MacIntyre: Edge of Existence, Tuesday June 12

macintyre: edge of existence
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Donal MacIntyre puts his life and reputation on the line as he tries to live at the limits of human habitation in this four-part documentary series. Tonight’s episode sees Donal travel to Oman to encounter the Bedouin people.

The Arabian desert has not seen rain for two years. Very little can grow here and survival requires exceptional skill, yet the Bedouin tribes have called it home for thousands of years. Why, in the 21st century, would anyone choose to live in the barren desert rather than the modern world? MacIntyre decides to find the answer.

From the capital Muscat, he heads south to the Sharqiya Sands on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Extreme temperatures and a lack of water mean that this environment is unwelcoming to the novice, but Donal is in good hands. His guide and translator, Ali, knows the land well and introduces Donal to the Bedouin family with whom he will be staying.

The Bedouins govern their lives by a set of strict rules, stressing the values of loyalty, honour, obedience and hospitality. With such stringent etiquette in place, Donal finds he is initially more worried about upsetting his hosts than surviving the arid landscape. “I’m afraid I could cause offence at any time,” he says.

As he approaches the small settlement that will be his home for the coming days, Donal is received by the al-Amri family. After a customary greeting involving the sharing of news and the exchange of gifts, he is treated to an elaborate welcome party, also attended by many members of the wider community. His warm welcome takes him by surprise: “In one of the most inhospitable places on earth, I’ve been treated like a king,” he reflects.

The following dawn brings trouble for Donal, as he arrives late for his duties assisting Samta, the mother of the family. Bedouin women have many responsibilities in the desert, but by the time Donal wakes up, most of the tasks have been performed. Shattering his illusions of submissive Islamic women, Samta informs Donal that the Bedouins eat less and work harder than Europeans. Bearing the brunt of Samta’s harsh tongue, however, is the least of Donal’s worries as he prepares to experience the real power of the desert.

One of the duties of Sayeed, the eldest boy in the nine-strong family, is to scour the desert for firewood –a tough job when there is no sign of trees for miles around. As Donal accompanies Sayeed on his latest search, his romantic notions of desert life begin to dissolve: “I don’t think my body was made for temperatures like this,” he concludes.

After a hard day’s work, Donal is invited into the company of Salam, Sayeed’s father, and treated to the traditional Bedouin power snack of dates and coffee. The family’s main income comes from their 40 goats, but Salam earns extra money by breeding and training camels for racing. In the desert, the camel is the most important possession a Bedouin can have, so despite his misgivings, Donal must learn to live with them.

It is not until the next day, however, that Donal begins to get some real riding practice. Sayeed has invited Donal to join him on a long jouney across the sand to trade at the Arabian sea. Donal accepts the invitation, but is ill-prepared for such a gruelling journey and soon begins to suffer burns, aches and exhaustion. He manages to stay positive, however: “In many ways, the desert doesn’t allow you to get stressed,” he says.

Three days later and Donal is greeted by the welcoming sight of the sea. The journey has been incredibly tough for Donal, but his time spent in the desert has taught him a great deal. Not only is he beginning to love his camel, but he is starting to understand what makes the Bedouin want to live in such an unforgiving environment: “What at first appears to be a very harsh existence,” he reflects, “is for them a very happy one.”

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