Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Off the road from Damascus

Megumi Yoshitake's experience of living with the Bedouin is quite probably unique. Although her primary medium is photography, here she also offers some written snippets of memory and expression from her numerous sojourns in the Syrian Desert since the 1980s.

News photo
Here I am in 2004 with my son, two members of my host family and some of their camels.

At the age of 15, my heart and imagination were captured by the story of T.E. (Thomas Edward) Lawrence (1888-1935), who is best known as Lawrence of Arabia. Certainly, the adventurer and writer who, as Lt. Col Lawrence, was the British liaison officer supporting the 1916-18 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, struck a heroic pose as a camel-riding war hero living with and for his desert irregulars. But his epic autobiographical "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" was a work that simply compelled me to experience for myself what life was like in the beautiful but unforgiving vastness of Arabia.

It was that yearning after deserts, and a growing enchantment with the Arab world, that later caused me to choose photography as my path. That way, I hoped, I might some day be able to convey the essence of those people and places in my own way to a wider world.

News photo
My host's second wife with a mound of sheep's-milk cheese she just made.

I first visited Syria in 1987 when I was just 21, and since 1995 I have spent part of every year there living with a family of Bedouin in the desert. The time I have spent photographing the Bedouin -- extending over a period of some 11 years -- is unique among Japanese, and rare even worldwide. When I began my work there I was single, but after I got married I visited again on my honeymoon and introduced my husband. Then when I returned in 2004, I introduced my 16-month-old son. It is as if those people are part of my family -- just as they call me their "daughter."

The population of Syria is 18.2 million. The name derives from the ancient Assyrian Empire, which flourished in Southwest Asia in the region of the upper Tigris River. At its height in the seventh century B.C., it extended from the head of the Persian Gulf to Egypt and Asia Minor.

Damascus, the capital of Syria, has a history that stretches back to the times of the Old Testament, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. It is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bedouin (a word that derives from the Arabic badiya, meaning "people who live in the wasteland") refers to groups of nomads of Arab ethnicity who are found throughout the Middle East and in some areas south of the Sahara Desert in Africa. They raise sheep, goats and camels, and move with the seasons or as conditions dictate to where there is pasture for their animals. Many Bedouin speak Arabic as their native tongue and are adherents of Islam, organizing their societies along tribal lines that stress the importance of direct blood relationships.

Though renowned in the past for the fighting skills T.E. Lawrence harnessed to such good effect, those days are gone, and in my experience they are by no means a frightening or violent people. Certainly, they have guns for self-protection, but they do not actually carry them on their person. In fact, I have seen them use their guns only once for less than an hour -- for hunting at the opening of the Ramadan celebration. The Bedouin are not harassed by others, nor do they harass others. For here they have peace!

News photo
Hard work in harsh conditions shows on the hands of this 19-year-old woman, hose father gave her the rings when she was married.

The Bedouin of Syria are all Muslims. A polygamous people, each man is allowed four wives; each wife is given a separate house in which she lives together with her children. Their homes are tents woven from goat hair, separated into a few living rooms and rooms for guests.

The head of the family that takes care of me is a calm and warm man blessed with 23 children: two with his now-deceased first wife, 11 with his second wife, and 10 with his third. Interestingly, though all share the same father, the children of the different mothers don't particularly resemble one another. The father holds absolute power in the household, and is to be accorded both affection and respect from his family.

News photo
A woman returns with a load of hatab for use as firewood. Gathering the bushes is women's work, made even harder by the plant's many thorns.
News photo
A young man watches over his father's flock as the morning mist rises. Shepherding is men's work, and they often roam far to seek out grazing.

"My family" of around 30 people normally lives somewhere in the desert in an area about 100 km east of Palmyra (a city with many ancient ruins registered as a World Heritage Site), and 50 km north from there. Other families, many of them related to mine, will usually live within easy walking distance, and it is normally not hard to find them, because the migratory range of the Bedouin is between summer and winter campsites in fairly fixed locations.

Contrary to popular imagination, the Syrian Desert is not just a sea of sand stretching on and on in waves as far as the eye can see. In fact it has soil and stones, and grass and thorny bushes here and there.

In the morning, though, as the sun rises, the sand begins to sing and move; while at night the sheer number of stars in the sky has to be seen to be believed. It looks like the sky has existed in this way since ancient times, and it's quite possible to gaze at it all night and never become bored. Meanwhile, on a moonlit night it is so bright that you can see your own shadow, and on nights without stars it is so pitch black as to be frightening.

What perplexed me when I first visited my family's home was the bathroom -- or lack of it. There was no fixed place to go to the toilet; if you were outside the house, anywhere was fine, and in the barren desert there was usually a rise in the ground to hide behind.

The first time I "went to the bathroom" at night, however, I was accompanied by another woman, since I might have been attacked by the pasture watchdog. But one time I woke up in the middle of the night with a severe stomach ache from the camel milk I had drunk that afternoon. At the time I remembered having read a book that warned, "The first time you drink camel milk, it will cause severe diarrhea." As everyone was sleeping soundly, this time I obviously went out alone -- armed with tissue paper in one hand and a stone in the other to throw at the watchdog in case it tried to attack. Under the shining stars, frightened by the howls of dogs in other camps I could hear off in the distance, I laughed, imagining myself the only woman in the world squatting in the middle of the night in the desert suffering a stomach ache.

News photo
My host father's older brother chats with his only daughter, who is the youngest of his seven children. A quiet and peaceful person with a firm faith in God, he really dotes on his happy little girl.
News photo
The 8-year-old third daughter of my host's second wife applies eyeliner.

During my stay, life each day began at 5:30 in the morning when we woke up. The bedding the Bedouin use is about the same as the Japanese futon. They spread a mat on the ground in the house and sleep on mattresses and with blankets on top of that. The pillows are twice as long as Japanese ones and are laid out underneath the mattresses. During the daytime, the pillows become armrests for guests.

I always slept in a women's room, huddled together with the children. One night I remembered half waking and wondering briefly before I nodded off again why the area around my shoulder felt awfully heavy. When I woke up, I found that a sheep had decided to share my bed! This was a definite first for me. The next morning, when I told everyone the story, they said this had never happened before, and insisted "that sheep must be quite fond of you!"

The men are in charge of the pastures, but the boys and children have a lot to do as well. The women also have to work very hard, handling domestic affairs both inside and outside the house -- cooking, cleaning, washing -- and they have no time to rest.

Every morning, the women bake the Bedouins' staple food, the Arabic bread khbz (pronounced "hobuz"). It is a bread unique to the Bedouin, and it's made without yeast. Starting by putting rock salt in wheat flour, they make dough by kneading it together with water. Next, they stretch the dough until it's round and thin, and bake it on a pan shaped like an upside-down wok. It is an unexpectedly difficult process -- I have tried many times, but I just can't get it quite right, and always end up with holes in the dough.

Milking the sheep is also women's work -- twice a day for about an hour each time, regardless of the weather. Butter and cheese, among other things, are made from the milk, but the most delicious thing is a food called erube made of milk from the first week after a sheep gives birth. The freshly drawn milk is put over a flame for five minutes until it resembles half-whipped cream. Though neither sugar nor anything else is added, it has a faint sweetness to it. Matching erube with some freshly baked khbz, you can truly eat to your heart's content. Being the first milk, it is extraordinarily nutritious and quite valuable. Eating this is another of the privileges of being a Bedouin.

Another real treat is shay, the Arab tea. Though the flavor varies from house to house, it is always very sweet. To these people, with little time for amusement, chatting over a cup of shay is the greatest pleasure, especially at night, when families gather, light a lamp, and while burning the wood of the hatab tree, drink the delicious tea together.

The Bedouin have very sharp eyesight and acute hearing. They have the ability to make out the terrain to the horizon and to identify stars, and the way they can unfailingly find their way home at night is impressive. At noon, from just seeing a cloud of dust over the horizon, they can distinguish between a truck and a car. Perhaps this is an environmental adaptation. I also have never seen a Bedouin wearing glasses.

News photo
The second son of my host's second wife (above) pours a glass of the very sweet shay tea. A sheep is slaughtered (below); and a Bedouin home by moonlight (below left).
News photo

My first year, unaccustomed to the harsh desert lifestyle, I was fatigued and sick with a cold and fever. My host family and their relatives were very worried, and nursed me with great care. Many others whom I had met for the first time came to call on me as well. I quickly recovered, but part of my heart had grown to dislike the desert life, and I grew tired of waiting for the day I could return to town to renew my visa. Then, after renewing my visa, I thought of giving up on the desert entirely.

I spent some 10 days in town, but could not feel at peace. The blue sky, the clean air, the naked earth: the desert still felt cleaner. Compared to the Western clothes and smooth skin of the townspeople, I found the Arab dress and the rough, weathered hands of the Bedouin somehow more beautiful. Even the abundant plates of food and shay in town did not seem delicious. I wondered why, when I was in a hotel room where I had dreamt of being, I could just not lift my spirits.

I found I wanted to go back; I wanted to hear the laughs and cries of the children; I wanted to return to my tent in my home in the desert! Under the bright fluorescent lights of my hotel, I yearned for that desert home with its simple lamp and conversation with my family by a burning hatab log as we drank cups of shay together -- even if it was sandy. I wanted to sleep huddled together again!

That was when, for the first time, I realized that I had come to love the desert in my heart.

Bedouin marriages are necessarily between members of the same tribe, and they are arranged by the respective parents. Many marriages are between cousins.

One morning, I awoke to the cry of "A baby has been born!" The third wife of my host father had given birth. Although hospital visits for difficult deliveries have recently not been unheard of, the child was delivered outdoors, beside their home. The woman was assisted by her stepmother and the second wife. The children gathered around but were scolded and told to go away. The third wife was wearing her usual clothes, bent over on a jute bag spread out on the sand. As she made almost no sound, it felt like nothing much was happening at all.

The stepmother cut the umbilical cord with scissors, and afterward she and the second wife helped the third wife into the house to lie down. The child was wrapped tightly in cloth and laid to sleep alongside her mother. After that, the mother would have six days' rest in bed. During that time, she did nothing but nurse her child. The second wife and younger women changed the diapers, and took charge of both the baby's care and household matters in general.

News photo
My host's second wife gazes at her 6-hour-old daughter, who is now 11.

On this day, a sheep was slaughtered and everyone gathered for a feast in celebration. The Bedouin avoid eating sheep except on the most special occasions. Usually they eat very simple meals. Food, clothes, and tools are purchased in town. Sometimes a truck also drives around the desert peddling wares. Though they have no television, radio or games -- nor even many books -- the children find amusement in their daily tasks in the home, and are quite cheerful, lively and healthy.

One time, I was with a 6-year-old girl and we were carrying a plastic tank of water to a neighbor. Each of us held one of the two handles, but the one I was holding was broken, making it hard to carry. Without hesitating, the girl took the broken handle herself and handed me the good one.

Another time, a girl of 7 was crying next to the second wife as she cooked, asking for one particular dish from the meal. As men and guests are served first, the women and children eat what is left over. As I was being served as a guest, I ate along with the men. I didn't touch the food that the girl had wanted, as anything I ate myself would only decrease her portion. The girl noticed, and smiling, called out to me, "Why aren't you eating? Eat it all without leaving anything behind!" Even a child of 4 or 5, though their own throat might be dry, would still give me a drink first.

Another day, on the way back from a friend's house, it suddenly began raining. A young boy came running towards me from the distance. As I wondered what he was doing, he began walking beside me. "What's wrong?" I asked. He answered, "You have something important in here and it would be terrible if it got wet." What the boy was protecting with his body was the pocket of my jacket, where I had put my Arabic dictionary. These people living in such a desolate wilderness have in this way wrapped me up in their warm hearts.

News photo
Men of the family feast on lamb after completing the arduous annual shearing.
News photo
A boy undergoes circumcision. This is done before age 2, without any pain relief.

Of the children who attend school, almost all are boys. The girls have too many jobs at home to have time to attend school. Consequently, the girls are unable to read or write. Though the Bedouin all suffer to an extent, it seems especially hard on the women, who toil in the harsh natural environment until their skin becomes dry and chapped. Many also suffer from joint pains.

I was once asked by a woman, "Do men marry only one woman in Japan?" When I replied that this was so, she responded, "That's better." Letting a sigh of dissatisfaction slip out, she explained, "It's no good for us for our men to have many wives."

Within the male-dominated society of the Bedouin, there are likely things the women do not go along with willingly. However, it's not the case that they are always strictly obedient to the men; they both complain to and quarrel with their husbands.

I was also frequently asked, "Do you have deserts in Japan?" When I answered, "No," they responded with pride, "That's no good. The desert is clean and has everything."

These people have no intention of leaving the desert. Though they could have modern lives in cities, they have chosen instead the deserts they love.

Though others may opt for money and modern conveniences, and choose to take the road of increasing prosperity, from a desert perspective it's clear that we are also restricted and controlled by our possessions. To these people, a wealthy life is judged by a different standard. I believe their wealth is not to be found in objects, but lies in their hearts.

I have been considering the future of the Bedouin. The world around them is changing, and some cultures will disappear. Modest, possessing a strong sense of self-control, full of consideration for others, respecting their elders, cooperating, sharing, holding a deep love for their family in their hearts -- these are the traits of the Bedouin.

I think these are qualities born out of their lifestyle in the desert. No one else holds the time-honored customs of the Arab world in such a pure form, and I for one never want to see them vanish.

I am often asked if it isn't dangerous for a woman to go alone among the Bedouin, but I am convinced there is no safer place. Of course, there are both good and bad people among the Bedouin, but if I am together with my host family, I have absolute faith that they will protect me, and I will continue to return to them in Syria every year. From now on, I will bring my son as well. Not only do I think it will be the best kind of experience and education I could provide for him, but I also want him to become friends with my Bedouin family.

Perhaps my son, too, will then come to know as I did when young -- with T.E. Lawrence as my guide -- of the world that enchanted me, the world of the Bedouin.

Megumi Yoshitake is a Tokyo-born photographer who is a graduate of the Tokyo Photography Vocational School. She began photographing in the Middle East in 1987 and exhibited photographs of the Bedouin people in Tokyo and Osaka in 1995. She is a member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society and an honorary member of the Syrian Arab Republic Photo Club.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.