Aug 15, 2022
- The search for life in the ancient Bedouin tribes of Northern Arabia...
When I found myself heading to Dubai with work, and with just a few weeks notice, I started thinking about what time I could forge in the desert with some tribal groups, specifically the Bedouin people - a large group of nomadic dwellers - who had inhabited the Arabian peninsula for centuries. Knowing full well that most of the Emirates was fully urbanised given the immense wealth and associated distribution of it over the previous 5 or 6 decades, I knew I would have my work cut out. But after some extensive research and various conversations with a fixer on the ground, it seemed possible to find remnants of Bedouin people deep into the desert and also towards Oman. I didn't have the means or time to go to places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Algeria so I set to work on finding who I could, and in the end much of the research was carried out through various recce's on the ground once I got there.
This wasn't a normal project where I would choose specifically the location, logistics, goals and ideas etc. and so I had to work with what I had been given in terms of time and location. Normally, much of a plan for my projects is arranged ahead of time, but in this case we had to work on the fly and chase any leads we could get, accepting all forms of hospitality and information along the way. But much of the information was disheartening as I was told time and time again that the Bedouin tribes had long gone and those that still existed were modernised or wouldn't allow foreigners to visit.
The Bedouin people are nomadic Arabs inhabiting the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. The word 'Bedouin' is a derivative of the Arabic word for 'nomad' They are divided into clans or tribes but share the culture of herding goats and camels, yet a large majority of the Bedouin people have abandoned their tribal traditions and nomadic life for the urban lifestyle, but many retain the traditions of music, poetry, and clan structures. Those living in urban settings though still occasionally organise cultural festivals at least once a year in which they gather to partake and learn the traditions from sword dances to traditional recipes. Most Bedouins adhere to the Islamic religion and it underpins the culture and society that dates back to the 11th century.
Finding a trustworthy fixer is often hard to find but invariably the difference between getting what you want, and well, not. Finding a fixer that isn't of a commercial project mindset or a tour guide dealing with tourists all the time is even harder, especially in this part of the world. The battle to make potential fixers understand that this is just for me, my personal project, and my own bank balance, and that one would hope they don't charge their normal commercial or client's rates, and hope that they would be interested in the challenge of something so different. I fail at this more times than not, so sometimes I just have to take it on the chin, as we say, and work with what I can get. Especially with such projects at short notice and without much time or information to plan and recce properly.
I eventually spoke to a few producers in the area who might be able to help, and after many Zoom calls I settled with Saqib, who at least showed the interest and passion with such an endeavour and was willing to discount his rate. We decided that a recce should take place as soon as possible, well before I arrived in the UAE, and just a few days later Saqib managed to drive around to various locations that had been mentioned to him by his associates in the region. Unfortunately though, he didn't find much, and so we joined forces after I arrived in the hope that talking through this and searching more ares would be better served as two of us in person.
This tactic however didn't quite have much success though. And by day 3 I had very little to work with. I knew this tribes were very few and far between - especially in the UAE - and so I decided to go back to the drawing board, and start again. If we don't know they are here, then where would I have to go to find them? If having Saqib with me everyday wasn't proving to be efficient when it came to results vs. finances, then how can I just take the reigns and do it all myself. And when? Can I create more time somehow? Ramaddan was approaching fast and I knew this would be a further inhibitor to the whole project.
The Bedouins are known for their strict honour code and hierarchy of loyalty, summarised by the highly quoted proverb: "I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, I, my brother and our cousin against the neighbours, all of us against strangers." As nomads, they historically thrived by protecting and operating desert trade routes. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire and modern government's emphasis on land ownership, much of the land that Bedouins used pastorally was no longer available, and thus many clans had no choice but to settle down and become semi-nomadic or give it up altogether. There are efforts in various regions to preserve the ethnic group through aid programmes, but the UAE is not one of them. So with this clarity in my mind about risk vs. reward staying in UAE, and a bit more asking around and researching I decided to drive to Oman and visit a remote village that I was told (by other 'guides' I had contacted) had a tribe living there who belong to the Bedouin clan.
Getting to Oman looked easy, just a 6-7 hour drive across the northern coast, but as a foreigner without a visa and a car and very little time to sort this out I relied on trust Saqib who offered me his car. A bit of research showed I could take a UAE insured car into Oman, a visa could be got at the border along with car insurance for Oman. I had 4 full days to get there, arrange shots, get to know the locals, take shots and drive back. Usually I'd take 4 days to spend with the people, source locations and draw up a rough shot plan. 2 of the days I had would be likely taken up by driving - well at least one sunrise and one sunset.
So I left early the next day, planning to be in the village an hour before sunset at the latest. This would hopefully give me an opportunity to get a shot or two before the light goes and at least see the village in the daylight so I can plan photos for the next 2 days.
The plan didn't work. My limited planning time materialised into ignorance which showed itself at the border - the car license wasn't enough and they needed proof from the central automobile agency of UAE that the owner of the car has given permission for me to drive it into Oman. Plenty of phone calls later Saqid was very kindly going to the Department of Transport for me getting the required documents and scanning them across. About 4 hours later I made it through, and my frustration from the previous week was now boiling over. Wasting time, especially when it came to photos, was my number one pet peeve, and this trip was really testing me. Now I ran out of time to save light that evening, other than about 30mins to meet the villagers and walk around the village to try my best to envisage a shot list for the next day. But this is where my fortunate started to change; the village was beautiful, the people welcoming and the opportunities for photos excellent. I was now able to plan substantially and look forward to the next 2 days.
After my first successful shots in Nadyefi village I drove back to Dubai and started thinking where else in Oman I could go after my few days stint at work and before I had to book a flight home. I was looking at a solid 4 or 5 days that I could use for photography and now having done a road trip to Oman I was more comfortable knowing that the drive was doable and there were tribes dotted around if I looked hard enough. So again, I secured Saqib's car (bless him) and started contacting tour companies in Oman myself, specifically those that operated desert tours, and before I knew it I was speaking with a tour operator who understood what I wanted and quickly put a plan together for me. The momentum from my first Oman experience had been carried through and I was looking forward to what this Oman 'part 2' journey would bring.
The first 2 days would be way out in the desert, camping and meeting the dwellers who reside as nomads in the desert. This was true Bedouin territory and talking to the tribesmen I learned how difficult life could be for them, but how they were very proud of their way of living and how important camels were to them. Camels were certainly a bit part of my photos, because they are a big part of the Bedouin culture.
After the desert I went into the Hajar Mountains to see some slightly different tribal ways of living. Up there the landscape is more green and rocky, and the focus is more on agricultural traditions such as flower farming, barley and fruits.
Of course this whole trip was for the photography, and a series that I could cherish for many years to come before the subjects fade into history. The technicalities of the photography itself in this region gave me little to worry too much about. The light is always nice and hazy, making it even softer without the dullness of clouds, the people of great interest and environment unique and dramatic. But add in the time constraints that I put myself under and the difficulties of having a fixer or guide that could help me, not to mention help assist, translate and direct the subjects, and it provided me with serious challenges that I had not encountered as severely as this before.
But that's why I love this style of photography. It's rarely about the camera, but so much more about the complexity of story and context surrounding how one image and one moment is created.