A Bedouin asking a fellow tribesman about grazing conditions in other parts of the country says simply "Fih hayah ?", literally, "Is there life?".
The desert Arab's livelihood-indeed his life—depends on an intimate knowledge of sparse desert vegetation. He cannot be a mere herder of grazing animals; it is vital that he be a skillful hunter of pastures. A map of his yearly migrations is really a map of the ever-changing patterns of desert plant life. For in the desert, as in other regions, plants are the ultimate living source of energy for all higher organisms.
Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, scene of the country's petroleum industry' development for more than 30 years, is a desert by almost any definition. Taken to include the northeastern fringes of the Rub' al-Khali, it is an area of about 90,000 square miles with an annual rainfall of less than four inches and summer temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more. To the plant geographer, it is part of the great Saharo-Sindian Desert floristic region, the uninterrupted desert belt that extends from the Atlantic coast of North Africa eastward to Pakistan. Plants in this zone face many environmental problems: low rainfall, high temperatures, desiccating winds and salty soil. The number of plant species is small; relatively few plants, apparently, were able to adapt to the climatic extremes as the desert developed in geologic history. The native species in the Eastern Province, typical of the Saharo-Sindian area, total only about 360, including weeds on cultivated land. An area of the same size in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, with their more varied climate and topography, supports more than ten times as many.
But however limited they may be, plants are found in the desert. And behind the first impression of drabness and sterility, of rock and sand and grays and browns, there are glimpses of unexpected beauty. Hollows in the northern plains, after especially good showers, will be knee-deep in purple iris; an orchid was once found in the reed forests of al-Hasa Oasis. The scarlet fruits of the 'abal bush brighten the sands every spring. Other plants, though sometimes less lovely, are more valuable.
The Bedouins have learned to find the plants in all their variety—and use them. More surprising to a city dweller of the world's more fortunate temperate zones is that the nomads have been able not only to survive in this environment, but also to build an almost self-sufficient economy based on the thin mantle of vegetation covering their domains. Spiny shrubs or tender flowered herbs—the desert men have uses for nearly all: forage for camels and sheep, fuel for campfires, medicines for themselves and their animals, cosmetics, salad greens, dyestuffs, tannins, living guideposts for the traveler.
Of course, plants are most valuable to the Bedouins as forage for livestock and as fuel, but many are edible and others have highly specialized uses. Among the important grazing plants are the 'arfaj shrub, which grows in dense stands over hundreds of square miles in northeastern Saudi Arabia, the rimth salt-bush and tkumam, a shrubby grass common in the coastal plain. The foaming bowl of camel's milk offered to tent visitors sometimes carries a trace of the local grazing plants, the slightly salty flavor of rimth, or the fragrance of khuzama. Ghada and other saltbushes such as rimth and 'abal or arta are used for firewood.
The carrot-like roots of hambizan and nutty tubers of rubahla are edible, and samh, a wild seed, is collected in northern Arabia to make coarse bread. The immature fruits of kurraysh can be eaten (though it is a member of the milkweed family) and have the flavor of sweet cabbage. But there are also toxic plants to be avoided: 'ushar of the milkweed family was used in India in preparing arrow poison. Arab tribesmen once burned its wood to obtain a fine-texture charcoal valuable as an ingredient of homemade gunpowder. Harmal , a wild shrub related to the common oleander, grows on gritty flats or shallow sands; grazing livestock avoid its poisonous leaves.
Bedouins have medicinal uses for many wild plants, some of scientifically proven value, others which probably provide only psychological aid. These were almost the only medicines available to the desert Arabs before the Saudi Arabian Government began providing medical services for its citizens. The gourd-like fruits of the shary are still used as a purgative. Ja'dah, used in the treatment of fevers, is another desert remedy that has been recognized by Western pharmacists. Ash from one variety of tamarisk was once used as a treatment for camel mange. But the use of some other plant drugs was based on fancy. A tea made from ramram was employed in the treatment of snake bites and scorpion stings because, according to legend, the desert monitor lizard gained immunity from venomous creatures by rolling in its leaves.
An unusual folk tale has grown up around kaftah, a small annual herb. At the end of the moist growing season the branches of this plant roll tightly inwards into a woody ball that protects the seeds until the next rain. According to Arab tradition, the Virgin Mary clutched this herb in her hand while suffering in childbirth, and the plant is also known as kaff Maryam or "Mary's palm."
Many a Bedouin girl has rouged her cheeks with the crimson roots of kahil or the bright red fruits of the 'abal bush. The fibrous roots of the rah tree provide "toothbrushes" with a lightly astringent natural dentifrice.
In some parts of Arabia, vegetation provides the only geographical reference points available to the traveler. In the Dibdibah gravel plains, for example, where only the slightest rise breaks the horizon, the Bedouins give directions to camping sites and pasture areas in terms of the relatively stable boundaries of desert shrub communities. "So-and-so is camped on the eastern edge of the 'arfaj, where the hamd begins," they explain. This fact gives the traveler one "line of position," as a navigator would say—or the street name of an address, as the city dweller would understand it.
The Bedouins' complex and near-scientific classification of vegetation begins with the categories 'uslib, or annual herbs, and shajar, woody perennials. They reflect the two main desert routes taken by natural selection, nature's process of magnifying and perpetuating chance changes in living things to the advantage of the species. Both of these plant adaptations are somewhat comparable to the hibernation of animals in cold climates.
In the first category are many small desert herbs which lead an active life only in the favorable cool, rainy months, spending the summer in the form of drought and heat-resistant seeds. Nature has provided them with several kinds of built-in clocks. One is a "germination inhibitor" in the coats of some seeds which can sprout only after a measured amount of rain has soaked away a chemical safety device. Many of these plants are able to complete their life cycle, from the first stirring of the embryo to the dropping of new seed, in a matter of weeks; thus many of the more colorful flowering species are rarely seen. One must be in the right place at just the right time.
The other broad class of desert plants, the perennials that brave their harsh environment year-round, accounts for most of the low, shrubby vegetation of the landscape. Many of these shrubs drop their leaves and slow their growth during the summer. Others remain green and suffer little loss of water because of protective structures, such as dense coverings of hair.
The Arabs' acquaintance with botany has not been limited to herdsmen's lore. During the eighth and ninth centuries, Islamic scholars were busy translating the Greek natural history and medical texts of Aristotle and Dioscorides. This work not only laid the foundations of Islamic natural science, but preserved much of classical science lost to the West during this period. When Arabic-speaking naturalists began to produce their own works, many of their botanical catalogs emphasized the uses of plants in medicine, a science in which the scholars of Baghdad excelled. Some naturalists, however, became pure scientists, studying and describing plants as a field of knowledge for its own sake.
Abu Hanifah ad-Dinawari, who died about A.D. 895, was the first to record his own field observations of plant life. His descriptions of Arabian plants, many of them referring to names still used, remain valuable as a field manual to this day. Rashid ad-Din as-Suri (1177-1241), another innovator, produced the first Arabic book on plants with color illustrations taken from nature.
Today, Arab scholars are building on this heritage, enriched by recent developments in Western science, in studies that will make possible more efficient use of the natural resources of the desert. Scientifically controlled grazing, combined with irrigation projects utilizing untapped underground water reservoirs, may thus provide the hoped-for answer to the age-old question of the Bedouins, "Fih hayah?".
"Fih." There is.
James P. Mandaville, Jr., an authority on desert natural history, grew up in Saudi Arabia and now works in Aramco's Government Relations Department.