Bedouin life: Camel's milk and 'Lou Grant'

The pavement ends at Al Melhalla. From there, winding tire tracks angle for 15 miles across a barren plain where dust like brown flour floats for a quarter of a mile behind a moving car. To the south, a dry, stonebed wadi (river valley) lined with clusters of green palms meanders between rock foothills and brown, rugged mountains.

Baboons and gazelle still roam these mountains of the Asir region in southwest Saudi Arabia, as do almost 300 Bedouin of the Bani Majour who live in a forgotten corner of one of the fastest-developing countries in the world.

Apparently isolated from the Saudi government's multi-billion-riyal development plans, the Majouri live in stone and palm-frond houses in the arid mountains and beside the wadi (which is dry most months of the year) raising goats, camels, and sheep on dusty, overgrazed mountainsides. It hasn't rained since July 1979.

There is no plumbing, no refrigeration, no air conditioning. The nearest water supply is 20 miles down the wadi near the tiny hilltop village of Al Fateha.

With the exception of "luxuries" such as a few four-wheel-drive trucks, some flashlights, and a television set, life continues here as it has for generations among mountain Bedouin.

Though there are no published census figures, estimates are that up to 20 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is Bedouin, with life styles ranging from the Asir mountain tribes, who dress in multicolored loincloths, to the nomadic desert Bedouin of the central Najd region, who wear the traditional Saudi dress of long, white shirts, "thobes," and cloth headdresses.

The Asir tribal dress, which is similar to the dress of the Bedouin in North and South Yemen, is, in part, a holdover from a time when the region (then called Tihamah) belonged to North Yemen. The region was conquered By Saudi warriors led by Faisal Ibn Abdul Aziz al Saud (later King Faisal) in the mid- 1920s. It was renamed Asir shortly before the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina were captured, thus extending King Abdul Aziz's kingdom of Bedouin tribes from the Gulf to the Red Sea.

Though there have been no tribal feuds, or fighting in the mountains of the Bani Majour for many years, on a recent trip by foot into the region near Al Fateha, I was warned by my Arab traveling companion, who had a pistol holstered under his shirt, not to stray in the mountains for fear that as a stranger I might be shot.

All Majouri men wear foot-long curved knives on belts over their stomachs. Many carry pistols or wear ammunition belts holding 1 1/2-inch shells for World War II British infantry rifles, used to hunt gazelle.

There have been reports of sporadic fighting among tribes in the mountains south of Najran near the Yemen border. The Saudi government maintains a military presence in the area in an effort to maintain peace and to quell any possible united Bedouin uprising that might threaten the region.

But for the most part, the carrying of guns and knives was explained as more a reflection of traditional than for protection or warfare.

"It is our custom," explained a tribe member in Arabic who wore a shoulder holster over his sleeveless undershirt even as he served tea to guests at his home.

Traveling and visiting with the mountain Bedouin, one quickly learns the formalities of acknowledging and establishing friendships.

When Muhammad and I arrived at the camp of the Messafek family, we were greeted formally by all the men in the family (five brothers) who lined up single file to welcome us one at a time. Shaking hands for Bani Majour tribesmen consists of lightly touching the fingertips, right hand to right hand, and then raising the right hand to the tips and making a kissing sound.

When close friends meet, they will often touch hands and then kiss each other repeatedly on each cheek and the forehead.

Upon entering the camp, I was ushered to a wooden-frame cot with a woven mattress and urged to lie down and rest among several Bedouin guests already lounging on nearby cots.

Within minutes I was served a cup of cardamom-flavored Bedouin coffee made from cooked and crushed green beans called "hail." After all the men in the camp had drunk several cups of coffee, sweet, hot tea was served.

When at last the teapot was dry, the Bedouin -- who referred to me as "Sahafi" (Arabic for journalist) -- passed a large bowl of fresh, foamy camel's milk and a bowl of sheep's milk among the tribesmen and guests. Several times, through my companion Muhammad, the Bedouin urged "Sahafi" to make himself at home while all in the camp from the children to the elders sat, intently watching the white-skinned man's every move.

The Bani Majour, who rarely travel outside the mountains and who speak only a tribal dialect of Arabic that is not understood outside the region, had seen only five Westerners in the mountains in the past years. The visitors included four British men in a Land Rover who drove through the territory one afternoon, and a geologist in a helicopter who landed for a few moments near the tribal sheikh's camp about a year and a half ago.

Most of the Bani Majour can neither read nor write, and none had regularly attended the small school at Al Fateha. For most, education begins and ends in learning how to live in the mountains and in understanding the teachings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

Five times each day, the male members of the Messafek family and their Bedouin guests washed their hands, faces, hair, and feet, and stood, then knelt, side by side on prayer mats in a stone ring facing Mecca. They recited their prayers first in unison, then individually: "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. Praise belongs to God, the lord of all being, the all-merciful, the all-compassionate, the master of the day of doom. . . ."

As the women of the family (the elderly mother, Lahiga, and the two wives of her eldest son, Yahya) prepared two goats in pots on an open fire for dinner, a portable television set was connected to the battery of the family's four-wheel-drive truck.

An hour later, at about 9 p.m., the men crouched on ground mats in the glow of the Czechoslovakia-West Germany European soccer championship playoff and ate chunks of boiled goat's meat (which tastes like lamb) and rice from a common tray. "Sahafi," as guest of honor, was offered the neck and head, including the brain, eyes, tongue, and liver.

All food is eaten with the right hand as much as possible (Muslims believe the left hand is unclean), and rice is eaten by squeezing fistfuls into rice balls. During the meal, a fresh bowl of camel's milk is passed around, right hand to right hand.

The following day, we traveled by trunk with a group of Majouri farther into the mountains to visit Sheikh Kassep bin Hadi. The sheikh, who abandoned his tents a year ago and built a stone house with a cement floor and a thatched open-wall shelter in the center of a bare valley, welcomed the visitors with a fresh pot of Bedouin coffee and then invited them to breakfast on unleavened bread with oil and camel's milk.

After breakfast, the sheikh and about 15 visitors from various places in the mountains sat on cots under the thatched roof and talked. On this particular morning, he settled a dispute between a taxi driver and a man who said the driver had reneged on a promise to more money from another man. The sheikh determined that the driver should pay a small sum to the would-be rider.

Later, Kassep bin Hadi talked of the condition of his people, emphasizing the need for water wells in the mountain wadi to help cut down on the number of trips necessary to the well in Al Fateha. He noted that with wells the Majouri could begin to try to raise crops. HE repeatedly stressed that the wells were necessary "for life."

As he spoke, eight baboons moved together across the face of a nearby mountain, and sheep from the sheikh's herd crowded lazily beneath the thatched shelter, rocking as they panted in the near-100 degree F. heat.

Many of the tribesmen are critical of the Saudi government for not helping them with wells, and for never providing them with Saudi citizenship papers, which are necessary to travel on major roads throughout the region.

At the same time, the Majouri welcome the coming of a government road project that will create temporary jobs for Bedouin.

More and more young Bedouin are leaving the mountains to find work in cities like At [Words Illegible] because of the rising costs of food and supplies. But the Bedouin are finding that, as illiterates speaking only a tribal dialect of Arabic, they are unable to find jobs in booming Saudi cities flooded with cheap, imported labor from neighboring developing countries.

If they had their choice, according to several Majouri, they would remain happily in the mountains with their tribes and their herds rather then be weakened and corrupted in a city. One 20-year-old tribesman said he'd never wanted to be anything other than a Bedouin, a "bedu." And, he added, as he lay back with his hands behind his head on a cot and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains, "This is the place where I was born and this is the place where I will live."

Behind him, three camels chew leaves from a branch tied to a dead tree. On a nearby rock pile, young goats dance from stone to stone and then butt heads. Meanwhile, three new guests arrive from deep in the mountains. Bedouin coffee is served and the television is again mounted on the hood of the truck. As the conversation begins, no one watches as Lou Grant lectures a colleague on journalism ethics in English -- his voice echoing among those of Asir Bedouin halfway around the world from his fictitious Los Angeles Tribune newsroom.

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