Mohamad Khalaf belongs to the Al-Uqaydat tribe, made up of an alliance of different clans living in Homs and Deir ez-Zor provinces, as well as other areas in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The name refers to the pact (ta’aqud, in Arabic) that was made between the smaller clans living in the Euphrates basin, in order to create an alliance that would better help repel the repeated invasions of the Bedouin tribes from the region.
Mohamad was born in the town of Sabikhan in Deir ez-Zor Province, whose inhabitants are all part of the Shuweit clan which in turn belongs to the Al-Uqaydat tribe. The residents are dependent on agricultural production, which includes cotton, corn, wheat, barley and fruit, alongside breeding livestock such as cows, sheep and goats.
The Al-Uqaydat are known for their traditional values and customs, characterized by generosity and charity toward the less fortunate. They are steadfast in their support for members of the tribe during both times of celebration and times of mourning, offering financial and moral support, helping those in need, honoring their elders and respecting the opinions of the young.
The Sheikh, or head of the tribe, is entrusted with both great authority and respect by the members of the tribe. They elect him communally by a majority consensus so that he may represent them and serve them by facilitating their requests and helping to mediate problems.
The Al-Uqaydat prefer that their women work in their own homes, serving their husbands and children, and that they dress modestly. It is also not customary to have women leave their homes or travel unaccompanied by a male relative or a group of other women. Most of the women are uneducated, though some have received their secondary school certificates and will teach temporarily (part-time) at one of the nearby schools. A small number of girls, do go on to universities in other provinces, accompanied by their father or one of their brothers. They major in subjects in keeping with the bounds of Sharia law, such as education. Should they go into medicine, they study obstetrics or midwifery. Men, on the other hand, are allowed to study what they wish, travel where they wish, and work anywhere they please.
In Mohamad’s social environment, polygamy is not out of the ordinary, and women aren’t allowed to object should their husbands wish to take another wife. The practice is shaped by religious conviction and aims to combat spinsterhood among the women of the tribe. Numerous children are considered a blessing in tribal societies, making the tribe larger and stronger and deterring the possibility of attack by another tribe. The larger the family, the more siblings and relatives are able to bolster and assist one another during times of crisis, supporting one another both financially and morally. Mohamad remembers how his uncle married four wives, who altogether bore him sixty sons and ten daughters, while his father married two wives who bore him seventeen sons and eight daughters.
“In the past,” says Mohamad, “larger numbers were imperative. This is not so much the case anymore since people have been given recourse to the law in order to secure their rights.”
Mohamad learned the traditions and customs of tribal life from his own clan, and during the time he spent in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. When he traveled abroad, he noticed some differences in the customs of different tribes and the tendency of some to convert to Shia Islam. Mohamad mentions how some Turkmen coming from Turkey were granted citizenship about eighty years ago, as were some Iranians who arrived from Bani Mashhad about forty years ago. They settled on the lands of the Al-Uqaydat and integrated with the members of the tribe, following their habits and intermarrying with them, so that today they are considered part of the tribe. Though initially some conflicts broke out between the newcomers and the original inhabitants, with the latter trying to oust the former, their kinship to one another and the mediation of the Sheikhs always led to reconciliation.
Since Mohamad was in the sixth grade, his father would travel repeatedly to Saudi Arabia in order to work. Without the continuous presence of his father’s authority, and his mother’s lack of influence over her children, Mohamad’s teenage years were spent in an environment that disregarded education. He finished elementary school and then dropped out to work as a van driver, transporting passengers and goods between Deir ez-Zor and other provinces in Syria, as well as to some destinations in Iraq, continuing in this line of work for about nine years. He originally chose this job because he didn’t want to be far from his family, but he found it to be exceptionally exhausting work and also dangerous for the driver as he had to travel long distances.
Mohamad sees a need for his tribe to advance in terms of education and to become a little more liberal, while preserving their original traditions. Indeed, there has been some noticeable progress over the last few years, with more and more people continuing their education, though this has by no means spread evenly across all areas and tribes. As such, some have managed to advance far beyond others.