An apprentice anthropologist’s ethnographic account of an excursionPicnicking in Soqotra [Archives:2005/811/Reportage]

January 27 2005

By Serge Elie

My research assistant came into my office to ask if I would be interested in going to Da'arho, an area located in the upland plateau of the region of Diksam in the central part of the island. The picnic invitation came from a policeman in the tourist and environment police force to all of his colleagues. Da'arho is well endowed with water because the rains are more frequent in the higher elevations, which allows for bountiful grazing grounds and healthy and productive livestock. It is also endowed with a scenic landscape. My response was affirmative.

The next day the phone rang and my assistant told me that I would be picked up at 2:00 p.m. OK, I said nonchalantly, expecting to return later in the evening. I put aside my green cotton shirt purchased in Syria, my most comfortable ten-year-old multi-pocket cotton pants from Miami, my red-checkered mashadda from Jordan, my camera from Japan by way of New York, and my new sandals from Syria bought in Sana'a. I tried to nap, trusting that they would be late. My ride finally arrived, late as expected.


When we reached the pick-up spot, I noticed over a dozen people waiting, while sitting next to bundles of comforters and pillows neatly tied up. “Who are all of these people?” I inquired. They are colleagues of our host in Da'arho, and we will spend one night there. “Nobody told me about this,” I said aimlessly, as I thought of my unprepared state. It was too late to pick up stuff. I resorted to making up my own comforting rationale. It is only for one night, I have chewing gum as toothpaste and some bottled water, and I can survive. Moreover, this impromptu excursion into the Soqotra hinterland was part of my apprenticeship as an ethnographer-anthropologist. I became reconciled to the idea and welcomed the opportunity. We had to take another car, as we were about seventeen in total. We finally left Hadiboh at about three in humble two-car convoy.

We stopped at Haffa, a makeshift town of dwellings built of recycled oil drums, for the 'asr prayer. After prayer we began our ascent of the mountainous road to Diksam before 4 p.m. I was sitting in front and in full view of the terrain. In spite of the minor inconvenience of a dirty windshield, as well as a rapidly setting sun, I could take it all in. Diksam is a gateway to the island's most scenic landscapes as well as the habitat of the most authentic Bedouins and their traditional life ways. While conversing with the driver, my head was bobbing left and right, looking intermittently at him and then the landscape. As we bounced around in our Toyota land cruiser in relative comfort-our main worries being to hold on tightly to the handgrips for safety and the possibility of a punctured tire- I wondered about the experience of the early European travelers who came in the absence of roads, with camels and donkeys as the best means of transport available. Pretty determined bunch, I thought.

Reaching the top of the mountain brought a momentary closure to out conversation. We stopped by a lim, a natural formation in which water formed rains accumulate, to see the water level and get an approximate reading on weather activity. The water level was about two feet high. Not much, but enough, perhaps, to last a week or so. We continued on our way and by sunset we reached the wadi that demarcates the entrance into the Schebhen area, just in time for the maghrib prayer. As everyone was performing the ablution ritual prior to prayer, one of our group mounted an elevated area and to his colleagues' surprise gave a good rendition of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. This was the first time he had done it. The occasion seemed most appropriate to make an impression on the others. I think he succeeded. Although he shared the physical features of the legendary Bilal, the outstanding performer of the call to prayer during the Prophet's time, his performance could not be said to equal that of his famous precursor.


Our stop for the night was a small village of no more than four houses in Schebhen, not very far from where we stopped for prayer. It was a tenebrous darkness, a moonless sky dimly lit by a few scattered stars. This was welcome for when nature calls under the current circumstance, darkness was one's last resort for a sense of privacy. I instinctively knew that to ask for a bathroom would be a kind of cultural faux pas either you would be a kind of cultural faux pas, either you would look stupid in their eyes, or you would embarrass them. I borrowed a flashlight, took my water bottle and went on a search for a suitable place in pitch darkness. Against the sky I saw the shadowy outline of a lonely Dragon's Blood tree, in sufficient distance from the house where we were staying, but I felt as if I would be committing a sacrilegious act against the island's flagship symbol; I chose instead a nearby lonely, humble, meter high croton tree.

Sharing the six by four rectangular, flat roofed “traditional” Soqotri stone house, which only recently replaced the mountain cave dwellings, with nine other people, made me understand that the figures for the population of small villages quoted to me n my previous trips around the island were not exaggerations, but very reasonable estimations. The room was lit barely by a kerosene lamp seated in the middle of the floor. The relative darkness inside the room did not permit close inspection, and my imagination did not go beyond what I could see. In such cases ignorance is truly blissful. There were two coverings thrown over the earth floor: one in plastic on the elevated part of the room, and the other a cloth fabric. I gravitated toward the plastic one. It turned out to be a wise choice because ticks do not find plastic carpet to be a very suitable abode. We all sat around on the floor forming a semi-circle around the lamp. There was a momentary indecision as to the best placement of the lamp to enhance the reach of its flickering light. After much fumbling it was hung from a beam in the ceiling's center. There was much bantering among these males. One could sense a deep social bond. A feeling of inclusive camaraderie reigned although these were policemen with their two superior officers. The conversation ranged over a number of topics and was in Arabic for the benefit of the non-Soqotrans present.

A simmering impatience underlay the conversation and it was about the tea that was taking too long to prepare. For it was over four hours since anyone had tea and this extended abstention was becoming unbearable. The conversation was repeatedly interrupted with shouts toward the makeshift outdoor kitchen, “fein al shy, yoh?”

Tea was finally ready, as two thermoses (thallaja) were brought into the room, one with red tea and one with milk. The sight energized everyone, as people sat up from their recumbent positions and came closer to the teapots. As is customary the guests, that is, the three foreigners, were served first, while the others waited with straining patience, as there were not enough cups. This energizing pause made everyone talkative again.

Soon, the newly discovered Soqotri Bilal was calling for the isha prayer. All dutifully got up to prepare to pray. Outside, I heard the leader of the prayer group reciting surahs from the Quran in a notable manner. And I thought of how in a religion-led society, the societal rhythm-indeed, and its metabolic function one is tempted to say- is dictated by the observance of religious obligations.

The last communal act was dinner, which was served soon after prayer. Chicken in a soupy sauce with potatoes was eaten with bread, and followed by sliced oranges and apples for desert, booth in the Hadiboh souk. Not long after, blankets were being untied and sleeping spaces allocated. I stayed where I was seated. A blanket was given to me as well as an armrest cushion to be used as a pillow. Given my unprepared state, I was doing well. I arranged blanket and pillow neatly in my corner and wrapped myself in the blanket, wearing all my clothes, like everyone else. I lay down, but my knees remained bent, as there was not enough space to stretch my legs. Nevertheless, I felt comfortable and I faded into sleep. Later, I don't remember how much later, I overheard someone say “As sallam alekum.” Perhaps, a curious neighbor passing by and seeing the cars and the dim flicker of the lamp inside wanted to inquire who was visiting the neighborhood. One among us managed a weak response. The night was relatively quiet, except for the hissing sound of the breeze entering the ventilating spaces in the walls of our compound, keeping the room aerated and comfortable.

Picnic Day

There was no need for alarm bell or crowing chicken, as “Bilal” was on the job belting out the adhan exactly at dawn for the fajr prayer. By five a.m. we were all up and already in the cars on our way to Da'arho. My toilet consisted of water thrown on my face to remove the traces of sleep and cehwing gum in lieu of tooth brushing. The wing was relatively strong, blowing a cold air, which felt invigorating. It was day but the sun had not yet broken into the horizon; the landscape was still asleep under a misty veil. We were traveling slowly, almost at walking speed, so one could take in the landscape. On our left there was a canyon like precipice and you could see the scars and sinews of the mountain on the other side. I was told that an eco-lodge would be built in this area. Properly managed it would be a boon to all concerned: the landscape gazing tourist and the Bedouin turned eco-lodger the road to Da'arho was carved out of the sides of a steep mountain. It was built through a collective endeavor between the government, supplying the heavy equipment, and the people, providing the labor. The result, while not an engineering masterpiece, is a testament to what can be achieved with basic equipment and community commitment.

Our picnic area was located in Wadi Dirhur, where the water flows throughout the year. We camped next to a natural pool two meters deep, situated right at the base of two mountains, the sides of which could serve as diving boards from various heights. There was a village of about five houses in the midst of a date palm grove but the people had migrated elsewhere as part of the transhumant cycle; they would return for the date harvesting season. It was an idyllic spot by any standard and would be attractive to nature-gazing tourists. The first priority was to set up a kitchen and prepare the tea as we had yet to have breakfast. A kitchen spot was identified and a three-man team was dispatched to collect firewood. As these preparations were underway, our host arrived with two healthy looking, medium sized sheep. By the shine of their woolen coat, which is used to make the Soqotri rug (hadh'hil), it was evident that they were not scavengers like the ones in Hadiboh. Of course they were both males as females were much more valued and are kept alive until they could no longer fulfill their reproductive function. Our group had brought rice, macaroni, spices, etc., to complement the meat that was to be provided by the host.

At last, tea was ready. In spite of its weak consistency and too much sugar, it was welcome to dissipate the last cobweb from our early rising. As I was sipping my tea, it occurred to me that I had not seen the “execution” of sheep since my days in Mauritania. I got up quickly and grabbed my camera to record the grisly event, but both had been put under the knife already by the host. He seemed to have done so without performing the ceremony of the Muhar, which was a kind of invocation of God's blessing for the occasion. Othman, a local Bedouin, was already removing the woolen coat of one animal to carve it but there was no one from the group to help. They seemed not to know how, as they were from Hadiboh or some coastal villages. Their element was water and their thing fish. They could cook the meat but not kill or carve it. Finally, a knife was handed to someone else outside of our group whose element was not the sea but the hinterland (al badiya). One sheep was to be prepared the Soqotri way, that is, the meat was to be separated completely from the bones and the latter would be boiled and served separately as a pre-lunch appetizer. Whereupon they would be smashed with rocks and their marrow sucked and washed down with soup (rihota). The other sheep was to be cooked in the Mudhbi style. A bed of rocks would be built on the ground and a fire would be lit to heat the rocks. Once heated, the ashes would be removed and the meat spread on top of the hot rocks. Another layer of rocks would be laid over the meat and another fire lit on top of tit and left for one hour and a half. Subsequently. The ash and rocks would be discarded and the meat served. The chef was Mabrook, a rather effeminate-speaking man from Hadiboh, who resided in Musaqibhen, a place that is regarded as the “red district” of Hadiboh. So called, it seems, merely because of its inhabitants' excessive display of a certain joie de vivre through frequently held “disco” nights animated with local drum music.

While Othman was carving the animal, I received a lesson in the Soqotri named for each part of the animal. I squatted on a nearby rock and I had a front row seat in the operation theater, camera at the ready. There I watched the cleaning of the intestines and their weaving into decorative necklaces; the cutting out of the liver, kidneys and heart for our breakfast; the careful collection of fat, which was to be stuffed in parts of the stomach to be cooked and served later. by this time a group of Soido birds, scavengers, that are also known as Egyptian vultures (it is related to the myth of the rising Phoenix), was swarming overhead on the look out for scraps of meat. As a few remaining pieces of the intestines were thrown away there was frantic dive and a violent pecking contest between these birds over the most fetid parts of the remains. There was something incongruous about this scene. I felt that their beautiful coat- a resplendent rainbow – like combination of gold, yellow, light brown, with a tinge of red and white colors – should not belong to a bird that feeds on feculent detritus.

At least breakfast was served: macaroni with pieces of liver, kidney, and heart. It was satisfactory, even good, except for a piece of liver that was insufficiently cooked. I ate lightly, as I wanted to leave space for lunch, which would not be very long after. I withdrew into a sedentary state for the rest of the day as I was impeded by my lack of preparedness for occasion: no foutah (a wraparound garment worn by males), no swimming trunks, and wearing sandals that were unsuitable to negotiate the rocky paths carved into the steep slopes of the mountains. What was unsuitable to me, however, was for the Soqotrans the equivalent of an all terrain four-wheel drive car. For them, sandals of the most basic type, both in material and style, seem to be the only footwear, whatever the terrain or occasion. Clearly, the problem was not with the sandals but my inability to use them. The wearing of the foutah is the “national” attire. One could assert that no Soqotran wears pants unless it is part of a uniform required by his job, e.g., policeman, school etc., or he has been abroad and has adopted a “modern” style, as was the case with my office mate who spent six years in Cuba. But for me, wearing a foutah would simply make it more comfortable to lounge around the “pool,” rather than be a rapport-inducing display of sartorial solidarity. The swimming trunks of Soqotrans gave me an insight, perhaps, into the practice of the male version of the code of modesty. In fact, it is not a swimming trunk, but underwear. It is a pair of extremely baggy pants made of nylon material, which covers from the midsection all the way under the knees. Wearing a brief of a spandex would be the equivalent of a Soqotri woman walking in public without her veil: mamnu'ha (prohibited). Indeed, when I was taking photographs some would rush to put on their foutah before I took the picture, as if they felt improperly attired for a public event. As I sat engrossed with ethnographic mental notes, a delegation of four crossed our camp on its way to the village of Da'arho where a wedding was to take place the next day; they were carrying three goats and one cow to fulfill their rufda obligations. The rufda custom is the collective giving of gifts of livestock to the groom by all the neighboring tribes resident in the area. Through this custom, perhaps the Soqotri version of the potlatch, the tribes competed to show which one would be the most generous in their offerings. The offering the group was carrying was a notable display of generosity, which changing times seemed not to have adversely affected. I learned later that seven cows and over twenty goats were donated for this occasion, and all were slaughtered. This amount would exceed the demand for meat in Hadiboh for an entire week!

The Soqotri Bilal was at it again, putting an abrupt end to his colleagues' recreation and scattering my ethnographic reveries. After a brief collective consultation as to which direction was east, a marker was placed in the ground and a little crowd gathered to perform the noon prayer.

Lunch was served, finally! Our group had been expanded by half a dozen people attracted by the sight of fire, food, and non-locals. Self-invitation at lunchtime was not frowned upon, but welcomed according to the prevailing ethic of hospitality. I sat in a group with the UN international staff, the two superior police officers, and Othman, who brought our plate of rice cooked with saffron-based spices and thick chunks of meat thrown on top of it. Eating meat in the Bedouin area has a particular ritual. The first time I saw it done, our guide took it out and put it on top of a rock to cut it. My assistant assured me that this was the way it was done in Soqotra. Now Othman, who always carried a traditional, locally made knife (Hansh'har), one of the markers of an authentic Bedouin, immediately started cutting the meat into small pieces, at first directly from the plate, but not for long. He removed all of the pieces, placed them directly on the ground, and threw the meat back into the plate on top of the rice as they were cut. Custom confirmed!


Leave-taking between hosts and guests is rather unceremonious, as I had observed on previous occasions. There was no exchange of thanks to express gratitude for the generous hospitality. Just a perfunctory goodbye sealed with a handshake, sometimes none, followed by an abrupt departure. This had been the behavior of my research assistant, after we self-invited ourselves to a little feast a Bedouin in the Ayhaft region offered to his neighbors who had participated in a Gyrif-a form of mutual aid practiced by communities to assist one member when the work to be done necessitates the collective input of all members of that community. He blandly waved to the host from a distance and did not even wait for him to reciprocate as he turned to leave as if in a hurry. It is as if hospitality was a common obligation, which did not merit any special acknowledgement. This time was not very different, as we got up to leave soon after lunch and the obligatory tea.

We started the returned ride at about 12:30pm; I thought the timing most opportune, as I would be able to see the entire landscape we would be traversing in broad daylight, unlike the day before when part of the way had been traversed under cover of darkness. As we started climbing the road, Mabrook gave a hilarious rendition of Bedouin speech patterns, in the form of a string of phrases composed of a few intelligible words interspered mostly with guttural sounds of yoh, yah, yeh, accompanied by furious facial expressions, agitated tone of voice, and emphatic gestures. The point was to demonstrate the impoverished diction of the Bedouin. His favorite was the Bedouin's corruption of “As Salam Mualekum” to “Sam Alekum.” He even attempted to confirm this by saluting a few people on the road in order to elicit their response and test their pronunciation. The mimicry was related to the biases inherent in the classic binary opposition between Hadhara (Civilization or the culture of city dwellers), and Badawa (culture of dwellers of the desert or hinterland) that originated in the writings of Obn Khadun.

While the Bedouin mimicry was going on in the back of the car, the driver was sharing with me his impressions about the contours of the landscape, which suggested prior use in some distant past. We were traveling on the upper plateau of Schebhen, and indeed, the outlay of the land does resemble a place that was used for some type of agricultural production. There was a vast expanse of land with a few straggling Dragon's Blood trees, dispersed in a manner that allowed one to infer that either they served as shade for agricultural workers or were the last few survivors of a once forested area. This would seem to confirm that this area was once organized to facilitate large-scale production. there is in fact a debate between Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian anthropologist, and Brian Doe, a British archeologist, regarding whether or not there was large-scale agricultural production in parts of the island.

On the way back we stopped by the village of Kufuz . A UN project had installed an automatic weather station, to provide data for the predictive analysis of the Soqotra weather. This is, of course, useful. But I thought that this weather station would never be able to approximate in subtlety, if not in sophistication, the seven ways in which the people of Diksam differentiate between types of rain. This was the last stop prior to our descent out of Diksam on the only mountain access road from the northwestern plains adjacent to Hadiboh. Our group had expanded by a few more people, as picking up hitchhikers is cultural obligation in Soqotra, and if you cannot fulfill this obligation you must yell through the window the reason why, with a genuinely apologetic demeanor. We reached Haifa in time for the 'asr prayer. Thankfully, our Bill's service was not necessary, as the group dismounted the cars and gravitated toward the place for ablution.

As everyone was returning from prayer to the cars to continue our journey, I noticed that an elderly Bedouin, picked up on our way back, was negotiating with someone the sale of the resin of the Dragon's Blood tree. A deal was concluded for 600 Yemeni riyals. I saw a satisfied smile on his face as he mounted the back of the pick-up truck. His encounter with hadhara was most promising. He was cleaned, he had prayed and now he had some cash to meet some of his basic needs. His prayers were answered. I reflected upon my own encounter with his world. I felt enriched as well and better prepared for a much deeper ethnographic encounter with Soqotra's badawa. While hoping that I was not engaged in some premature wishful thinking, I felt an instinctive identification with Malinowski, one of the forefathers of anthropology who said of his fieldwork site that “a bond was growing up between myself and this landscape everything was pervaded with the promise of fruitful work and unexpected success.” Al Hamdu lillah!