Extract from Married to a Bedouin.
1979: The Old Man and the Rababa.

roasting coffee

As I entered the Monastery valley on my way to the clinic I passed a cave where I often saw a frail old man sitting cross-legged in the morning shade playing on a rababa and reciting poetry. His music would follow me along the valley.

I asked Mohammad about him and he said, ‘Miskeen, mylih weritha.’ Poor guy, he has no successor. The weritha was an old word originating before matches and lighters when the only way a Bedouin could keep his fire going was to bury a hard-wood stump deep into the ashes where it smouldered till morning. That log was his weritha, and so were his sons, because as the log would continue the fire, so the sons would continue his name.

Everyone called the old man with the rababa Abu Argoob, although he didn’t have a son. His nickname, the Father of the Shins, seemed appropriate because his were like thin sticks below his hitched-up once-white thaub. When he was young he had been a playboy – wearing his mirreer at a rakish angle with lots of kohl round his eyes. He had spent his days meeting the goat-girls in hidden valleys; never doing any work. He had had a fun life and it must have flown by till – too late – he realised the girls were meeting younger men than he. Then the only family who would give him a wife was one from outside the Bdoul who had an older and not very competent daughter left in their care. He married her and eventually she bore him a girl, a simple soul but now able enough to help look after her father as he grew old, bringing water and wood, washing and preparing food.

Abu Argoob’s rababa was typical of the stringed instruments of the Bedouin. It was a goatskin over a few bits of wood about the size of a violin, which he held like a cello. It had one wire, which he caressed with a bow of oleander and horse-hair. The hauntingly beautiful music echoed along the valley with the poetry of the mountains. Often I was his only audience. I couldn’t understand the words but I would get goosebumps. The keening of his rababa and desolate sound of his poetry conjured up the wind in the juniper trees, a night-fire under the desert sky and the goatherd he loved, married to another man.

When he died that was the end. Whatever his real name was it was buried with him. His daughter was shunted off to some distant relative as a second wife and his wife went back to live out her days with her brother. Even his cave disappeared, bulldozed in 1980 to make way for the Forum Basin Restaurant, and if his ghost does play the rababa in the valley it’s no competition for the electric generators they installed, so is never heard.

Glossary: thaub, robe; mirreer, part of headgear.