Sinai – Long Read

How long can desert life survive?

Um Rabia, which means ”mother of Rabia,” lives in a tent in the Sinai desert with her children, goats and blind mother. Her husband lives with his other wife on the coast. Bedouin laws are very strict for women, but Um Rabia is a special case. She does as she pleases and gets away with it.

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Sinai – Long Read

How long can desert life survive?

Hello Mount Sinai, said to be where Moses received the Ten Commandments, given to his people wandering in the desert. Today, the Bedouin still wander the desert but changing is coming fast. As borders restrict their movements, motor transport replaces their camels and and tourism brings the temptations of sex, money and alcohol, how long can desert life survive?

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

After a long climb of around 3,500 steps, I reach the top of Mount Sinai, where – according to biblical texts – Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. My heart beats loudly and rebelliously in my chest and my knees ache, but I’ve arrived just in time to witness the sun fall behind the mountains, hundreds of kilometers in the distance. Stretching out before me is a desert composed of the yellow ochre silhouettes of mountain ranges. The only sound is the rustling of the wind.

Had I been here 160 million years ago, I would have been looking at the bottom of the Thetis sea. Sliding rock strata between Africa and Asia pushed the land upwards. A landscape of sand and limestone has been created from the sediment of this reclaimed seabed, which has been further sculpted by climate change, floods and earthquakes.

Evening falls and the glow of the rising moon and countless stars cast their light on me. I feel small and insignificant in the midst of space and time, like an ineffectual piece of a bigger reality. Full of wonder, I think of the first Bedouin who settled in these inhospitable surroundings, putting themselves at the mercy of their gods.

They simply take an aspirin

On the edge of Nuweiba, a village on the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba between the resorts of Taba and Sharm el Sheikh, Dr Achmed receives me in his house. We sit in a cool room with only a doorway and a small window. On the sandy floor lie hundreds of cushions, and in the center a smoldering fire gently warms a charred teapot. The walls are bare, save a portrait of his grandfather, Sheik Umbarec. Dr Achmed follows my gaze and then says: “My grandfather was a great medicine man, and very well respected. Often the guest tent would be packed full of waiting patients. People came from near and far to be treated by him, and if the treatment was expected to take a while, they would set up their tents nearby. But that was then. Now, traditional medicine is in a sorry state. The younger generation simply takes an aspirin if they don’t feel well.”

Sitting next to Dr Achmed is a Bedouin of around 40 years of age, who says nothing throughout our discussion. As the time passes, he starts acting like someone who is seriously ill, and when that still fails to attract our undivided attention, he puts a hand to his stomach, rolls on his side and, to my consternation, begins to groan softly. What’s going on? “Chronic stomach pain and diarrhea,” Dr Achmed casually explains.

Ten minutes later we walk to the treatment room, where the patient, who must surely now be approaching death, is lying on a bed. Dr Achmed feels his abdomen (“Cough for me…”) and puts a glass cup with medicinal smoke on his chest (“Breathe in, breathe out…”). He takes a substance from one of the pots of minerals and plant extracts which fill the shelves, and puts it in a plastic bag which he carefully seals and hands to the patient. He is to drink a tea made from this stuff three times a day. With a look of melancholy in his eyes, Dr Achmed watches as his patient climbs onto his camel, reborn. “The job of the medicine man is on the decline. Before it used to be only the chosen ones who were allowed to study the art, now no one even bothers applying. There is no motivation to do it. This means if anything happens to me, all my knowledge will be lost.”

We’ve traded in our camels for pick-up trucks

The Sinai Desert, which lies between the Gulf of Aqaba, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, is an inhospitable region. In strident contrast with the exuberant flora and fauna of the seas that surround it, the land is poor and uninhabitable. You would think no one would want to live here, but it has been occupied by hostile armies no less than 50 times. The most recent clashes were between Israel and Egypt. Israel, which had occupied the Sinai since the Six-Day War in 1967, ‘returned’ the land to Egypt after the Camp David agreements. The only permanent inhabitants, the Bedouin, were not involved in negotiations. They simply watched passively as their country changed hands. The Bedouin are a people without an army, a state, or their own organization, in a land without borders – a situation comparable with that of the Inuit. Despite the continuing predominance of other peoples, the Bedouin have retained their own identity and managed to keep their way of life alive.

“But in the last 20 years, with the coming of the roads, everything has changed. We no longer drive our herds of goats from place to place through the desert, we now live in stone huts. We’ve traded in our camels for pick-up trucks. Yes, we still bake our bread in the traditional way, but water is brought in each week in great barrels,” says Sheik Jumaa Sbayh of the South Sinai. The tragedy of the Bedouin is that the knowledge they have accumulated over thousands of years in order to withstand the desert, threatens to disappear within a single generation. The paved roads, availability of goods and income from tourism have given the Bedouin access to the 20th century. For the younger generations, the need to survive in the desert is a concept from the past.

“The system of rules and laws – the cement that used to hold the Bedouin people together, despite the enormous distances that separate us – is crumbling,” he says. “Young men, lured by money, move to the coast, where they build a new life. The Egyptian government is strengthening its grip on the Sinai, especially now, in order to gain a slice of the income tourism provides. We now have the responsibilities of national service and education, and have to have official permission to carry out certain jobs. Even if we would want to, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain our identity.”

We sleep under the stars

Hassan, an unmarried 36-year-old Bedouin, is our guide on a six-day trek through the wilderness of the south Sinai. He is a typical example of the thousands of Bedouin men who are dependent on tourism for their income. Together with him, we visit exotic oases such as Wadi T’bug and Wadi Jabal, climb the Jabal Abass Pasha (2,300m) and risk our lives on the slopes of Jabal Bab. At night we sleep under the stars. One night, I am awoken by something or someone with a wet nose and terrible halitosis. I open my eyes and gape into the nostrils of a wild donkey. Together with his friends, he’s plundered our camp, looking for food. Our flour supply has been substantially depleted. A couple of my travel companions leap up and – still in their underwear – chase the shocked donkeys out of the camp. Hassan cannot suppress a smile.

On the morning of the last day, the weather is noticeably fresher. By noon, clouds are gathering and a cold wind has picked up. Tired and, lost in thought, we light a fire, eat some baba ganoush, and listen to Hassan, who sings Bedouin songs for us. Then suddenly someone cries: “It’s snowing!” Indeed it is, and not just a little bit. What now? We are at an altitude of 2,000m in the heart of the Sinai desert, it is getting dark quickly and we still have to find a place to camp. We do not have tents. All eyes are on Hassan, who again is unable to suppress a smile. Without him we are helpless, and he knows it. The same knowledge that helped his grandparents survive in the desert now enables him to earn his living by guiding tourists.

He has seen the bad weather coming hours ago and takes us to safety in a sheltered space at the foot of a big cliff, which offers protection against the snow and wind. With a little wriggling about, we are all just able to fit in. The following morning, the sight of the desert is unforgettable; covered in a thin layer of white snow that glistens in the sun. Soon, small streams of water begin to gather momentum, eventually forming larger streams which make some paths impassable. Hassan changes our route. We stop at a caper tree that has grown right through the cliffs in search of water and Hassan points out the suchkaran, a plant which people smoke to get high. This sometimes has deadly consequences, as it is difficult to ascertain exactly how strong it is.

A camel is a domestic pet

If Hassan is not talking to us, he is talking to his camels. He has entire conversations with them. He thinks it normal. “A camel is a domestic pet. That’s why they all have a name. This one’s Rambo, because he’s so tough, and this one’s Michael, because he can dance like Michael Jackson. I asked Michael if he got cold last night – I’d never ask that of Rambo – He might see it as an insult.”

A modern Bedouin such as Hassan is neither fish nor fowl. Daily contact with tourists means that he is distancing himself from his own culture. He is Westernized – certainly in his ideas – but to us he is just another Bedouin man with a cloth on his head. Why is he not married? “A Bedouin woman is too old-fashioned for me,” he says. “I don’t find that appealing. I would like to marry a Western woman, but they don’t see anything in me. Maybe I’ll just marry my camel…”

Dahab. Along its long, dusty main street hugging the bay largely is a chain of oriental-style cafés and restaurants. Young, tanned bodies languish on endless rows of cushions in the sun listening to Bob Marley, drinking Turkish coffee and dipping bread in hummus. It’s a typical Bedouin town and its popularity among young people is due largely to the liberal and hospitable attitude of the locals. In addition, it’s a great place for diving and windsurfing.

The other half is spent on hash

But the Egyptians, who well know the money to be made from tourism, would rather turn Dahab into a second Sharm el Sheik, where charter flights from all over Europe touch down. As far as they are concerned, penniless backpackers should go elsewhere. According to the Egyptian owner of a bazaar, “a backpacker usually survives on $50 a week. Half is spent on food, drink and accommodation, and the other half on hash, which they buy from the Bedouin. We don’t earn anything from them.” So why have we set up shop here? Because the tourist buses from Sharm el Sheik make a stop in Dahab on their way to the St Catherine convent.”

The authorities also seem to have set their sights on Dahab. They stipulate that buildings may no longer be constructed within 30 meters of the coast. As a result, all the fishing huts, where local fishermen rest during the day, must be pulled down. These are often rebuilt the next day, but it is a futile battle. “We are nomads. According to our law, the land belongs to everyone,” says one. “Land ownership is often not documented, people just mark out an area with stones. If a conflict arises, a Bedouin judge will settle it. An Egyptian judge, however, immediately asks for documentation, proof of ownership. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t look good for you.”

The Sinai is becoming ‘Egyptianized’

The Egyptians are increasingly distrustful of the Bedouin because they have a friendly relationship with the Israelis (the Israelis consider them to be the forefathers of the people of Israel) and because they do not cooperate with the Egyptian authorities. Civil unrest is the norm. People do not put their names down on the municipal population register, conscription is evaded and disputes between Bedouin are not reported to the Egyptian authorities. Some taxi drivers drive without an official licence, or with someone else’s licence. Fixed police checkpoints can be avoided by driving through the wadis. There is no “active resistance” because that would require organization, knowledge and resources, but more importantly because the Bedouin have, over the years, learned to keep to themselves. Egypt is using mainly political and economic means in its attempt to tighten its grip on the region and the Bedouin themselves. Roads are constructed and public buildings to house Egyptian civil servants are being built in the smallest villages. The arrival of big hotels in villages such as Dahab also fits into this scenario. Slowly but surely, the Sinai is becoming ‘Egyptianized’.

It is said that religion brings people together; devout Muslims all come together in the mosque, where no distinctions are made. But the imams, who lead the Koran discussions each Friday, are all Egyptians. Mohamed Katab, the prominent governing board member of the mosque in Dahab who was born in Alexandria says: “In the Sinai, there is nowhere you can study to become an imam, so you have to go somewhere like Cairo. In addition, most Bedouin have had almost no schooling whatsoever, making this impossible anyway.”

Tourism and the Egyptianization of the Sinai have had a disruptive effect on Bedouin life. The influence of sheiks, whose opinions were traditionally held in high regard, is dwindling, mainly because, in order to maintain their power, they have to pay lip service to the Egyptians. The same applies to the Bedouin judges, who can only function in the shadow of Egyptian law. The increase in tourism has brought with it temptations: sex, money and alcohol. The lure of these is sometimes difficult to withstand. One evening, when with my guide and interpreter Mohammed, I accidentally take a sip from his bottle of Fanta. Vodka! Suddenly I notice that everyone is clutching a bottle of Fanta.

I don’t have a man to make my life miserable

In direct contrast to the increasing freedom permitted to men, the position of women is deteriorating. They are kept hidden away and pushed further into isolation. As a visitor it is almost impossible to come into contact with them. They hide behind head scarves and avoid eye contact. Upon introduction, they offer you a limp hand, before being quickly drawn back into the family tent. They only enter the mak’ad or guest tent to pour tea and serve meals.

This makes the phenomenon of Um Rabbia (literally, the ‘mother of Rabbia’ – Rabbia is the name of her first-born son) all the more remarkable. Together with her children, goats and blind mother, she lives in a tent on the road to St Catherine. Her husband lives with his second wife in a stone house in Nubia. Sometimes she receives small groups of tourists, to whom she serves tea and bread. If she’s in the mood, she’ll play the flute, and get her three-year-old daughter Aliya, to dance. “I’ve had no luck with men,” she says, “but I also have no man to make my life miserable.” Contrary to all the rules, she is separated from her husband, runs her own “business” and can pick and choose her men. But that’s not to say that she’s at the front of the picket line campaigning for equal rights. Her primary concerns are her goats and her children; how to keep them fed and how to survive to the next day. She is not occupied organizing a women’s movement, but instead busy chasing off a hyena prowling around the wadi and poisoning it using a dead goat. It is difficult to say why some rules don’t apply to her. Her husband, an influential judge, doesn’t tell her what to do and tolerates her behavior. Were he not to do this, then serious repercussions would undoubtedly ensue. But despite her rebellious nature, she still wears a head scarf like other women. She knows that the act of showing her face is a provocative one, a practice even she won’t dare to challenge.

The question of whether Um Rabbia is a Bedouin feminist before her time remains unanswered. But the phenomenon is likely to be short-lived. Her oldest daughter Fatma is just 17 and will soon be married off to her cousin, in the traditional manner. Fatma scorns him: “He’s short and fat and looks like a teapot!” But Um Rabbia is powerless. Her son Adel, aged seven, became the man of the house when his brothers went to live elsewhere, and seems unlikely to promote emancipation. He embraces the traditional male role with open arms. When asked what he wants to do when he grows up, he answers: “Get married and ride on my camel.”

A life without TV, PC, diary or supermarket

That brings us up to date with feminism in the Sinai. “The position of women in the Sinai seems at first glance to be fairly unenviable, but for me it has many positive elements,” says Simone. “The simplicity of life, focusing on uncomplicated things such as collecting wood, preparing food and caring for goats. Singing in the evenings, telling stories and sleeping under the stars. A life without television, diaries, computers and supermarkets.” Simone from Germany moved to the Sinai where she married Musa. She converted to Islam, donned a headscarf and learned marital obedience. The freedom she had experienced as a western woman has gradually been exchanged for the romance of Bedouin life. “I was sick of Germany. There, everything revolves around money and power.”

Simone and Musa set themselves up in a hut in Ras Abu Galum, a small settlement on the coast, two hours from the nearest village. That’s where their son Ranim was born. A tale of a thousand and one nights? Not quite. Soon, Simone discovered hairline cracks in her Utopia. The 21st century has also made inroads into Ras Abu Galum. Every day, tourists turn up to dive, and the Bedouin scrabble for the right to serve them lunch and sell them handicrafts. With the money they earn, they hope to be able to buy a pick-up truck. In addition, the government has plans to lay a sealed road into the settlement.

Simone and Musa have since decided to go and set up their tents with Musa’s parents, who live somewhere in the middle of the unforgiving wilderness of the south Sinai. An even more burning question is whether this European Bedouin will find what she is seeking when she gets there. And if so, for how long? Or is the end of the romance already in sight?