Dressing like a Saudi
I always wear the white Saudi thobe here in the Kingdom, and on very special occasions I wear the full Saudi attire. I don’t always get the shemagh positioned precisely correct, and sometimes I’m a bit embarrassed when my black egal falls off! (Hey! I have a great new idea! How about an egal with Velcro on the bottom to hold it in place?)
I recently wore this complete Saudi traditional outfit at the celebrated National Saudi Arabian Janadriyah Festival near Riyadh where I was the guest of the Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense. To my surprise, groups of Saudi young people recognized me as I walked through the grounds. Some would approach to practice their English and to shake my hand, and, on one occasion, there was a shout of appreciation in English, “Welcome, Uncle Sam! We love you!”
The white thobe
The thobe is a full-lenth garment commonly worn by men throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It is normally made of cotton, but heavier materials such as sheep’s wool can also be used, especially in the colder climates of Iraq and Syria. The most common color is pure white, but darker colors are sometimes worn during the cooler months.
The style of the thobe varies slightly from region to region. The long sleeves and the collar can be stiffened to give a more formal appearance.
Other names may be used for this garment. In Oman, dishdasha is the most common word used; in the UAE, the word kandura is used; in Jordan, it is called keffiyeh.
I always wear the thobe in Saudi Arabia. It fits the warm to very hot desert climate.
The shemagh head covering
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a white thobe is most often worn with a white skull cap and a head covering called a shemagh. All is generally considered essential clothing in every Saudi man’s wardrobe. The thobe and shemagh are generally requisite dress when visiting government buildings, attending formal gatherings like state functions, weddings, funerals, dinners or the weekly Friday jumah worship service at one’s local mosque.
The customary wearing of the shemagh began with the Bedouin tribes of old. Designs and colors have varied through the centuries. Like Scottish tartans with designs and colors for the various Scottish clans, colors and designs of the shemagh have often represented the various Arabian tribes. In Saudi Arabia the predominant design today is a red, checkered effect while an alternative solid white is also fashionable.
The shemagh historically has served many purposes. It is used to shade one’s head and neck from the desert sun, but it also many other practical uses, as I discovered when overnighting in the Arabian desert with friends. On windy nights it can be used to conceal the face from blowing desert sand and dust. It can also be worn as a neck scarf to retain heat during cold weather or rolled and worn in a turban style to absorb sweat during hotter, sunny days.
According to the English language daily Saudi Gazette, the shemagh has evolved into a symbol of manhood, particularly among Saudi teenagers who are sometimes expected to wait until they graduate from high school to wear an egal with their shemagh.
Thobes and shemaghs today brandish such names as Armani, Cardin, Gucci and other leading fashion houses. The very best handmade outfits sell for thousands of dollars. But, a custom made thobe in the Al Balad (Old Town) of Jeddah can be purchased for $100 or less, depending on material and quality.
A crowning touch–the Egal
The egal is the black, woven camel or sheep wool cord that is doubled and used to hold the shemagh in place. It has an interesting history, as I learned recently from a close friend in Riyadh. When milking or grooming a camel, Bedouin tribesmen used this black cord to pin the she-camel’s front right leg in order to keep her from moving. What more convenient place to keep the egal than on one’s head!
Today, not wearing the egal is considered by some of the more pious Muslims as a sign of humility, especially those who are devoted observers of the religious teachings of the sunnah; however, most Saudis overcome their humility with pride of Arab tradition. In the short video below, an American tourist is instructed by a Jordanian in the many varied ways to wear his new shemagh.
Sources: The Saudi Gazette, wikipedia.com, A History of Saudi Arabia, Sam’s friend Sheikh Rayan
History of our solar system
The oldest matter found on earth originates from outer space. This debris from far away worlds falls from the dark depths of space onto the ever-changing surface of planet Earth. These meteorites provide valuable information about the early history of our solar system.
Scientists are now investigating unusual surface areas of the Arabian Peninsula where meteorites are found, often in dense concentrations. In these black stones one learns about the early beginnings of the birth and death of celestial bodies. Today, in almost every country there are scientists who work on decoding the hidden messages of this space debris.
Most meteorites are fragments of asteroids, some containing organic matter. Some preserve information on the chemical make-up of the solar system before the formation of planets. Other meteorites found in the Arabian Desert are known to be impact debris from the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. Martian and lunar meteorites, which are rare, are often fragments from the past, having been knocked off into space millions or even billions of years ago.
Mars literally in our hands
Meteorites provide the only samples from Mars that we have in hand to analyze in a laboratory. However, we do have material collected by astronauts from the Moon. Lunar meteorites provide clues to early processes in the Earth-Moon system, such as the a period known as the “late heavy bombardment.” That’s the period when huge numbers of meteorites pelted the Earth and Moon some 3.9 billion years ago, just when life may have started on our planet.
“Searching for meteorites is of paramount importance for astrobiology and planetary science,” according to Dr. Beda Hofmann, head of Earth Science at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Hofmann and Edwin Gnos of the Natural History Museum in Geneva, Switzerland are leaders in meteorite hunts taking place in Oman.
Antarctica and desert hunting grounds
For 30 years, the frozen desert of Antarctica has been one of the richest sources of pristine meteorites. The black stones are easy to pick out from the white snow, and there are no rivers or other natural processes to carry the meteorites away.
More recently, the hot deserts of Africa and Australia also have produced new meteorite discoveries. The dry conditions in deserts tend to preserve stones, and the lack of rain means they are less likely to become eroded or be covered over by sediment.
In 1999, an incredible number of meteorites appeared on the market due to activity by private collectors and dealers.
Oman a big source of space rocks
Within the last ten years Oman has yielded almost one-fifth of the world’s meteorites, a huge cash of more than 5,000 fragments weighing greater than four tons. The Oman finds include one-third of all known lunar meteorites, and a handful of specimens from Mars.
Amateur collectors are cautioned to accurately document their finds, which will make life a bit easier for the scientists who might want to study the rocks. Amateurs found the first Mars meteorites in Oman; in fact it was the appearance (and sale) of those rocks and lunar meteorites that caught the attention of a group of Swiss researchers. They enlisted the support of the government of Oman, and on their first mission in 2001, the team recovered a Mars sample.
Dr. Beda Hofmann is proud that his team’s meteorite collection is conducted in collaboration with the Omani government. “So far we have obtained permission to take all samples necessary to Switzerland,” he says, “but the samples remain the property of the Sultanate of Oman.” Eventually representative samples will be displayed in the Natural History Museum of Muscat, the Omani capital.
Fossils from outerspace
Meteorites are the fossils from which geologists recover the history of our solar system, but most of the meteorites found in Oman did not fall on Earth recently. They have been lying in the desert for several thousand years. A major thrust of the Swiss research is to learn how the environment contaminates meteorites, and see how a meteorite might change its appearance and composition prior to discovery and conservation.
The deserts of Oman seem to be a rich source of unique meteorites, and the precious fragments can tell planetary scientists about conditions in the early solar system when stony objects first formed. These fragments subsequently were glued together by gravitational attraction to construct planets, moons and asteroids. By helping us reconstruct the early history of our solar system and our planet, meteorites bring us a step closer to understanding what conditions were necessary for the origin of life on our world.
Our past, present, future
While meteorites are important because they reveal the very source of life on Earth, they have also contributed to the development of our life-sustaining environment.
Meteorites provide not only a glimpse into the past but also a window to the future. They represent, in a very real sense, both birth and death; creation and destruction.
Today, they are being studied because of their significant threat to life on our planet. With increasing regularity, we are discovering asteroids and comets with unusual orbits — ones that take them dangerously close to Earth and the Sun.
Though just a very few of these bodies are potential hazards to Earth, by understanding more about these “near earth objects” early on, we are better prepared to take appropriate measures to head off a collision with our planet in the future.
For sure, I am joining the hunt for these fascinating interplanetary objects. I have marked carefully the coordinates of where I found my meteorite and hope to return there in the near future.
The following brief video helps us better understand meteorites and to easily distinguish them from meteoroids and meteors.
Sources: NASA, wikipedia.com, Science Magazine, National Geographic, University of Bern archives, astrobio.net, Hossam Malallah
Cart tugging across “the Empty Quarter”
The pinkish-orange sand dunes of Saudi Arabia: a beautiful part of our earth’s biodiversity–challenge any who seek to cross its barren stretches. British adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron seek to better the camel in the Arabian desert. “The locals we met were the kindest, friendliest and most welcoming, but they thought what we were doing was completely crazy.”
Humphreys and McCarron crossed “the empty quarter.” The Empty Quarter (in Arabic known as Rub’ al Khali) is the largest sand desert in the world. It encompasses just about all of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq mi).
The goal of the two men was to retrace the footsteps of a great British legend–Wilfred Thesiger, who had made two separate desert explorations in the 1940s charting vast tracts of the Empty Quarter.
Truth be told!
Just as I, these two adventurers came to Saudi Arabia having received dire warnings of terrorists and impending danger. And, just as I, Humphreys and McCarron found themselves safe–safer than some places we might be in our home countries.
“It was very safe,” Humphreys said. “Before I went a lot of people were thinking ‘Oh you’re going to the Middle East. You’ll definitely be killed by Islamic terrorists!’ but it was so much safer than even the United Kingdom.”
Read more about these adventurers at: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/12/22/world/meast/modern-day-adventurers-desert-crossing/index.html?iref=allsearch
Or, watch this YouTube video describing their incredible desert adventure:
Sources: CNN, Wikipedia, YouTube, alastairhumphreys.com
“Shuja” pays me a visit
Abdulla Al Ghamdi and two of my Saudi Bedouin military friends, brothers Majed and Fahad Olayan, dropped by my office a couple of days ago for a surprise visit with their Saker falcon “Shuja” (Arabic for courageous or brave). “Shuja” is being trained for hunting rabbits in the nearby deserts.
The falcon, among birds known as “raptors” or “birds of prey,” has amazingly acute vision and can identify prey at a distance of several kilometres. It can fly at speeds of over 100 km per hour, approaching 200 km per hour during dives.
The art of falconry is a big deal here in Saudi Arabia, with well-trained birds selling for thousands of dollars.
Hunting with birds of prey
Falconry has been practiced in many forms for thousands of years by many cultures. Some specialists place falconry’s origins somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 BC in the plains of Mongolia. Other historians believe that the practice could be much older, with its beginnings in the deserts of the Middle East, particularly here on the Arabian Peninsula.
Wherever it began, falconry, which was originally used for subsistence and not sport, was well established in both Asia and the Middle East by 2,000 BC, and gradually made its way westward to Greece, Italy and eventually to Medieval Europe.
Beginning in the early 6th century and extending through the Middle Ages, the popularity of falconry (or “hawking”) surged in Europe. It was the sport of royalty for centuries. The possession of falcons and other birds of prey was considered a status symbol.
And talking about regulation, get this! By the 17th century in England, falconry came to be governed by a strict set of customs called the Laws of Ownership, which dictated the birds of prey that were permitted to be flown by citizens of various social ranks. For example, a king could fly a gyrfalcon; a duke, a rock falcon; an earl, a peregrine; a yeoman, a goshawk; and a servant, a kestrel.
During the reign of Edward III, 1327-77, stealing a trained raptor was punishable by death.
Saudi falconry today
Once the pastime of the rich, falconry now continues as a highly structured sport that demands a lot of time and serious commitment. For some Bedouins it remains a primary method of hunting rabbits and other desert animals.
Saudi birds are generally bred in captivity and when hunting, often have a small radio transmitter attached under the tail for tracking.
Training a falcon is time-consuming and requires enormous patience since the falconer must carry the bird on his arm for several hours each day. That might be possible for the Bedouin, but try fitting that into a regular 21st century work schedule!
The falcon hunting season here in Saudi Arabia is from October to March. The two most popular falcons are the Saker and the Peregrine. The Saker is valued both for its outstanding beauty and for its ability to withstand adverse weather conditions. Because the Saker completes its annual moult early, it can start hunting in October, while the Peregrine may not have sufficient feathers until January.
Nothing compares to God’s falcon
In the Old Testament (Torah) book of Job there is a reference to the keen sight of this wondrous raptor, “No bird of prey knows that hidden path, no falcon’s eye has seen it.”
The celebrated 13th-century Persian Muslim poet, in his work “Mathnawi,” wrote, “The falcon made the king’s hand his joy, and became indifferent to the search for carrion. All animals from the gnat to the elephant are of the family of God and depend on Him for sustenance. What a sustainer is God!”
The motion picture industry has championed films like The Maltese Falcon and Day of the Falcon. And in America we have our Atlanta Falcons football team. Oregon has it’s Falcon Cove. The US Air Force has its Falcon F-16 and Raptor F-22 fighter jets. But certainly no man-made imaginary compares to God’s incredible creation of this eagle-eyed, warp-speed hunter of the Arabian Peninsula.
The United Nations has proclaimed falconry a World Heritage Sport. Watch this short video I found on YouTube about this popular Saudi sport: