Bonds of mother’s milk

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It could almost be a fable from the 1,001 Arabian Nights but this is a real-life love story, between two families brought together by the mothers’ most precious gift: their milk.

It was seven years ago when the story was first told of an expatriate family and an Emirati desert tribe, bonded through an old tradition as strong as blood.

The two mothers in this story breastfed each other’s babies for a month. This was long enough for them to become family because, in Islam, infants who are breastfed more than five times are mahram, like siblings, and among other things, are unable to marry each other.

It is through this tradition that Inocenta Ewart, from Spain, became “Mama Ino” and a mother to 16 children, although she only gave birth to two.

In the same way, Umm Ahmed, wife of Sheikh Sultan bin Ali Al Khateri, became a mother to two more sons, both born blond and given added Arab names: Edward Ibrahim Ewart and Raymond Harib Ewart.

“It was trust and the purest of love that bonded us,” says Mrs Ewart, who smiles as she browses through old photos.

When she first agreed to be interviewed by this reporter in 2008, her children were young adults. Now she is a grandmother and ready to turn her family’s life story into a book.

“When I sit and reflect on that time, it is one of the most beautiful chapters of my life,” she says.

In 2009 she was awarded the Orden del Merito Civil medal by the King of Spain for “services to human and cultural knowledge in the Middle East”.

Mrs Ewart has been a career adviser, life coach, specialist in parenting and a consultant as the Bedouin family had its first university graduates.

Now Mama Ino is finally writing the book that will tell her family’s story and her many adventures living and working in Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan and the UAE.

It is the chapter on the UAE, her last and permanent home, that will tell the most compelling story, that of a fading way of life with Bedouin characters and personal stories of love, laughter and wisdom.

“When people ask me, is it true you have two mothers? One western and one Arab? I say I have one mother. They are both part of one big heart,” says Shamma Al Khateri, who was the baby Mrs Ewart breastfed back in 1987.

“I call Mama Ino regularly for advice on life, on parenting, on everything. She always advised us on getting a formal education, encouraging me to do so, and on eating healthy and making sure we have proper nutrition for our children and our parents.”

Mrs Al Khateri, who graduated with a business degree from the Higher Colleges of Technology, was the first to do so from her family. She works at a school and is a mother of two, Mohammed and Fatima, or Fatimita as Mrs Ewart calls her.

“Emiratis often don’t believe this story,” says Mrs Al Khateri. “We have such a special bond, such a special unique story. I feel so proud and blessed to have such an amazing mixed family.”

The story began in 1984 when Mama Ino, an anthropologist married to John Ewart, or “Baba John”, a cultural attache with the British Council, was living in Dubai and decided to study the effects of the oil industry on Emirati society.

Her research took her to Ras Al Khaimah, an area she found the “most cohesive” in terms of social organisation. Marriage rituals, healing methods and camel racing were all part of her brief.

At RAK Museum she met a Somali photographer, Ali Omar, who was a guide and a translator for her anthropology teacher in London, Prof Ioan Lewis, decades earlier. Mr Omar offered to make introductions to important local families.

“I can never forget that first meeting with Sheikh Sultan Al Khateri, the chief of the Khawater tribe, in the sands,” she says.

Encircled by the elders of the tribe and their leader Sheikh Sultan, holding a specially engraved stick of authority, and with Mr Omar speaking on her behalf, she asked if she could study their way of life.

Sheikh Sultan asked: “She wants to live and eat with us? But we don’t have an English cook, what will she eat?”

“I will eat what you eat and work as you work,” she replied.

The tribal leaders agreed to the request with one condition.

“You have to wear our traditional clothes,” the sheikh said, casting a disapproving glance at her trousers and shirt.

From then, Mama Ino wore a sheila, traditional colourful thobes and kanduras as she studied the customs and traditions of the people in Al Saadi village – and they studied her. Mutual respect and interest prevailed.

Slowly the research project turned into a new way of life for everyone involved, and Mama Ino became part of the research paper she was writing. “Right from the beginning there was total trust from both sides,” she says.

“Always very loving and very welcoming, they are protective over us and our sons. And in 30 years, I can’t remember a single time I had to clear up a misunderstanding.”

They exchanged culture, languages, ideas and gifts. The Ewarts were given cloth and beautifully embroidered dresses with silver and gold talli embroidery.

In return, Mama Ino would bring them books, Arabic and English, and Spanish sweets: turron, made of ground almond and honey.

“It is actually a heritage from the Arabs when they were in Spain, and so it is interesting to bring it back to the Arabs,” she says.

After four years together in the ’80s, the Ewart family was due to move to Sudan. Umm Ahmed was distressed over the news. Both women cradling their infants, Edward, 7 months old, and Shamma, just 1 month, Umm Ahmed said to Mama Ino something that would change their lives forever.

“Your child is our child and when he comes back all grown-up as an adult we won’t be able to see him as our son. So if I breastfed your child, and you breastfed mine, we would be a family forever.”

That is how Mrs Ewart became “Umm bilredaa”, or milk mother, and that is how she is greeted by those in the village.

At Mrs Al Khateri’s wedding in 2012, she sat next to the bride and the bride’s mother. But the tradition that brought the families together is slowly fading, because it involves a lifelong commitment to each other.

The concept of wet nurses is deeply rooted in Islamic culture and the Bedouin desert tribes, where survival was always a concern. 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.

“With modernisation and the option of bottle feeding, it is practised just in the most Bedu communities, which is a way of life also fading as they embrace city life and its values,” says Mrs Ewart.

Life goes on in both families. Edward is a lawyer, and works in London. Raymond is mechanical engineer specialising in renewable energy and works in Abu Dhabi for a solar company.

As for Baba John, when asked how it feels to be a father of 16, he jokes: “Like a real man.”

“Our relationship with the Al Khawater tribe is a humbling and exciting experience, one I could never have imagined would happen to us.”

There is a tradition of testing Baba John, who speaks fluent Arabic, on his knowledge of Arab history by members of the tribe as they sit around a campfire on the eve of Hijri New Year.

“We feel extremely lucky to have visited a lot of places that are now gone or too dangerous to visit within the Middle East,” he says.

He has a lot of adventures to tell from his time as an explorer, such as a drive from Beirut to Baghdad in 1966, where a border control officer only let him through after he associated Mr Ewart’s Scottish nationality with football.

In 1979, the couple drove along the old Hijaz Railway in Saudi Arabia to the Nabataean Madain Saleh, in Al Medina region, where they saw old train stations and what was left of the railways hit in the Arab Revolt of 1916.

“A Bedouin family insisted on inviting us for lunch to their tent while we were on our trip. One of them kept asking me about my salary, and how much I make,” says Baba John.

“When I didn’t want to tell him – it is a very British thing not to divulge that information – he volunteered his thoughts on the matter: ‘You must not make much’, as he looked over my tattered jeans with holes at the knees.”

rghazal@thenational.ae