What first comes to your mind when the term “Sinai Bedouins” is mentioned? The desert-dwelling nomads of this area lying in the very northeastern part of Egypt and mistakenly perceived as outcasted from other Egyptian communities?!!
Before my first hiking attempt at Sinai Mountains, which eventually triggered an itching desire to further research about this relatively out of reach region, what I mentioned above was my only understanding of the Bedouins Community in Sinai, yes those desert-dwelling nomads represented by women busy with loads of daily household chores ranging from baking breads, cooking special meals and taking care of the children on one hand, and men digging wells and smoking Hookahs or cigarettes, God only knows filled with what type of ashes, may be Heroine, Hashish, and those sort of drugs Bedouins are widely understood to use and plant as well (isn’t this the understanding spread through the mainstream medias regardless of its authenticity?!).
But I won’t say that one visit to Sinai changed my entire perception of life there. What I’m sure of is that I saw the other side of the coin in a way that made me reconsider most of others’ accounts, some of whom never actually met a single Bedouin.
- Geographic Location
Allow me please to go through the geographic location of Sinai before I start off my descriptive analysis of what I saw in the couple of days I spent there and what I learned during my lengthy conversations with Sheikh Farhan (an Arabic word meaning Happy), and indeed he seemed relaxed and satisfied. Also the interrupted chit chats I had with Sheikh Mousa, another Arab Bedouin I met there, as well as short conversations I had with Sheikh Farhan’s wife, daughter, and a 10 year old girl whom I stumbled upon right after my first hike there.
Bounded by the Gulf of Aqaba from the East, and the Gulf of Suez from the West, Sinai Peninsula, that triangular area, lies in the Northeastern section of Egypt, bridging Africa and Asia. A deep look into the original roots of Sinai Bedouins and how they developed their community which grew unpredictably fast forming what now stands out as one of the very picturesque societies in Egypt, would indeed give us a clear and more vivid insight into what shaped the social make up of the region.
- Diverse Arab Ethnicities
Sinai inhabitants originally belong to diverse Arab ethnicities, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Palestine, who decided to settle in Sinai Peninsula long ago and develop communities there. So they’re a rich mixture of several heritages bound by their eagerness to survive the tough life they have to face in Sinai, a type of life void of much of the luxurious elements we city people enjoy and tend to cling to.On my way to Wadi Etlah with the group of hikers I joined there, Sheikh Farhan, our tour guide, insisted that we stop over at his house for tea.
After several attempts to save him the trouble of serving eight or nine people, I can’t really recall the number, we all agreed to have tea at his place. He introduced us to his wife and daughters and ordered them to serve us some tea with Habaq (or Sweet Basil), a certain type of leaves with strong flavor widely used by the Bedouins in Sinai in preparing tea and some foods as well.It was quite a heartwarming and spontaneous greeting, full of sweet words and prayers that God grants us all healthy and long successful life. They didn’t view us as strangers intruding their privacy.
Never before that day did I ever imagine that a Bedouin, or a dweller of such a remote place in the mountains, who must have developed some relatively tough personality in order be able to survive such harsh environment, would allow and actually welcome some strangers coming to his doorstep to come in and meet with his family.Not just that. After having tea, Sheikh Farhann brought a piece of wrapped cloth inside which were a number of marvelous stones, some type of Quartz I think , and he gave each one of us one of those stones as a show of gratitude for letting him host us at his house.
- Civilized Manners
So Bedouins in Sinai are not tough by nature nor do they have a constant sense of insecurity as some used to tell me, best evidence is what I’ve just said now. Another thing that drew my attention is Sheikh Farhan’s elegant and cultured conversation with his daughter, while he was trying to persuade her to join us in our hike that was just about to begin.
The girl, probably 19 year old, told him “No father I don’t feel like going out I think I’m being too lazy today”, the father asked her one more time, actually telling her “Come on, you will greatly enjoy it”. But the young lady insisted not to come. Sheikh Farhan didn’t pressure her further, telling her “ok as you wish”.
A quite civilized conversation one would watch between a city man and his daughter.During the course of our hike I had a lengthy conversation with Sheikh Farhan about Bedouins’ marriage customs and habits, and I learned that he has another family from another wife. I asked him whether they’re still married, he said they were divorced. However, he still looks after his ex and her children.Asking him about the reason they got divorced, the man refused to elaborate, just telling me in a dignified manner that they “didn’t get along”.
I’m not hailing the fact that they as well have the concept of divorce, regardless of its rates there, but I’m trying to draw people’s attention to one simple fact many fail to comprehend, that there is respect for Bedouin women and their needs. The case of Sheikh Farhann is the best representative of that.
The two couples failed to have a good married life, they decided to get divorced, however the man still provides for his ex and her children, and above all he doesn’t speak ill of her.Another point related to the widespread belief that Bedouins are generally active hashish smugglers and smokers. I won’t explicitly dispute or support that belief, but I have a story to tell you.
- Hashish and Marijuana
During the same hiking trip I had a quite interesting conversation about Hashish and Marijuana with one of the Bedouins there. And in a thick emotional voice that seems to have traveled through strong walls hiding behind them long years of heavy memories, the Sheikh started narrating his experience with Hashish and how he used to be a heavy smoker of it before his health badly deteriorated, pushing his daughter to have a blameful discussion with him that made the Sheikh, in his own words, feel “ashamed of himself”, deciding to give up smoking Hashish, and promising himself and his family not to ever return to such self- destructive habit.
The man gave up a bad habit because it harms his image in the eyes of his youngest daughter and makes him a sinful man, for it is strictly forbidden in the Islamic and the Christian religions (the main religions followed in the region) to allow anything harmful into your body for it’s a clear violation of the sanctity God granted to human bodies. He felt shameful, a feeling, in my view, requires a relatively pure soul to sense and a kind of deep connection with one’s inner self to comprehend.
- Signs of Modernity
Now let’s move to the signs of modernity that crept into the lives of the Bedouins. Watching me listening to my IPod, Sheikh Farhann stunned me by his question “is this some new MP3 Player?” I remained silent for a few seconds before I was able to answer him- I just couldn’t believe it.
Obviously Bedouins are in touch with up-to-date technologies and do follow up on the latest technological products like any normal city citizen.Sinai Bedouins, although they still preserve certain traditions, on top of which is their traditional customs, they’ve incepted some other types of modern living, such as Radios and televisions, thanks to the availability of power lines that were first introduced there in the late 1980s.
Dealing almost daily with western tourists is one of the very good reasons that encouraged Bedouins modernize their lifestyle, yet not in a way that violates their social norms, customs or religious teachings.One of the very good questions I was asked by some of my friends following my return from Sinai was “do Bedouins send their girls to school like normal people, or do they confine them at home to help their moms with the household chores?
Sheikh Farhann’s daughter, whom I knew was at her last year at secondary school, was a clear proof representing the inception of “modernity” in a positive and effective manner. She was preparing herself for the final year’s exams, hoping to get enrolled at one of the good universities even outside Sinai Governorate. I asked Sheikh Farhan, whom himself missed the chance of being educated, whether he’d send his daughter to study at the University or not, he simply told me he’d invest in educating his children, including girls, till the last penny in his pocket, even if they have to move to another governorate to provide them with a better chance to get admitted to good universities outside Sinai.
Still, there are more things I need to learn about life in Sinai, but all I attempted to say in this post is that there’s more to Bedouins’ life than what’s being communicated through media. They’re more than desert dwellers, living in tents and cut off from modern life.
By Maha Youssuf
First published on Sahara Safaris website