Our very professional Bedouin driver takes us across the desert in South Sinai. Whenever he sees a vehicle passing by smuggling subsidised fuel for the informal black market, he gets very angry. At the first police checkpoint we approach, he stops, opens his window and immediately directs an angry question to the police officer, “Why are you letting those fuel smugglers pass?”
The officer switches from usual arrogance to the opposite and replies, “We don’t know what to do with those dirty Bedouins.” The driver impulsively responds, “I am a Bedouin!”
The officer tries to fix it quickly and stupidly says, “No, no! I mean those dirty faces from Nuweiba.”
The driver, with an emotionless face, quietly says, “I am from Nuweiba!”
The officer freaks out, takes a step back, mumbles a scared apology and says, “I don’t mean it, I’m sorry! Only talking about the bad minority, not the respectable ones like you. You’re above my head.”
With the same emotionless face, the driver turns his face to the road and says, “Khlalas, khalas, salaam,” and steps on the accelerator, leaving the scene.
A few metres away from the checkpoint, the driver bursts out laughing and says, “Poor Egyptians! The guy got so scared. He was too distracted to ask me for my driving license, which I don’t have,” and continued laughing for minutes and called a couple of his friends to tell the story. It was an extreme source of pleasure to the driver to see the officer so embarrassed.
This true story that I was lucky to witness a few weeks ago accurately embodies the distorted relationship between security forces and the Bedouins. Those coming from the NileValley with their “superior” urban and rural values, versus those who have lived in the Sinai Peninsula for thousands of years.
After the October War (1973) and the consequent return of the peninsula piece by piece, the 1980s witnessed a lot of development promises and compensations for Sinai and its people, who lived directly under Israeli occupation. Not a single significant one was fulfilled until the mid-1990s.
1994 saw a new phase of development promises coming from the valley: promises of mega tourist projects, milk, honey, and sewage networks. The project promises were met, but there was neither honey nor sewage.
On the contrary, massive areas owned by the Bedouins for many years were taken from them by force and given to investors and Mubarak’s gang. The most “developmental” change that happened in locals’ lives was giving a few of them the chance to serve Bedouin tea to the tourists, take them on a camel ride, and serve as exotic subjects for photographs.
Mubarak’s security paranoia towards the Bedouins of Sinai, perceiving them as a source of threats to national security, was another ignorant and short-sighted policy of many. On the contrary, when terrorism was hitting the NileValley in the 1990s, the Bedouins of Sinai rejected it and the peninsula was completely safe from that mess.
The first terrorist bombing of that kind occurred in 2004, followed by a few others until 2006, and information indicated that it was Jihadi elements from the valley, probably working with foreign terrorists who managed to infiltrate the peninsula.
These terrorist elements might have succeeded in what Mubarak’s government (and today’s as well) had failed to do: respect the Bedouins! Maybe this is how they found a perfect hideout, especially in the very poor central region of the peninsula. However, the security forces’ reaction was extremely stupid and very poorly thought out.
They brought their valley security culture and practices and tried to implement them with the Bedouins. An urban dictatorship coming straight from the Nile banks to tribes’ territories in the desert, introducing the peaceful locals to state violence, torture, and murder. All under the rule of emergency law and fighting terrorism. A game of disrespect, which no one can afford the consequences of, enforced on the Bedouins. A completely ill-thought-out strategy by Mubarak’s security that today’s Brotherhood government is still following: never trust the Bedouins and never give them power!
Back to our professional Bedouin driver, who very much enjoyed watching the scared police officer. He was very sad telling stories about his visits to Cairo, the city he hates the most because people treat him as a foreigner and overcharge him.
I cunningly wanted to gain his trust, so I told him a historical story about his beloved homeland and how Almasaeed village was named by Amr Ibn Al-As in 642 CE, the name derived from the phrase “al masaa’o eid”, which means “this evening is a feast”.
The story coming from me as a valley Egyptian made such a change to the driver’s attitude, as he immediately appreciated the respect I showed and the recognition of his history and culture. And to conclude with even a happier ending to this story, he actually refused to take money from me for the ride he was hired to provide.
For the Bedouins, apparently it is all about recognition and respect which we people of the valley fail to give them.