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On the Winds of the Rub' Al-Khali
by Stephen Gaskell
Praise be to Allah, the Creator of heaven and earth!
My name is Ismail Dhu-Nuwas. I am Bedouin. My clan is the al-Ghafran, part of the mighty al-Murrah tribe. For thousands of years we have skirted the fringes of the Rub' al-Khali desert in
the southern reaches of Arabia, living a simple life tending our herds, seeking new pasture,
leading trading caravans.
Obedience to the Sunnah -- the customary law of the ancestors -- has preserved our way of life
through the centuries. It stresses the values of loyalty, generosity, cunning, and honor.
When I was four years old an object cut a blazing trail down from the heavens into the heart of
Although I couldn't understand the import of this event -- couldn't know how it would
irrevocably alter my path -- I already knew that whatever befell me, I would live as Bedouin.
The professor came six years later.
The little rains had been especially feeble that season, vanishing almost as quickly as they had
arrived, and I was encouraging the famished goats to feed on cacti when he shimmered into view.
He rode a lone camel, and was led by a single guide. It was not my place to announce visitors, so
as they drew closer, disappearing and then appearing again as they rose and fell with the
undulating dunes, I simply watched.
The guide was Bedouin, but not of a tribe I was familiar with, and the camel was an Arabian
breed, one of the finest I'd had the fortune to set my eyes on. As for the man, he was dressed in a
dark suit with a blue bow tie, utterly inappropriate for the blistering heat. His only concession to
the sun was a white keffiyya wrapped around his head.
As they passed by, despite the fact that he was clearly suffering -- thick beads of sweat
peppering his brow -- the man gave me a respectful nod of the head and a warm smile. I think I
might've smiled back, but I'm not entirely certain.
They proceeded into the heart of our encampment, where one of the majlis -- the tribal elders --
was already waiting. At their arrival the customary hospitalities were begun: the camel was led to
a shaded water trough; the guide to one of the communal tents; the visitor to the sheikh's
I turned my attention back to the bleating goats, still speculating as to the purpose of the man's
visit, but already anticipating that he would be just another in the long line of infrequent,
seemingly unimportant, guests that passed through. Much like the occasional sandstorms that
blew hot rains of stone through our camp, I fully expected no trace of him to remain in a day or
"Ismail," called one of the older boys an hour or so later. "You're wanted in the sheikh's tent."
I kneeled on the sand, picking ticks out of one of the goat's patchy hides. I'd been wondering
how the pests flourished, and whether isolating the goats might help rid the herd of them. I turned
my head, shielding my eyes from the sun's brilliance. "Me?"
"Yes you, Ismail."
My skin tingled from the tips of my buried toes to the roots of my shorn hair. Perhaps the feeling
was more akin to nerves than excitement, but whatever the feeling, I felt truly alive then. An
invitation to the sheikh's tent was something few adult tribesmen got, never mind a gangly,
awkward ten year old.
What could the sheikh -- and by extension the ill-clothed visitor -- want with me?
I stood up, brushed the sand from my 'abya, and skittered down the slope.