There is a story about a Bedouin tribe living in Rube al Khali – the “Empty Quarter” desert in the Arabian Peninsula; A tribe of short people with extraordinary tracking skills and the ability to discover signs in the sandy terrain. An older man from the tribe buried a coin in the sand in the heart of the desert, and after a few days, another Bedouin of this tribe managed to reach the exact spot and find the coin.
The children of this tribe undergo training while they are still young. They learn to interpret various signs and phenomena in the surrounding landscape, finding traces of animals or people. This knowledge has been critical to the tribe members, who wander in the desert with their herds far from home in search of pasture. The danger, of course, is not finding your way back: it requires perfect knowledge of ‘reading,’ using, and interpreting the signs.
Why Bedouin Tribesmen Know How to Track
Why do the Bedouins need to know how to track? The question is closely connected to the Bedouin way of life in the desert, their safety, the security of their property and animals, and their relations with the neighboring tribes.
In earlier times, Bedouin tribes did not have organizations or authorities, such as the police, that would gather intelligence and collect information about thefts, trespassing, or other criminal acts. Using their own methods and knowledge, the tribe’s members must conduct their investigations and produce the evidence to make their case themselves. To guarantee the protection of their property, herds, and homes, the Bedouins must take seriously any phenomena occurring in the field, analyze them and find the answer. This information helped the Bedouins not only to defend themselves and remain safe but also to create “income,” i.e., by stealing, raiding, and hunting.
In the recent past, young Bedouin boys would leave their homes in the Negev with the camels for up to a year and remain alone in the desert. Once a week, one of the family members would come to the area the boy was in to provide him with food, only to leave him on his own again. The boy had to manage by himself during this entire time and take care of all his needs, particularly the safety of the camels. They knew how to identify the camels and find a lost camel by its tracks and face.
Another reason for tracking has to do with how the Bedouins handle their camels. Since they do not always shepherd their camels, the camels sometimes go off into the vast spaces of the desert to graze. When the camel owners want to collect their herds, they walk through the desert and find all the camels, down to the last one, using tracks and other tell signs that the terrain provides them.
The Bedouin is suspicious by nature and stays alert to any occurrence in his environment. Especially at night, any noise or movement, barking of dogs, etc., arouse suspicion. Even in military and police operations, when footprints are discovered near a Bedouin community, it is assumed that they will know how to read them, and sometimes they are asked for help. A trespasser or a thief unfamiliar with the area must consider that his chances of getting caught are high.
Definition of the Bedouin Tracker
The ideal tracker is a person who lives in the desert, knows its conditions and is not satisfied with simply discovering footprints. He has a talent for seeing and understanding the meaning of multiple signs. He can see through ruses and deceptions and quickly find answers and explanations for signs in the field. The tracker must have a good imagination and can determine intentions based on traces and signs.
What Makes for a Good Tracker?
Knowing the Land
A Bedouin who has lived in the desert for years and moves by camel or on foot must know the desert to the smallest detail recognizing every change in the landscape. Trackers also develop instincts that help them navigate the landscape through their mental “photograph.”
Getting to know the desert intimately by driving, flying, or using maps only is impossible. There are countless trails in the Judean Desert, Negev, Arava, and Sinai; every goat or deer trail is used by Bedouins and usually by camels, too. There are hundreds of such routes and pathways. Getting to know them individually is crucial, and there is no other way to learn.
Objects and signs can only be understood if identified correctly and knowing where to look. Here’s an example: when a Bedouin tracker looks for landmarks with his back to the sun, he will move slowly and not see the signs clearly. Therefore, a good tracker will always face the sun conditions permitting. Every sign in the field means something to the tracker. It can be a small stone that was moved, grass that was trampled, or something trampled in the soil.
It is not necessary to follow tracks continuously. Those who know the area and have the right vision and analytical skills can shorten the route and follow the tracks by leaping to the correct conclusions. This is the continuous ambition of the trackers because otherwise, they will not be able to reach what they are looking for – to capture those who made the tracks. There is a constant struggle to reduce the length of the surveillance as the subject is ahead of the tracker. Several other signs can help the tracker understand when the tracks were made. A good tracker can accurately identify at what part of the night footprints were left, i.e., according to the signs of dew; did the dew fall on the treads, or did the impressions come after the dew?
The Discovery and Interpretation of Traces
It is not difficult to distinguish between footprints made during the day and those made at night. The distinction is made by checking the walking distances between two walkers (in the case of two or more trespassers): the size of the step, the chosen path or direction, and especially signs of how stones and other objects were displaced, which mainly happen during a night walk.
A good tracker can interpret camel tracks according to the depth of the tracks and determine if the camels passed through a place with or without a load on their back. It is easy to determine if the subject was walking or running. According to several signs, a Bedouin tracker can distinguish between a wandering camel and a guided camel. For example, a guided camel that passes nearby bushes will not eat from the bushes. If it does, it will only eat from the bushes in its path. On the other hand, a wandering camel will go from bush to bush and not necessarily according to a specified path. Another sign is the camel’s excrement: if there are kernels of corn, barley, etc., in it, it is a sign that it is not a wandering camel. In other cases, it is possible to identify which tribe the owners of the footprints belong to by the route they follow. To do so, you would need to know where the tribes live and learn how to distinguish between hostile and sympathetic tribes. By correctly analyzing the subject’s walking direction and the mode of their steps, it is not difficult to know to which tribe they are heading.
Maj. Gen. (Res.) David Maimon says:
“I once went out with Haj Imrani to the Judean desert. We sat down on a hill for observation purposes. Suddenly, we heard footsteps approaching us from the nearby wadi. After listening for several minutes without seeing anyone, the Haj told me: ‘It’s nothing. These are Jewish travelers. We’ll see them right away.’ And indeed, they were. The Haj explained that his deduction was simple: ‘A Bedouin will never walk inside a wadi’s riverbed – not necessarily because of the noise the pebbles make, but for his own safety. He will always stay on the wadi’s slope. Of course, Jewish travelers do not follow this practice.’ “
The Ability to Detect Camouflage and Camouflage Practices
A good tracker can detect footprints that leave almost no marks – a bare foot or a padded shoe. He must also be able to see traces of a person carrying another person on his back in an attempt to trick the searcher.
Let’s follow the tracks of several people who penetrated a particular area, each of them carrying another person on their back. They walk a specific route, effectively staging a deception. After they arrive at their destination, they leave the people they carried on their backs at a location that is hard for trackers to detect. Consequently, those left behind continue to infiltrate the area further, but they themselves return from where they came. A good tracker will notice the subtle information the tracks offer and understand the ruse. There are many other ways to trick ta tracker. It is possible, for example, to carve footprint patterns of common animals – camels, horses, donkeys – in the soles of shoes. To confuse the trackers, one can walk backward or change to another pair of shoes from time to time. When following footprints in the desert, one has to consider all those possibilities.
One needs to remember that the owners of the traces usually are no less good trackers than the pursuers themselves. They will take advantage of every opportunity to obscure their traces, mask signs, and deceive their pursuers. Until they are captured, they will try to trick and delay those who follow them by dropping pieces of equipment in different places, changing the direction of movement, or moving in circles to make it difficult for the pursuers. In some cases, they cause the pursuers to obliterate the intruders’ tracks, giving them an additional advantage.
A Bedouin Tale of the Lost Camel
Maser, Rabia, Iyad, and Anmar, the sons of Nizer, set out walking to the land of Najran. While walking, Maser saw a pasture where animals had grazed. He said: “The camel that grazed here was blind in one eye.” “He also squinted,” continued Rabia. “He had his tail cut off,” Iyad added. “And he lost his way,” Anmar concluded. They walked a little farther and met a man riding a donkey. He asked them if they had seen his camel. “Is it blind?” Maser asked. “Yes,” the man answered. “Is it squinting?” asked Rabia. “Yes,” the man answered. “Is its tail cut off?” asked Iyad. “Yes,” the man answered. “Did it stray?” Asked Anmar. “Yes,’ the man answered. “By God, these are my camel’s characteristics! Show me where it is?” They swore that they’d never seen it. He said, “How can I believe you when you describe the exact characteristics of my camel?”
They continued on their way together until they reached Najran and stayed at the house of Alafah Alafah al-Jarhami. The owner of the camel told Alafah al-Jarhami: “These men described my camel by its characteristics and then denied having seen it.” Al-Jarahami asked the men: “How can you describe his camel yet claim never to have seen it? Maser answered: “I saw that it grazed on one side of the pasture and ignored the other, so I knew he was blind [in one eye]. Rabia explained: “I saw the footprints of one hand clearly visible and the footprints of the other hand blurred and faint, and so I knew that one of his eyes was squinting.” Said Ayyad: “I looked at its excrement, and I knew that his tail was cut off. If he had a tail, his excrements would have fallen separated.” Said Anmar: “I knew he was unfamiliar with the pasture, for he first grazed in a good and rich pasture, and then he moved and grazed in a poor and lean field.” Alafah al-Jarhami told the camel’s owner: “Do not seek your camel with them. They do not have it.” Then he invited the men to his tribe, hosted them, and praised their name.