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Bedouin Life

The Bedouin are the traditional nomadic tent dwellers of the Arabian and Egyptian deserts. There is a tribal culture reflected in the saying, “My brother and I against my cousin. My cousin and I against the world.” Groups traditionally formed around a patriarch figure. In times of strife or special need the groups worked as one tribe. The Bedouin of Arabia were the first converts to Islam and spread it throughout North Africa as far as Spain in the 7th century Bedouin people are traditionally an oral culture and their history is kept in stories and poems. It is hard there fore for outsiders to get a completely definitive version of their history. Bedouins derive an identity from a confederation of families that have common interests, rather than a common origin. This means the original Arabian tribes over time found common cause with the in digamous nomadic tribes of Egypt. Though nomads are averse to their daughters marrying settlers they are not too opposed to them marrying other nomads of perhaps different ancestry. This flexibility explains why, despite endemic discrimination by the settled folk of Egypt, the Bedouin continue to thrive.

The Main Tribe
The main tribe on the northern coast of the Egypt are the Awlad ‘Ali. They date themselves from Bedouin migration in the 11th century AD. On the East coast there are two main tribal groups: the Ma’aza and the Ababda. The Ababda claim de scent from the Arab migrant Abad in the 13th century. Culturally they are closer to the hamitic Beja nomads of Sudan and Ethiopia. The Ma’aza are a large tribal group comprising many clans or families that have arrived over the centuries from the Arabian Peninsula. The most recent clan is the Khushman who came about 150 years ago. Though the Ababda and the Ma’aza have traditionally been somewhat opposed Bedouin life & lore in the desert Neither side attacks the other on having less authentic origins. Their disputes are about land and behavior not about race. Europeans over the centuries have been fascinated by the Bedouin. Such fgures as Jacob Burkhardt, Sir Richard Burton and Wilfred The siger were enamoured of their honour code and tough ways- in sharp contrast they felt to the effete ways of city dwellers. The Bedouin honour code includes such notions as automatic protection of guests, guar-anteed hospitality to those who ask and acts of secret charity known only to the giver. These notions exist still but are much undermined by the conditions of modern living.

The Traditional Justice System
The traditional justice system of the Bedouin is a court attended by all the elders of the tribe- and other tribes if there is an intertribal dispute. In Egypt, amongst the Red Sea tribes, this would be held in the presence of a small boat hanging from a tree. The boat symbolizes our transitory stature on Earth and how we are duty bound to move on. Perhaps, too, it is an influence from earlier inhabitants of the area who carved boat shapes on the rock walls the same shaped boats used by the Pharaohs. Until the early 19th century the Bedouin controlled the deserts of Egypt and the Egyptians controlled the fertile Nile valley and Delta. The Bedouin consider themselves Arabs with their origin being the triangle from Syria to Iraq down to Saudi Arabia. They first arrived as part of the original invasion force of Egypt during the great Islamic conquests. This first wave of Bedouin married into the Egyptian populace, though some naturally inhabited the desert regions which they shared in an uneasy truce with Berber and Tebu tribal groups. Further waves of Bedouin repeatedly arrived either through the Sinai or across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. The latest migrations were little more than two hundred years ago.

The Bedouin Now
nowadays the Bedouin of Egypt can be very roughly divided into four groups. There are the Sinai Bedouin who are still close to their nomadic roots even those that are working in Sharm el-Sheikh. They were able to adapt from nomadic travel in the hills to taking tourists along their old routes. Then there are the Red Sea Coast tribes: mainly the Ma’aza and the Ababda. These retain a considerable amount of old practices though they have adopted modern technology and some modern conveniences. Inevitably, the richer families who have made money from selling land for resort development have changed more than the poor. Thirdly you have the Awlad Ali who dominate on the north coast these have been assimilating for years into Alexandrian culture. Most recently they have also become wealthy through development of seaside apartments all along the north coast.

Finally there are the Bedouin who live in the Western Desert oases. They are connected by interest to both the Awlad Ali and the Red Sea Bedouin, though their lineage may be somewhat distant from either, having lived for several centuries or more in the oases. These were the truck drivers of the camel age transporting produce to the Nile by camel up until the 1980s. Many then turned to farming and then to the much more lucrative tourist business. They still retain a lot of Bedouin characteristics though a love of falconry, the desert and camp fire music.

Finding Direction
Bedouin are reputedly brilliant at finding their way in the desert and they are- but there is no magic to it, just extreme familiarity. They know that the wind is usually from the north West and that dunes align with that prevailing that the sun, in winter at midday, is in the south. Finally the landscape in its main features is simple- every oasis has an escarpment along one or more sides. These cliff edges that can run for hundreds of kilometers can be used as handy reference points for traveling, as can the lengthy north/south Western Desert road.

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