Bedouins of Egypt
by Ruth Shilling and Jimmy Dunn
Notation: All of the photographs and some parts of this story are by Ruth Shilling, of All One World Egypt Tours
Bedouins are, of course, not limited to Egypt, nor are they limited to a specific region of Egypt, though the more traditional Bedouins do normally inhabit the desert regions, including the Sinai and the Eastern and Western Deserts. However, these days, they can also be found in many of the resort communities of the Sinai and even in the larger cities of Egypt, such as Cairo.
Explaining the Bedouin life and culture is really a tricky topic, a moving target at best. The reason for this is that they are an ancient people, with ancient customs and traditions, who these days are often subjected to a modern and changing world. Some Bedouins have become completely modern, with modern trappings such as cell phones and color TVs, perhaps most influenced by the Egyptian tourism trade and by various government policies. For example, up until recently, Bedouin men were obligated to do military service with other Egyptian men. Of course, they came back to the desert very much changed. Others live their lives in a tradition that dates back thousands of years, and are really very little changed from bygone days.
Today, we tend to group Bedouins into one cultural group, which is a bit misleading. Some of them, such as the Alagat tribe, wander throughout Egypt's deserts, continually searching for fresh grazing for their camels and goats and water for their families, though they generally stay in one overall region. They don't wander aimlessly, but return annually to various locations in their territory where the land and water can sustain them for the season. These days at least, others are not nomads at all. For example, the Hamada tribe are miners who generally stay in one place, while the Gebelieh tribe, originally of Balkan descent from what is now Yugoslavia, remain near the St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai. This actually sets them apart from most of the tribes, who originated in Saudi Arabia long ago.
For the more traditional Bedouin, little in the desert escapes his eye. He knows where and when he can find water and whether it's just brackish or toxic. Shrubs tell him when it last rained and how much. Signs left in the sand proclaim who has been there before him, when, the directions from which they came and departed, the size of their flocks, and perhaps even the ages of their camels. Bedouins navigate by the stars, familiar landmarks, and stone markers left on a previous trek. They travel light, leaving caches hanging in trees. Other travelers, if in need, are welcome to the food and water but are bound not to touch the remaining articles.
Though how they dress depends on the weather and on personal taste, the Bedouin dresses for the desert, his layered and flowing robes absorbing the sun's hot rays while allowing cooling breezes to circulate. He winds a cloth around his head and neck to retard moisture loss that can lead to heat stroke and to shield his face against the harsh, dry sand. Women wear black dresses and head covers embroidered in tiny cross-stitch designs: blue for unmarried women, red for married. They cover their faces with a veil highlighted in the same stitches and often decorated with shells and coins. Most of the traditional Bedouins dress very modestly.
However, more typically today, Bedouin children often wear modern clothing rather than the traditional dress worn by their parents.
Many traditional Bedouin live in tents of goat and camel hair panels that the women have woven on their narrow ground looms and stitched together. The tents are usually divided into two rooms, one for greeting guests and such, and one specifically for the women.
When the tribe moves, the Bedouin wife is in charge of dismantling the tent, packing it on the camels, and reassembling it at the new site. She can roll up the sides so that the cool breeze enters, or stake them down, making it secure in a sand storm. However, these days, even many traditional Bedouins build very simple houses, most frequently of stone or today, brick, in a more or less seasonal location where they may return as a base camp.
The Bedouin often band into small, tightly knit tribes and in some tribes, their leaders, picked for their wisdom and judgment, retain their positions by finesse and largesse, for their proud Bedouin brethren would find direct commands insulting. However, that is certainly not always the case, and perhaps some of these traditions are changing. For example, in the Alagat tribe the leader, or Sheikh, is not chosen; it is passed from father to oldest son. The same also applies to the Hamada tribe.
The family unit is the basis for domestic life. Strong family ties and taking responsibility for ones relatives is expected. Both boys and girls usually marry in their late teens, and some men have more than one wife. In the event that there is more than one wife, they do not live in the same household, and the man is expected to divide his time equally among them. These days, therefore, he may have one wife in town and an apartment there, and one wife in the desert. Having more than one wife is therefore a rather expensive proposition.
Marrying of first cousins is common, but there are also marriages between tribes. Divorce is possible for both men and women. In case of divorce, at least in olden times the tent belonged to the woman, while the man took his domestic animals. However, we know that this is not always true today. At least in the Alagat tribe, the party who gets the children is decided by the Sheikh, and both husband and wife get a meeting with the leader to explain their point of view.
To the traditional Bedouin, hospitality is mandatory, and guests are welcomed to a tent for three days and three nights. The teapot or coffee pot is always on for either kinsman or stranger. In exchange, the host expects conversation, for the Bedouin thus keeps abreast of the news.
If water is far away, the men and boys make the trip with camels, or these days pickups, bringing it back in goatskins, or more modern vessels. They also go into the nearest town to exchange news and barter, trading rugs, cheese, milk, goats, and camels for cloth, jewelry, rifles, flour, rice, tea, sugar and coffee.
Modern inroads into the desert are changing the Bedouin's life. Over the past, some rulers of Egypt have provided farm land to the Bedouin, and encouraged their settlement. Many families have settled, building houses, and the handmade tents are disappearing. Trucks bring water in 100-gallon barrels and move goats to pasture. The Bedouin is investing in land and businesses, and sending his sons toschool in Cairo and Alexandria and the nearby governorates, where more higher institutes and universities were set up recently. Although the more typical Bedouin still keeps himself apart from the sedentary Egyptian, his ancient desert lifestyle is vanishing; the Toyota pickup is steadily replacing the camel. Nevertheless, even modernized Bedouins will, at times, seek out the desert to escape the trappings of their modern world.
In the final analysis, Bedouin life goes on, but is being encroached upon by our modern world. Today, one may still travel through the Sinai, or the Western Desert and find trail markings beside roads, or see the isolated traditional Bedouin family. These may represent the final chapter of an ancient tradition.