“This will be top news here for the coming 10 years!” Sheikh Saleem laughed out loud whilst I was cooking a costumary pasta and tuna meal for dinner in the almost full moonlight and added: “I will be a legend here for the rest of the time of the Arabs!”
We had just passed through some of the most demanding terrain I have ever crossed and we were just a day off what we were sure was the end of what felt like more than an epic Expedition. It felt like a giant eye opener as regards to life. A rare insight into a unique world few people knew anything about. Sheikh Saleem Hamid Ambe Somota Al Mahri was one of the reasons for this rare insight and understanding. Earlier that day he had told us about this British man which had passed through at least 40 years earlier with his Al Mahra guides and people were still talking about them today. I wondered if this had been the legendary Wilfried Thesiger and his two companions Bin Kabina and a name I have forgotten. Sheikh Saleem didn´t know, but he did remember the days the British ruled this area. Much better than today he said. Everything worked as compared to today when the area is under Yemeni rule. The Al Mahari Bedu see themselves as belonging to the Gulf people, not the Yemenis. And they´re very different. I would call them a unique people who´s land is seperate from the rest. It definitely feels like the oldest place with the oldest thoughts and habits I have ever travelled through and come across during my 25 years of exploration through over 125 countries.
”When I first heard about you two”, Sheikh Saleem continued, he liked talking continously; ”People told me that these two people don´t drink any water, they just walk and walk. I told them I needed this job and wanted to help them, so I will not drink at all either I told them. But now i have seen you drink all the time.”
We carry modern Camelbaks in our small backpacks (18 kg:s for me, 7-10 for Tanya) and we sip the water through a narrow hose few people see. A kind of a modern guerba, I guess, because it looks like that goatskin water carrier the Bedus use. That was one of the items stunning the Bedus, spreading the word and which faschinated them every time we came across them. Which was pretty much every day. But nothing created such a storm of curiosity as the map, the GPS who could tell us all where we were and how far we had actually walked. It never stopped and i always had to show them around. Outwardly they tended not to be impressed, but between themselves they talked to the early ours of the morning about these 2 inventions. I personally mostly remember one of our Al Mahara guides, Mahood, who I first showed the GPS and tried to impress him with how the satellites travelled in orbit and so on, when he suddenly said:
”Does it tell you were to find water?”
Surprised, I shook my head and he said in his down to earth voice:
”What good does it do then?”
It was Mahood who started spreading the word about who we where, where we wanted to go and what gear we had with us. A guide is needed in many ways in this area. Orientation is easy with todays maps and gadgets, as is findin people and water, because the Bedus are spread out pretty much all over every valley. We came across them at least 2-3 times a day on most stretches except the beautiful crossing over the mountain to Wadi Nahrit. This was an empty, harsh and useless piece of land for the Bedus and their camels. For us abeautiful and silent stretch,because the Bedus wanna know everything about you. Always the same questions:
”Where are you from? What are you doing here? Where are you going? Are you married? Do you have children? Are you Muslim?”
And they love talking and socializing, which isn´t always easy when you are tired beyond belief. Because the heat was much worse than i thought. We had, in the beginning, Mid Day temperatures over 48 degrees Celsius. In the shadow just below 40. We could hardly breathe. We couldn´t eat, just try to survive. Tanya wanted out the second day and almost screamed in panic:
”I am going to take the next car passing leaving this hell!”
No car turned up fortunately. Because it turns out that Tanya, a young woman from the suburbs of Stockholm with hardly any outdoor experience, becomes one of the best Expedition partners I have ever had. Something I instinctinively felt the first time we met in Sanaa. She is an expert translator and her knowledge about the ways of Yemen is outstanding, but her qualities as an Expedition partner is even bigger. Always full of life and never a boring second. That is the partner one wants. Nobody believed she would make it all the way, but of course she did. She has that determination and concentration few people have. She is a new star in the rising no doubt!
We are back in a sweaty room in Al Ghaydah. Once again we have been fooled by these modern kind of people. They said they had a back up electricity during the power cuts. They lied again. The beus on route were so different. Saleem is one of the nicest humans I have ever come across. Of course he has all the cunning that the Bedus have aquired through centuries, but once you have struck a deal with him, the negotiations stopped. I wish we would have had him as a guide from the beginning. He is an old mahout (bahout here) who´s job was to walk our entire stretch from Al Ghaydah to Rumah though the Wadis together with 50 camels and as much people or more just 30 years back. Today the jeep makes it an un necessary job. But he has the skills and profound love and knowledge about camels, which is unique for a Bedu. He once asked me if I could set him up with a job with the Sami people of Scandinavia, which we had told him about, and i said, it is to cold for you. He could belive we had lands of only ice and snow.
At times it has felt like we were travelling through unknown lands nobody had ever visited. Of course reality was different, but change takes time here. It is really a raw, hard livning, down-to-earth place which can only be handled and appreciated around the year by the Bedus and their camels. There where herds of camels everywhere, especially in the Wadi Nahrit area. It is a very tough land and I am happy to have travelled through some of its inner parts. I have left it with almost only joy and happiness. But, of course, as everywhere, there´s difficulties, misunderstandings and cultural differencies. As always, our ”complaints” or observations should be seen from the way we see life. The Western perspective.
There´s a great need for education. I am not talking about Western style education, but people need to learn how to read and write. And to understand there´s another world out there, very different to their own. I used to believe in preeserving old and ancient cultures really hard, for the sake of their survival in the future, for the rest of us to learn from them, but the older I get and the more i see, preserving old ways isn´t always a good thing. The lack of education and understanding of other worlds just creates fears, misunderstandings, some hostility and injustice. Old ways are seldom better. Most people we met had no education, couldn´t read and write. Most of them had never been outside their own area.
But my overwhelming memory is the knowledge, power and kindness these people have aquired to survive in these extremely harsh and hard circumstances. This was one of the most important, most overwhelming and faschinating trips I have ever done and I genuinly feel I have returned back to Al Ghaydah with some profound insights and knowledge from life and that I have been able to add another piece of the puzzle as regards to the meaning of life. I am very, very happy!
However, the lack of electricity in our room and the heat is over bearing right now, so this will be the end of this summary. More articles about the Bedus and their land to come!
We ran into to Al Qaeda in Rumah by the way, well, just a rumor….it was said they were there, but nobody seemed bothered.
So much for that kidnapping threat….
Great article Mikael, very insightful. Congratulations on completing the expedition mate!!
Fantastic!! What an awesome journey – I am so glad and proud you two made it. Haven’t kept up with all the dispatches along the way, but am going to backtrack all your news and will respond again later. For now: thumbs up! I wished I was there to celebrate with you.