Last Updated November 3, 2023.
This chapter introduces the nature of Wadi al-Uyoun and its people, including Miteb al-Hathal of the Atoum tribe. The wadi is an oasis in the desert, one that many trading caravans stop to visit. The Bedouin people of the wadi seem to have a special relationship with the weather in the area, their moods shaped differently by the years of heavy rain and the years of drought. The narrator explains that the young men of the wadi have a tendency to travel and seek their fortunes. The people living in the wadi are regarded by their visitors as innocent and willing to strike a fair bargain. Outside the wadi, on Mount Zahra, live the Atoum, a tribe who keep themselves at some distance from the people of the wadi but also interact with them. The reader learns that first Miteb al-Hathal, grandfather of the living character who has that name, had a son named Jazi al-Hathal, who was famous for his brutal strategies fighting the Turks. Jazi’s son, the present Miteb al-Hathal, lives on Mount Zahra near the wadi with his family.
Miteb al-Hathal’s final son, Mugbel, is born. His older son Fawaz comes to inform Miteb of the boy’s birth. Miteb throws a huge banquet and invites all the people of Mount Zahra and the wadi. After the party, he feels a restless energy. He decides to shoot off a gun into the desert, remembering that he has done so with all his son’s births, including that of his eldest son, Thweiny, who died as an infant. (Other characters sometimes refer to Miteb as “Abu Thweiny,” that is, the father of Thweiny.) He takes his rifle, slightly alarming his wife and sister, and goes out to the desert to fire it. Another of his sons, Shalaan, is startled by the rifle shot but then asks to shoot it off himself. Miteb feels energized, and the family merrily discusses the possibility of Miteb, who is rather old, fathering yet another son.
The narrator explains the ins and outs of a local dispute over the year during which Mugbel was born, using it to illustrate the way that the people of the wadi keep time, according to the events that happen in the area. Whenever Mugbel was born, the narrator says, that year Fawaz, aged fourteen, began to ask to go and travel the way young men of the wadi and the Atoum often do. As a test, his father asks him to drive their livestock to fetch water that evening and bring them back in a timely fashion, which he fails to do. He is delayed because he observes that Ibn Rashed (a man who lives on the wadi, so named because he is the son of Rashed) has foreign visitors. Fawaz heard these men say that they were Christians and that they came to look for water. Miteb becomes agitated and saddles up with Fawaz to go assess the situation at Ibn Rashed’s place.
Miteb stays the night at Ibn Rashed’s and speaks to the strangers. He is confused because the strangers asked many puzzling questions and promised the people of the wadi that they would be rich without explaining how that would happen. Miteb returns repeatedly to Ibn Rashed’s to observe the foreigners, who carry around a strange piece of iron and collect seemingly random items—rocks, sand, branches—from the desert. They also place markers around the wadi and make markings on paper related to them. Miteb and Ibn Rashed argue over whether they should welcome the foreigners to the wadi....
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Ibn tries to reassure Miteb, but Miteb is not convinced. He has a strong, almost prophetic sense that the foreigners will make trouble for the people of the wadi.
A caravan arrives, bringing Miteb’s son Shaalan and his wife’s brother Hadib back from their travels. They return without another man named Khosh, who has been gone for a long time and whose mother (called “Umm Khosh” because she is the mother of Khosh) grieves that he has not returned. The narrator briefly digresses to describe the conversation Miteb and his wife, Wadha, had before Hadib and Shaalan’s departure, in which Miteb warned Wadha that the two might not come back. But they do. Miteb’s family catches up on gossip for a while, then discusses the foreigners. To Miteb’s displeasure, Shaalan and Hadib say there is nothing to be done about them, because the government has given them permission to be there. Miteb continues to rant about the strangers and the danger they will bring to the wadi.
The Americans (for that is who the foreigners were) leave, but the people of the wadi remain suspicious of their intentions. One of them comes back through briefly, but after he departs, the life of the wadi begins to return to its normal state. Miteb continues to ask every caravan for news of the Americans. He becomes agitated and ill. His family distracts him with preparations for Shaalan to be married. Preparing his garden for planting, Miteb feels strong and healthy. Yet he continues to be afraid.
The narrator explains about Khosh, a young man of the wadi who left to travel long years since and never sent news of himself, unlike the other young men who had had extended absences. The people of the wadi continue to talk about Khosh, and his mother, Umm Khosh, continues to expect him with every caravan. The others feel sympathy for her and care for her. When the Americans originally visited Ibn Rashed, she tried to ask them about Khosh, but Ibn Rashed drove her away. Umm Khosh begins to lose hope, and the others become less sympathetic toward her, with the exception of Miteb.