Maryam Darweesh was born in the town of Al-Sakhna in the Syrian desert, located between the provinces of Homs and Deir ez-Zor. Al-Sakhna is a tribal society, its population made up of a number of prominent clans, such as Al-Dalim, Shummar, Jays, Al-Jahishat, and others. It can also be said that the people of Al-Sakhna are semi-nomadic, as it is both a Bedouin and settled community at once, as Maryam says. Some of the larger families are divided between those living in the town and others who live in the nearby desert in tents or so-called “hair houses.”
Maryam’s uncles, for example, lived their entire lives in hair houses, but her own small family has moved between living in the town for a while and then in the tents for other periods. Some people live in the town permanently but keep their tents as temporary dwelling-places when they have to go out into the wilderness to graze their sheep or to make dairy products from the milk of the herd.
In the winter, the families erect tents made of black goat hair to protect against the wind and rain, while in the summer, the tents are white and made of cotton to keep the insides cool from the sun’s heat.
“When the grazing grass is scarce,” says Maryam, “the families who own livestock move to a different location looking for new pastures. These lands are not public property. Families live on the land they own, or else they have to pay a rental fee or have an arrangement with the owner to be able to erect their tents there. There are usually other tents there as well, and so everyone has to share the land depending on their portion of it.”
It takes about a week to be able to set up living arrangements on a new plot of land, from setting up the tents, moving all the herds, and setting up and arranging what is required, such as makeshift barns for the animals and places to store foodstuffs and preserves. People usually use cars and trucks to transport everything they need.
Maryam’s family owned three “hair houses,” one in which to live, another in which to cook and one in which to feed the animals. When the grass for grazing had grown depleted, they would move to a new location and wait there until the new grass had grown again on their land.
The Bedouins of Al-Sakhna depend largely on their livestock for their incomes. Merchants would visit the area to buy sheep and dairy products, or the families would travel to nearby areas such as Deir ez-Zor, Qamishli and other places to make their own sales.
After the long rainy season, families would gather mushrooms to sell, especially the desert truffles that grow underground during the spring. Dairy products were their main sources of nutrition, and were served at breakfast and dinnertime, and lunch would usually be a dish that combined both cooked yogurt and meat.
Bedouin women would spend their days preparing fodder for the livestock, milking the sheep and making bread on the saj griddle, as well as taking care of everything to do with the household, including cleaning and organizing. They would also gather firewood in order to be able to make bread and cook.
“People who could afford them owned electricity generators,” says Maryam, “while others used oil or kerosene lanterns. Those who owned herds of livestock wouldn’t take them out to graze in the pastures themselves, but hired a local shepherd who would live alongside the owners in a tent specially set up to house him and his family.”
Bedouin society is known for its generosity toward guests. “We would receive guests almost every day,” recalls Maryam, “some who were just people passing through the area, some who were merchants coming to purchase livestock and others visitors from different areas. It was considered rude to ask guests what they needed or about their reason for visiting until they told us themselves. Once, we received a guest but didn’t have food ready to present him with, so my sister-in-law set the table anyway with plates and utensils so the guest wouldn’t lose hope while we got to cooking.”
Maryam says that she grew up in a society where cooperation and community were paramount. During Ramadan, for example, people would offer help and food to the needy, and during celebrations, people would take turns hosting one another. In times of mourning, relatives and neighbors prepared food for the mourners in order to ease the burden of the family of the deceased.
In terms of their schooling, Maryam says that there were “a number of schools in the town, and there was even a school out in the wilderness that was set up in one of the tents, though it only taught children how to read and write. Some students would go on to universities in Homs or Damascus, studying medicine or engineering or pursuing other important majors.”