In the deserts of the Middle East, goatskin seems to have been the material of choice for transporting water. This seemed strange to me when I first read about it in Wilfred Thesiger’s account of his travels in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula with the Bedouins. The way he described it, it seemed these goatskins had a tendency to sweat in the blistering sun and tear and leak their irreplaceable cargo as the nomads traveled from well to well.
Thesiger’s narrative formed images in my mind: the goatskin containers bulging with water and bouncing on a camel’s back; moisture congealing on the skins and falling in small droplets to sizzle on the sand; the Bedouins (and Thesiger with them) drinking gladly the animal-scented liquid at the end of a long day’s ride. Soon these water-bearing goatskins became for me part of a larger symbolism that I had affixed to the Bedouin lifestyle.
The nomadic Arabs were a complex people in Thesiger’s account. Ready to drive a knife through the chest of a child from a competing tribe if the customs of a blood-feud demanded it, the same Bedouin man would literally give the last shirt off his back or the last swigs of camel’s milk to a stranger who happened upon his camp. To me, reading and re-reading Thesiger’s book, Bedouins came to represent a love of freedom, a fraternal devotion to clan, and a proud contentedness with simple living.
But I have never met any real Bedouins (I’m not counting the hospitable entertainers of Bedouin descent who served coffee and rice for our Birthright Israel group before returning to their mansion in the desert for the night). Bedouins, along with their goatskin water bottles that I have never actually seen, exist only in my mind as symbol and metaphor. (more…)