A youth from the Amarar tribe. From “Desert and water gardens of the Red Sea, being an account of the natives and the shore formations of the coast” by Cyril Crossland. Photo circa 1912. The editor notes the absence of sewn clothing.
The book was written by a British explorer who was based at Donugab, about 100 miles north of Port Sudan.
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Crossland describes the typical Beja man [though he knew them as Hamitic] like this.
“When we meet our friend we generally see a tall, well-made man, light in build but strong and active, often good-looking, with a pleasant and self-respecting expression. He may rise as we pass, to shew respect, but offers no salutation unless his superior should salute first.
If we speak to him he will address us respectfully, yet as an equal, first shaking hands as he would to one of his own nation. If he is not a very poor man, or engaged in manual labour, he is probably much more gracefully dressed than we are, in the folds of yards of calico looped about his person, leaving arms and neck free. True his hair, a great fuzzy mop, plastered with mutton fat, looks a trifle ridiculous and even unclean, the free use of grease in a tropical climate can be helpful. Or he may wear a turban, which appears more dignified to European eyes, being more familiar.
He displays his freedom, his membership of a desert community, not only by his self-reliant look, but by his always carrying arms. As we meet him, his camel has been tethered before the shop where he is obtaining provisions, and his sword, shield, or spear given into the merchant’s keeping, our mountaineer retaining only a dagger, stuck into a loose heavy leather belt, or having its sheath bound round his arm, just above the elbow. The former dagger is generally a curved blade nine inches or so long, the latter a small broad dagger with a plain round handle. The sheaths are very ornamental, bearing embossed patterns and strips of green leather among the brown.
Neither is he anything but proud of the evidences of his religion and superstitions. There may be a circular patch of dust in the middle of his forehead, where he touched the ground, bowing in prayer, and his amulets, paper charms wrapped up in little square leather cases worn as a necklace, or, more often, tied round the arm immediately above the elbow, and his string of prayer beads, are his principal ornaments.
He may wear a ring or two on his fingers, and a narrow band round his arm, both of silver, while a thin curved skewer, of hard wood or ibex horn, thrust through his hair, completes his adornment.
In conversation we find him generally intelligent, rarely surly or ill-behaved. Having self-respect himself he appreciates and returns politeness, and is not so foolish as to interpret it as weakness.
In travelling through the desert any dusty old man will expect you to give a friendly greeting, and the news, and smile upon you as a friend. Unfortunately the language is rather a stumbling-block, as many natives are not fluent in Arabic, and few British know the Hamitic speech. However, for a friendly salutation Arabic (or perhaps any language!) will suffice anywhere.