Going down the road towards Madinah, reminded me of one particular taxi driver, who drove us from the Hajj terminal to Madinah on one of those soul cleansing trips. Since most passengers were flying into Jeddah for umrah, we were brought to the Hajj terminal instead. Despite the crowd, the immigration processed the passengers fairly quickly that evening and we were soon out of the terminal.
Once out of the terminal, we went looking for a taxi. Finding a taxi to take us to Madinah proved rather troublesome since there were very few private taxis at the Hajj terminal. One taxi runner quoted SAR1500 just to take us the distance of 250 kilometers away. We thought it was rather steep. We were then directed to a private taxi presumably an arrangement of mutual benefit for both runner and taxi driver. After the SAR1500 shocker, any lesser offer was deemed reasonable. Later we found an even cheaper fare of SAR500, but only if taken from the international terminal. It was already late in the night and we settled for the only taxi-driver to drive us to Madinah in his Toyota sedan for SAR1000.
The taxi-man, Muhamad, was a Bedou, for the Anglicised term “Bedouin”. The word Bedouin comes from the Arabic word Badawi which means “desert dweller”. Badawi are nomadic Arab people who have historically inhabited the deserts of North Africa, Arabic peninsula, Iraq and the Levant. The Arabic term Bedouin was traditionally used to differentiate between nomads, who made a living by raising livestock and those who worked on farms or lived sedentary lives in towns.
Bedouins tend to be small and thin. One reason for this is that food is scarce in the desert. But Bedouins love freedom thus the appeal for nomadic life. The number of true nomadic Bedouins however is dwindling. There may be less than 3% nomads left in Iraq, Libya or Saudi Arabia. According to Wikipedia (https://en.m.wikipedia.org), there are over 10 million in Sudan, about 2 million in Algeria, some in Egypt, Iraq, UAE, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya etc.
Calmness and patience are valued traits. But the one thing that struck me that particular evening was Mohamad’s Bedouin hospitality. Bedouins, it seemed are well known for gestures like breaking bread with a stranger. Since we wanted to reach Madinah before 2 am, we didn’t stop to have a bite to eat before boarding the taxi. Needless to say we were grateful when Muhamad stopped along the highway and bought us cups of good strong coffee with a pinch of cardamon added. Bedouin kahwa is a strong aromatic coffee made with cardamon powder, saffron and rosewater. Later on along the journey he again bought us bananas and juice.
Arab drivers in Saudi were not much different from Malaysian drivers. They both have little patience when it comes to driving. I have seen similar mercurial drivers on highways and roads in Malaysia. Muhamad, small built, his face brown and drawn, probably in his forties (though he did look older, maybe because of the dry desert winds), was blowing his horn ever so often when he wanted to overtake other vehicles. He seemed like a dangerous driver, keeping to the fast lane and weaving in and out between trucks and buses while overtaking. Even though we were exhausted from the flight and the journey, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I was rather anxious watching the way Muhamad drove. I thought 75% of road accidents were caused by young Arab drivers but Muhamad was in his forties. One driver had his headlights on and kept pressing the pedal as if saying “Get out of my way”.
It was close to midnight and Muhamad was probably very sleepy. He found many innovative ways of keeping awake while driving on the highway. He sometimes turned on the radio way up playing traditional Bedouin music, singing and clapping loudly. And as if he suddenly remembered we were seated behind, he would turn down the music. Then he would unwound his head-cloth, put on his keffiyeh and silence returned as he drove quietly on. Sometimes he would smoke and this routine he would repeat every now and then throughout the 250 kilometers journey.
We arrived in Madinah in the wee hours of the morning. We had little exchanges with Muhamad since he knew absolutely no English and we do not speak Arabic. He had no use for the GPS to locate the hotel. All he did was stop fellow drivers along the way. After doing this for a number of times, one driver relented to show us the way. What a colorful character Muhamad was, reminding me of Lawrence of Arabia movie…. a Bedouin with a curved sword in a scabbard ornamented with silver, laid across his knees, or the Arab-speaking nomads in Hugh Kennedy’s “The Great Arab Conquests ”, who rode their horses over 200 miles a day to spread Islam. It seemed the Bedouins possess the same endurance, strength and loyalty as the Arabian horses they rode.