For centuries Bedu tribesmen have roamed the Rub Al Khali to graze their camels and to trade with settlements many days’ walk away. During the last 50 years Abu Dhabi has developed at an amazing pace, yet Bedu hospitality is just as important today as it ever was.
When visitors arrived at their encampment, the men of the tribe would go and meet them with “Salam Alaykum” (peace be with you), “kheif el hal” and all importantly “shak barak” (what’s the news?) Sometimes the list will go on where they ask how their camels are, how their sons (never their daughters) are and so on… You will hear many such greetings when Emiratis meet today, though more often the setting is a coffee shop rather than a tent.
Traditionally, a coffee ceremony where ghawa, bitter spiced Arabic coffee, is served and there are 92 different etiquette points in the serving and receiving coffee.
It was very important that the ghawa was of good quality, piping hot, and available all the time. It would be made and kept warm on the fire in a dhalla, then served in tiny handle-less cups called finjan.
The coffee was served along with dates which complemented the bitterish taste of the ghawa; once the guests had been seated and given their coffee, they would be offered a meal, and even asked to stay the night.
You might wonder why the Bedouin were so generous when times were extremely hard, and food was difficult to come by. There are a few reasons but the principal one is that Bedouin are always of the Muslim faith and they believe any good deeds and generosity will be rewarded in heaven.
In an area and at a time with no roads, no newspapers and no telephones, it was great benefit for them to hear the news from travellers. Pre-1960, most people could not read but as sir Wilfred Thesiger commented in his book Arabian Sands, “the Arab notices everything and forgets nothing,” making these voyagers a reliable source of information.
Lastly, in the isolation of the desert, visitors dropping by would offer the Bedu a welcome variety in their everyday grind.
Nowadays life is much easier, but our guests are still as welcome as ever to sit round the Empty Quarter Rovers’ campfire, drink ghawa and listen to desert stories of a time long long ago.