On a camel in Syria

Visiting the Bedouin

I blogged yesterday about some of the more interesting food items that I’ve had the pleasure of sampling – and some where I have declined the opportunity – in various parts of the world, and I made reference to staying with some Bedouin in the Syrian Desert a few years ago. I have had a few questions about the trip, so thought that I would tell you a little more about that trip, in case any of you are interested.

We – my wife and I – went to Syria a few years ago to spend a few weeks as tourists, including seeing some of the impressive collection of historical sites that are located within the country. We had both spent quite a bit of time in the Middle East before the trip, including some time exploring neighbouring Jordan, so were excited about this opportunity. One big difference between Syria and Jordan was that we would have guides with us in Syria, whereas in Jordan we hired a car and drove around the country ourselves. It was less easy at the time to arrange the same sort of trip around Syria.

We started in Damascus, travelled North through Aleppo to the Turkish border, and East to the Iraqi border, where we found ourselves standing in Syria looking over the border into Iraq. From that, we travelled back to Damascus via the ancient city of Palmyra. I won’t add all the detail about our trip around Syria, as that could fill up a blog post or two by itself, there being so much to see and do in the country.

At Palmyra, we waved goodbye to our guide, who had done an excellent job of escorting us through the country, and met Ahmed, from the Bedouin family who were going to be our hosts. We did this in the ruins of the city of Palymra, which is quite simply a stunning setting. Anywhere else in the world, this site would be teeming with tourists marvelling at the ancient ruins, but Syria has never attracted the same numbers of tourists as some of it’s neighbours.

Ahmed has two camels for us with him, and we got on these and headed off into the desert through the ruins, just as a sandstorm was picking up. It is hard to describe just how stunning it was to be riding through the completely abandoned ruins with the sand blowing around us, creating a pink tinge in the air around us, with no one else to be seen but the three of us, as the sun slowly set. We were riding in the traditional single file configuration, with Ahmed in front, then me, then my wife. My wife’s camel was called Ahmed Al Jamal (as I’m sure you Arab scholars will recognise, that’s Ahmed the Camel). We learned that Ahmed was quite a popular name in Syria. He also had the nickname of “Lewis Hamilton” because of his want for speed and reckless overtaking moves – yes, a love of Formula One has made it to the Bedouin communities of the Syrian desert – and that is exactly what he was trying to do. I pitied my poor steed who was burdened down not just with the less than trivial mass of me, but also of my rather large bag. He stoically coped with this without too much harrumphing, and gave Ahmed Lewis a derisory look each time he aimed to overtake. My wife, who Is rather experienced in animal husbandry, managed to keep Ahmed Lewis under control, even though her riding experiences primarily focused on horses – even if that did include show jumping – although I have seen her ride more diverse beasts like elephants and water buffalo.

We rode for nearly two hours through the sand to find the camp, and the sandstorm abated as we got there. It was a very traditional Bedouin camp in most respects, with a large rectangular tent in the buryuut hajar style, split into two main sections, the common area where the men stayed, and the women’s area. The animals of the tribe were either tethered nearby or in makeshift fenced areas, or for those that were appropriate, were roaming nearby. We tethered Ahmed Lewis and his camel friends with the other camels, and went into the tent. Most of the men were sitting around on the floor, and we joined in. None of the family other than Ahmed – the chap who met us, not the camel – spoke any English, so we were getting by on our Arabic. Mine was quite basic – I got as far as NVQ Level 1 – and my wife’s was similar, so it was going to be an interesting visit.

We sat around on the floor and chatted as best we could with the family, and, as it was Ramadan, waited for Iftar, or the meal when the sun sets. This meal was made up primarily of a chicken who had been running around outside when we arrived. This is not the only time that I have been introduced to a meal whilst it was still alive, but is certainly an odd thing for our western sensibilities. The meal was, like every item of food we ate in Syria, absolutely delicious. I won’t focus on the food now, though, that was the previous post. After some more chat, we moved to a less traditional part of modern Bedouin life. The tent had a satellite dish and a generator, and from under a very traditional looking cloth, a television appeared. We watched a film that was a local favourite for this time of the year. It was a few days before Eid Al Fitr, and watching this in Syria seemed the equivalent of watching The Wizard of Oz or The Great Escape in the UK, or It’s A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street in the US just before Christmas, or Dinner For One in Germany or Central Europe on St Sylvester, or New Year’s Eve. The family glowed in nationalistic pride as the watched the familiar story of the brave Syrians outwitting the mighty Turks on the film.

It was getting late, and it had turned dark outside by now, and some visitors from other Bedouin families had arrived, and been introduced to us, and then another guest arrived, this time without invitation. A jerboa ran into the tent. Now, if you are not familiar with the jerboa, Google it. I really wish that I had taken a picture of it, as I doubt that I will get many, if any, more chances to see one in the wild being quite this close. A jerboa is a rodent, which is a little like a cross between a cartoon style mouse with really big ears – think of Pinky in Pinky and the Brain – and a very small kangaroo. It is remarkably cute, and Aleksander Orlov and his kin must always be looking over their shoulders to see if meerkats will lose their position as cute small animals most likely to elicit an “aaah” from the British public. If you have not heard of Aleksander Orlov, have a look at www.comparethemeerkat.com and all will become clear. Well, clear-ish.

I digress. Our jerboa guest hopped and ran around before being captured under a large tin, about the size of a paint tin. I was a little worried now; as you know I am an animal lover, but I am also aware that the treatment of animals varies greatly from place to place. The Bedouin have a reputation of respect for animals – they are essential to their way of life – and my concern was not required. It was explained to me – just about –that the tin was their special jerboa tin, complete with holes to allow it to breath. They would leave it to scratch around in the tin for a little while and then release it. The brief incarceration should be enough to put the jerboa off another trip to a similar tent. My only concern needed to be that he did not get to see the end of the film.

We slept on the warm rugs and skins that made up the floor of the tent, with my wife joining me and the men in the hamamlik. It was odd sleeping whilst we could hear the camels baying in response to the howling of wild dogs, and the sounds of all sorts of other nocturnal desert animals. No other rodents managed to enter the tent overnight; the jerboa must have passed the message on as required.

Next morning, we got up to watch the sunrise. It was stunning. Absolutely stunning. “Jamelah”, I said to the matriarch of the family. “Beautiful”. “Nam”, she said. A simple yes.

The matriarch was one of those older people that looks absolutely timeless. I could not even hazard a guess as to her age, or even by how many generations she was older than Ahmed. We watched her prepare food, and my wife looked on in horror as she took out a huge knife and used this rather precariously as an improvised tin opener. It looked like each move could result in a nasty cut, and not to the can, but without even appearing to give the operation her full attention, she held the huge can between her legs and cut the top off. My wife still shudders just thinking about this.

We spent the morning watching the sun rise in the company of Ahmed Lewis and his kin. They seemed most unimpressed with the whole sunrise experience, and had the world weary look of camels who had seen it all before.

We had other stories and adventures from our time with the Bedouin, but as they are the stories of a family who were kind enough to have us as their guests, it would be unfair to share them without asking for permission. I will skip on then, to our guide coming to pick us up. He had called and texted a few times to check that all was well with us. He had seemed remarkably nervous about leaving his wards in the hands of a young Bedouin chap who was taking us into the desert. He was very keen to get us back. He even offered to come in a 4×4 and find the camp to speed up our return, as it would be much quicker than the camel ride back, and we took him up on this offer. I should point out that, although we were in the middle of the desert, there was no issue with mobile phone signal. In fact, my brother texted me to check all was ok when he heard that there had been a small explosion in Damascus. I told him that we were in a remarkably safe place.

In hindsight, I took very few photos during my time there. I was so fascinated by everything that was going on that taking photos was not a priority for us.

When we got back to Palmyra, we encountered one last camel, this time there very much for the benefit of tourists. He may not have had the speed or ruthless ambition of Ahmed Lewis, but he was remarkably cute.

We had an incredible journey around Syria, where everyone we met was helpful and friendly, and where we saw some incredible sights and had some amazing experiences. We loved our Syria travels, and feels very sad watching the current Syria situation on television, particularly when we see a street with which we are familiar now with bomb damage or the like. It is heartbreaking to watch the damage to the ancient souqs, and beyond that to think of what may have happened or be happening to some of those people that we met. I still wonder what happened to some of those people who looked after me so well in my days in Libya after the revolution there, and I hope for their safety. I really do hope for the safety and security for those in Syria at the moment, and fear that it may be some time before we would be able to repeat this visit.