10 February 2015

Sinai, Egypt 2011

Early in the morning we load into the expected four-wheel drive jeeps. Much as I dislike them, they are necessary for traversing the mountainous southern tip of the peninsula, very difficult terrain to travel. My first visit to the southern Sinai. We first pass through a bit of Sharm el-Sheik—the hotel area where many high-level Middle East meetings take place. I think of my friend who was here just after the Six Days War, as a guest on an Israeli training exercise. No hotels for them; they slept on the beach where nomads passed in the night with their camels. The immense climb takes us thousands of feet above sea level to reach the desert.

The paved road soon comes to an end. Then it takes another 1½ hours (I suppose it would take half a day on a camel :-) along twisting, up-and-down, bumpy tracks to a Bedouin village. The striking landscape is merely part of the Sinai; the stereotypical desert, the ocean of sand, is way north of here. As it is, we have all the sand anyone could want in the passes among the rocky peaks.
Nearing our destination, a few excited boys appear on camels to race around us. The village is a small random collection of seemingly half-finished homes with the more familiar outlying tents. A gaggle of kids, possibly all the children, has turned out to assist the tourists with the prescribed “Bedouin experience.” The little girls wear the hijab but otherwise it’s a motley group of T-shirts and sweaters.

Like the Jordanian government, Egypt has made an effort to provide Bedouins with permanent locations—assured supplies of water, staples, and a few basic installations. No doubt they prefer their comfortable tents. Government largesse doesn’t stop many of them from the customary seasonable migration back and forth with livestock ... they have permission to pass into/through countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia without passports. One supposes this village site was chosen at an original oasis but I see no sign of it. 

The school
Along with such intervention come schools. And tribal ambivalence. Most parents believe “learning” will entice their children away from the traditional life. If they get too much education they will likely leave the tribe to pursue greener pastures. Pun intended. Maintaining family, tradition, and the tribe are everything. Therefore children are seldom in school long enough to learn more than fundamentals. 
Our reception is a communal effort ... to a degree. The village men do the negotiating with our harried tour leader. The kids are the camel handlers. Women are never seen. Mounting the camels is a scene of confusion. Scarcely time for photography unless you have three or four hands. English is non-existent except for our leader/translator. It’s odd to be riding with a group. Impossible to communicate to my child camel handler (a) could your camera shot get both me and the whole camel in, and (b) my saddle was cinched off-centre (a test of the abs to keep upright). 
An hour or so later at a genteel pace, we find refreshment waiting at a purpose-built, rudimentary compound. Not before more confusion and milling around at the dismount. With sign language and graphic facial expressions, the kids haggle fiercely for more than the expected tip. Mission accomplished .. for the most part .. and they vanish. It’s disappointing to me that our “experience” does not include a Bedouin tent. Or at least a facsimile.
We are grateful to be directed to the shade of one open hut; our guide huddles with the local men and the jeep drivers in another. The sun is so overbearing I can’t get a decent photo in the starkly contrasting interiors. Boiled mint tea may sound strange on a blazing hot day but the effect is refreshingly welcome. The men bring us a snack of fresh goat cheese and lebe, cooked on a fire as we watch and make admiring noises. Handmade crafts are displayed for purchase. Sadly, you can hardly say we are interacting with them. I wish to, but can’t, dissociate myself from some of my companions who are dressed for a California beach romp in shorts and sleeveless shirts. Hasn’t anyone heard of cultural respect? 
Passing back through the village later, the young boys reappear all scrubbed up for Friday prayers. Where is the mosque, I wonder. Are they saying goodbye to us or wanting money for photo opps?

Reflection: In case it wasn’t apparent, my unease during the day had increased. I felt disengaged, disconnected, tourist-trappy. Not that I think a North American female will ever have the slightest meaningful dialogue with these people, but the ambivalence, the paradox, was too ironic. We seemed to be amidst a trial start-up business for this particular village or tribe. I think they haven’t resolved the means to their end, which is presumably to strengthen their micro-economy. We seem mere objects of mild curiosity to the children, or perhaps we are viewed only as cash machines. Limited exposure to us apparently inspires no thoughts of leaving home so tradition is safe on that front.  

The awkwardness is entirely forgivable. I know of successful ventures amongst the Bedu in other places where tourists are accepted not only as economic contributors but treated with friendship and good humour. One has to spend more than a few hours with them. And I much prefer negotiating a solo ride.   

Photographs BDM, November 2011

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

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