The Bedouin are an integral part of any real desert experience. There knowledge of the terrain, flora and fauna is second to none, of precious value and often shared with travelers. In fact they make the desert very accessible and comfortable despite the obvious harshness and isolation of the environment. They have made the desert their home and take great pleasure in guiding visitors by foot, camel or car.
They are the original Arabs who came from Yemen and who moved up to Saudi Arabia. The Prophet Mohamed (praise be upon him) brought Islam to the Arab people who then spread out in the Middle East up to Syria and across north Africa all the way to Morocco around 1400 years ago. The Bedouin living in the Sinai today are part of a second exodus that which took place between 600 and 400 years ago. Between 12 and 17 tribes came over to join the already existing few tribes.
The Bedouin are great navigators and the first people to really conquer and settle in the Sinai desert where Moses is said to have been lost for over 40 years in the complex mountainous labyrinths of the south. The tribes vary in size from a few hundred members to dozens of thousands. Each tribe has it’s elders and Sheikh who is responsible for his people. His duties consist of settling problems, quarrels and financial matters as well as assisting the needy and seeing to the well being of the tribe as a whole. There is also a Sheikh who represents all the Sheikhs and who is also responsible for relations with the Egyptian government. Bedouin have their own laws which differ from national or islmac law and neither involve prison nor physical punishment.
For a long time the Bedouin lived mainly on dates, goat’s cheese, camel milk, meat and dried fish, or fresh fish and seafood for those living in coastal areas. Numerous plants trees and animals were used or consumed for medicinal purposes, and water from wells or collected after rainfall has enables them to survive in the harsh environment of the Sinai. Although originally nomadic, the Sinai desert’s oases and water wells have allowed the Bedouin to slowly reduce their journeys until they have practically become sedentary. However, still today, many families move a few times a year, mainly in winter and summer and depending on rain which allows herds to go grazing a few weeks after it falls. In the old days, before the creation of roads and the arrival of cars, the men had to trade dried fish, dried meat, coal and dates for other important products such as wheat, rice, clothes, coffee etc…These traditionally took place after up to one week of camel riding to reach Suez or Palestine.
The women traditionally took care of the herds and took part in the handicrafts. Clothes and sandals were made out of leather and wool. Camel, goat and sheep’s hairs were used to make carpets, blankets, camel pouches for transport, tents and decorations. They also made water and milk containers from animal skin. Today these ornaments are still made but without the same importance as to survival. With the increasing rise of globalism, it is getting harder for Bedouin to rely on their old lifestyle for survival.
Tourism has played a crucial role in changing life for the Bedouin who must now seek income through this sector. As well as ecological changes such as the lack of rainfall, resulting in the the reduction of animals, plants and water of course; most bedouin now need money to survive. They are natural guides in the desert and have been guiding visitors to the historical site of St Katherine for hundreds of years as it was only reachable after several days of trekking or riding with camels from either Palestine or Suez. Not alll Bedouin are guides in the desert today, many own businesses, hotels, property or land in one of the seaside resorts such as Dahab, Nuweiba or Sharm El Sheikh. Others work as drivers or in dive centers or hotels/camps.
They are proud people, preferring to be regarded as Bedouin rather than of any nationality. Despite our fast changing world they have preserved a lot of their traditions and stuck to their values. They are overall very honest, religious, open minded and tolerant people. Today their favorite pass-times are to actually live their traditional life style, hunting, fishing and camping out in remote areas by the sea or in the desert. Camel races and weddings as well as religious festivals are also great moments of gathering. Many are aware of the dangers of losing their identity, but one feels that the Bedouin will remain true to their roots as long as it is possible.