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Volume 24, Number 4July/August 1973

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Aramcos Bedouins

Written by William E. Mulligan
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

Back before Aramco became Aramco, its geologists leaned heavily on local guides. Some were great, some amusing, and all provided at least one story for the files of such self-appointed historians of company folklore as William Mulligan, long of the Arabian Research Division, who recently submitted the following recollections.

When American geologists, exploring what became the Aramco oil concession in Saudi Arabia, asked the Amir of Dammam to recommend a guide, the Amir sent them a man named Sa'id ibn Nasir al-Mu'ammam, (meaning Sa'id, the Son of Nasir, the Turbaned One). Sa'id was known to his friends as "the Sinafi," roughly translated as "Squire," and his badge number was 132, which makes him virtually a founding father.

Although hired to help find water, the Sinafi, by 1947, had landed work more suited to his talents and his predilections. He became one of Dr. George Rentz's trusty Bedouin "relators" in what became the Arabian Research Division. The "relators" were Bedouins employed by Rentz as ambulatory encyclopedias of Arabian geographical, historical and ethnographical information in what would have been the first "oral history" project if Rentz had only thought to call it that.

One of the Sinafi's more interesting contributions was to stimulate an unexpected interest in natural history among the company's secretarial staff. He wandered through offices pulling out a terrifying collection of live lizards, snakes, hedgehogs and turtles from his pockets and presenting them to pale, quaking American secretaries. On occasion he even brought hawks and falcons.

The Sinafi was of slender build, but he was stuffed to overflowing with proverbs and maxims. One of his favorites was al-dunyah buq'ah: "The world is spotted," better translated as "In the world there are good spots and bad." Once, pressed for a definition, he quoted another Bedouin saying: "Three things that prolong life are riding horses, being with young girls, and walking in greenery; three things that shorten life are fighting with other men, being with old women, and walking in funerals." This was presented as a simple fact. He left it up to you to decide if any value judgment were involved.

Since the Sinafi had a striking white beard (which he later dyed orange with henna) he was a natural for the movies, and when Aramco decided to produce Miyah, a film about water conservation, there was the Sinafi in what we old types still call Technicolor. For the same reason he was much in demand as a model and at-one time or another his distinctive features appeared in Life, National Geographic and most of Aramco's and its owner companies' own publications. Arid for years he was the principal provider of a handy Bedouin setting—tent, coffee making equipment, and camel saddles—whenever visiting journalists and other dignitaries asked to see a "real Arab."

Like most Bedouins of that period, the Sinafi accepted the new marvels of technology and the strange customs of Aramco's foreign employees without surprise. Airplanes, hospitals, and binoculars were obviously very useful. On the other hand, it was evident to him that Americans thought highly of aspects of Bedouin life.

They spent enough time asking him questions about it! The Sinafi was particularly good at adapting Western concepts to his style. When he received a gold pin after 15 years' service with Aramco, he soldered it to the hilt of his dagger.

Since he started early the Sinafi never got really enmeshed in company bureaucracy, but his cousin 'Ali ibn Hadi did, when years later he became a consultant and had to put his thumbprint on a very formal contract with several "whereas" clauses, one of which reads: "Whereas, Consultant states that he is an experienced and qualified expert in the fields of geographical names, tribal customs and field guiding..."

Another "relator" who rose to stardom was Muhammad ibn Khursan. Muhammad, who won kudos for his sensitive handling of key roles in such Academy Award contenders as The Fly (a company film on public health, not science fiction) and The Explorers, a film about Aramco geologists. Also, he was once a guide for former Aramco President Tom Barger when Barger was a young geologist. He was also the man who arranged for Barger's first meeting with the imposing King 'Abd al-'Aziz in 1939. As related by David Howarth in The Desert King, this is how Ibn Khursan remembered the event years later:

"My boss Tom Barger said to me: 'Muhammad, we would like to pay a courtesy visit to King 'Abd al-'Aziz and invite him to coffee, but I do not know Arabic'

"I said: 'That's not a bad idea, but, after greeting him and sipping our coffee, you should speak all the Arabic you can the minute the coffee boy leaves ... Then I, Muhammad, will speak to the King all the good words you desire.'

"Then we went by car to the King—I, Tom Barger, and also Berg (Ernie Berg, a geologist). We reached him and, by God, we found him sitting there. We greeted him, and he ordered us to approach. He bade us sit down. As we sat down coffee was brought, and the King ordered it to be served to us, which we drank. When we finished, Tom Barger said: 'We wish to make you some coffee.'

"Replied the King: 'What are you saying? What is he saying?'

"I said, 'Yes, Your Majesty, may God prolong your life. This boss, Tom Barger, wishes to invite you to coffee at the time you choose, any hour you like. His aim has been to call upon you since your arrival at this place where we are both camping.'

"The King said to me, for Tom Barger spoke no more: 'It is a blessed hour. This night dinner at my place, you and all your companions. At two o'clock, the day after tomorrow ... we shall be with you, God willing. This companion of yours, this boss of yours, Muhammad ... how long has it been since the day he arrived in the kingdom?'

"I said to Tom Barger ... 'The King asks how many years you have been in Arabia.'

"Tom Barger replied: 'I have been in Arabia 22 months ...'

"The King said to me: 'This companion of yours will not be here more than a couple of years more before becoming a real boss because he is a first-rate man. It is evident that he is one of those excellent men who undertake to do things properly.' "

Aramco's Bedouins played a part too when, in 1947, the King came to visit Aramco for the first time. The guides, Khumayyis ibn Rimthan, Aramco's chief guide, and 'Abd al-Muhsin ibn Jum'an, an employee of the Transportation Department, were trotted out to meet the King, and Ibn Jum'an, who had composed a poem for the occasion, recited it. Since the King was pleased with the poem—interrupting Ibn Jum'an several times, apparently to discuss meter, rhyme and so forth—Ibn Jum'an from that time on has been known in Bedouin circles as "The Company's Poet."

Khumayyis, better known as Khamis, holds a very special place in Aramco's history. Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner tells a couple of yarns about Khamis in Discovery!, Col H.R.P. Dickson writes of him fondly in Kuwait and Her Neighbours, and many Aramco officials have hung photographs, drawings and paintings of his handsome head, his fine features and well-trimmed beard on their office walls.

As a guide, Khamis had an uncanny knowledge of the land, and built-in navigational skills. But in addition, he was a real leader of men—wise, decisive and diplomatic. He combined humility, respect for God, and manliness in proportions that would have done credit to a Knight of the Round Table. When, for example, the Saudi Arab Government undertook to survey a railroad route from Riyadh to the Hijaz, its officials sought the services of Khumayyis for the foreign surveying crew. The surveyors didn't need a guide so much as an advance man and a readily identifiable guarantor that the work of the survey party was proper and approved by the authorities. When Khumayyis went on ahead to call on the next village amir, the surveyors not only got maximum cooperation, but usually also got invited to a feast. In the winter many Bedouins wear heavy olive-drab army surplus overcoats. They are inexpensive and extremely practical. But Khumayyis one year somehow came across a light blue West Point cadet winter overcoat, complete with brass buttons and cape, and began to wear it every winter. Although at first it seemed odd, it was in fact very suitable on Khumayyis's fine, military figure. It looked so good that West Pointers would have been proud to see it worn so well.

Guides like Khamis and Sari ibn Mukhaili, a chubby, jolly guide who had served with Jordan's Arab Legion and Syria's French Legion (and could therefore shout the manual of arms in French and English although he didn't speak either language), were extremely valuable to the Arabian Research Division. But they only summered, as it were, in the Dhahran offices. Others, like 'Ali ibn Humaid of the tribe of the Manasir, were year-round "relators."

'Ali could write and not many Bedouins then could claim as much. 'Ali had been taught to write in a dream, he said, and people who saw him write were prepared to believe it. 'Ali drew, not wrote, his letters. He tackled them from different sides at different times. It was as though he sometimes started with the bottom part of a "g" and sometimes with the top. Sometimes he dotted his "i" or crossed his "t" before he did the body of the letter.

'Ali's voice was shrill and cracked with age, so it helped Westerners, especially, to check what they thought he said with what he wrote. Even more valuable was his ability to convert a wide variety of Bedouin dialects into one written standard, no matter how crude.

As a poet, 'Ali was highly regarded by other Bedouins. He once wrote of a young secretary that her face lit up like a flashlight and that "her breasts were like goose eggs, but soft." He reached his greatest poetic heights in angry tirades against other Bedouin poets with lines like: "May God, when he dies, place him in hell, and may the eye that bemoans him meet with everlasting blindness."

Another year-round "relator," Thu'ailib ibn Saqr, whose name means "Little Fox, Son of Falcon," was of the southern, sand-dwelling tribe of the 'Awamir. He was working on a roofing gang in Dhahran in 1948 when his fellow workers identified him as someone who had crossed the great Rub' al-Khali desert a half dozen times. His boss was truly sorry to see the strapping young fellow go when he was pirated by the Arabian Research Division.

At first Thu'ailib was so self-conscious in conversation with Americans that he was nearly unintelligible. He hid his saturnine face in his hands or covered it with his headcloth, and he giggled and squirmed like a schoolgirl. But in time Thu'ailib became one of the most intelligent and responsible of Aramco's "relators." He made unique contributions to the mapping of the Arabian Peninsula, and he was borrowed frequently by Aramco's Exploration Department and by the Governor of the Eastern Province to speak authoritatively about the most distant reaches of the desert.

Thu'ailib, like most Bedouins, belched freely and loudly. H. St. John B. Philby described the belch of one of his guides in The Empty Quarter as "deep drawn from the uttermost recesses of a healthful, untroubled stomach, loud, lingering, lusty and eloquent." Acquaintances of Thu'ailib's would have welcomed a chance to hear these two Bedouins in competition. Thu'ailib's belch was not only loud and lingering, it was almost volcanic. It mildly surprised even his Bedouin associates, and it startled occupants of nearby offices who were known to rush to windows and doors to seek explanations for the phenomenon.

It was Thu'ailib who wisely dismissed someone's theory that the world was round like an orange with the observation that, if that were so, the Americans would drill for the oil under Arabia from their side.

William E. "Bill" Mulligan, manager of Aramco's Government Relations Services Department, joined Aramco in 1946 after wartime service in Aden.

This article appeared on pages 16-19 of the July/August 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1973 images.