“Our ancestors need to hear from us.” Vivienne Jake, Kaibab Paiute elder
It is well after midnight, and I have found myself in the backseat of a rented Lexus with a driver named Ahmed who is speeding 150 kilometers per hour along the shores of the Arabian Gulf. There is desert here right up to the sea, but both dry ground and ocean water are hard to make out. There are floodlights beaming down on the eight lane super highway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai that obscure nearly everything on either side of the pavement.
I spot an exit for a camel race track, but we do not take it. I catch fleeting glimpses of Burger Kings, Subways, and Las Vegas-style shopping malls not far off the freeway, but we pass them by. The modernity and globalized glitz of the United Arab Emirates should be overwhelming my spirit, but my soul has already wriggled loose of their influence.
My soul has been roaming through the desert, to an era when the Nabhan tribe of ahl-Hadr Arabs reigned over the 500 kilometer stretch of coastlands between here and where the present-day Shuhar, Oman is located. Back then, Bahla and Suhar were capitols of a kingdom called Nabhanid , one that sent precious frankincense from the Boswellia trees of Oman out to Ethiopia, Syria, Egypt and Al-andalus. Its port towns south of the Straits of Hormuz traded for saffron, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon coming in from the Malabar coast of India, the East Indies, and China.
Aroused by the potent chemicals in those spices, my imagination has been racing back through the last two millennia, wondering when, among those many centuries, the Nabhan tribe had land to call their own, land in which they felt deeply rooted. I have also been wondering why, after living for centuries in Yemen before a great flood damaged their lands, they roamed as rootless as tumbleweeds blown clear across the howling sands. I will be seeking clues in places such Musqat, Mecca, Bahla, Bagdad, Damascus, Byblos and the Bekaa. Like Dubai, many of these places have been radically transformed since Nabhans last inhabited them. Dubai itself has been transformed into highly-contrived stretch of oil refineries, instant modern cities, and million dollar race tracks where camels once roamed, unimpeded on their own. Such lands prompt me to recall an ancient aphorism frequently repeated among nomads of the Sahara: a desert is a homeland that has migrated.
Which has shifted more over the centuries? My father’s clan, its values and dreams, or these sandy lands themselves, tortured by misuse, exhausted of their former fertility, blown away, or paved over and obscured? “You can never go home anymore” may seem to be a peculiarly American take on the world, but is it, in a world where one out of every three people is from a family that has included political or economic refugees over the last century and a half? What is left out of this bald statistic is the probability that many more of us are ecological refugees, forced to be weaned from some mother land because it has been ravaged by drought, locusts, fire, or by our own taxing practices of poor soil and water management.
I mull over these possibilities not merely for those whose surname is the same as my own, but for Every Person and for Every Habitat that is on the face of this earth. We have certainly never been as rooted as plants are in their habitats, but neither are we inexorably destined, like an HIV virus, to fully destroy our living habitat, our host. Can we find our ancestral home ground as Arthur Haley and many others have done, or has that ground already been swept out from under us?
Being somewhere between an ancient cactus and a deadly microbe in our lifestyles, however, gives us plenty room to accumulate soil around our base, or to blow it all away. And so imagination is once again racing back through history, trying to fathom just exactly where my ancestors gravitated to between these two poles.
Just where they gravitated can be judged by the stories which they themselves have told, and which others have told about them. As I close my eyes on the outskirts of modern Dubai, I strain my eyes to hear those stories, as Ahmed turns up the radio and oud music floods the car. But somewhere accompanying that ancient twelve stringed instrument, al’ud , I begin to hear my family’s stories and perhaps, some of yours as well…
Once, when visiting a Lebanese cousin who was showing me through the souks of Byblos, I heard him speak with pride of our cultural heritage by claiming that we were direct descendants of the Phoenicians. As we looked out over the ancient Phoenician harbor there, its picturesque fish markets, antiquities shops, and sidewalk cafes, this claim seemed not only plausible but appealing. That is, my cousin asserted that his Nabhan contemporaries all share bloodlines with the very Phoenician seafarers who set sail from Byblos, Batroun and Tripoli to every known port in the Mediterranean world more than fourteen hundred years ago.
In doing so, my cousin was like the father in the movie, Big Fat Greek Wedding, who made the Greeks responsible for almost all of the great achievements of Western civilization. In fact, the Phoenicians did make the key innovations for our alphabet –named for alif and baa, the first two letters in most Semitic languages; for much of our basic arithmetic; and for many advances in astronomy and the related science of navigation. But putting that aside, I wondered, can my Nabhan family or any other Lebanese family verify that they have descended from those ancient seafarers?
It is an ironic claim, for what we know of the Phoenicians is that they were indeed the proverbial sailors in every harbor. Even if they occasionally returned to Byblos or other ports in present-day Lebanon, they had sown their seeds widely, from Granada and Carthage to Alexandria and Athens. While they may have kept a cohesive cultural identity over many centuries, more likely than not, they became pan-Mediterranean genetically.
How many families are not in this very same boat? They carry a name that implies they are from ethnicity or dynasty, but over the centuries, their clan picks up genes from many other ethnicities, moieties, clans or kinships. We pretend that the paternal surname is the predominant thread that links us to our ancestors, but many other bloodlines are woven into the tapestry as well.
What we do know about the relationship of Phoenicians to their mother land is that they deforested much of the coastal range above their harbors during their boat-building frenzy. By 3000 BC, they had already begun to strip away the most massive cedars of Lebanon to build rot-resistant ships in their satellite boat-works in the harbors of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Even after centuries of depleting one forest after another in the Lebanon Mountains, they failed to heed the plea for sustainable harvesting of the cedars that came from none other than the great Greek philosopher of science, Theophrastus (372-287 BC):
“It appears that if one protects such species of trees, each in its proper habitat, and does not cut them, they become remarkable both in height and thickness.” In Biblical Times, the Phoenicians acquiesced to as many as 10,000 loggers per month going onto Mount Libanos to cut timber! The durable wood from the lands above the Phoenician ports literally fueled the consolidation of the Mediterranean into one rather cohesive trade economy. And yet, it came with a cost.
Nevertheless, even if some of Phoenicians stayed close to home, attempting to protect the watersheds above Byblos, Beyrouth and Batroun, is there any greater chance that thesde home-bodies left pure-bred descendants?
Consider this. Over the last twelve centuries, some fourteen different conquering forces have rampaged what are now called Lebanon and Syria. They raped, pillaged and plundered as they passed through, and occasionally took wives (or husbands) from the local populace by legitimate means. If that is true, then how could it be that any Lebanese are pure-blooded Phoenicians at this late date? For better or worse, most Lebanese are mutts. The fifty million folks of Lebanese descent living beyond the Levant are no more mutts than their five million kin living inside the Old Country. That’s what one gets for having ancestors who have had a predilection for living around cultural crossroads and harbors. Miscegenation has been the norm, not the exception. This truth is not exclusive to the Lebanese; it likely describes the ancestry of many of you reading this who identify with other ethnicities as well.
As many cultures— from Gypsies to Cherokees— have demonstrated, genetics may be one issue, but cultural identity is an altogether different one. In the Middle East, you can be a member of a clan or tribe by simply claiming (even by marriage) allegiance to a known common “ancestor.” That allegiance has been historically demonstrated through a kindred or corporate spirit known as ‘asabiyya. Genes don’t matter as much as allegiances do.
The clan of our father’s side of the family was historically known as the Nabahina or Banu Nabhan tribe, with the terms Nabahina (collective plural) and Nabhan (singular) originally meaning “outstanding” and “noble.” They were one of the ahl Hadr tribes of Yemen, at the southernmost reaches of the Arabian peninsula, not of the Mediterranean coast of the Levant. To be distinguished as one of the ahl Hadr tribes in such an early era meant that they were already “dwellers of fixed abodes,” unlike the ahl Bedu , or nomadic Bedouin.
Itinerant Bedu sheepherders still coexist with our kin in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon today. They currently rent my cousins’ mountain pastures and bring them zaatar- flavored yoghurt and cheese derived from their ewes grazing on wild thyme in the summer. Nabhans may live in close proximity to camel-caravanning Bedouins, but we are not Bedu. In fact, my family has many of the agrarian biases against the nomadic life of the Bedouins that are expressed in this eighth century poem fragment from Bashshãr ibn Burd:
“(My father) never had to sing a camel song
while trailing along behind such a scab-ridden beast,
nor did he ever resort to piercing tiny colocynths–
the wild watermelons– to quench his hunger & thirst,
neither did he have to knock down with a stick
the pods of native legume trees–mimosa, carob, acacia–
nor did we need to roast on meager coals
a skink while its tail still flailed & quivered
nor did I ever have to devour a desert lizard
that I dug with my own hands out of the stony ground.”
There may be very good historical reasons why Nabhans have exhibited a sense of place less like that of Bedouin sheepherders and Phoenician seafarers, and more akin to farmers of the Persian uplands, the floodplains of the Fertile Crescent, and the valleys draining out to Indian Ocean along the coast of Yemen. Along with the Hinawis, Aus, Khazras and kindred Tayy or Atik, the Banu Nabhan tribe were among the original Arab populations of Yemen that later dispersed to many parts of the Arabian Peninsula, Fertile Crescent, and beyond.
Their original dwelling place, according to the great historian of Arab peoples, Albert Hourani, was “Yemen in south-western Arabia, a land of fertile mountain valleys and a point for long-distance trade….The mountains of Yemen lie at the extreme point of an area touched by the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, and this is where regular cultivation of fruits and grains had long been carried on.”
Sometime around the fifth century AD– between the times when Yuhannis the Dipper and Yeshua of Nazareth were baptizing people in the River Jordan and when the Prophet Mohammed was sparking the fervor among newly-converted Moslems— these original Arab tribes suffered losses during a dramatic flood, then departed from Yemen to seek green pastures elsewhere. It appears that invasions by the Ethiopians and depletion of Yemen’s agricultural productivity aggravated this dispersal. Although these Arab peoples had traveled north in earlier centuries and were known as far north as present-day Baghdad as early as the sixth century BC, they were now looking to permanently settle, not merely to pass through these more arid lands of the north.
We know from a rather infamous incident that while most of the Nabhan-Tayy tribal members went northeast toward the Straits of Hormuz, others did not pass in the same direction, marry among the same people, nor keep the same religion as before. Early in the Christian era, some of the Tayys and Banu Nabhans were certainly part of the mass migration out of Yemen into the western reaches of Arabian Peninsula; in fact, the Tayys may have continued on to the Silk Road inTajikistan.
It was also likely that many were Christianized Arabs by this time, but continued to have close social and economic ties with Jews. In the multicultural communities of this era, it was there not unusual that a Banu Nabhan man fell in love with a Jewish girl from the Hebrew-speaking Banu al-Nadir tribe. During this era, most well-traveled people were polyglots, and they likely spoke Aramaic as a lingua franca as well as the dialects of their ancestors. In any case, this multi-lingual couple spawned a child named K’ab b Ashraf who loved to play with words. He became a well-known poet and because he was raised as a devout Jew, he was nicknamed al-Nadir to draw attention to his mother’s ancestry.
Unfortunately, al-Nadir’s playfulness with words, particularly his capacity for parody and satire, did not sit well with everyone. When, in a public performance, his poems poked fun at a certain Mohammed, who was claiming to be the recipient of a new prophesy. Mohammed was apparently not amused by al-Nadir’s jokes, for the Prophet ordered his newly-converted followers to assassinate al-Nadir.
To this day, a debate rages among both Moslems and Jews regarding Mohammed’s insistence that this non-believer should be assassinated. Was it because K’ab b Ashraf al-Nadir ibn Banu Nabhan was merely loose with his words, or was it because of adherence to Jewish thought and custom? There are those who maintain that after some frustrating experiences while running spice trade caravans to Jerusalem for his first wife, Mohammed was never comfortable with Jews. They read into the assassination order a hatred for all Jews, not just for one satirist who was both Jewish and Arab by descent.
This landmark conflict may have led to the ambivalence that some Nabhans have had regarding fervent religious devotion. It may have also made some Moslems wary of engaging with any quick-witted character with the surname of Nabhan, and may have even discouraged further pairings of Nabhans with Jews, for fear of producing another loose-tongued, politically-inappropriate poet into the world!
With the coming of Yeshua of Nazareth, the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the fervor sparked by the Prophet Mohammed, Nabhan tribal values were no doubt undergoing dramatic transitions;, allegiances and alliances were shifting; and much of the tribe was on the move toward the eastern stretches of the Arabian Peninsula. Following the Hijrah migration of Mohammed’s emigrants to found and spread Islam as a way of life, an era of rootlessness rather than rootedness prevailed across the region. By the ninth century, so many skirmishes had occurred among displaced tribes that the resulting political chaos had created a state of anarchy from Oman south of the Straits of Hormuz to Basra at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf.
It was during this chaotic period– between 908 and 931 AD —that the Abbasid caliphate finally lost much of the control and tax base that it earlier gained across the entire region. In essence, there was suddenly a complete deterioration of the feeling of unity in the Moslem world that had coalesced by having a single sovereign for all tribes over the previous two centuries. Taking advantage of this hiatus in political unity, the incorrigible Mohammed bin Nur wreaked havoc over much of the Arabian Peninsula. In his 1928 classic, The Persian Gulf, diplomat Arnold Talbot White suggests why the tribes of the peninsula were ready for fresh leadership that would be capable of dealing with Mohammed bin Nur’s bad behavior:
“He cut off the hands and ears, and scooped out the eyeballs of nobles, inflicted unheard-of outrages upon the inhabitants, destroyed watercourses, burnt the books, and utterly destroyed the country.”
At last, Mohammed ibn Nur’s tyranny was met with “the wrath of an infuriated people,” whose tribes disposed of his deputies, but then kept quarreling among themselves. This power vacuum persisted into the middle of twelfth century; then, as White suggests, “a Nabhan tribe acquired ascendancy and ruled until the reestablishment of the Imamate in A.D. 1429…” He was able to trace the stabilizing influences of this tribe in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula well into the 1620s, suggesting that our Nabhan ancestors had at last found a new home in which some of them developed an enduring sense of place. As Hourani noted, they had found a place in “Oman, not dissimilar to Yemen in the southeast.”
Imagine climbing up into an ancient stone tower that rises 65 meters above the tallest palms in the date groves below. You look out over the village of Bahla, where an ancient passageway wide enough for a single donkey cart slips through an entrance in a mud and brick wall that runs twelve kilometers around the date plantations, homes, shops and souk marketplaces of the Bahla Oasis. The fertile Bahla Valley sits in the interior of Oman, on a plateau that slopes southward from the turquoise-tinged mountain above you— Jebel Al Akhdhar.
Down below towers of the first Nabhanid castle, ancient traditions of ahl Hadr Arabs seem to be thriving even today, even this close to the globalized fantasy worlds of Dubai and Abu Dabi. You can see where men are climbing up the trunks of palms to harvest dates for spread out on pruned fronds to mature and dry. Potters are firing up their dome-shaped kilns with other palm fronds as fuel. Nearby, dyers are soaking goat-hair cloaks in vats of indigo, blue as the mountains above them. And in the souks, vendors are marketing many of the same varieties of dates, spices and vegetables that their ancestors have nurtured for centuries. Because of its living traditions as much as for what Lynn Simarski calls “one of the most majestic monuments in all of Oman,” Bahla is now recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations,. UNESCO is assisting in the restoration of this monumental legacy of the Bani Nabhan tribe.
Bahla is the very place where the tribe established their first capitol of the collective Nabhanid kingdom and it perhaps the place with which the Nabhans have the longest continuous association. Historian Hasan al-Naboodah has suggested that this kingdom was collective in the sense that numerous Nabhan sheikhs formed a confederation to guard their shared territory from intruders, without having much of a hierarchy among themselves. It appears that some members of the tribe had a stronger inclination for trade than for farming and crafts, for they shaped a second capitol at a breach on the precipitous mountain coast, at Suhar, a city which continues to be an important international seaport.
Later, when Portuguese seafarer Alfonso de Alburqueque first encountered the second Nabhanid castle in Suhar in 1507, he found that it “was a fortress square in shape, with six towers around it, having over its gate another two very large towers.” It was large enough to comfortably hold a thousand men and all their provisions.
From 1150 AD when the collective Nabhanid kingdom first brought peace to the region, these two castles were used by a long chain of Banu Nabhan rulers that maintained a functioning confederacy for longer than the present U.S. government has persisted in North America. The dynasty developed around 1150, in a period of disunity within the Moslem world. Abu Muhammed al-Fallah may have been the first Banu Nabhan of the conferderacy, emerging as a leader to be reckoned with by 1151, solidifying his power base by 1154, and prevailing until 1176.
Nearly two dozen Banu Nabhan presided over the secular, economic and military affairs of the mountainous coastal region of Oman for the next three to five centuries. Until recently, they were largely ignored or despised by more conservative Omani Moslem historians, one of whom dismissed their era with a single sentence:
“None of the Nabhani rulers was a just ruler [and] most of them were known for their injustice and infidelity.”
However, recent historians suggest that the Nabhans collectively offered a leadership that far and away eclipsed the influence more orthodox Imams who were charged with offering their spiritual authority to the region. These Imams are regularly praised today by more fundamentalist Moslem historians, and the more hedonistic Nabhans used as scapegoats. The truth may be that although Islam had been introduced to Oman around 630 AD, Oman’s pivotal location in intercontinental commerce meant that the elected theocracy of the Imamate did not preside over all of its affairs. More secular affairs, such as trade across the seas and along the Frankincense Road, could benefit the Arabs only if there were leaders who maintained good diplomatic relations with surrounding nations, and quelled the bickering between the nomadic tribes whose grazing lands the spice caravans passed through.
The sheikhs of Bahla and Suhar –including Nabhan ibn Kuhlan who began his reign in 1261, and Abu Muhammad ibn Nabhan, who lorded over much of Oman around 1330–had plenty of economic incentives for keeping the spice trade routes functioning. The interior hinterlands of Oman were sparsely populated at the time, but rendered one of the world’s most valuable products of their era, the aromatic and resinous gum derived from Boswellia sacra trees.
It was frankincense, used as incense for weddings by the Greeks; for burials in royal tombs; and by the Persians for healing wounds and restoring vision. Growing only in a few secluded valleys in the Dhofar region of Oman and in adjacent Yemen, frankincense was a treasure whose origins the al hadr tribal traders kept a secret. Only the following sketchy description of its origins and dispersal would be revealed to the Mediterranean-based seafarers who came to obtain it from two seaports on the Oman coast:
“All the frankincense produced on the land is brought into [a particular harbor], as if to a warehouse, by camel as well as by rafts of a local type made of leather bags, and by boats. The frankincense-bearing land is mountainous, has a difficult terrain and an atmosphere close and misty; and it [alone] has the trees that yield frankincense. They are not large or tall; they exude frankincense in congealed form on the bark, just as some of the trees we have in Egypt exude gum. The frankincense is handled by royal slaves and convicts, for the districts [in which it grows] are terribly unhealthy, harmful to those sailing by and absolutely fatal to those working there, who, moreover, die off easily because of the lack of nourishment.”
By discouraging anyone to get near to the desert valleys where the same ancient frankincense trees were “tapped” for the aromatic amber in late summer year after year, and by obscuring the whereabouts of the route to the interior later known as the Frankincense Road, the Nabhans were undoubtedly among the coastal Arabs who cornered the market on this valuable commodity.
From stories included in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, we know that wealth and fame extending far beyond their homeland came to the Banu Nabhan and their Tayy tribal affiliates by the twelfth century, but their good fortune made others jealous as well. In one story, a beautiful young woman from Baghdad is besieged by suitors, including a Nabhan sheikh, who arrives from the south via Mosul. To win her hand in marriage, this sheikh from the south came to her with “great company,” bringing her the following modest enticements:
“…a hundred she-camels laden with musk and lign-aloes and ambergris; and five score [camels more] loaded with camphor and jewels; and another hundred, laden with silver monies; and yet another hundred, loaded with raiments of silken stuffs, sendel and brocade; besides a hundred slave girls; and a century of choice steeds of swift and generous breeds…”
Of course, no well-groomed girl from a sophisticated city in the north would ever fall for such cheap tricks from the south, so the Nabhan suitor is promptly dismissed!
Then, in a story said to occur on the 625 th Arabian night, another Nabhan is shown to be lavishly wealthy but just as unsuitable for another Baghdad beauty named Mahdiyah:
“When Al-Haml, lord of the Banu Nabhan, heard of her charms…he took horse with five hundred of his men to demand her hand.”
His offer of marriage was also spurned, so he kidnapped Mahdiyah and her slave girls, only to have Baghdad’s own Gharib the Stranger drive a lance through Al-Haml’s heart, and cut off his head. Gharib was so proud of his success in routing a “southerner” from the Arabian Peninsula, that he composed this couplet on the spot:
“I am he who is known on the day of the fight, & the Jinn of the Earth at my shadow take flight!”
Fortunately, not all of the Nabhan and Tayy tribal members faired so poorly when they visited the north. In fact, some of the Tayy subtribe moved to Baghdad, and later, further northeastward to assist with bringing Arab-speaking merchants what they wanted from the Silk Road caravans. After a while, all Arab-speaking traders in Fari-dominated dialect areas were called Tayys for short, and later, Tajiks. Some scholars claim that this is the origin of the name Tajikistan, signifying that it was a place of exchange along the Silk Road for Arab-, Farsi- and Mongolian-speaking traders. Apparently the lessons learned in managing trade along the Frankincense Road had also had some value on the Silk Road, the other route that linked the caravans of the East with those of the West.
Over several centuries, the Banu Nabhan introduced to the Arabian Peninsula several technological innovations from Persia and other lands of the north that buffered both humans and their livestock from the ravages of drought. It is during their era that Arabs adopted use of the qanat— the remarkable horizontal underground well system used for long-term storage of rainwater. Together with dry stone masonry diversion dams, and walk-in underground cisterns called al-jubb, qanats became widely employed on the peninsula as means to survive long rainless periods. With spices and stored water in reserve, the Nabhans then invested in educating their clan to accomplish other engineering feats, to host lavish feasts, to enjoy court musicians, poets and dancers, and to travel to foreign lands—as far as present-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.
While the Banu Nabhan were managing water, spices, incense and building projects along the Batinah Coast of the Arabian Peninsula, a previously-unknown adversary surreptitiously arrived on the scene around 1498. By 1507, the Portuguese began to negotiate with the Banu Nabhan to obtain spices in the seaport of Suhar, which was beautifully described by Alfonso de Albuquerque.
However, within a year’s time, these same Portuguese seafarers had captured the port of Musqat some 215 kilometers south in Oman, and out in the Gulf of Oman, they began to disrupt all other trade along the Batinah Coast. If the Portuguese had first looked to the Banu Nabhan like newcomers who were willing to trade them valuable goods for exotic spices, within a short time it had become painfully clear that the Portuguese were really competitors in the spice trade. It was part of a larger effort by the Portuguese to bully their way into a controlling position in the Arab spice trade between the Far East and Europe as well as Africa.
Perhaps it could not have lasted much longer anyway: the Banu Nabhan had been holding pivotal positions linking spice trade between Asia, Africa and Europe for centuries. Now that Portuguese and Spanish seafarers had found ways to reach India and the East Indies on their own, the land routes taken by camel caravans would inevitably be usurped. But the Portuguese not only had disrupted the Arab connections with the Malabar Coast by sea; they then took over the castle in the port of Suhar as well.
From 1508 to 1617, the Portuguese gradually gained control over all the port towns in what is now Oman, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, presumably forcing the previous rulers (i.e. the Nabhans) inland to places like Bahla. The Portuguese did not go far into the interior themselves, nor did learn where the frankincense was ultimately coming from. But by controlling trade across the sea, the Portuguese shaped economic affairs along the Batinah Coast of Oman until the Yara’riba or Yarubid Arab tribes had enough of it. These more stridently Moslem tribes also had enough of the Nabhans.
Between1586 to 1650, the Yarubids worked to oust all Portuguese –and perhaps many of the Nabhans—from the Gulf coast. By that time, the Nabhan collective had dissipated due to infighting and untimely deaths among its leaders. When the Yarubids had finally ousted most foreign traders, it was their tribe’s Sultan ibn Sayf and not the Nabhans who presided over the region. They briefly re-established the Imamate as being in control politically as well as spiritually, but this was short-lived, for the Ottomans came in from the north and incorporated the region’s economy into their vast empire.
The tribe was no longer at the pinnacle of its political power on the Arabian Peninsula, but does that mean that all Nabhans emigrated from the region, losing their centuries-old sense of place? There are indeed families– including artists still in vicinity of Suhar and Bahla–with whom we share our surname. They can still trace their descent back through some twenty-two generations of affiliated tribes now called the Bani Riyam, which formerly received strong leadership from the Nabahina sheikhs. Nonetheless, we can be sure that some Nabhans did begin to wander beyond their homelands of the eastern Arabian Peninsula from this time onward.
What happened next to the bulk of Nabhan tribe remains obscure, but oral history among the family remaining in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon suggests that they migrated first to Jordan and Greater Palestine. Later, they may have moved northward to Mount Hauran, an area just 40 kilometers south of Damascus.
Mount Hauran is a forbidding, nearly treeless volcanic area, with little livestock forage to offer in most years, and few microhabitats that are suited to the cultivation of dates or field crops. It stands in stark contrast to the verdure of the home places the tribe had known in Yemen and Oman. It may bed a place that is good for building stamina and spiritual rigor —and good for hunting chukar today—but it is unproductive relative to the oases and harbors that formerly offered the Nabhan tribe their sustenance. Perhaps because of these features, Nabhan emigrants could more easily take refuge there without infringing upon the more productive territories of neighboring tribes. Perhaps they could escape religious persecution there, or easily trade in the wild anise seed that naturally sprouts and grows in years with adequate rainfall. But in the end, Mount Hauran was perhaps more of a waystation or stopover for the tribe than a home with long-term potential.
The next noticed of the Nabhan family comes from the Ras el-Metn area of Mount Lebanon, between the coast and the Bekaa Valley. There, they formed alliances through marriage with the Abou Rjeily family, Christians who had also lived around Mount Hauran in the seventh century, where they had resisted conversion to Islam. The Abou Rjeilys had at some time moved from Mount Hauran to the seaport of Batroun north of Beirut, but left it as well, in order to maintain their Christian beliefs without interference from Moslems.
Not long after dwelling on the coast, the Abou Rjeilys found suitable home ground in a mountain village below the summit of Ras el-Metn. That must have been around the beginning of the seventeenth century, probably well before the first Nabhans moved there.
But like any family tree, the branches of ours cross with those of many others. If the Abou Rjeilys had spent considerable time around Batroun on the coast, did they intermarry with the presumed descendants of the seafaring Phoenicians? Even though a core group of the Nabhans had once come westward from Oman, does their centuries of intermarriage with Abou Rjeillys open up other issues regarding our ancestry?
They certainly do. For starters, while it appears that the Abou Rjeillys were steadfast Christians, but it is not so clear that the Nabhans had been as tenacious in adhering to just none religion. It is known that one branch of the family that arrived in Lebanon were Sunni Moslems. The word Sunni comes from the term ahl al-sunnuh wa-l-jama’ah, meaning “people of custom and community” who humbly attempt to mirror the Prophet’s most admirable and devout behaviors in their own actions. Although ancestors of the Nabhans may have been Christian prior to the emergence of Islam late in the sixth century, nearly every community on the Arabian peninsula converted to Islam within a century and a half after the Prophet Muhammed’s death. Of course, some Nabhans may have held out as Christians, as the Abou Rjeilys did near Mount Hauran in Syria. But a return to Christianity for some Sunni Nabhans is just as likely, and probably occurred within the last three centuries, after they had moved to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon from the south and east of the Arabian Peninsula.
Ras el-Metn— “sheep’s head mountain— is a place I have only seen from some distance, since our cousins did not want me to get caught up in roadblocks maintained by Druze militiamen. But what I remember is looking out from a high ridge that was already dusted with snow to an even higher massive kilometers away that dwarfed anything else in the landscape. I had on a wool sweater, wool hat and windbreaker, but I was still cold; I could only wonder what anyone living near Ras el-Metn was enduring if they too were outside at that particular moment.
What relatives have recalled to me, however, is that Ras el-Metn is a place of heavenly summers. During the era in which the Nabhan family still lived around the mountain in any number, it was thick with mulberry trees whose leaves were harvested for feeding to silkworms. At the time I heard these stories, I had no idea that silkworms had ever been translocated to the Mediterranean, but later learned that silk production had become a major cottage industry in the mountains of Crete as well. I warmed to the idea that Ras el-Metn had been a memorable place in family history until the Nabhans moved on for one last migration across the Middle East.
Fortunately, much of the more recent roamings of the family are traceable through oral histories from the last two and half centuries. These histories have the Abu Rjeily family as a focal point as much as the Nabhan family. One story involves a rather wayward Abou Rjeilly named Elias. Under some less than pleasant circumstances, he was forced to leave the mountains for the Bekaa valley, settling first near the city of Zahle and then around the monumental ruins of Baalbek early in the eighteenth century. He had serendipitously arrived in the valley just as Sunnis and Christians began to battle to get the Druze family known as the Junblati out of the Bekaa. Through Elias, the militia of Prince Bashir el-Chehabi enlisted Abou Rjeily and Nabhan family members from the mountains to help them.
When the Prince’s Sunni and Christian forces won the battle in 1824, he seized all of the Junblati lands and offered them to his supporters. A man named Metri Nabhan had come along with Elias Abou Rjeily’s relatives, and he was invited to settle in a side canyon called Kfar Zabad , “Place of Gifts,” hidden off from the road between Zahle and Aanjar. He agreed to do so if Elias and the other Abou Rjeilly militia men could come as well. Down in the valley, Elias’s family decided to go by the name of Bourjailly.
It was in this manner that Metri Nabhan and Elias Bourjaily became the modern founders of village community of Kfar Zabad into which our grandfather was born. Their descendants in the Bekaa became orchard-keepers, wine-makers, butchers, merchants, engineers, architects, herders and arak-distillers. The arak bootleggers had wonderful grapes in Kfar Zabad, but still returned to their ancestral homelands at Mount Houran in Syria every year to get the best anise seed to flavor their arak. There in the Bekaa, the Nabhans and Bourjailys have continued to intermarry to the present day.
Why did so many Nabhans and Bourjailys leave the Bekaa Valley for the Americas around the turn of the twentieth century? The Turks had taken over much of Greater Syria (including Lebanon) during the Ottoman War, forcibly conscripting tens of thousands of Lebanese men into their army to fight against other Arabs. Most of them deserted and fled, but many were killed.
To make matter worse, a terrible drought and locust plague hit the region just after the beginning of the twentieth century. Many families in the Bekaa were left on the brink of starvation, and were forced off the land. American Protestant organizations helped these refugees aboard ships bound for Boston and New York. Many of their relatives soon attempted to follow on their own. Some bought cheap tickets for ships to “America,” but found themselves landing in Vera Cruz, Mexico, or Brazilian ports instead.
As World War I began, much of the Bekaa Valley was depopulated. By the time Lawrence of Arabia and his Arab allies freed Damascus of the Turks, the valley’s population was perhaps only one twentieth of what it had been a quarter century before. The French and English then set up their separate protectorates for Lebanon and Syria respectively, leading to a far greater influence of French culture among most Nabhans.
According to Ellis Island records, 26 year old Petros Nabhan was the first of the family to emigrate to the United States in 1893. Immigration of Nabhans from the Old Country to America peaked between 1906 and 1912. This included one eighteen year old, Amin Najm Nabhan, who, in 1909, listed his previous residences as both Beirut and Syria. At that time, the Bekaa Valley was still part of Syria, hence the confusion among American-born Nabhans when their grandparents called themselves Syrian, even though most remaining relatives live in what is now known as Lebanon.
The Bekaa Valley is at the southern cusp of the Fertile Crescent—one of the first cradles of agriculture in the Old World. But it has also been ancestral grounds for a number of my fellow Lebanese-American writers and activists, from Ralph and Laura Nader to Vance Bourjailly and Greg Orfalea. We all grew hearing stories of the Old Country, and in most cases, the anciently-inhabited landscape that are grandparents, aunts and uncles were referring to is none other than the Bekaa. In spring, it is a splendor of wildflowers; in fall, it is burgeoning with fruits of all shapes and sizes. Not fruits from nursery-raised trees or hybrid seed packets, but biladi varieties, ones that have been passed from hand to hand, sower to sower, for centuries.
For those of us with the surname of Nabhan, the Old Country could just as well mean Yemen, Oman, Mount Houran or Ras el-Metn. But the stories of those ancestral grounds have, until recently, been obscured. Our family has migrated, but so has the desert itself. The past does not stand still. It continues to shift in a way that will make much of this sound absurd or obsolete to the next generation of the Nabhan tribe that comes along. They will have to tell their own versions of our family history, in order to restore our sense of family. The lands themselves will find ways to be restored, to regenerate new wealth after the scars have healed. Some future generation will record in these landscapes something that we cannot even imagine seeing there today. The land and the stories will go on.
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