Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Bedu of Tel ' Atij (Syria, 1992)

The Bedu of Tel ‘Atij (1992).

Our camp and dig house, Bedouin shepherd.
There is an old Yemeni saying that goes: Choose your neighbour before building your house, says the city dweller. Choose your companion before choosing your route, says the nomad. This proverb may especially hold true for a community of nomads that lived in the upper reaches of the Fertile Crescent in North-Eastern Syria. In 1992, I had the pleasure of working and living amongst a group of sedentary Bedu in the village of Tel ‘Atij. As an ethnoarchaeologist, I had to, overtime, grapple with the impending fate that lay ahead for these Bedu of Tel ‘Atij, whom I had become friends with. In a way, they became my Bedu.
L-R Our camp and the tents, Tel 'Atij. 
I spent a little over three months in the field, working on a salvage archaeological site on the Khabur River in north-eastern part of Syria. A salvage archaeological site means that the historical record and material culture will be lost forever and we will be the last ones to dig here. I would be excavating in Mesopotamia—that land that lies between the two greatest rivers in antiquity, the Tigris and the Euphrates.
I had been fascinated by the ancient Near East since I first travelled to these lands in 1982. From there, I enrolled in my first class in Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Calgary. My professor, Dr. Celeste Peters, had studied the long lost languages of Akkadian and Sumerian at the University of Toronto’s Near Eastern Studies program. She inspired me to pursue this profession and even recommended me to another Canadian professor from Laval who was running a dig in Syria. How could I resist?
Our Bedouin caretaker and family.
Our team consisted of four student site supervisors (three of them PhD candidates), a photographer, an old Cypriot surveyor, a renowned palaeoethnobotanist, a student architect and the mudhir (the boss)and his family. Along with the other three grad students, I would also be a "site supervisor" which was unusual since I was only a lowly undergrad at the time. In addition, we had a support staff that included a Syrian Antiquities officer who was a Druze, an Aramaean Syrian cook, a Bedouin night watchman and his wife, and a Bedouin caretaker who lived with his family at the back of our dig house. All told, there could be almost twenty of us around the dig house at any one time.
We feasted on a diet which included mounds of rice pilaf, all-you-can eat stuffed grape leaves, endless French fries, and fresh baguettes, croissants, and other fresh-baked delights from Hasseke's bakery. This was a carry-over from when the French ruled here after the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
 The dinner conversations were as varied as the food that we dined on daily as there was polyglot of languages spoken at our table—Arabic, English, French and Aramaic. Our Bedouin workers were suspicious of our cook—they were suspicious of anything or any one who was not from their village—because her spoken Aramaic sounded quite similar to their Arabic, but they couldn't actually understand what she was saying. Moreover, to heighten their suspicions, our cook would speak in hushed tones to her friends and family who came from Hasseke to visit her from time to time, dressed in provocative clothes, even in high heels.
The Aramaeans are part of the Syrian Orthodox Church who probably fled from Turkey during the past few centuries to escape the pogroms against Christians by the over-zealous Turks. The Syrian Christians differed from their Muslim compatriots both in dress, customs, religious freedom and morals. This was quite evident when we would drive into the nearest town of Hasseke, on our days off and we would be shocked at these brazen Christian girls who walked around scantily clad in hip-hugging blue jeans and eye-catching halter tops trying to walk in high heels almost causing our Druze antiquities driver guy to have an accident in our VW van.
Muhammad, our handyman.
Our living accommodations consisted of Syrian army tents pitched on platforms of concrete, and a mud brick dig house without air conditioning where we ate and wrote up our daily notes. There was also a porch whose shade provided relief from the blazing afternoon sun and from where we enjoyed viewing Syrian sunsets whilst sipping our sundowners. Some year’s back, a perimeter mud-brick wall had been built to protect us against neighbouring packs of vicious pariah dogs, deadly scorpions and poisonous snakes that were common in this part of the Syrian Desert. Unfortunately, this did not stop the huge, venomous ankabotha (camel spider) from climbing over the wall and wreaking havoc on our Syrian tenting experience. Being a fearless sort (at times) it was my duty to try and roust these blighters before the womenfolk entered their lodgings for the night. In my own tent, I had a symbiotic relationship with the spiders as I felt they would keep the more sinister looking scorpions at bay. by eating them However, this did not allay any fears amongst lesser souls in our camp!
Night watchman at Gudeda site.
The landscape around our camp was stark and desperate to say the least. This should hardly come as any surprise since the northern Syrian Desert has been this way for at least 5,000 years. It’s funny what you find out from archaeology, which is essentially a destructive science, but maybe a necessary evil in trying to understand the past—especially if we know very little about it in the first place. Take for instance, our site—Tel ‘Atij. If one were to look at where we were going to excavate, one would get a different perspective of how things might have looked in the past. The top of the tel offered me the best vantage point for miles around. A tel is the Arabic word for a man-made mound or hill, which is formed by the accumulated remains of ancient settlements covered in sand which was our job to remove. As I stood on the top of our tel, all I could see was a very dry, almost treeless and an unbelievably flat piece of land stretching as far as the eye could see, until interrupted by a bump on the horizon, which usually signalled another tel.
However, during the course of excavations, we found the carbonized remains of acorns that could only have come from great stands of oak trees, which would have covered this part of the Akkadian Empire in antiquity. One day, Dr. Joy McCorriston, our paleoethnobotanist, and I sat on the tel and discussed the likelihood of this parched land before us once covered in deep, cool oak forests. It was hard to imagine a single oak tree here let alone a grove. According to Joy, the closest oak trees were to be found 70 kilometers north of here on the slopes of the Taurus Mountains in nearby Turkey.
Local Bedouin kids.
Standing in the merciless afternoon sun it was difficult to envision that this bleached, dun landscape had once been verdant and alive with birds. However, now there was but one lonely tree that stood out on the dusty foreground. It was perhaps the last living monument to past glories and an important landmark for the village community. It offered the only sanctuary from the sun after a hot day in the fields or a cool spot to have a lunch with your family or to meet a friend. The reality was that no matter which direction you came from, all the dusty tracts led to one place—the tree. It was a visible focal point for the Tel ‘Atij village life and probably for their folklore. I never actually sat under it, but from time to time, I would often see people sitting under it.
I shared the tel with Lisa Cooper, one of candidates for PhD, and our job was primarily to coordinate excavation, record any artifacts found, tag and bag them, and to supervise local our Bedouin workers. As “site supervisors”, we were in charge of roughly seventeen workers and over the course of the season we excavated some six meters of soil from Tel ‘Atij. None of the workers understood a stitch of English, and me, with only a smattering of Arabic, communicating with each other was going to be a challenge. It was a great start! Ha.
L-R Hani, baby Muhammad, our helper, Linda, junior architect.
Located on the east bank of the Middle Khabur River, Tel 'Atij, it is one of 60 sites which were destined to be flooded after the completion of a downriver dam four years hence, and time was running out for the villagers. As an archaeologist, I understand the complexities of revealing a buried civilisation through the excavation of their associated material culture. Yet, during excavation, I pondered the fate of my fellow village workers. The dam would not only impact these 60 sites, but, more profoundly, the Bedouin's traditional way of life. I feared that  these village Bedu will end up like their hapless kinfolk who live in squatters tents on the outskirts of Hasseke and Damascus, and ultimately lose their tribal identity. As an ethnoarchaeologist, I felt that these questions needed to be addressed before the ethnohistorical record of these Bedu, who live along the banks of the Khabur River, are lost forever to the flooding waters.
Lisa's workers
Initially, what changed my mind was a discussion that I had with one of my workers, Ali, during a particularly hot morning of excavating. He was one of my better workers , and had been a pick man on previous digs, and for this he was given the privilege of being the pick man. My usual work day started with me stumbling out of my camp cot at four am, shaking the scorpions out of my Israeli-made boots, tripping over tent lines in the dark, chasing a few mangy pariah dogs out of the compound, mixing Nido, and eating crunchy Turkish corn flakes. Next came organising the crews, fighting over tools, the exchange of hostilities with unwanted workers, then heading up to the tel and try to get my crew to do most of the grunt work before the blistering Syrian sun fried us all to a frazzle. However, this day was different. There was a commotion at the site and the air was alive with electricity. The workers were more vocal than usual—which was hard to imagine because they were a noisy lot to begin with! The racket seemed to be emanating from Lisa's area next to mine, so I asked a worker what all the hubbub was about.
Lisa Cooper and the mudhir, Prof Fortin

Apparently, Lisa’s oldest worker, Aishe, had his six-week-old baby die suddenly in the night. The commotion and chatter was thus explained—the ensuing discussion had been over where the young body would be buried. I found out later that it was considered a great honour to be asked to attend the burial and even greater, to be asked to shovel or toss dirt into the grave. Everyone was related to everyone else in this small village and as a result, they all petitioned Lisa and me to let them participate in the burial. However, we had a job to do and the workers were paid to work, and not to take time off for a burial regardless of who it was.  Lisa had allowed Aishe to attend to the burial, but no others.
Two of my workers, Ali and Abdul got into a shouting match with me over this: they in their broken English, and me in my poor Arabic. They both implored me, ‘Min fadlak Emerse. Mumkin rua gabr ’ (Please, Emerson. We want to go to the burial).
Local Bedouin kids.
‘Not on your life! Forget it and get back to work!’ I replied, and in Arabic, Bas. Khalas. Shugul kathir. Yallah!’ (Enough. Finished. Lots of work. Let’s go!)
My stern reply made Abdul back off, but Ali continued, ‘Min fadlak, Emerse.' (Please, Emerson). He was starting to grovel. At this point I wanted no part of this charade.‘La! Inta lazem hoen, la hanek ’, I said, raising my voice. (No, you are needed here, not there!) And before Ali could answer, I laid down the law, Mafi shugul, mafi faluus!' (No work, no money!)
My four words struck terror into Ali's heart. Ali’s eyes widened and he realized that it was futile to try and argue the point anymore. Both Ali and Abdul knew that I commanded the mudhir’s ear and that I could have either of them fired for the slightest infraction. Not that I would ever do such a thing, but over here, I had the wasta (influence), and besides, I dearly wanted their respect as their boss. I was not the dig's head honcho overall, but on this site, this day and every day—I was at the top of the pecking order. My job was to make the rules and their job was to obey.
Things eventually subsided. Like it or not, Ali and Abdul realized that my word was the law. I was "He who must be obeyed." I gave them my parting shot on the subject of taking off for a burial. ‘Inta majnuun? Shugal lazem!’ (Are you crazy? Work is necessary!)
My crew
To my amazement, Ali shot back, ‘La, athzar majnuun !’ (No, archaeology is crazy!). He continued to pick away meticulously at our crumbling 2,500-year-old mud brick wall.
Meanwhile, my mind was reeling as I pondered his heartfelt statement. Suddenly I realized, here I was imposing my will, my North American work ethic on these Bedu’s way of life. My workers endured a seven-hour day under the hot sun, before heading back to their homes for lunch, after which they worked in their own fields till sundown. Somebody had died, a relation no less, and here I was forbidding the two of them to not to attend a funeral. Who the hell was I? Was I really an unsympathetic bastard? I didn't recognize what I was becoming. It could be said that my attitude bordered on being rude—at any rate, it was downright culturally insensitive. What the hell kind of an anthropologist cum ethnoarchaeologist was I starting to become anyways? Ali's comment that 'archaeology was crazy' had caught me out. Moreover, I knew he was absolutely right. 
I started sweating buckets, so I went up to the top of the tel to catch a cool breeze and to sort out the storm in my mind. But once on top, I saw Aishe’s relatives trying to dig the grave for his daughter, but without a shovel. I could see a procession heading to the burial site being led by Aishe who was carrying his pitifully small bundle wrapped in a traditional white burial sheet. The gravity of the situation dawned on me—life here on the Syrian steppe is harsh and unforgiving in a way we western people can't really appreciate, medical treatment is hours away if there is any at all. There was always a line up of local villagers would come from miles around to our ‘dig house’ in the hopes that we would provide medicine or medical help for their particular ailment. The professor’s wife (mudhira) was usually doling out free medicine for the locals. I suppose if a traditional cure was not successful then it was Inshallah, the will of Allah. Such is the fate of a village Bedouin.
Finally, after some serious soul searching and reflection, I climbed back down our rickety ladder to where Ali and Abdul were still busy working. I called them over. I supposed they feared that I was going to fire them. ‘You are right,’ I said to Ali. ‘Athzar majnuun.’  (Archaeology is crazy.) Then I took a gulp, ‘You and Abdul can go to the burial’. Ali looked up at me, and for the first time in days, he was actually smiling. Both men kissed my hand as a sign of respect then thanked me profusely and the womenfolk on both sites nodded approval. As a way of endearing myself further to them, I told them to take a pick and shovel to help Aishe dig the grave. They were just about to leave the tel when I noticed a huge discarded white limestone slab that might have been the lid on one of our excavated Ninevite 5 burials c. 3000 BC. I knew that this tradition was still in use as modern burials often use an old limestone slab as a burial marker on a tel. Both Ali and Abdul jumped at this suggestion,  I helped them load the heavy slab into a wheel-barrow, and told them to get it in one piece to the grave.
My confrontation had taught me a greater lesson than just human respect for life and that I was not so omniscient after all. This experience had both humbled me and made me look deeper at the reality of our excavation here and at archaeology in general. It reminded me of one of my first lectures on archaeology that was given by Dr. Scott Raymond at the University of Calgary in 1989. In summing up his hour-long lecture, Dr. Raymond concluded that, ‘Quite simply, archaeology is a destructive science and in order to understand a site, one must destroy it.' 
Three of our Bedouin workers from Tel 'Atij.
At our Tel ‘Atij site, the sequence was, first you excavate to expose a mud brick wall or down to a supposed floor surface or wall, then you articulate the feature and from this record, you photograph, collect, tag and bag all the material culture that was exposed then survey it for its provenience. After this is done, you begin the whole destructive process again. No wonder Ali thought archaeology was crazy—it was!
Here we were, in the middle of nowhere with overwhelming dust and heat, excavating a long abandoned tel for remnants of the structures of dead people built by people who had left no written record. We know very little about these Ninevite 5 folk except of what we can extrapolate from a few pottery sherds, some broken-down pots that have been left on a vacant floor that has been subsequently buried under meters of sand and numerous destruction periods. While visions of plumbobs danced round in my head, I was brought back to reality by the noise of a screeching wheelbarrow that Ali and Abdul were using. I stood up and yelled after them—‘Allah Karim!’ (Allah be Merciful). I hoped that it was not too late for a little mercy for myself. On this day, I changed my opinion on archaeology to one of ethnoarchaeology—I was more interested in the people who I was working with, the Bedouin, than they people we were excavating.
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Lisa  Cooper and her crew.
Our workers were not paid a lot by western standards, but by Syrian accounts, this pay was nothing short of a windfall. Upon our arrival at Tel 'Atij, news got out that we were looking for local labourers and they came from far and wide. Fathers brought their sons, mothers brought their daughters, uncles came with their brothers, and in-laws jostled with out-laws in the line-ups. The thought of extra money would translate into additional staples like grain, rice or sugar plus some luxuries such as, tobacco or some new material for the unmarried daughter’s trousseau. Pay day was another exciting day with all the relatives coming to watch the goings-on. There was the usual banter over who got what and how much. There was also haggling going on between husband's and wives particularly between those who both worked on the site. The working wives always wanted to keep more money for themselves and their kids than for their husbands—after all, they worked for it.
My oldest worker Muhammad and me.
Smoking on the site was strictly forbidden, yet, the worst offenders were my older women who smoked like chimneys. I was forever telling ‘my girls’, who worked harder than the men, that if they wanted to smoke they would have to do so off the tel. The ash from cigarettes creates problems for archaeologists, especially when one is trying to get uncontaminated carbon samples for C14 (radiocarbon) dating. On one occasion, my favourite pick man, Muhammad, was entrusted to pick out carbon samples from a layer of destruction material in my section. In order to collect a carbon sample, one needs to be quite meticulous as you don’t want any contamination of the black ash either by human hands or cigarette ash. Muhammad was very conscientious about retrieving the carbon sample, and one morning I set him to work extracting the ash with a cooking spoon and collecting it carefully in aluminium foil. I told Muhammad to take his time and do it slowly.
Shway, shway!’ I said. (Slowly, slowly)
He concurred, ‘Aiwa, shway, shway!
 As he handed me a large and desirable piece of 4,000-year-old carbon on the spoon, I noticed on the end of his 1992 Syrian-made, Reem cigarette that he had his own giant ash—so much for my carbon sample. I had to toss it.

Last day of work: Lisa and my crew's doing the dubke dance.
I remember the last day of the dig when Lisa and I brought our used clothing and other goodies for the workers to have as parting gifts. By mistake, I brought three packs of Reem cigarettes that I thought they could share. This was not to be. Everything was going smoothly until I came to the three packs of cigarettes. I intended to hand out the packages which I thought they would divide amongst themselves. Instead there was almost a full-scale riot over the cigarette packs because each smoker wanted a whole pack for themselves. After my protestations, they did indeed become orderly and shared the cigarettes amongst themselves.
The memories of my friendly workers and their traditional Bedouin hospitality will be forever etched in my mind and in my heart. Moreover, I had often been welcomed into their mud brick homes, snacked on dibbis (date spread) and khubbs (bread) with my fingers, shared mensaf (rice pilaf with chicken) with our landlord, drank endless cups of chai, talked politics, shared a laugh with them, danced to Kurdi music in their homes, and in the end cried with them as we embraced each other in the traditional Bedouin farewell.
 Like the mysterious Ninevite 5 people before them, the history and their stories of these Bedu of Tel 'Atij too will be lost to the murky waters of the Middle Khabur. I considered my workers as good friends, but most of all, as my Bedu.
I only hope that they choose wisely between their new “neighbour” in the city or the new “companion” that will be needed for their unknown route ahead of them.
                                               *            *            *   
Since the 1990’s, the Syrian government has embarked on mega water control projects and dams along the Middle Khabur River basin. This put at threat, many ancient sites and of course, the people living there like my Bedu of Tel 'Atij. Consequently there was a proliferation of these salvage archaeological projects. Near Eastern archaeologists were commissioned to excavate any possible sites that the dam system would endanger, in fact, that was what we were doing at Tel 'Atij. In recent times, a number of scholars and political experts have prophesied that the next war in the Middle East will not be over land, but over water. (* The emergence of IS has changed that as they are at war over land)
The Turkish government funded by IMF had already built the massive Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates River on Turkish soil and therefore controlled the flow of water into Syria. The effect of that was that the Syrians started their own dam projects. The problem is that with the building of these dams, the local Bedouin would have to be displaced—but, to where?
The majority of these Bedouin had originally been forced to settle here in the Khabur Basin during the mid-1950’s by the Syrian Baathist government under Michel Afleq .
Roving Bedouin workers who harvested wheat for locals.
Now, these same Bedouin were being forced to uproot their stable village life once again to relocate perhaps to a city where they would exchange their comfortable mud brick homes and sheep pens for noisy crowded streets with no livestock, just cold, concrete apartment blocks. Very little had been written about their plight and I had been warned by the professor not to write for fear of retribution: both to myself and more importantly, on the Bedouin. I feel I have remained silent long enough on this issue.
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Bedouin shepherd in nearby town of Hasseke
My professor later updated me; the Syrian government changed its mind and will now either (a) offer the Bedu money to buy land, or (b) give them a parcel of land outright. Originally, the government had loaned the Bedu this land in the hopes that these nomadic pastoralists would then settle in an area where the government could then control their movements and undoubtedly tax them. The land in the Khabur Basin, that’s destined to be flooded, is by far the best arable land in northern Syria, and it has been cultivated seasonally as far back as perhaps 4,000 BC! Moreover, many of the Bedu villagers that I talked to, planned to take the money, leave their traditional mud-brick houses and move into cinder block houses in the nearby city of Hasseke.
Some of our Bedouin workers.
In doing so, the Bedu will have abandoned a lifeway that has existed down through the millennia. These Bedu had settled down to village life in Tel ‘Atij after generations of a nomadic lifestyle on the unforgiving Syrian Desert. Yet, the villagers still harbour mistrust of outsiders, particularly those who have no tribal affiliation. As a carryover from their nomadic days, they have their brutish mastiffs, some with studded collars, that in previous times, they were used to ward off desert wolves and hyenas, and more importantly, to scare off any intruders who might try to steal their livestock. I thought it was odd that they would retain this tradition since the wolves and hyenas were probably long gone, and everyone in this vicinity were related after all. This distrust of the other reminds me of an old Bedouin proverb—
Me and my brother against our cousin. Me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger.”