x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A bond as strong as blood

Inocenta Ewart, who was born in Spain, set out two decades ago to study the rituals of Bedouin culture.

Inocenta Ewert holds her son Edward and Sheikh Sultan's daughter, Shamma, both two and milk siblings, in 1989.
Inocenta Ewert holds her son Edward and Sheikh Sultan's daughter, Shamma, both two and milk siblings, in 1989.

On a warm spring evening earlier this year, a group of excited young Bedouin men in their best clothes waited anxiously as a meal of traditional Emirati dishes was set out on the ground in front of their desert compound. With the sound of an approaching 4x4, all pretence of decorum vanished as they ran towards the vehicle, yelling greetings: "Mamma Ino! Mamma Ino! Salaam. Welcome, welcome." As one of them held open the car door, a tiny figure, dressed in traditional Bedouin clothing, stepped from the car. "Mamma Ino", or Inocenta Ewart as she is known to the rest of the world, was surrounded at once by 10 towering brothers from one of the most prominent desert families in Ras al Khaimah.

Born in Spain more than half a century ago, Mrs Ewart is a mother to 16 children, but gave birth to only two of them. The others are bound to her by something that in Bedouin culture is as powerful as blood: a mother's milk. The extraordinary story began in the early 1980s when Mrs Ewart, married to a cultural attaché with the British Council, was living in Dubai. An anthropologist who graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science, she decided to study the impact of the oil industry on Emirati society.

Initially her work took her to Ras al Khaimah, the area she found the "most cohesive" in terms of social organisation. Marriage rituals, healing methods and camel racing were all part of her brief. "I find it fascinating to study why certain rituals are discarded and others survive as society develops," she says. It was then that she met a Somali photographer, Ali Omar, who had served as a local guide and a translator for her anthropology teacher in London, Prof Ioan Lewis, several decades earlier.

To help her make contacts, the photographer introduced Mrs Ewart to the al Khawater tribe. Encircled by the elders of the tribe, all in traditional dress and their leader, Sheikh Sultan al Khateri, holding a specially engraved stick of authority, Mr Omar spoke on her behalf. He requested a meeting to seek their permission for her to study their way of life. She recalls Sheikh Sultan being taken aback at the suggestion. "She wants to live and eat with us?" he asked. "But we don't have an English cook, what will she eat?"

Her answer was straightforward: "I will eat what you eat and work as you work." After deliberating for a few minutes, the tribal leaders agreed to the request. But they imposed one condition. "You have to wear our clothes," the sheikh said, casting a disapproving glance at her trousers and shirt. To this she readily agreed. Mrs Ewart was duly allowed into the lives of the desert tribes. Equipped with a camera and notebook, she began to study the customs and traditions of people in the area, only to realise they were also studying her.

"They needed to know what type of person I was," she recalls. "After all, I was going to live in their house for a long period of time and trust was important. "The Khawater had agreed to teach me about their way of life." Without warning, they would call out "come, come, and bring your notebook" before taking her on a falconry hunt or to a wedding or poetry reading. "I am so lucky to have witnessed and become part of this fading way of life," she says.

She spent many days and nights at al Khawater villages learning of their history and their ways. She would talk to all: women, children, and men. "There was no need for me to feel jealous," says her husband, John, tongue in cheek. "I was so happy for my wife to find such a welcoming and helpful family to help her with her research." Mr Ewart, who is fluent in Arabic, was also delighted to get a chance to practise the language in its purest spoken form. "It is amazing how something as simple as a piece of research can turn into something deeper and far more special," he says.

Four years later, Mrs Ewart was sitting in a woman's majlis with her seven-month-old son, Edward. Next to her was the wife of Sheikh al Khateri Um Ahmed, cradling her own baby, Shamma, then just weeks old. Um Ahmed, known as "white heart" among her people, was distressed to learn that Mrs Ewart would soon be leaving the country to follow her husband to a new posting in Sudan. "Your child is our child, and when he comes back all grown-up as an adult, we won't be able to sit with him," Um Ahmed recalls telling her friend 20 years ago.

It was then that the Bedouin mother made the suggestion that would change the lives of both families. "If we breastfed your child, and you breastfed mine, that way, we would be family, forever," Um Ahmed said. Mrs Ewart was initially speechless at the suggestion, attempting to take in the significance of offering such a gesture to a woman who was not only not a foreigner, but non-Muslim. "It was the ultimate expression of love for us and mutual respect," she says.

"I felt a bit odd for such an intimate act to be discussed, but then I felt perfectly comfortable with it as I trusted Um Ahmed and loved her." The ultimate decision was left to Sheikh Sultan, as tribal leader and Um Ahmed's husband. He is said to have given his approval by replying: "Ino is my sister, and her family is my family." As a result, Edward was breastfed by Um Ahmed, and Shamma by Mrs Ewart.

The concept of wet nurses is deeply rooted in Islamic culture and the desert tribes, where survival was always a concern. It is known that in his infancy, the Prophet Mohammed was cared for by a wet nurse called Halima bint Hareth al Saadiya, who brought him up along with her own children in the desert. "Their respect for basic human values overrode the strict social norms," Mrs Ewart says. The two mothers breastfed each other's babies for a month before Mrs Ewart left for Sudan. It was long enough for them to become family as the infants were breastfed more than the five feedings required by Islam in the first two years of life to make their children mahram, meaning they are considered siblings and unable to marry each other.

As they grew up, Edward and Shamma played together like brother and sister. To this day, Shamma is allowed to socialise with Edward as she would with her own siblings. The kinship created by the mothers' milk extends to other members of the family. Three years later, Mrs Ewart gave birth to Raymond, who was also accepted into the al Khawater family. Um Ahmed went on to have a large family of 11 boys and three girls, all considered as sons and daughters to "Mamma Ino" and siblings of her own two boys.

Now 21 and a law student in London, Edward looks back with fondness on his early life in the desert. "When I was young, I didn't understand it, but now, I find it so special," he says. Edward loves to spend time with the family in Saadi village during university holidays; when the time comes to return to UK, he always plans his next visit to his Bedouin family who have taught him about the calm and serenity of life in the desert.

His "sister" Shamma recently completed a business degree and soon hopes to find a job, something that until now has not been possible for the women of her family. Edward and Raymond, renamed by their Bedouin kin as Saeed (happy) and Hareb (warrior), are proud to be bound to their desert family. "When I tell people, they don't believe me," says Raymond, who is in his last year of secondary school. The two brothers have a rabee, or close companion, whose duty is to care for the two new brothers, who in their case is Sheikh Abdullah al Khateri, one of Shamma's brothers. "Sometimes, your brother through breastfeeding is closer to you than your blood brother," says Sheikh Abdullah, now in his 30s and devoted to Edward and Raymond.

"They taught us English, and we taught them Arabic, and we taught each other to accept differences." Two decades after Mrs Ewart began her doctorate research into the traditional way of life of the al Khawater, her work remains incomplete. "I have become part of the thesis, and it has become my life," she says. rghazal@thenational.ae