Sheikh Musa leans back and smiles. His long white galabiya, Saudi silk, folds gracefully over his crossed legs. He flicks his kofeyya over his head, and continues his story.
Musa, the younger head of the Gabaliyya tribe, is narrating a tale that fills him with pride. “Years ago, when I was a child, I found a wild donkey. I brought it to an old man in the mountains, and exchanged it for a young but sickly camel. That camel, Musa would go on to tell me, was expected to die within a year, but under his care it went on to win the international Camel race tournaments held annually in Sinai.
But Salah Musa’s dedication isn’t limited to his camels, it extends to his whole community, the Gabaliyya tribe of Sinai, a romantic, rugged tribe who trace their roots to the Balkans. Backpacking around the region four years ago, I was seduced by the Bedouin. Their staunch loyalty to an ancient way of life in the face of looming modernization suggests a sense of rebelliousness. These people are a bitter sweet thorn in the side of the urbanizing state.
Another traveler seduced by the Bedouin was Mark Knutton, who came to the mountains of Sinai for a week’s trekking holiday last April. Knutton also sat and chatted by a blazing camp fire with Sheikh Musa, but as Musa was to discover, this Brit was not your average backpacker. Together they talked enthusiastically about the potential for boosting the tourist industry in Sinai, and, in doing so, making a difference in the lives of the indigenous people.
It was there that Bedouin Paths was born, a tourist company whose moral compass renders it more an NGO than a commercial venture. I spent my first night in Sinai after a four year absence in the company of Salah, sipping strong, sweet Bedouin tea while he narrated tales from Bedu folklore, such as that of Swailham, one of the hero’s of Bedouin oral literature.
The following day, eight men and five camels strong, we began our week long trek through the valleys and mountains of Sinai.Our guide, Hussain had forgone the traditional galabiya for a bright orange tracksuit, which he had, as he proudly boasted, worn for a marathon a year earlier. Hussain, 28 and a non-smoker, is as lissom as the legendary ibex that roam these parts. When asked how long it had taken him to run the marathon he simply shrugged and smiled cheekily. “Maybe one hour, he said, before leaping over a boulder and calling “Yallah bina [lets go]!
But Hussain’s youthful innocence belies his responsibilities. He has been engaged for five years, but before he can marry, he must build and furnish a house for his future wife. In the past it would have been a tent, but civilization and its material demands have reached even the most remote parts of the world. For these Bedu, tourism allows them to make their daily bread, and judging by the hostility that is shown to Bedouin by many Egyptian employers, it would be hard for young men like Hussain to make ends meet by any other means.
In any case, however patronizing it may sound, to take this people away from their natural landscape would be nearby blasphemy. The Gabaliyya tribe are the guardians of the monastery of St. Catherine, sent by Justinian in 527 from the Black Sea Region to guard the monastery. When Islam filtered the West, the Bedouin tribes converted, but the Gabaliyya tribe did not desert their holy duty, and it remains an intrinsic part of their identity to this day. Their intimacy with these deep red rocks seems to run in their blood. Many times we found ourselves resting in the shade of a crag, or sitting under a lone mulberry tree, and see a long white robed figure emerge from behind some boulder before politely greeting us and continuing on his way like some biblical mirage.
But on other days we wandered for hours without seeing another soul. Even climbing Mount Catherine we encountered few tourists. A lone German couple battled the wind at the summit. It seemed they intended on staying in the tiny lodge perched all 2,624 meters above sea level on the peak, with only each other (and a very stoned Bedouin) for company.
On the descent we met a long bearded Russian orthodox priest in full garb, followed obediently by four red faced disciples, a reminder if there ever was one that this was indeed a place of pilgrimage. During the occupation of Sinai in 1967 to 1979, the Israeli’s had built a few roadways over the mountains and erected what seemed to resemble surveillance equipment. But now these roads lie in shambles, and the buildings to which they lead are derelict, another testimony to the sacredness of this land that countries have fought over for centuries.
Wandering through the valleys and scrambling down narrow passes, it was not hard to see why it was here that God chose to deliver the 10, or as it has been recently contested, the 13 commandments. At times we found ourselves in the wilderness, surrounded by nothing but parched, cracked earth. Moments later we would turn a corner and be met with a garden that could have been painted as a biblical vignette. These gardens, or karm, as they are called, pepper the landscape like mini oases. For centuries they have been the center of life for Bedouins, the base for their subsistence farming. The gardens have been handed down through generations, heirlooms that connect each son directly with the earth.
However, the rosy picture we love to paint of Bedouin life is not how it used to be. Out of the approximately 70 gardens that lie tucked away in valleys such as Wadi Shagg and Wadi Feiran, only a mere percentage are in use, and those that are need urgent repairs.
One of the reasons that explain why some gardens have fallen into disuse is the lack of rain. Sinai may look like a desert land in summer, but one only has to glance at the absurd and intriguing rock formations to realize that at one time this was a place where rain fell in abundance. On our penultimate day, we took shelter from the sun under the bank of what had been once a seasonal river. Seeing a Brit lounging in the concave swell of a river bed seems slightly incongruous, but sun scorched basins are no peculiarity for a people who have grown painfully used to the lack of water in the region.
The gardens that have retained their unique beauty, providing sanctuary for trees ranging from the apricot to the etrog, have done so because they play host to tourists trekking through the valleys. The first garden we stayed at, located in the back pocket of Mount Sinai, the humblest of mountains (according to my Sunday school teacher), was lush with a variety of plants and trees, not to mention a hyrax sanctuary. The hyrax resemble guinea pigs, but despite their endangered status, they breed like rabbits. Ramadan, the jovial Bedouin who owned the garden described how he had started off with one male and three females, and now there were 70 little nippers chasing each over round the enclosure. Ramadan, with his 11 children (and those, according to Hussain, were just the boys in the village) had obviously taken a lesson or two from his furry clientele.
But moving down the valley, one could clearly see that not every garden owner had reason to be as jovial as our friend Ramadan. Ouda’s garden is beautiful, as well as eco friendly: everything that goes in the toilet, with the help of a little sawdust, ends up in the flower bed, so to speak. Ouda himself, however, is not optimistic about the future. “We haven’t had a decent rainfall in 10 years, he said, “If I want there to be something for my children, there has to be a working well, a motor, and even things like walls have to be rebuilt. This all costs money, and that is scarce nowadays.
I nod sympathetically, but feel guilty. There’s little doubt that the paucity of a good shower has something to do with carbon emissions. If so, my ugly carbon footprint is stamped all over Ouda’s innocent garden.
Bedouin Paths, in tandem with Sheikh Musa, aims to reverse the degeneration of these natural jewels of the Great Rift Valley. For every trip, 40 percent of the income will go towards making these gardens
a habitat for both fruit trees and trekkers. Salah tells me that one particular garden he has in mind for the project belongs to a poor man who lost his wife and now has three handicapped children to support, needless to say, without state aid. He speaks of involving the owner’s sister in the running of the garden and dealing with the tourists, something entirely unheard of as yet in the Bedouin community. Allowing women to help manage such a venture would translate to something near to liberation in Bedouin terms. “We have to move into the 21st century like everybody else, Musa tells me excitedly.
Sure, if there is something called ethical tourism, then Sinai is where it is found. Sheikh Musa, who prides himself on being the exemplar of Bedouin nobility, has formed a rota system which guarantees work for all those registered, and does not prejudice against those less educated. And then there is the idyllic eco-lodge, Al-Karm, which is complete with kitchens and warm showers, but where the only signs of modern civilization are the small wind and solar panels perched neatly on the roof.
Adjoining the lodge is a herb garden, where, with the help of the UNDP, the resident Bedouins grow desert plants with medicinal properties. As a recipient of Bedouin remedies myself, I was glad to see their healing properties were being realized. Whilst trekking through the valleys, I developed a fascination with the flora and fauna of Sinai, and would bombard Hussain with questions about each shrub or plant we passed. Ghassoun, he would reply, good for the stomach, Ba’tharaan, great for a sore throat, Habak, that’s just what camels eat. If Sinai’s history can heal the soul, it’s botany can heal the body. There is a plethora of knowledge tucked away in the shady cavities, and it is the Bedouins themselves, humble as they may be, who are the guardians to that knowledge. It is no wonder that the unfortunate Abbas Pasha, the Ottoman ruler with a bad cough, chose Sinai as his would be sanatorium.
My venture through Sinai was more successful than the late Pasha’s. I reluctantly took the bus back to smoggy Cairo suntanned and supple, devising ways I could sneak back to Sinai. One possible route is through actually working in Sinai. One of the long term aims of Bedouin Paths is to open a school for the community, but this requires teachers. For those who are looking for a shift in lifestyle and an adventure, this is a perfect way to develop personal links with the Bedouin community.
Even though our trip lasted only one week, spending each evening in the company of our Bedouin comrades, Hussain, Jamil, Muhammad, Hamed one and two, and the two giggling teenagers Ayid and Suleiman, we had developed lasting friendships, and discovered Sinai through those people whose love for this wild landscape runs deepest. My fellow travelers were three adventurous Brits with no prior knowledge of either the Middle East nor of the Arabic language. But this did not hinder communication between the two cultures and there was some genuinely emotional farewells on the final night.
But what really intrigued me about Bedouin Paths, is that it is made up of an eclectic group of anthropologists and architects, all of whom have fallen under the spell of Sinai. One being Anne-Catherine, a beautiful Swiss architect who maps the desert. On meeting these academics a week earlier in a wooden floored, tall-ceilinged downtown apartment, I was instantly struck by their passion for the region, not to mention their deep knowledge of Bedouin traditions and customs. This enterprise could be something really exciting, I thought. Now, having tasted the fruits of Sinai’s hidden gardens, I am convinced that it is.
Bedouin Paths are currently looking for teachers either with proffessional qualifications or relevant experience to teach English at the school they are setting up which will be providing books and any neccessary equipment for the Bedouin children (age 7 -18). For teachers full accomodatiotion and salary will be provided on a one-year contract basis. Interviews will be taking place from now untill Decemeber as to begin in January 2008.
As for the hikes, special offers are provided for Egyptains for ex-pats and proffesionals with optional pick ups and drop offs, long weekends in Sinai hiking in the mountains and deserts by foot and by camel, visiting the monastery and Jebel Mousa plus a few days relaxing by the beach. Prices start from under LE 1000 per person.
For more information on hikes, tours or applying to teach in Saint Catherine, visit www.bedouinpaths.com