The children of the desert
Language barriers are irrelevant when you’re around children. They are fluent in the universal language: fun.
We wanted to watch the sunset from the Bedouin camp, but it was only 2:30. We had our fill of Roman ruins and citadels in Palmyra and a still had a taxi driver for the full day.
“So I pick you up in one hour,” he asked when we drove to a Bedouin family’s desert home. No we want to stay until sunset, we told him, for the fourth time.
The reason for his insistence became clear. The family doesn’t speak a word of English. Not the father, with his leather jacket, gold rings and red-and-white keffiyeh. Not his wife who served us tea repeatedly. Not their four boys.
Fifteen minutes of “thank you” and “beautiful” in tourist Arabic and it started getting awkward.
Their boys kept shyly looking at us. Suddenly I realized how the next two hours would be spent.
Step 1: Candy
We pulled out a bag of Vietnamese guava drops and the boys advanced like hungry cats. The littlest one had a hard time untwisting the wrapper, which was an opportunity to test his hand-eye coordination: he had to fetch the candy from my rapidly-moving hand.
We won our first giggles, and consequently, their trust.
Step 2: Soccer
Their home is a tent pitched on a cement foundation, about the size of a transport container. Inside are just cushions and an oil stove. Beside it is a cooking tent, a bath tent, and several meters away the corral for the sheep and a pigeon coop.
There’s a satellite dish for the TV and a diesel generator that powers it. All around them are acres and acres of dry, desolate desert. The nearest water pump is 100 meters away.
It was the biggest backyard I’d ever seen. You can kick a ball as hard as you can and it would still be in their property. So that’s what we did.
A little clumsy dribbling around it and some shots at an imaginary goal had them in snickers.
One hour had passed since we arrived. We didn’t exchange any mutually intelligible sentences.
Palmyra, an oasis in the Syrian desert once ruled by Romans. Click photos for a gallery.
Step 3: Ruins
A few hundred meters from their tent are the remains of an ancient Bedouin home made of mud. The boys led us there while kicking the ball back and forth.
“Snick!” the oldest one, about 12, yelled when we walked over some burrows in the sand.
“Ey, snick. Snick.” He clamped my arm with his fingernails. He bared his teeth. He picked up a bush twig and scratched two dots on his arm. He hissed.
Oh, snake! A snake hole. And so we spent the rest of the walk trying to scare each other with false snick alarms.
Step 4: Toys
We took lots of pictures and videos and showed them the results on the LCD screen. They watched themselves on the tiny monitor like they it was the latest Disney movie. When we taught them how to take pictures, they couldn’t wait for their turns.
A length of rubber tubing was found and fashioned into a swing when I held it from both ends. It later became a spinning swing when I rotated in place.
A lot of talking. No one cared that nothing was understood from either side.
Step 5: Sheep
Dusk approached and it was time to round up the sheep and put the young in separate pen. If they sleep with the adults, they’ll drink all the milk, leaving nothing for the yogurt and cheese the family sells in Palmyra.
The lambs are quick, but the third-youngest boy is quicker. He lunged at a baby one and grabbed its tail, pulling it in. “Baby,” he said, and brought it within petting range. He’s dealt with enough tourists to know this is a crowd pleaser.
The taxi driver arrived and asked us, as we said goodbyes, if we had brought a gift for the children. That’s what tourists are expected to do. But all we had was the guava candy and some money for the parents.
Judging from their grins, I don’t think they minded this one omission.
Some photos of our afternoon with them: