Chronicling tribal history
Hamed Musallam Bakhit Al Muharami is a man not inhibited by social expectations. He may be over 70 years old, but he has a six-month-old daughter, the youngest of his 23 children. He may have never learnt how to read of write, but he has produced several books and a documentary film too.
“Marhaba, marhaba,” says Hamed as he welcomes us in his house in Bani Yas, a quiet town near Abu Dhabi.
Most of his family lives in this villa, the size of a “Syrian school” as one of his guests described it. The 170 houses in the neighbourhood also belong to his relatives.
Up a long flight of stairs, a door opens to reveal an impressive library of several hundred books, all in Arabic.
“They are all kinds of books, from fiction to calligraphy, but mostly they are about the history of the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East,” explains Hamed.
Growing up in the days when no hospitals, no schools and not even roads existed in Abu Dhabi, let alone in the Empty Quarter desert where he was born, Hamed never got the opportunity to learn how to read or write, but he has a passion for both. His wife Um Salem, who has a university degree from Damascus, is the one helping him with both his research studies and the writing of his books.
The genealogy of tribes, from Arabian Peninsula up to Syria, is what interest Hamed most.
“My father and my grandfather used to be experts in this subject. As a young boy, I used to listen carefully to them to learn about it, anytime they sat with their relatives and friends in the majlis,” he says.
“Our own tribe, Al Muharami, is part of Al Khawar, a very old powerful tribe, which was part of Al Khateri.”
“One of the oldest tribes here in Arabian Peninsula is Al Hamdan, which branched off from Al Qahtani that was one of the two original tribes.”
It is generally believed that all Arab families may be traced to one of the two original tribes — the Qahtani Arabs, also referred to as the pure Arabs, who come from Yemen, from the progeny of Ya‘rub bin Yashjub bin Qahtan bin Hud, an ancient prophet before Ismail; and the Adnani Arabs or arabised Arabs, the people of North Arabia, whose genealogy is traced to Ismail. Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was an Adnani Arab.
“The origins of my own family comes from Hadramaut, in south Yemen, but that was hundreds of years ago. I was born in the Empty Quarters, around Liwa, to a Bedouin family. We used to travel from place to place, wherever the rain and water took us, but my grandfather eventually settled in Abu Dhabi,” mentions Hamed.
“In those days, we didn’t have IDs or passports. Our family name was our identity. We had no borders either, so we were free to travel as we pleased. Of course, there were no roads or cars, so a trip to Makkah from Abu Dhabi took one month by camel, and then another month to come back.”
“There are still Bedu living in the desert today, but not like before. Life has changed. They have air conditioning in their tents and water tanks.”
Most of his life Hamed worked as an officer in the Civil Defence. He retired 25 years ago and soon after he began his pursuit of writing about tribes, their poetry and their way of life.
So far, he has published three books and produced a short documentary film as well.
“This is about Arab poetry,” he explains showing a heavy volume in hard cover and beautiful calligraphy.
“It contains a little of my own poems. Most of it is the poetry of old Arab tribes, from before Islam until present day. There are also poems by the late president Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.”
Throughout the century, poetry in Arabia was not just a beautiful, stylised form of literature. It was often an oral historical document about life and events and, on occasions, it even sparkled wars!
“Ha, ha! They still do it today! They still write about each other,” laughs Hamed, admitting that, to a much lesser extent, tribes still tease one another in verses.
His latest book, self-published last year, is a detailed account of Arab tribes from as long as 5,000 years ago. “It goes back to the old kings of Yemen and is about who lived here and who was who,” he explains.
“Most English history literature don’t have so much details about the people of Arab Peninsula, but I’m able to provide that.”
Apart from his studies research, Hamed used to travel throughout the Gulf and beyond to meet tribal heads, sheikhs and people of knowledge to gather information. “I even went to Syria once, just for two hours, to get some information I needed!”
Pretty much in the same time, Hamed also worked on his first documentary film, which he also completed last year. The 15-minute film, shot in the desert of Syria and edited by a professional studio in Damascus as well, focuses on the customs and traditions of Bedouins of the Empty Quarters.
In a desert tent, Hamed speaks with his sons and other Arab men about the life in the old days. Making coffee, finding water, weapons used in battle are among the topics of this documentary.
“See, in this scene it shows people having to sacrifice a camel for water. When they could not find any water in the desert, the Bedu had to slaughter one camel, which is able to store water in one of her abdomens, hang its stomach in the sun for a couple of hours, and then pierce it with a knife. They would get enough water for 10 people, but just a little bit for each.”
“And in this scene you see how they used to fight, usually on camel back, in the desert. They used old French or English rifles with only one bullet at a time. We used to call them ‘Hatfa Futaini’.”
This film production left Hamed Dh400,000 lighter, and he now hopes to sell the rights to a distribution company for TV releases.
His latest project is also a film about Arab heritage, but this time is a fictional series in 30 episodes. With the help of Um Salem, he already wrote the first 15 episodes and is now looking for financing.
“Inshaalah, my next project will be a book about Saab bin Dulmarathed Al Himiri, who was a ruler in South Yemen. He was a very clever sheikh, who helped his people a lot,” reveals Hamed.
His ultimate dream, though, is an entire encyclopaedia of all tribes of Arabia and their myriad of branches from the very early days of Ismail.
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