Of Asses and Evil Men

8-1Through cultural misunderstandings I seem to have lost some ground with our Bedouin workers. Hopefully we can continue having a good working relationship during next week – the last week of excavation.

It all started about three days ago. A donkey – ill from eating trash – parked itself in front of the concrete bungalow we have been using to store our excavation gear. Over the course of several days we watched it suffer as its health deteriorated badly and we were afraid it would die there.

This morning Dr. Smith decided that it was time to do something about it. There were some very important people from the government coming out to look at the site. These people would determine whether Bir Madhkur would become part of an archaeological cultural heritage site, or just a money-making camel tour destination. As it turns out, they got lost and turned back, but at the time we did not know this would happen.

8-2Dr. Smith – with the help of Fuwaz (our director of survey) and Muhammad (our antiquities rep.) – discussed the issue with the local elder, Abu Musef. Abu Musef told us that the donkey didn’t belong to anyone he knew and that, if we were going to dispose of it, we should drive it behind the mountains about 6 kilometers to the west of Bir Madhkur.

Having attained his assent to take care of the issue, we then needed to determine what method of dispatch would be the most humane. We asked the Bedouin if they had any firearms, to which they answered no. We didn’t believe them, since all around the site there are spent shotgun shells, which litter the ground. However, they probably didn’t trust us enough and were afraid that they might end up being scrutinized by the government for owning firearms.

The next choice was to use a knife – most of us have them. Dr. Smith asked me if I would do it, to which I responded that I would, but that I didn’t look forward to it. As it turned out my good friend Bill from Brooklyn stepped up and volunteered to do it. Not that he relished the idea of putting a sick animal out of its misery either, but I think he noticed how uncomfortable I was with the issue and decided that it was something he was better suited for.

Dr. Smith initially wanted to dispatch the animal right there, then move it somewhere else, but Greg, Bill, and I convinced him that it might have a bad effect on the morale of our team (who are mostly young women), as well as the local Bedouin. So after a twenty minute struggle to get the stricken animal into the back of our pickup truck, the three of us with two Bedouin drove out to an isolated spot behind the mountains. Dr. Smith followed behind in a second truck.

Dispatching the animal was quick and humane. However, I noticed that the two Bedouin who accompanied us seemed agitated and would not go anywhere near Bill. I thought that this was somewhat odd, since I figured that all Bedouin would be used to the slaughter of animals, particularly goats – whose skinned and butchered carcasses litter the desert.

I noticed that immediately after dispatching the animal, Bill made a little sign of the cross on its forehead and whispered the Catholic last rites in Latin. It was very subtle and I don’t think anyone else noticed. Bill seemed jovial and in a joking mood after the deed, but having seen this one tender moment I cannot believe that his manner was anything other than his way of dealing with a very difficult situation. He really earned my respect and admiration today.

After dropping the two Bedouin off at Jennifer Ramsay’s site at the farmhouse Greg, Bill, and I went to the roadhouse to find some diesel fuel to cremate the corpse. This was a much more difficult task than we had imagined. The people at the roadhouse didn’t have a gas can which they could loan us, so we spent about an hour looking around in the trash cans collecting empty water bottles which we could fill up with diesel. Finally we managed to collect a little over a dozen bottles and began filling them.

During this time, however, an English speaking Jordanian named Ibrahim had overheard us discussing our task and approached us. He was very friendly and said that he worked as an agricultural engineer at the date farm near our site. He invited us inside for coffee where we discussed various issues about living abroad and our respective countries. When we mentioned that we needed to find a hose to clean out the back of our truck (the donkey had infected ulcers on the side that he had been laying on for three days which generated a lot of puss) he offered to let us use his watering facilities at the farm. We graciously accepted and, after washing our truck, we were soon on our way back to the corpse.

Finally, our task done (we had essentially spent the whole workday trying to handle this), we went back to the tool shed and to our respective excavation areas. The three of us did not get an opportunity to do any excavating today, however, because when we arrived our teams were packing up early for a walking tour of all of the excavation areas. We did not get around to laying out my probe today, so Tuesday will be very busy for me, as time is running out.

Back at the tool-shed we found out from Ben and Jeremy that the Bedouin were not pleased with either me or Bill. Apparently Abu Musef explained to them that the killing of a donkey was “HARAM!” (forbidden) in their culture; that only Allah (God) could determine whether to take its life or allow it to live. Thus, their custom was to do nothing in the case of animals that had taken ill. Had we known this beforehand, we would have figured out another solution. As it was, we thought we were being humane by the standards of our own culture. To make matters worse, one of the Bedouin was then claiming to be the owner of the ill donkey, though he may have been seeking an opportunity to enrich himself by having us “repay” him for the loss of an animal.

Ben and Jeremy then related how when Bill walked by his (Ben’s) excavation of the fort’s gatehouse that the Bedouin began whispering curses amongst each other and referred to him as “donkey killer.” Apparently I am guilty by association. I was the one who drove the truck and coordinated the event in their eyes and when Bill and I were standing together we were referred to as “evil men.” Somehow Greg seems to have escaped their scrutiny.

Anyway, we’ll have to see how things pan out on Tuesday, when we go back to work. As for now, the weekend is here for us. Miranda’s birthday is today and I think that we are all going out to dinner and possibly karaoke afterward. And tomorrow we go to Wadi Rum (my second time), which is one of my favorite places on this trip so far.

Until next time,

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