Bedouin Encounters by James Gallant

Bedouin Encounters

James Gallant

The primary purpose of our archaeological survey in Oman was to dig up and study ancient human remains in the desert. Our five-man team had a research grant of only twelve thousand dollars which had to cover wages, equipment rental, transportation, lodging, and the services of a guide—not to mention that outrageously pricey case of sunscreen.

I’d been assured that finding a Bedouin guide would be no problem. Bedouins were accustomed to hiring in that capacity with petroleum company officials. As project captain, I had taken it upon myself to learn a bit of Arabic, enough to get by with locals. Communicating our need for a guide was no problem. The young fellow who volunteered was the son of a sheik. I asked after his fee and understood his smiley response to be something like, “We are brothers; you are our guests. I am happy to serve you. Pay me whatever seems appropriate.”

I had some difficulty communicating to him what we were seeking in the desert, and I don’t think he ever really understood this, even after driving us in his Mercedes the twenty miles to and from the work site and the village for a week. Occasionally Arabs would be observing our labors from a distance. Our guide would converse with them. What he said to them as they looked our way seemed to inspire amusement. 

We realized immediately that the site we had chosen for our dig was very rich archaeologically. We did not conceal our happiness from our guide, who seemed happy that we were happy. After a week, we had become familiar enough with the route from the village to the site to feel we no longer needed our guide’s assistance. We would rent a truck. During a lunch break at the site one day, I explained this to our guide and offered to pay him for the services he had rendered, the equivalent of fifty dollars a day. His response combined disappointment and fury. Suddenly imperious, he ordered us back in the Mercedes. We hadn’t much choice but to do as he said, and he drove us at a furious speed to the house of his father, the sheik, who demanded we pay his son not fifty dollars a day for his services but one hundred. We could ill afford to do that but would obviously have to. The sheik had us over a barrel, and his demand made the kind of sense a Yankee could understand.

His second order didn’t: we were to lay out another hundred for a goat to be slaughtered and served at a banquet celebrating our success. It was my first-ever goat steak. It wasn’t bad, although it didn’t taste at all like chicken. It had a slightly gamey flavor and a rather coarse texture. As I washed it down with the excellent Muscat wine the sheik contributed to the banquet, I realized what had happened: these fellows were accustomed to working with free-spending Western petroleum company officials for whom successes meant big bucks, and they assumed that our successes—whatever they may have been—conferred similar benefits.

Unsure what else continuing there might cost us, we reluctantly abandoned the work we had begun, rented a truck, and hightailed it to the Hajar mountain range to dig for Stone Age tools in the deep ancient animal manure of the caves. A plus of this project was that Bedouins avoided the caves, fearing the djinns (demons) who supposedly inhabited them.


Later, we were on the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula investigating holes in the ground in which ancient Egyptians had smelted the copper they used to trim their finery. Extracting the residues of smelting required our reaching into the holes. A Bedouin monitoring our activity warned us that scorpions sometimes made dwellings of holes. Their bites were not only painful but might have serious health consequences. The bite of a yellow scorpion could be fatal. So we were in the habit of probing the holes for scorpions before inserting our arms, but we hadn’t met with any more scorpions than djinns when one morning, I was in a hurry and failed to take this precaution. I felt a sharp sting the moment I reached into a hole. I pulled my hand out; it was already red and beginning to swell. I had no idea if I had encountered a yellow scorpion, but I remembered what I had heard about its fatal bite.

Our Bedouin overseer did not seem especially concerned about what had happened, but nothing seemed to greatly concern this stoical fellow. He coughed up some phlegm and smeared it on my hand and arm. He was about to cauterize my wound with a cigarette lighter when I insisted he call an ambulance. He did not seem to feel this was necessary but did so. The ambulance driver was in no hurry to get to the hospital, pointing out features of the landscape along the way, smiling at me with big, dark, warm goo-goo eyes, and warbling what sounded like a love song.

The doctor, for his part, seemed less interested in my wound than in recalling the years of his youth he’d spent studying at the Medical College of Virginia. He responded to my insistence on receiving an anti-venom shot with a shrug and an Americanism, “It’s your money.”

 I didn’t like the sound of that.

He summoned a nurse. She appeared with a needle. I rolled up my sleeve. “That’s not where we do it in Egypt,” she said. “Turn around.”

About the Author

James Gallant was the winner of 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature for his story collection, La Leona, and Other Guitar Stories, published in 2020. Fortnightly Review (UK) published in 2018 in its Odd Volumes series a collection of his essays and short fiction, Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations.