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Volume 46, Number 2March/April 1995

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The Desert Meets the Sown

Come...with me along some strip of herbage strown

That just divides the desert from the sown

Where name of slave and sultan scarce is known...

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Written by Lynn Teo Simarski
Photographed by Mohammed Bin Salim Al-Wadhahy
Additional photographs by Lynn Teo Simarski

On the inland side of the great mountainous backbone of the Sultanate of Oman, where sands lap at the thresholds of farmlands, a string of border towns marks the zone of transition between nomadic and settled peoples. Historians, writers and travelers to the Middle East have often stressed the conflict between these two ways of life. In the oasis villages of Oman, however, from Buraymi in the north to Mintirib in the south, desert and village economies have mingled for ages to their mutual benefit.

The interdependence of desert and sown in Oman, and the transition between the two, is encapsulated in Sanaw, a town in the Sharqiyyah region southeast of the mountain stronghold. Here, in one of the most isolated areas of the country, rise the Wahibah Sands, a 12,000-square-kilometer (4,650-square-mile) sand sea. Sanaw is one of the six market centers on this desert's northern rim that serve the Bedouin dwellers of the Sands.

The economy of the Wahibah Sands region embraces complex interactions among three main occupations: cultivation, herding and fishing. These ways of life, along with the physical geography and biology of the region, were the objects of intensive study from 1985 to 1987 by the Oman Wahiba Sands Project of the Royal Geographical Society of London (See Aramco World, January-February 1988). As the project's studies detail, the irrigated oases of the towns support traditional agriculture, dominated by the date palm, as well as new farms for the production of alfalfa and some fruits and vegetables.

Living within and along the Sands are approximately 3000 pastoralist Bedouins who are mainly herders of goats and camels. The Bedouins belong to six principal tribes: the Al Wahibah—by far the largest—the 'Amr, the Hikman, the Mawalik, the Al Bu 'Isa and the Janabah. On the Sands' southeastern edge, Bedouin fishermen populate a number of villages scattered along the coast of the Arabian Sea. These people migrate to the northern oases in summer, where some of them participate in the date harvest.

Sanaw's bustling daily market provides a captivating snapshot of the interchange among these different ways of life, which are still pursued in the age-old way to a greater extent here, perhaps, than in most other places on the Arabian Peninsula. The Thursday market, which begins early in the morning, is particularly animated. Here, Bedouins, fishermen and villagers convene in the large square delineated by permanent shops selling jewelry, clothing and food. In the square is an inner, roofed area used for animal sales and special auctions.

Just outside the market, hobbled camels kneel in the back of the Bedouins' pickup trucks, waiting to be sold. Camels are mainly the concern of men, and the breeding of racing animals is a growing source of cash.

The inner market square frequently features a brisk goat auction. Because raising goats is often the women's preserve, many women crowd among the spectators here. An auctioneer keeps up the pace, orchestrating the action with his camel stick. Bidders and watchers scrutinize and trade jibes as the animals are marched around, one by one, for inspection. Most goats are the brown or black type typical of northern Oman, although the smaller, southern goats and the sleek, white, short-haired Somali goats also appear for sale. The bidding soars highest for the local type. Sometimes a trader will buy a large lot for export to the United Arab Emirates.

Roving hawkers weave through the crowd, shouting the latest price for the popular khanjar, the curved Omani dagger whose hilt, sheath, and belt are all covered with lavish silver work, or for the hooked camel-sticks often carried by Omani men. Prospective buyers carefully weigh and flex these sticks in their hands before making an offer.

Other merchants sit on the ground among mounds of dried fish, the object of a longstanding trade that exemplifies the links among the desert, the oasis, and the sea. Along both the eastern and western margins of the Sands, explains Roger Webster, a scientist who participated in the Wahiba Sands Project, Bedouin groups occupy positions astride the transit routes along which fish is brought from the coast to the northern markets—formerly by camel train, now by truck. In the past, non-Bedouin traders required the services of a Bedouin guard to ensure their safety.

Today, as long ago, dried anchovies furnish rich fertilizer for oasis crops. Likewise, the hard, leathery strips of dried shark still provide an easily transported and long-lasting staple for desert life. On a trip through Oman early in this century the British political agent Sir Percy Cox described a Bedouin breakfast of dates and shark. "They cut or hammered off great chunks of the shark meat," he reported, "and after beating it into a fibrous state picked it to pieces and ate it." Cox himself, however, found the meat "very tasteless, and exceedingly tough and stringy." A Sanaw shark-seller, tucking his profits beneath his turban, explains that the dried flesh can be soaked in water to make a sort of stew.

Although the Bedouins pasture their livestock in the Sands and the adjacent plains, they also purchase supplemental fodder such as alfalfa from the oases, as well as the dried sardines, known as 'urn, found in Sanaw market, a practice responsible for the characteristically fishy flavor of their camels' milk. The oases also supply the Bedouins with palm fibers for ropes and fishing equipment, palm fronds for basket-weaving, and the palm ribs they use to construct huts. In turn, the Bedouins market traditional commodities such as salt, camel manure for fertilizing oasis plots, goat-hair products, wool, leather and palm-frond baskets. Some Bedouin women are proficient weavers, and their hand-crafted camel trappings, girth straps, donkey bags, handbags and rugs sometimes appear in the market too.

In the tailor shops of the market's outer square, clusters of diminutive, masked Bedouin women finger brightly-colored dresses. These will be worn, outside the house, under the traditional gauzy, black overgarment and topped with a long, wrapped scarf of the same semi-transparent material.

Traditionally, a woman's tribe was indicated by the type of battulah, or beaked mask that she wore, explains Dawn Chatty, an Arab-American anthropologist who has lived among nomadic tribes in Syria and Oman. The long masks of Wahibah women extend far down their faces, contrasting with the briefer masks of the Janabah and the Duru'. Now, however, bright purple masks are in vogue among younger Bedouin women, and thus the type and length of mask may identify the wearer's generation as much as her birthplace, Chatty points out.

The relaxed, free-wheeling atmosphere of Sanaw market, rich with gossip about grazing conditions, family and friends as well as with the bartering of commodities, holds a special attraction for the Bedouins. When pastoralists are asked where they sell their goats, says Chatty, they may mention the market of Sanaw as well as those in the towns of Adam or Nizwa. "But they prefer Sanaw above the others," she says. Besides its comfortable desert character, Sanaw is also closer to the Wahibah Sands and easy to reach by following the valleys from the hinterland.

The interaction of people and resources, in the borderlands that Sanaw typifies, has helped to shape not only the history of Oman, of course, but also events throughout the Middle East. Islamic law established the rights of land ownership and use between settled and nomadic peoples, while the theme of desert and sown also sparked the imaginations of writers and travelers. Western travelers such as Charles M. Doughty, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and Wilfred Thesiger often treated the theme, usually stressing the distinctness, rather than the interdependence, of the regions.

Historian Arnold Toynbee found a metaphor for the conflict between settled and nomadic peoples in the story of Cain and Abel, in which the tiller of the ground slays the pastoralist. Toynbee used the story to illustrate "primordial antipathy and misunderstanding between the cultivator and the Nomad." Thesiger, who explored the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia some 40 years ago and recorded his adventures in Arabian Sands, also took a strict view of the division between the two ways of life. He believed the Bedouins could conquer the settled peoples whenever they wished, and that only their love of the free desert life kept them from doing so.

It was Ibn Khaldun, however, the great Arab historian and philosopher who finished his Muqaddimah, or Introduction to History, in 1377, who wrote of courageous nomads, fortified by desert life, who were "better able to achieve superiority and to take away the things that are in the hands of other nations.... Whenever people settle in fertile plains and amass luxuries and become accustomed to a life of abundance and refinement, their bravery decreases to the degree that their wildness and desert habits decrease." The Bedouins' victories over settled areas led to the decay of Bedouin civilization, he believed.

Still, Ibn Khaldun recognized the reciprocity between the two modes of life, pointing out that the Bedouins sold livestock and animal products to the cities, which in turn furnished the Bedouins with necessities of life that they were unable to produce themselves—just as they do today. Among those who have studied the modern dynamics of Bedouin and settled life, this interaction has received considerable emphasis. As geographer John C. Wilkinson explains, "The life of the nomad and the oasian form part of a continuum, and all desert societies must include specialists in both forms of existence."

Researcher Angela J. Christie, who studied the market towns as part of the Wahiba Sands Project, wrote that "the pastoral population are dependent upon these communities for...food, clothing, building materials, fodder...and even water, which some transport into the sands by truck."

On the perimeter of Sanaw oasis, as on the edges of similar border towns such as Ibra and Adam, stand the Bedouins' small, palm-frond, or barasti, houses, which they inhabit in summer during the date-harvest season. Many herders work in date gardens belonging to settled villagers, explains Christie, who adds that Bedouins now invest in date groves of their own. In some villages, in fact, Bedouins own almost half of the date gardens. Overall, the distinctions among pastoralists, fishermen and cultivators are often blurry. Members of the same tribe may engage in more than one of these occupations, and individuals may participate in one activity or another depending on the season, the activities of other family members or friends, or other circumstances.

Even members of the Harasis tribe, who dwell in the Jiddat al-Harasis, the remote sector of central Oman, visit Sanaw market on occasion. Chatty, who studied the impact of oil development on the Harasis, notes that they have "always been tied, in relations of interdependence, to the sedentary communities.... The Harasis require access to grain, dates, and other agricultural products, and they in turn supply the agricultural communities with livestock."

Chatty points out another way in which the model of conflict between desert and sown ill suits Sanaw and its hinterlands. "The tribes never fought over the agricultural land here," she says, calling the fluid, interdependent relationships "a purely economic arrangement. The real struggles were between tribes, and they were over water, but they didn't involve the villages where they trade."

As elsewhere in Oman, change is sweeping swiftly over Sanaw and the other border towns of the Wahibah Sands. Sanaw is now linked by excellent roads to Muscat and much of the hinterland, and has thus become the economic capital of the Sands. The old village up on the ridge has been forsaken for new houses and new shops. The new market increasingly offers imported fruits, vegetables, and dried foods, as well as clothing and toys from many countries that have never before been available.

Thanks to modern transport, fresh fish, too, is available now in Sanaw, and much of the fish caught along the coastline of the Sands is marketed in Muscat, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, tribesmen increasingly seek work in Muscat or in other Gulf countries to supplement their families' cash incomes, some of which is invested in the cultivated land of the border oases.

Even the isolated Harasis have been quick to capitalize on the improved transportation. In the past, Chatty recalls, a journey to Adam or Sanaw "was a major undertaking requiring a minimum of one man, several camels and as much as ten days' supply of food and milk to make the round trip." Today, many Harasis families own one or two trucks, and some members work for wages, integrating these new pursuits with their traditional herding.

The greater availability of imported goods in the border towns, where the standard of traditional craftwork is already deteriorating, may lessen the Bedouins' reliance on local products. And as more children attend school, they may eventually be drawn away from the old occupations. At the same time, the tourism potential of the spectacular Sands is also under review by the Omani government. Inevitably, the region "where name of slave and sultan scarce is known" is fast becoming part of a broader world, further interlinking the desert with the sown.

Washington-based free-lance writer and photographer Lynn Teo Simarski specializes in Middle Eastern topics.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the March/April 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1995 images.