The Arabian Desert is one of the most arid areas of land on Earth, a place in which Bedouins have experienced tremendous hardship in accessing water, particularly in the pre-oil era. In this short blog, I will shed some light on the Bedouin lifestyle in Dhofar and how they have coped with water shortage. The work draws on data collected during a three-year project to document the endangered Modern South Arabian Languages spoken in Oman and Yemen. The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and hosted at the University of Leeds. Further information about the project can be found under: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/info/125219/modern_south_arabian_languages/
The amount of water available in the desert has never been sufficient to meet the demands of Bedouins. The Bedouin describe water in terms of two types: water fed by groundwater source and water fed by rain. The former type is a permanent source and the latter is temporary. However, desert dwellers cannot spend the whole year in the vicinity of groundwater sources as they sometimes have to migrate from one place to another in search of better grazing areas as rearing animals is imperative for Bedouin life.
In the Najd of Dhofar, the wadis of Andur and Habrut are the arteries of life in the steppe, as described by Bertram Thomas in Arabia Felix. Andur lies behind Jabel Samhan (approximately north of Mirbat) while Habrut lies in the western mountainous area of Dhofar. These permanent water-holes are surrounded by natural oasis palms and continue to be used for tribal meetings held between sheikhs and tribesmen when required. The two water-holes provide abundant water, food (palm dates) and shade.
The Bedouin move with their herds within the desert in search of rainwater to be found in water-pools (in Mehri maḥlīḳ) and puddles (in Mehri śtrīr). Rain provides them with the opportunity to return to the desert. Drought and the fear of being attacked by raiders compelled them to resort to mountain water sources despite their fondness for the desert. In the desert, rain clouds and lightning are the Bedouins’ compass. They usually dispatch scouting men ahead to check if the rainfall has been adequate for grazing and water.
The pressing need for water forced Bedouin ancestors to invent techniques for the purposes of collecting and prospecting for water. Water would be carried in waterskins made from the complete hide of a goat (in Mehri nīd), shown here.
Prospecting for water involves the creation of waterscrapes (in Mehri maḥsāt) which were widely used by Najd inhabitants in the desert. To determine whether a place had sufficient water to warrant digging, they would lift a heavy stone and drop it down on the ground and listen for an underground echo that might gauge the depth of groundwater. If water was deemed to be present, a waterscrape would then be dug with simple digging tools whilst milk bowls (in Mehri ḳālīw) were used as shovels. The depth of waterscrape holes could be as much as the height of a man and required the use of milk bowls and goatskin water bags to draw the water up for use.
These approaches to water discovery and collection have changed in the post-oil era sodocumenting and disseminating traditional techniques and traditional views of water to present to future generations is extremely important, and in this project we hope to be able to produce audio and audio-visual documentation of many such practices.
Author: Saeed al-Mahri, School of Languages
Photos by Janet C.E. Watson and Domenyk Eades