reputation for courage. Internecine raiding was then common, not only because of the practical need to accumulate wealth and livestock but also to sustain personal reputations for bravery. Forays were especially common during the summer when heat and drought drew animals and herdsmen to scarce water wells. Al Murrah tribesmen enjoyed unusual protection afforded them by the wilderness in which they lived and at the same time could launch swift raids into the border lands. When no isolated targets could be found, Al Murrah were known to attack even the walled towns of eastern Arabia, inspiring fear and adding substance to the legends that surrounded them.
Today the life of Al Murrah has changed as the modern age that has come to Saudi Arabia has steadily crept out into the desert. Their once impenetrable homeland has been explored and charted. Their tracking skills are gradually being replaced in the Department of Public Security by modern police methods. Their horse breeding has become too difficult and their personal courage has lost its outlet as the fierce tribal warfare has come to an end. Al Murrah, it would seem, are about to lose their identity.
Yet today a now familiar sight, on both the asphalt highways of Saudi Arabia and in the desert, is that of slight, powerfully built men at the wheels of huge-tired diesel trucks hauling tremendous loads between points of commerce to the remote oil exploration camps of Aramco. Their thick braids of hair tucked up under their headcloths, they swing agilely into the high cabs and with puffs of diesel smoke roar off into the desert, often guiding their 25-ton loads through the once unknown lands where enemy raiders feared to go, often pulling up by an unknown water hole to greet families and friends and distribute gifts, before rolling off again across the towering dunes. Al Murrah tribesmen have not fled the coming of the modern age but with the adaptability that enabled them through the centuries to survive in the Rub' al-Khali have begun to adjust to the demands of another life. It is not easy, of course, but it never has been; and it is unlikely that the challenges of the future will be able to defeat Al Murrah any more than the challenges of life in "The Sands" could defeat them during centuries past.
Robert L. Headley, who studied in the U.S.A., England and the U.A.R. and spent ten years with Aramco's Local Government Relations Department in Dhahran, is the coauthor of several books on the Arabian Peninsula and the oil industry and a contributor to the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam.