The Story of Wadi Baw

April 2010

 

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Wadi Baw (Boy, Bwai, Bawi) Southern Al Huqf, Oman
A story of survival and struggles in the desert.

There is not much known about Wadi Baw (Boy) in the Southern Al Huqf of Oman. Only geologists mention the wadi in a number of papers discussing the rocks of the Huqf and there a short discussions of the wadi as part of Oryx reservation (Stanley Price, 1989) and on the Harasis Bedouin tribe living approximately in the same area (Chatty, 1996).

But then there is this one line somebody has left on a blog on the internet:

"I have been to Wadi Boy in Huqf. Now that place is freaky at night"

No explanations, nothing further. Yet remarkable because I was searching the internet for stories to solve what has been puzzling me for years. There is water, a spring, a well, a lot of green, yet nobody living there at all. Bedus live on the great plains of the Jidat Al Harasis just to the west and northwest, but without water and very little green. Some fishing villages close to the coast, again with little water. So why nobody at a place that looks like a little protected heaven in all of this surrounding dry desert. The huge graveyard with impressive big graves, hints to another time -with people- and that's what you would expect. 

The first time I visited wadi Baw I heard a story from somebody very familiar with the area. 

That story is one of two tribes and a terrible battle in which many were killed, buried in the graveyard and nobody ever living there anymore because of this massacre.

Now you may understand the 'freaky' remark better, but did it actually happen?

Wadi Baw Bedouin graveyard (middle-lower right) seen from the southeast with the green wadi Baw to the left.  Photo courtesy Alan Heward.
The graves surely don't look like they have all been made at the same time. They rather point to a long history of human presence. They are aligned in north-south direction, probably indicating that the burials were facing due west, looking in the direction of Mecca. Bedouin, Islamic graves, built each as a substantial stone platform. Bronze daggers that reportedly were found near a  high lookout point next to Bawi indicate a long history (personal communication Alan Heward 2010). Again that is not surprising for a lovely place with water.

For me the mystery remained why the place has been deserted. Maybe there is a lot more in Salim's story. After all, battles between tribes were common, and could be quite devastating, even not that long ago. Such a story would explain why people have left and why none have returned. The details of such a battle would easily get lost in time, but people would for sure remember the sentiment.

Bertram Thomas, in his travels through Oman crossed the area in 1928. Below is an extract of his story, relevant to the wadi Baw area, and giving a bit of the feeling of the early days.

An hour and a half served to bring us to the entrance of Wadi Sarab, a gaping valley 1000 yards in width, where it debouched on to the plain. Its thick acacia jungle looked refreshingly green after the arid sands of the previous fortnight. As we continued up it on a southerly bearing, the hills, which were of very weathered appearance and about too feet high, closed in. And here I experienced my first hold-up of the journey. Luwaiti, my rafiq, and I, tired of the monotonous walking pace, and discovering that we were both thirsty, were trotting a half-mile ahead of our caravan in quest of milk. Now trotting is the pace of the raider, and is calculated to induce suspicion and alarm in a strange country. Suddenly through the jungle, 200 yards to our front, came a burst of rifle-fire, the bullets pinging uncomfortably close above our heads. Luwaiti excitedly signaled me to stop, then galloped boldly in the direction of the firers, waving his headdress above his head and shouting an unknown jargon. This is here the manner of the "rafiq." Five minutes' silence elapsed, followed by the return of Luwaiti with six of his fellow tribesmen, sullen and as much frightened as we. Suffering nothing worse than a few recriminating remarks from my own Badawi, who had now caught up, for having been responsible for what might have been an ugly situation, we moved on; but I was enjoined never to get out of a walk, and all insisted on the necessity of the caravan keeping together. We halted for lunch at the head of the gorge, where, as a result of recent rains, water was plentiful in surface pools, edged with oleander, and in a small cavern 3 fathoms deep. Near by on an eminence was a collection of stones, as of a monster grave, the first example I met of what afterwards was to prove an archeological discovery of much interest. But so soon after this excitement I judged the moment inopportune to make an extended halt for investigation, and we got on the move again. Leaving the Wadi on the left-hand side, the road climbs steeply through barren hills. At the top, where my aneroid registered 400 feet, we turned north and descended on to a broad expanse of tall coarse grass plain, called Manadhif, where I decided to halt. As we halted, a hare scampered away, the first I had seen. Large black-and-white flocks indicated a settlement, and soon a crowd of friendly Harasis brought bowls of delicious milk along. I was struck by the extraordinarily placid and intelligent faces of the youths, almost Southern European in appearance, by the lock of hair along the top of the head -suggestive of a Hindu caste or the horus lock- worn by young male children, and by the refinement in the voices of the women. Here for the first time I heard a language that was not Arabic and could not be understood by my Badawi, but was of course understood by Luwaiti, himself a Harsusi. Fortunately the Harasis understood Arabic as well, speaking it with a strange sing-song but pleasing inflexion of voice. The evening I spent in acquiring a list of Harsusi words. My attempts at measuring their heads were less successful; they would have none of what savoured of the magical. They had strange names, at least names other than the familiar Arab ones. My guide's daughter gloried in that of Aqrab, i.e. scorpion. She came to welcome her father, which she did by raising her veil (the older ladies of the tribe were unveiled) and rubbing noses with him. My would-be murderers of the morning, no doubt hungry and scenting a meal, came with Ibn Akis, their traditional but now nominal paramount shaikh, and joined our festive board - here a mat. These Harasis, a noble and once important tribe which has shrunk to a few hundred men, have no exclusive habitat, but roam the Jaddat at Harasis, which in theory is Janaba territory in the steppe hinterlands, to the west of the point we had arrived at, a stretch eight days' march in length. The following morning we moved up into slight hills on the far side of the plain to the divide between Manadhif and Dhu Nakhr. The descent to the latter was through a large area of slate outcrops of dark red or purple colour, and the low hills on both sides were speckled white with a salt efflorescence. As we descended, a large isolated hill of striking fantastic shape, more or less conical, loomed up out of the wadi bed. Its name, Jabal Hamr, mystified me, as it appeared quite black, and not red as its name implied, when approaching it from the north-east in the morning light. The mystery was elucidated when, on passing across its front, its base was seen to be surrounded by red slaty beds, and its summit is red above a darker-coloured formation below, bearing the white speckled appearance already noticed. It appeared to tower between 500 and 400 feet above us, which, with my aneroid reading at the base, would determine its height at about 750 feet. Our course led westerly up the Wadi Hamr, a tributary of Dhu Nakhr; the low containing hills were of interest in their pyramidal shapes with sliced flat tops. This day and the next we saw no human being as we passed through the undulating plain with occasional acacia, the remote upper courses of Wadis Adhli and Anqau.

Google Earth location map. 


Google-Earth Close-up view. Notice the graveyard to the right of the green wadi Baw, with clearly visible rectangles representing individual graves, all with a north-south orientation. Burials would probably face west, i.e., facing Mecca.
 
Location can be downloaded as Google Earth kmz file.



Harasis Graveyard at Wadi Baw. Each grave covered by big stone slabs. Photo courtesy Gordon Forbes
How to get there:
19 38' 17.0778" N 57 25' 2.5961" E
This is all off-road area on poor tracks and can be reached from Duqm in the south or form the Haima Duqm road.

When discussing the graveyard with Alan Heward, who has worked for many years in Oman -and knows the Huqf as no other- he suggested to check Dawn Chatty's 1996 'Mobile Pastoralists'. She studied the Harasis for more than ten years in the 1980's. I decided to contact her and she was very quick with her reply:

"    The story has a great deal of truth and involves the Harasiis tribe and the Jeneba tribe.  The Bedouin graveyard is of the Harasiis tribe.  The two tribes have been rivals for a long time. The Harasiis being weaker have depended upon the 'generosity' of the Jeneba. Wadi Baw was an important seasonal 'home' to the Harasiis tribe. In the very hot summers they used to leave the Jiddat and spend the very hot months in Wadi Baw  as the Jiddat had no water source of its own. They shared the water in Wadi Baw with the Jeneba. In the late 1950s the oil company left open two water wells one at Al Ajaiz and the other at Haima.  At that point the Harasiis had their own water sources in the Jiddat. This is the time that a feud between the two tribes spilt into homicide. One Jeneba killed a Harasiis and then back again and so on [the 'tale is that seven men from both tribes were killed]. The last death was of a Jeneba by a Harasiis youth avenging the murder of his father [I know this last Harasiis  man personally]. In 1968 the government stepped in [Ministry of Interior] and insisted on there being peace between both tribes. As a consequence the Harasiis had to give up their claim to Wadi Baw. Individuals do occasionally travel to the Wadi to visit the graves of loved ones......"

Not a massacre, but enough to to understand the flavour of the story that has persisted. A quiet peaceful graveyard for one may turn into a freaky night for the other, certainly with a harrowing story to tell.

Dawn Chatty writes in her 1996 'Mobile Pastoralists' about the Harasis:    

"..... The well-developed vegetation of the Jiddat is the habitat of the Harasiis tribe. These pastoralists appear to have been originally a Dhofari people (Thomas 1929, 1937), and they continue to speak a modern south Arabian language known as Harsuusi (Johnstone 1977). According to Harasiis oral tradition, the original section of the tribe was Beit Afarri, living in Wadi Kadrit, between Salalah and Hadramaut. Over the past few hundred years the Harasiis have gradually pushed -and been pushed- northeast into the Jiddat (see map 5). As they moved into the various wadis that mark the natural geographic borders of the Jiddat, they have come up against other pastoral tribes -the Jeneba to the east along the Jazir Coast and the Wahiba to the north in the Wadi Halfayn (see map 2). Unable to push further, the Harasiis today are mainly concentrated on the desert plateau itself, although in the summer they are often found uncomfortably sharing the Awta and the Jazir Coast with the Jeneba tribe (Chatty 1983). Their traditional economy is based on the raising of camels and goats by natural graze for the production of milk rather than meat. At the core of their way of life is migration determined by a combination of seasonal and ecological variables in the location of pasture and water. Survival of both herds and herders makes movement from deficit to surplus areas vital. As with any pastoral group, the Harasiis seek to control a territory that contains sufficient resources to sustain communal life. They tend to live in the haylats and wadis where there are trees under which to shelter and where graze for their animals is more plentiful. They determine their territorial frontiers loosely as running along the floor of the Wadi Rawnab to the south and east of Rima, along the middle of Wadi Haytam to the northeast, up to the general region of the Harashiif dunes to the north, and across to the Ramlat-as-Sahmah to the west. They share borders with the Jeneba to the east, with the Wahiba and Duru to the north, and with the Beit Kathir to the south. These borders are in constant flux. Over the past three or four decades the seasonal availability of pasture and water has undergone a pronounced geographic shift from southwest to northeast, requiring readjustment of relations between these four nomadic pastoral tribes. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s various texts and oral traditions placed the Harasiis territory as extending from the Jiddat-il-Harasiis westward to near Mughshin-al-Ayn and Bir Khasfah, where they were said to have watering agreements with the Mahra and Bataharah. Since that time there has been a slow move eastward. Thus, during the 1980s and early 1990s disputes have tended to focus on water rights along the borders shared with the Jeneba in the Wadi Rawnab, Wadi Halfayn, and Wadi Baw.

The Harasiis tribe organizes itself into seven lineages or subgroups called beit: Beit Aksit, Beit Mutaira, Beit Barho, Beit Sha'ala, Beit Aloob, Beit Afarri, and Beit Katherayn. These seven lineages are divided into two factions, one headed by the Beit Aksit and the other by the Beit Mutaira. The leadership of the tribe as a whole lies with the Beit Aksit, whose ancestral forbear is acknowledged to have united the disparate units into one tribe about 150 years ago. Each lineage generally recognizes or appoints two spokesmen who act on its behalf. These men, called rashiid (pl. rushada'), represent the lineage in discussions or meetings concerning the welfare of tribal members. The search for pasture and water is the underlying principle of organization for the Harasiis way of life. To a large extent the coordination of this movement lies with the rushada' of the separate lineages. Effort is always made to ensure that one particular grazing land does not become overcrowded or that another plentiful area is ignored. Thus the relaying of information on the state of pasture and other ecological features is an important function of the rushada' and tribal elders. First among these rushada' is the Sheikh. Though he traditionally enjoyed many privileges, today his most important duty is the regular representation of the tribe at the Haima Tribal Administrative Center.

The Historical Past: Traditional Subsistence The Harasiis tribe is made up of approximately 2,500 people, of which close to 2,000 are found on the Jiddat-il-Harasiis at any one time. Households are generally extended family units, the average family being composed of nine members. At the core of the household is the nuclear family of husband, wife, and children. Generally two or three hold adult relatives of one degree or another make up the rest of the household. At one time it will be a grandparent, at another a cousin or in-law, or even more distant relative. On average, a household keeps a hundred goats and a few sheep, which are the responsibility of the women and older girls. The average household also has twenty-five camels, of which five or six are generally kept near the homestead - these are the heavily pregnant or lactating ones. The remainder of the camels are left mafkook -free to graze in the open desert. Their whereabouts are very carefully monitored, and an elaborate camel information exchange system operates among all the tribesmen. When they meet, tribesmen first exchange news about the condition of pastures, then the whereabouts of various mafkook camels, and finally news items of various family members. Homesteads are generally moved a significant distance three or four times a year. A serious husbandman, though, will shift his homestead a few kilometers every few weeks to ensure that the family herd of goats and sheep does not destroy what graze exists around the campsite. In the past access to water for the Harasiis was extremely limited. Tribal tradition has it that they never drank water but lived almost entirely on the consumption of camel and goat milk from their herds. This cultural explanation quite accurately reflects a geographic truth. Until the 1960s there was no sweet water source on the Jiddat. The only source of water in an area of forty thousand square kilometers was found along the Awta, the lowlands of the Huqf escarpment lying just along the coast of Oman from Duqm north toward Al-Hajj. There a series of springs were found (Raqqi, Nakhleet, Baw). These heavily mineralized springs yielded water that was (and still is) barely potable, even under the best of conditions. However, the unique features of a heavy early morning fog frequently provided the herds with sufficient moisture for their needs. These herds then supplied the human population with enough milk for their nutritional and physiological requirements. The Harasiis herds were bred and selectively culled for their milk-giving features as well as their hardiness in the face of the extreme aridity. Goats were once exclusively the white, short-haired Somali goat, which could withstand long periods without water and still yield abundant milk (one to three kilograms per day per goat). Camels were also bred for their milk-yielding capabilities and careful genealogical records were memorized. Camels and goats were grouped as "daughters" of highly appreciated strains. Both the camel and the goat were well adapted to the traditional migration pattern of the Harasiis tribe. The relatively cool winters were spent on the Jiddat itself, where water was nonexistent, and the summers were spent in the Awta, where the herds had some access to the brackish spring water of the region. Traditionally herds were divided and managed in keeping with their milk-yielding state. Goats that bred three times in two years tended to be either pregnant or lactating and were permanently kept near the household. They were milked each morning before being taken out to a nearby pasture by an available female household member -generally an elderly woman, though as often an older female child-and again in the evening upon their return to the camp. The camel herd was split into an active or soon-to-be active milk-producing section and a fallow section. Camels tended to breed only once in a two-year period—they have a pregnancy of nearly a year and a lactation stage of roughly eleven months. The heavily pregnant and lactating camels—about 25 percent of the total camel holding—were kept near the homestead and allowed to browse close by. They were milked by any male household member in the morning and evening, but on a far less regular basis than was the case for goats. Camels kept near the homestead were still regarded the responsibility of the male household members, as was the fallow, or mafkook, herd. These were watched over by a young adult male member of the household. Thus households tended to be "in milk" throughout most of the annual cycle, although the quantity and type of milk-camel or goat- tended to fluctuate tremendously. The division of labor within a household was such that few young households had enough members to look after both fallow and lactating herds. Households tended to manage their lactating herds on their own and to join forces with other kinsmen in looking after the mafkook herds. Arrangements within a lineage, and often between mature brothers or cousins, tended to bring together three or four herds of fallow camels under the care of one adult male who had no other responsibility than to follow the combined herd, sometimes numbering as many as one hundred head. Many Harasiis claim that the larger the camel herd, the easier it is to manage. Traditional household subsistence entailed frequent supplemental contributions to the cooking pot. Though milk was an important part of the diet of the Harasiis, hunting, particularly in winter, added substantially to a household's well-being. The Harasiis occasionally hunted gazelle and Arabian Oryx. The meat of one gazelle was sufficient for three or four days, whereas the meat of the much larger Oryx would last one household for at least a month. The meat was not eaten on the day of the kill but hung in strips from the branches of trees to dry. If no gazelle or Oryx was available, then a roasted hare or sometimes even a hedgehog might be added to the cooking pot. In the summer months, when most homesteads were sheltered along the Awta and Jazir Coast, some trading was carried out for fresh and dried fish (sardines and shark in particular) with the neighboring, and often contentious, Jeneba tribe.


The graveyard terrace at wadi Baw. Cut by smaller wadis. Note the elaborate grave, build of rocks in the foreground. Photo courtesy Alban Rovira

During this season men and women often braided palm leaf fronds (sa'afi from the local wild date trees into food mats, bowls, baskets, and a variety of other vessels for future sale. Basic to the organization of all pastoral people is the existence of sedentary communities in adjacent areas and access to their agricultural products. For the Harasiis tribe relations of interdependence have long bound them to the sedentary communities along the Sharqiyya foothills. Harasiis men frequently trekked as much as fifteen days on camel back to reach these agricultural centers, surviving on a diet of dried fish and dates. Often they herded their goats along with them for auction in the village marketplace, carried palm frond mats, bowls and baskets for sale and pots, trays and other metal items for repair at the local coppersmith. For generations this relationship, largely uncomplicated by external factors, bound the Harasiis of Central Oman to the villages of the Sharqiyya foothills -particularly Adam and Sinaw- in an economic partnership. The cash economy of the village was reinforced by the continual influx of "capital on the hoof." Transactions were completed and money changed hands. Significantly though, when the final purchases were made, the bulk of the money had simply moved from one end of the market to another—from the animal buyer's pocket to the merchant's till. For the Harasiis, the relationship with the villages reinforced not a cash, but a subsistence economy. For example, the individual Harasiis tribesman may have sold two goats for forty Maria Theresa thalars, and then spent this exact amount on flour, coffee, tea, dates, sugar, and cloth for his family......."


Wadi Baw, a rather green wadi with many palm trees. The ones near the ground grow from a horizontal stem. I have seen these always associated with water in the Omani desert.

Graveyard seen from the wadi, photo courtesy Gordon Forbes

Stanley Price (1989) describes the Harasis as part of his story on the re-introduction of the Arabian Oryx in Oman. An important part because the living areas of people and Oryx totally overlapped.

".....Before the advent of modern development in Oman in 1970, the way of life of the Harasis (singular : Harsusi) was determined by the remoteness of their lands from any permanent settlement, and their natural resources. As nomadic pastoralists, they followed rain and grazing over a vast area of central Oman, between the eastern wadis of the southern pediment and the wadis draining the northern mountains. Despite the perennial vegetation of the Jiddat-al-Harasis, the lack of water deterred many Harasis from ever living on it; they preferred to use the lower reaches of the Wadi Halfayn. This wadi is the major water course draining the inland face of the Hajar mountains and runs into the sea at the Hikmann flats. In the lower, northern fans, the wadi is fringed with Prosopis woodlands and has sweet water near the ground surface. Some families, particularly those with elderly members, lived almost permanently near the Huqf's two largest water sources, Bwai [wadi Baw]and Raqi, while many others moved up on to the Jiddah after rain there or in winter when water requirements were lower. A few families were renowned for occupying the Jiddah year-round, based on the larger haylahs with their constant Acacia browse. Their goats were managed for water independence, even through summer, while the people subsisted on very small amounts of condensed fog moisture in addition to milk. Except under more relaxed conditions immediately following rain, a Harasis family group on the Jiddah spent only 1 - 2 days in each haylah while the goats harvested the small amounts of green growth, before moving on (Harasis, personal communications 1986). This mobility demanded a minimum of material possessions, and a family had a few blankets, one cooking pot and a coffee pot, and a woven leather milk bowl. Unlike most bedu tribes, the Harasis had no tents for shade, using instead the umbrella shaped Acacia tortilis, and this reduced the possessions that had to be transported. The family's livestock survived for most of the year without free water to drink. Their goats were a short-haired pure white breed, whose low physiological water requirements were reduced in summer by night grazing and walking. An average family had 60-100 goats, but some had up to 300 head. About six camels was normal for transport. Sheep were much scarcer, reflecting the poor opportunity for weaving in a society that was constantly on the move. Human water requirements were very low, and milk was the main source of fluid. However, men rode camels for up to 5 days to fill goat-skins with water at Bwai or Raqi before returning the same distance, or travelled to the coastal wells if they lived in the west Jiddah. The water carried by one camel lasted a family no more than 5 days. In addition, drops of condensed fog moisture were harvested from the canopies of A. tortilis trees, by spreading a blanket or length of special material under the tree and tapping the branches. The water was then wrung from the material for drinking. With the exception of a few commodities, the Harasis' dietary requirements were met by milk and meat. The livestock were managed actively for these products. The total goat flock was divided into three groups of males only, females in milk with their kids without any breeding males, and dry females running with males. Animals were moved between groups as necessary, and the breeding rate was adjusted to local grazing conditions and to ensure that a female lactated for seven to eight months. The separation of these groups required active management by the bedu, and the women walked all day with their flocks to prevent straying and predation, and to ensure that the goats returned home in the evening......"

Great descriptions of a life 'at the edge', not so long ago. Indeed not surprising that different tribes sometimes clashed in the struggle for survival associated with one of the most important, but scarce resources in a desert country: water.

References

  • Chatty, D., 1996. Mobile Pastoralists. Development, Planning and Social Change in Oman. Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Stanley Price, M.R., 1989. Animal Re-introductions. The Arabian oryx in Oman. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Thomas, Bertram, 1929. The South-eastern borderlands of Rub Al Khali: a paper read at the Evening Meeting of the Society on 3 Dec 1928. The Geographical Journal. Vol. LXXIII No 3 R.G.S. March 1929 

With thanks to Alan Heward and Dawn Chatty

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@ J. Schreurs April 2010