Characters of Egypt - Connecting tribes from all around
By Rowan El Shimi
As the elders of some Egyptian tribes sat together one evening in Wadi El Gemal Reserve near Marsa Alam, they discussed the issues their tribes and communities faced. One common issue they had was practicing judicial law within their tribes-since these communities are so close, it becomes difficult for a member of the community to judge a case fairly. They adopted a system based on need, where they could send an impartial judge from one tribe to another to work on cases, ensuring a free and fair system for everyone.
This step forward in tribal law could not have been possible if these tribes did not have a chance to meet, share their cultures, and discuss their issues openly. That is just what Egypts biggest cultural festival, Characters of Egypt, aims to reach. By organizing a huge event and inviting tribes from around the Egyptian deserts, the Sinai Peninsula, and around the Nile, this annual event aims to get these diverse tribes to meet, expose their respective cultures to each other, and the local and foreign visitors through music, poetry, dance, sports competitions, educational sessions, and tribal meetings. Each tribe has a contact person who gathers a group of people involved in sports, culture, development, and law and they travel from all over Egypt to Wadi El Gemal National Park located right on the Red Sea, 50 km south of Marsa Alam, where they enjoy the beautiful simplicity and preserved nature of the place, while diving into this amazing cultural experience. This year, following two previous successful events, Characters of Egypt 2010 took place from October 29th till October 31st.
There are approximately 300,000 people from 45 tribes living a nomadic life in Egypt. During the festival, there were 21 tribes present grouped into seven teams by regions. Each of these tribes is unique and represents a wide range of diversity across Egypt in terms of language, customs and way of life that reflect their diverse environments and history. The teams were Ababda, Bishareya, North Sinai, South Sinai, Nile Valley, Farafra and Siwa.
The event is founded and organized by Fustat Wadi El Gemal, which runs the eco-lodge where Characters of Egypt takes place every year. Next to that, the event was almost completely run by 100 volunteers who were members of the same non-governmental volunteer organization that operates in Egypt and worldwide, CISV. I attended the festival as a volunteer rather than a visitor, and was part of a group of 100 volunteers, all dressed in their white volunteer t-shirts. This was, for me, a great opportunity not only to learn a lot through my experience as a volunteer, but also to have the chance to interact with the event founder Walid Ramadan, board member of Fustat Wadi El Gemal. He tells the story of how he and a group of people decided to put together this initiative by traveling for eight months around Egypt, meeting the tribes and asking them to participate in this endeavor. We thought the festival would get people to see that we are all in the same boat, and that we share the same grievances and worries. It is just a grouping of the different characters of Egypt. He said in an interview conducted by two of the event volunteers.
The festival started with the opening ceremony and parade, where each tribe had its chance to come in, singing their typical songs, and dancing. One by one, they marched until everyone got to the main outdoor theatre area where Ramadan gave a short speech and the assistant to the Minister of Tourism said a few words as well on the significance of the event.
The three day festival has recurrent, parallel events happening every day, giving visitors the chance and flexibility to attend everything. There were sports events including running races and camel races, long jump and high jump, and tug of war. The sports events are done with some friendly competitions, where each team competes against another team and they prove to be very competitive by nature. An interesting outdoor game, although not a sport, is the Sega. Considered similar to a typical board game, Sega can be described as a more sophisticated version of the X-O game that is played with rocks and dry camel feces. Besides the ongoing sports competitions, there are also the musical events that each tribe put together with their traditional music and instruments. There are also sessions conducted like lectures on eco-tourism, water conservation, poetry, story-telling, and open tribe meetings.
The event overall was an amazing mix of cultures, and is highly recommended for anyone looking to experience an alternative cultural scene that Egypt has to offer.
*Photography by Heba Abu El Eid and Rowan El Shimi