Al-Jisha, the Tribal Homeland

"Areej Khattab"

I had no photos of the time I wanted to tell you about, so I went back to Al-Jisha during the sheep shearing season earlier this summer to take these. I wanted to revisit some of the most beautiful and profound times of my life, and to tell you about them.

Back in the ‘80 when I was a child, we used to leave my grandfather’s house in Al-Bayda every spring and head to Al-Jisha. We longed for spring, its flowers, warm sunshine, and the green carpet it left in its trails. We longed for it in earnest and felt lucky to experience a place many others couldn’t. Our adventures took place either during the sheep shearing season, in April and May, when all the shearers would gather and sing folkloric songs called, qazazir; or during sheep dipping season, when they’d dunk the sheep into a bath for cleaning. 

We used to sleep under the rumble of the wind on our tin roof and wake up early, one by one, to the sound of the wool shears. We would always bounce up and down on our beds before running out into the fields, towards the basin filled with well water. The bravest of us would throw a bucket in and pull it up, and the champ was the one able to haul it out without help, so we could all wash our faces. The morning breeze distinguished this place from all others. It was all the more refreshing when our clothes got wet. (We weren’t accustomed to bathing with a bucket of water.)

After the basin, we would go on an adventure to the pilgrims’ sinkholes. The spot was named after the pilgrim caravans that stopped there for water en route to Al-Hijaz. We would then go watch the shearers do their work, all the while singing their songs about love and longing, sorrow and joy. Sometimes the shearers would skip love all together and sing about the country’s state of affairs.

We barely understood the songs, but we were able to pick up a word or two to repeat. We would imitate the shearers, who sat with one hand on their face–perhaps they felt shy around the family and tribal elders, especially belting out such emotional songs. I remember the sound of the blades and snipping scissors being so delightful, like a symphony you wouldn’t hear anywhere but there, on that land. 

As she sang, my mother would sew together bags to pack the wool–which they called al-hammadiyya. My Aunt Mabruka made us mathruda, her signature dish, while my Aunt, Salma, my uncle’s wife, made the best usban. No one could season the stuffing the way she did. My Aunt Salma was incomparable in so many ways.

Upon our return to Al-Bayda, we would shower and have goat milk cooked with thyme–the same dinner we would have had in Al-Jisha. We would go to bed full of joy and wake up full of sadness for having left the tribal homeland. All year, we waited in earnest for the next season of shearing and dipping, especially that it coincided with our final exams, a particularly tough time of the year.

Born in Al-Bayda, she obtained a Ph.D. in literature from Ain Shams University. She is an assistant professor of literature and criticism at Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Al-Bayda. She has published several literary studies in academic journals, and her book “Taraaz Al-Hilah wa Shifa’ Al-Ghilah li al-Ra’ini al-Gharnati”, 2016, was published and well-received.

Areej Khattab
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