Monday, May 09, 2005



A “Dikheel” is someone who seeks sanctuary. The word is a colloquial corruption of “dakheel” which means “intruder”.

In tribal ethics, this is almost sacred. It is a request made by someone who is desperate for protection. It is never asked lightly. It means that one is helpless and in grave danger. It is never turned down lightly. Turning away a Dikheel could shame the person (and sometimes his family or even his clan for generations).

Tribal folklore is full of anecdotes involving refuge seeking and granting. Probably the most notorious is an old fable about someone being chased and seeks to be dikheel at a tribesman’s home. The man being asked recognizes the fugitive as the killer of his own son. He gives the man sanctuary during the emergency but tells him that he will give him headway for three days (the traditional hospitality grace period in the desert and countryside) but vows to chase him after that.


Most people think that this practice is something of the past that has more or less disappeared. This is largely true. However, in these turbulent and lawless past two years, I came across two such instances of requests for a Dikheel:


Less than two months ago, a person being chased by a (probably criminal) armed gang who were after him or his car dashed into a farmhouse and asked to be a dikheel. The gang demand that the farmer turns over the fugitive. The middle aged farmer told them that they would have to kill him and his family first… but they could take the car.

The villains probably thought that if there was a shoot out, the farmer’s neighbors would rush to the scene. They took the car and left. The man was saved.


When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke out and those ugly photos became public, some of them were quite shocking. But I always stop at one particular picture which the BBC website seems to be fond of :

It shows a prison cell door on which the Arabic words (Dikheelak ya Allah) are scrawled in chalk. They mean: “God, I’m your Dikheel”. I have rarely seen so much desperation in so few words.

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