Tradition of Family Cemeteries Disappearing From Tribal Areas

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Arab News

Published — Saturday 9 September 2006

Last Update 9 September 2006 3:00 am

BAHA, 9 September 2006 — In the era of globalization as traditional values and ways of life come under threat and as the Bedouins replace their camels and steeds for Toyota four-by-fours the ancient desert customs are also slowly disappearing.

The southern tribal hinterland of Baha — home to especially the Al-Ghamdi and Al-Zahrani tribes — has been renowned for centuries for their tribal cemeteries that are now slowly vanishing, according to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

One of the main reasons for this is the gradual urbanization of village dwellers that are opting for more sophisticated lives in major cities.

Having family cemeteries has been an age-old custom and the tribal burial grounds have been as old as the various villages that saturate the Baha region.

According to villagers the custom of having family burial grounds came about as a result of mass burials that took place when diseases and famines, in the absence of proper medical facilities, caused the death of the young and old in large numbers.

Illnesses such as measles, smallpox and malaria — that are considered trivial in modern times — would cause numerous deaths in those times. With the improvement of medical facilities such illnesses are not as life threatening as before.

One old villager explained how tribal cemeteries came about. “People used to die in large numbers and very rapidly one after the other because of diseases. So the villagers would dig graves close by burying members of the same family in one area. That was how the family and tribal burial grounds came about,” he said.

The old man continued, “If the family ran out of space, they would open old graves where family members had been buried before and add more people to them. This process is known as khashf.”

During famines and outbreaks of epidemics huge numbers of people would die and many tribes faced difficulties in digging new graves because of the difficult weather. Elderly people remember that in olden times, the winter used to stretch for more than six months and would be accompanied with lots of rain and fog making movement difficult. But due to tribal rivalries many families would guard their cemeteries and put restrictions on who got buried in them.

Across Baha burial grounds are constructed in different ways. Some cemeteries consist of underground vaults or concrete burial chambers with the capacity of holding a large number of bodies at a time. Such vaults include windows for people to peer through and are usually decorated ornately with writings, drawings and patterns.

Muhammad Saleh, a local resident, said, “One of the things that is so iconic about many of these graves is the fact that many of them are not directed toward the Kaaba. This tells us that some of these graves are from the pre-Islamic era. In Islam the face of a dead person should be toward the Kaaba.”

With the growing number of people leaving their traditional Bedouin lifestyles and a general social change family cemeteries in the Baha region are being left unattended.

In the process of desertification cemeteries are shrinking and an important feature of the desert life is being lost for ever.

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