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Volume 23, Number 2March/April 1972

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Omar's Pump

Written by Suzanne Veille
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

The summer months in Mecca are hot and humid so we had gone from Mecca to Taif 5,000 feet up. It is cooler there.

In Taif the light is blinding and the sky is pale by day. There are no colors, no trees, no grass, only rocks on plains and beyond, the dark, bare mountains. But the nights are deep blue, the starlit skies are incomparable, and the evening breezes are soft.

We were settled in a house that had been given us by the King. It was built of uncut dark stones placed one upon the other haphazardly, the windows had rough wooden shutters and the walls were plastered with mud and whitewashed.

In those days such houses had to employ water bearers. There was no running water. Unfortunately our water bearer was an impudent man who refused to knock loudly on the door before entering, as he was supposed to do, and to call out " Ya Allah Ya Karim!" This was so the women of the house could cover their faces before he came in. By women I mean myself and my elder daughter of 12 years, for in those days even 12-year-olds always wore the veil.

Since he would not knock, Suleiman, for that was his name, managed to get several glimpses of us and boasted of his knowledge in the coffee houses. That, and the fact that there were always discrepancies in his charges for the water he brought, led to unpleasantness and so eventually he was replaced.

The replacement was quite a different sort. He banged the knocker on the door hard and bellowed a warning as he proceeded along the corridor. He would call the number of each tin of water as he emptied it. He did not try to peek or even look our way and when the time came to settle accounts the number of tins of water he claimed to have delivered was absolutely correct. My husband and I were so impressed that we decided to employ him full time so that he could do such other chores as carry the bread dough to the baker and do the shopping.

When we approached him, he stood in front of us courteously, told us he was called Omar and that he was a Yemenite who had come to Mecca on pilgrimage and had stayed on to work. He was not married, he looked to be about 28, he was small in size and as shriveled as a dried plum. He had long hair that fell in plaits down to his shoulders and a soft beard that had never been trimmed.

"Would you like to work for us?" my husband asked. "We would give you a donkey and tins of your own. You would live here, in the men's section. You would be given coffee, tea and soap in addition to your food, and you would be paid a salary. Does that appeal to you?"

Omar, enchanted, lifted up his eyes and grinned. His teeth were brown from chewing gat and I noticed for the first time that he was unbelievably ugly. But he bowed formally, took my hand, kissed it and put it on his forehead saying: "I would be glad to work for you, my Aunt," thereby giving us not only his respect but a voluntary bond of almost medieval allegiance.

He started the next day. I showed him his accommodation. I told him he could have as much charcoal as he needed to make his tea and coffee. I gave him a carpet, a mattress, a coverlet and new clothes: wide, white loose trousers gathered at the waist and a long white robe which buttoned up the front, a white, hand-sewn skullcap and two large squares of embroidered Damascus silk with yellow designs, one to be used for a turban and the other for a belt. I also gave him some money and told him to have a haircut and go to the public bath. On his return, wearing his new clothes, he was laughing gaily, looked quite presentable and was ready to go to work.

His first duty being that of water carrier, we had bought a donkey on which several tins of water could be carried from the wells to the house and a yoke to suspend the tins from his shoulders when he brought them indoors. I explained to him he should clean the balconies and stairs early in the morning before we awakened and warned him to work quietly.

As time passed, Omar's routine became standard. He would wake before dawn, wash, pray, and light the charcoal fire for preparing tea. When it was ready he would bring the charcoal stove, lamp and tray, and squat outside in the corridor until we called him in. He would enter the room with the lamp and tray, his eyes down, because I was there. He would put the tray near my husband's bed and retreat for many as quietly as he had come. This he did years, and always in the same fashion.

When I was dressed and ready to start my work, he would be at hand to help with making bread and clearing the table for breakfast. He also volunteered to set the table, but did it grudgingly. In those days most people in Saudi Arabia ate with their fingers from one large tray, so Omar thought my plates, knives and forks were a terrible waste of time. Thus when he was washing the dishes he was always muttering and swearing, his unvarying theme being the waste of time and effort.

When we attended functions, Omar would accompany us in case we needed anything. We would always give for a meal but on the way back he would invariably give my husband some change. "My Uncle," he would say, "thank God for His bounty and you for your generosity, but you gave me too much."

One day, however, our pleasant routine changed. We moved to Jiddah and into a house that was, by comparison with Taif, a palace. It had three stories and was situated in the center of the town. Because it was so large we added an Egyptian cook and a Nubian nanny to our staff, and kept Omar to carry water as before.

In Jiddah, however, carrying water was not as simple as it had been in Taif. There were no nearby wells in Jiddah then and since the only available water came from a desalination plant across the city, we had to provide Omar not only with a donkey but with a tank mounted on a cart. Omar would go to fetch the water in great style and drive proudly through the city on his cart, but on his return he would have to really exert himself. He would fill his tins from a tap in the tank and, with two tins hanging from his yoke, climb two flights of stairs, empty the tins into our reservoirs and descend with the empties. To fill the cisterns required several trips up and down stairs because it was a large house and we used a considerable amount of water.

After watching this for a while we decided that it was asking too much of Omar to climb the stairs every day and after a difficult search found a pump with which he could pump the water from the ground floor to the cistern. Since we were rather pleased with ourselves for having saved him all that work we were puzzled in the next few weeks to see that Omar was getting progressively more unhappy. We thought we had found the answer when we discovered that the pump was broken but to the contrary, while it was broken Omar's unhappy mien was decidedly improved.

Then, one day at lunch, Omar announced solemnly that he would like to call on us in the afternoon. From experience we knew that when he wanted to pay us a visit, the matter was serious so we agreed that he should call on us after the afternoon prayer.

On his arrival, Omar acted as though he were a newcomer to the house. He wore his best clothes and was led to us by a servant. We stood up to welcome him and invited him to sit down. He sat himself cross-legged on the floor in front of us and asked my husband how he was, as if he had not seen him for ages.

"O my Uncle, are you pleased with your work? I hope your health is good. And you, my Aunt, do you get good news from the children that are in Egypt, and are they doing well at school? How is your health?"

In turn, we asked him if he had received good news from his family in Yemen, and repeatedly told him how welcome he was and how honored we were by his visit. He then launched into a lengthy, flowery parable which, we gathered, had something to do with the pump. But before we could investigate, the cook brought tea and we had to wait. But at last Omar came to the point. "This pump," he said sadly, "is an invention of the devil, and I refuse to use it."

We asked him why. "I do not like machines," he replied. "This one is dirty and oily. It is bound to pollute the water. It is an extravagance, for, as you know, it breaks down every other day. I would be much happier if you would allow me to carry on as before. This pump makes me miserable."

We said we had bought it because it might make his life easier, and that was why we had installed it.

Then Omar spoke from the heart: "Before, when I was carrying the tins up to the terrace, I would go through the whole house. On my way I would sometimes meet the cook and chat. Other times I would see your little girl and smile at her or talk to Nanny. Sometimes I would see you, my Aunt, and talk to you and then, when at last I got to the terrace, I had the whole town at my feet. I could see people going about their business. I could see the sea, and the ships in the harbor. By the time I was ready to come down again, I was refreshed.

"But now," he said, his voice bitter, "now I stay in the dark hall downstairs seeing nothing, saying nothing, doing nothing but moving that cursed pump up and down, up and down."

"My Aunt," he concluded softly, "I am lonely. I am bored. I cannot use the pump."

We had to give in.

Suzanne Veille was born in Paris and educated in England but moved to the Middle East when she married an Arab. This sketch is adapted from a chapter of a book she is writing on her early years in Saudi Arabia.

This article appeared on pages 26-27 of the March/April 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1972 images.