by Rami Sajdi
Theories about their
Among the nomadic tribes of the Arab Peninsula is a peculiar tribe
who are the most knowledgeable of the Peninsula's deserts, oases, wadis, hills, and mountains, as well as its animals and plants. This
tribe, called Al Sulaba, are the most widespread in those parts, and
the most capable of crossing those arid plains. Some Bedouins call
them Al Sulban (meaning the crosses) or Al-Khlawiyah (a name derived
from khala, meaning wilderness, implying a comparison to pariah
dogs). Despite their prodigious abilities, the tribe is humble,
small in numbers, weak in strength, low in status, and of modest in
ancestral origins. In fact its origins are not known among Arabs (to
say which is, in Arab culture, a gross insult).
The tribe has no tribal territory or deereh or a country in the
desert of which it dwells. Its branches spread from the Syrian
desert in the north (around Palmyra) to Mossul and the south-eastern
desert in Iraq, to Najd and the extreme south west of Hijaz in
contemporary Saudi Arabia, and in Dahna beyond Kuwait.
The first literary reference to them was by
Suleiman Al-Bustani, who
published a lecture in Al-Muqtataf, in which he divided nomads into
three categories: Bedouins, semi- Bedouins, and the Bedouins of
Bedouins. The Sulaba he put in the third category, and forwarded the
theory that they descend from the Crusaders (Al-Salibiyeen in
Arabic), after the Mameluks had defeated and dispersed them. Al-Bustani
made a second and more extensive reference to Al-Sulaba in the 11th
volume of Da'erat Al Ma'aref, an encyclopedia published by Butrus
Al-Bustani in 1911. In this text he defends the theory that they
descend from the Crusaders.
The first foreign writer to refer to this tribe was W. Pierre, in
the Islamic encyclopedia, who claimed that they are Arabs who
converted to Islam at a late period, and that their customs and
humble status indicate that they were victims of an old disaster.
French anthropologists during the mandate over Syria and Lebanon
developed the theory that Al-Sulaba are of a non-Arab racial origin,
possibly Indian, probably brought to Baghdad as musicians for an
Abbasid caliph. They are believed to have dispersed in the desert to
escape Tamerlane's attack on Baghdad. This theory was based on some
of Al-Sulaba's expressions which are close to some Indian dialects,
that some of their myths are close to those in the book A Thousand
and One Nights, and because many of their clans live close to the
Curiously, early travellers, such as Karsten Neibuhr, who visited Al
Hijaz and Yamen, and earlier travellers made no reference to this
tribe, which would seem to suggest that Al-Sulaba did not exist
before this date. The first traveller who referred to them was John Burkehardt, who described them as a tribe from the north, that raise
no horses nor camels, whose tents are threadbare, and who hunt for
food, relying beg among other tribes for gunpowder, or the means to
purchase it. He made no reference to their being of Indian
Sir Richard Burton, whose journey took place in 1853, referred to
them by the name Khlawiyah, but did not refer to their being of
Crusader origin, nor even to their being Christians. He said that
they were despised like the tribe of Haytam that dwells around Yanbu',
and that they work as tinkers and breeders of Saluqi hounds and
donkeys which they exchange as dowries for their women, which makes
them an object of scorn among Bedouins.
The first person to suggest the possibility of a Christian origin
was the English traveller William Belgrave who journeyed in the
peninsula in 1862, and who published the book of his travels in
1866. He referred to them in course of his book on medicine and
branding among the Bedouins, referring to them as the most skillful
healers among Bedouins. He postulated that they were not of Arab
origin, and that they claimed to be a northern people, which was
supported by their fair skin and handsome features, as well as by
their spontaneity, as opposed the suspicious nature of their fellow
desert-dwellers. He maintained that their names and customs are
Christian, but did not suggest a Crusader origin.
Other travellers believed that they gypsies, and described their
annual migration at the end of winter across the Euphrates to hunt
wild donkeys in order to cross-breed them with their own herds.
Unlike Belgrave, other European travellers described Al-Sulaba as
being very ugly in looks, living as parasites who claim poverty
although they are rich, but they bury their money to preserve it,
and eke out a living by begging, tinkering, and hunting. The
contempt in which they are held permits them freedom of movement,
unhindered by national or tribal borders, and spares them from
paying taxes since no one deigns to request it of them.
One of the most eloquent descriptions of Al-Sulaba was given by
Anne Blunt, who described two youths from the tribe as being of
great beauty, with perfectly formed faces, almond-shaped eyes, white
teeth, and skin like polished ivory. She also described a
four-foot-tall woman and a little girl as being the most delightful
creatures she had ever seen. She portrayed them as being very short,
but perfectly proportioned, with very small hands and feet, with a
strange smile like one who is scared, and a surprised look in their
eyes that makes them look more like untamed creatures rather than
human beings. Lady Anne deduced that Al-Sulaba are neither Gypsies
nor Arabs, but that they originate from India like Gypsies.
A subsequent traveller, William Writ searched for their origins in
the Arab Peninsula. He forwarded the theory that they escaped from
the siege of Karbala, leaving their comrades in arms to be
massacred. Since then, they were accursed and held in shame, at par
with women. Consequently, they are considered unworthy of riding or
even possessing horses, their mounts being confined to donkeys.
According to this theory, they belong to the Isma'ili faith. Unlike
other desert dwellers, writes Writ they bear no grudge to anyone,
and they are not treacherous. Instead of indulging tribal wars and
raids, they live by hunting and raising donkeys.
One of the most authoritative documents on the Sulaba, is the study
of anthropologist Henry Field who conducted cephalic studies on
various tribes and peoples of the middle East. He studied more than
a hundred Sulaba who lived around Kuwait, and remarked that they
constitute a group apart, largely because of the contempt in which
their Arab neighbours hold them, which prevents them from mingling
and mixing with others. He noticed that they have long narrow heads,
with black eyes; but they did not allow him to take measurements of
Al Sulaba themselves claim that their name derives from the word
salb (meaning rigid or tough), which they hold to be an indication
that they are the first of the Arabs. They also claim to be God's
chosen people, although all other Arabs hold them in extreme
Among their peculiar customs in weddings and circumcisions is to
erect a wooden cross covered with red cloth and decorated with
feathers, which symbolizes an invitation to the tent of the person
celebrating. On these occasions young men and women form two lines
opposite each other, and they dance around the cross, coming close
to each other till they almost touch, and men are allowed to kiss
the shoulders of women in course of the dance.
Al Sulaba only intermarry among themselves, by agreement between the
bride and groom, and after the consent of the parents. No Bedouin
would deign to marry a woman from this tribe, though many admit that
Al-Sulaba women are the prettiest in the desert.
In funerals and in prayer, they also have different customs from
other Bedouins. They perform their pilgrimage not to Mecca, but to
Harran in Iraq. Some of their men keep holy scripts similar to the
Old Testament, written in Chaldean or Assyrian.
They revere the northern star which they call Jah since it is the
constant reference point that guides travellers. They also revere
another star in the Capricorn. To show their reverence they stand
erect facing the star, with their arms outstretched, so that the
body resembles a cross.
Al Sulaba are master hunters, particularly deer which they hunt for
food and for its skin which they wear. But the supplement this diet
with dates, locust, and virtually anything else that they find.
Unlike all monmotheists, Al-Sulaba eat carrion, blood, and dog meat.
They have a peculiar method of hunting deer. They cover themselves
with deerskins and follow the prey on all four until they reach
within range of their rifles. Sometimes their disguise permits them
to go close enough to capture the animal alive.