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Volume 19, Number 1January/February 1968

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Death At A Desert Pool

From the childhood memories of a Bedouin boy—a moving and memorable story of murder, justice and mercy.

Written by Isaak Diqs
Illustrated by Mouna Bassili

As a boy, Isaak Diqs was a Bedouin. With his family and his tribe he lived and roamed and grew up in the deserts and pasturelands that have nurtured the Bedouins for centuries. And although he later earned a degree in English, became an expert on agriculture and went to work in a ministry in Saudi Arabia, the impressions, the ideas, the incidents of those happy days stayed fresh and bright in his mind, until one day he decided to write them down. Because he hoped they might be read in the West he did so in English rather than Arabic, and in so doing achieved a refreshing simplicity. Soon his jottings grew into sketches and the sketches into a book. It is called A Bedouin Boyhood and included in it is this touching episode of death and judgment...

Everything went as usual that morning, except certain preparations in the Shik. It was late in summer. The sun became hot as soon as it rose and it was better to sit in the shade at the back of the tents.

The Shik was well swept, sprayed with water to settle the dust that might blow and to lessen the heat. Some new carpets were brought out, and many wool-stuffed leaning-bags were heaped in one corner of the big tent. The hearth was removed to a far corner. Tea and coffee pots were more than usual ...

I noticed that most of the men, especially the old ones, did not go to their daily work as usual, but stayed in the tribe. Even the small schoolboys, who were on holiday, came earlier than usual from the vineyards, driving their donkeys laden with baskets full of ripe grapes and figs ...

It was clear that some people—strangers and important—would come that day. Why were they coming?

These questions seduced me, and diverted me from enjoying the holiday by going to Wadi Al-Hisi and joining my schoolmates swimming in the natural pools. I stayed like the old, important people to see what was going to take place.

'It's a judging case,' my mother told me when I asked her. My grandfather, Haj Ibrahim, was one of the three recognized tribal judges in the Jubarat tribes, and I had seen him solving many intricate, dangerous problems. But I had never seen such preparations made before. The case must be very important, otherwise there was no necessity for these preparations ... I wanted to know something about the case, but, as boys, we were not to interfere in things which were for men only ...

'Shehdi is signalling to us! They are coming.'

Haj Ibrahim began to allot the orders. 'Taleb, go and meet the men! Nassralla, you must go to your tent and see that everything is all right. You must stay there, because the other people will be coming very soon.'

Few minutes had passed after Nassralla and some other people had left, when many horses' heads appeared over the top of the hill where Shehdi was standing. There were about twelve horsemen coming towards the Shik in a group ... Twenty yards before reaching the Shik they were met by our people... I stood with other children behind the women's part of the tent, holding to the long guy-ropes.

Haj Ibrahim was among the people who went outside, followed by his son Taleb. Each man of our people went to a horseman and caught his rein, but not one of them dismounted until the old white-bearded man, met by Haj Ibrahim himself, dismounted. He shook hands with Haj Ibrahim, while his horse was taken by Taleb to be tied.

The other horses were tethered, too. The guests entered the tents, welcomed by Haj Ibrahim and some other old men, while the young people were still outside and were on the point of quarrelling over the horses' nosebags. Everyone was trying to take more nosebags than the others. My father took one and called me to fill it with barley from our tent... In a few minutes, and before the men drank their coffee, the bags full of barley were hanging at the heads of all of their horses.

The old man with the white beard sat in the middle, near the partition between the men's and women's parts of the tent. His men sat on each side of him... The coffee was drunk and there was some talk, but nothing was said about the thing they had come for.

Half an hour later, another group of horsemen came from the east. Some of our men went to meet them as they followed Shehdi to Nassralla's tent. They were about the same number as the group in the main Shik...

Tired by now of the old guests, I ran with the other children to see the latest comers. This time some of us, the older ones, took part in the welcoming procedure. I in my turn took one of the nosebags, not from a horseman, but from my cousin, who had taken two. My mother was very pleased when she learnt that I had dealt with the bag myself.

Feeling that the most important things would be taking place in the main Shik, we all left for there, except for a few boys who were kept behind to serve as messengers. There in the main Shik I swiftly converted the mihbash into a small wooden stool by overturning it, so as to be able to sit on it and see what was taking place. Some of the children sat near me, a few sat close-up to their fathers, pressing and peering, while the others stood in a group at the back of the tent. We were not sent away, because the Shik with men meeting was considered a practical school for the young boys as well as old men.

Nassralla, with some of the men who had come early in the morning, began to walk between the two tents, carrying the ideas of the one party to the other. They were trying to find the basis upon which the two parties could meet in one tent. It was about a murder, and so it was necessary to be sure of what would happen when the two sides met.

At last the negotiations succeeded and the two parties sat together in the original Shik. Bin Rashid's group, who had come first, sat in the southern part of the tent, while the Thwahta group sat on the northern side. The men of our tribe and the other guests sat in two lines, to the east and the west. Haj Ibrahim sat in the middle of the eastern line.

For a while there was complete silence. All the eyes were fixed on Haj Ibrahim. He said, 'Good evening, our guests. You know the customs.' Then, turning his face towards the left, he continued, 'Who is your guarantor, Bin Rashid?'

The old man with the white beard looked at the men on both sides as if he were looking for the man to guarantee him. 'Bin Rafie is the man,' he said.

All the people looked towards Bin Rafie, who was sitting opposite to Haj Ibrahim ...'I am ready to stand for Bin Rashid, whatever may be the result,' Bin Rafie said.

Haj Ibrahim turned to the Thwahta group and said, 'Have you any objection, Thwahta?'

A middle-aged man of the Thwahta glanced quickly at his group before he answered, 'No, I haven't. He's trustworthy.'

Then the middle-aged man named his own guarantor, who, too, was accepted without any objection from the other side. Then the pledge was offered. The Thwahta offered one hundred pounds, so Bin Rashid was obliged to pay the same amount. The pledges were put on the carpet in front of Haj Ibrahim. It was well understood that the loser would lose his pledge and it would be taken by the judge as fee, while the pledge of the winner would be returned to him.

'Now,' Haj Ibrahim said, 'let us hear your case, Bin Rashid, since it was you who came first.'

All the faces turned to Bin Rashid's side, as he began to state his case in a low voice which could hardly be heard by the men at the end of the tent. He spoke the same introductory phrases, which were no more than greetings to the judge. Then he began to tell the details of his case.

'My nephew, the son of this man,' (and be pointed to the third man on his left), 'went one day as usual to look after his cows. He was young, twenty years old. He left the tribe as happy as any one of these young men near the fire. All this summer we have been preparing for his marriage...'

'At noon he went to water his cows on the lower part of Wadi Al-Hisi. There were many boys and girls doing the same. They were not of our tribe only, but also of the Thwahta and some other tribes... Not far from him, under the tree, there was a group of boys and girls. He had been sitting with them before he left to get water for his animals. Then he was called by Khaleel, one of the Thwahta tribe.'

The boy's father was thinking deeply, with downcast head, as if he were reading something in the intricate, winding lines of the carpet in front of him. All the people there were completely silent, following the words spoken by the white-bearded old man and reading the expressions on the face of the boy's father.

'He had hardly turned his face towards the tree, when the sound of a shot was heard and Fahad fell into the well. The boys sped to the place and they found Fahad motionless in the red water. They got him out, but he had already died.'

The voice paused, on the brink of a moment it seemed.

'Khaleel was turned to stone,' Bin Rashid went on, 'and stayed under the tree. An old man of the Thwahta tribe announced that the boy was in Abu Jaber's face, and so no haram was done to him.'

Before he said this I had expected that something would happen to Khaleel as a kind of prompt revenge, but after I heard it I realized that nothing would happen. Now that it had been said he was 'in a sheikh's face,' no one of course would harm him: any harm done would strike at the sheikh himself. As children in our games we had done this more than once, and used to respect the rules...

'Then in the night,' said Bin Rashid, 'and as we finished the burial service, two men came and asked a truce for two weeks. We could not refuse, because we are not of those who break the tribal laws. Before the two peaceful weeks passed, the same men came and asked us to nominate three judges to consider our case. So we did. It was the Thwahta turn to reject one of these three possible judges. Then we, too, had to reject one. The one left was you.' All the eyes turned to Haj Ibrahim.

'We are quite sure that you are the best to look into the case. I hope that, since we have come to your tent, we will have our rights in full, as it should be.'

Haj Ibrahim was silent all this time. He, as was his habit, was marking the sand with the stem of his long pipe. Tie stopped marking the sand, and turned to the middle-aged man and said, 'What have you to say, Bin Thabet?'

The middle-aged man began speaking fluently, as if he had learnt the words by heart. 'I don't want to add anything to what Bin Rashid has said, except about what took place under the tree before the accident happened. The gun was not Khaleel's gun: it was another's. It was the gun of Mohammad, one of our tribe. Khaleel, before shooting, asked him whether the gun was loaded, and Mohammad, who was occupied in a game with other fellows, said, "No." Thinking that it was empty, he wanted to have fun with Fahad, who was his close friend, but it was in God's hands and suddenly the misfortune happened. It was done by mistake and not intended at all.'

He turned towards Haj Ibrahim and added, 'You perhaps asked some of your boys who were there, and they must have told you that what I say is true and that Fahad and Khaleel were friends. We have come here ready to accept your sentence.'

The eyes of all the people again moved to Haj Ibrahim, whose turn then it was to speak. He began to retell Bin Rashid's account, adding some remarks, enquiries and explanations. He repeated nearly all that Bin Rashid had said, even the same words sometimes. That was the custom: the judge had to repeat the two parties' speeches, perhaps to make clear the vague points or to show that he had a complete conception of all the circumstances. Then he did the same for the Thwahta case. When he finished his speech about the case, he said, 'Now it is your turn, to make your negotiations'.

Men began to go outside the tent, to sit a few yards away and discuss the matter. The neutral men now held a small meeting with the Thwahta, then with Bin Rashid. Step by step Haj Ibrahim was informed of the results of their efforts.

At this interval some of us were called to bring water. I was asked, too. I took the opportunity to pass slowly by the men who were discussing near the tent. I tried to catch some of their words... When I returned, I passed by the women's part of the Shik and found that it was full of women who were sitting silent, following all stages of the trial... When I had brought the water, I sat with the other children, waiting for the last word to be said by the judge.

It was the time for dinner, and this was ready. But it had to be delayed till the sentence was heard. Haj Ibrahim again was ready to speak when all the men sat in their places.

'Now,' Haj Ibrahim said, 'it is clearly the case that the two parties are ready for reconciliation. Bin Rashid insists that he must hear the sentence, and then, if the judgement has been in his favor, he is free whether to forgive or not. It is said—and said truly—that right does not satisfy the two parties. I have no choice but to say what I know.

'In a case like yours it is very difficult to pronounce. Your boys were friends, but one of them killed the other. In our tribal law three things are not to be borrowed or given to others—women, horses and arms. We know, too, that arms are not to be played with. You see how difficult it is to judge. But I have to say the sentence.

'Out of my knowledge, which is built on our inherited traditions, I declare that the killing was done without any previous determination—nevertheless, the lives of people are not to be left for irresponsible men to play with. Bin Rashid has the right to ask what he likes, within our law, for the life of his son. He has the right to ask, and Bin Mishrif must pay.'

Bin Mishrif showed his readiness to fulfill his obligations, and the Thwahta too. 'Let Bin Rashid ask his right,' the middle-aged man said. 'We are ready to pay him his due. Here is Khaleel ready for punishment.'

He had barely ended these words, when a young boy came from Nassralla's tent, led by another man's hand and brought in the middle of a group. I did not then know who that young man was, but I learnt afterwards that he had, throughout the hearing, stayed with another man in Nassralla's tent. I followed the young man with my eyes, and saw him walk steadily up through the people to kneel in front of the father of Fahad. He did not then move.

The old man seemed puzzled at first, perhaps taken aback. I could not help standing up, as did the other children, to see what the father might do to the person who had killed his son. I noticed the curtain between the men's and women's parts moving, and I guessed that the women inside were trying to witness this critical moment. All the men in the tent were silent, too, looking from the young man to the old.

The old man continued to look at the young boy kneeling in front of him. Then he said, 'Neither money nor punishment can return Fahad to life-to marry and get children. Now he is in need of God's mercy. You killed Fahad, and for the sake of Fahad I set you free. Get up, my boy, and go. You are free.'

He said these words and took the boy by the hand. The boy was weeping when he got up.

All the Thwahta group went to the old man. They kissed his head, and shook hands with the other men.

The dinner was brought and all the men sat around the large plates full of rice and meat. Before the eating began, Haj Ibrahim said, 'In the name of our tribe I thank Bin Rashid for his generosity. I in my turn will return both the pledges, because your reconciliation in my tent is better than all money.'

I remember about thirty horsemen disappearing beyond the hill, those twenty-odd years ago. A horseman with a piece of white cloth in his hand was the first one to disappear over that sun-baked brow.

Reprinted from the book with the permission of the publishers; copyright George Allen & Unwin Ltd.. 1967.

This article appeared on pages 6-9 of the January/February 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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