Bedouins as a group are the traditionally nomadic people of the Middle Eastern deserts, Bedouins live in many regions of the Arab world including North Africa, the Arabian Gulf, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and here in Egypt, in the Sinai Peninsula.
The word Bedouin in Arabic refers to something akin to, ‘one who lives out in the open’ or ‘of the desert’. Traditionally, Bedouin are pastoralist nomadic people who would have moved in response to changing weather and seasons and many Bedouin in the Sinai still follow this way of life. However, many others responded to the changing political and economic landscapes of the 20th century by becoming more sedentary and settling in growing townships, such as Dahab. Although the traditional lifestyle may have changed, the Bedouin still maintain firm ties to the mountains and the desert.
There are 13 Bedouin tribes who occupy differing regions of the Sinai, although there are no firm borders the individual regions are well known and respected. Access to water is always guaranteed to all who pass by in need, regardless of tribe. The majority of the tribes came to the Sinai between the 13th and 18th centuries, some even arrived prior to the Islamic-Era. In fact, the history of the Jebeleya tribe stretches back to circa 530 C.E when reportedly, 100 men along with their wives and children were recruited from the then Wallachian region (modern-day Romania) to protect and serve the Justantinian, St. Catherine’s Monastery, along with an equal amount of people recruited from Egypt! The resulting tribe converted to Islam around 1000 years later but still continued to protect the Monastery and to this day maintain excellent relations with the Orthodox institution.
Of these 13 Bedouin tribes, the Jebeleya, Tarabin, and Muzeina have the most to do with tourists, occupying as they do the territory along the gulf of Aqaba, from Taba to Sharm el Sheikh, and around St. Catherines. Societal changes have been inevitable following the rise of tourism to the area, yet cultural identity remains hugely important to the local Bedouin and many traditional practices remain firmly in place, including ‘El ‘Orf’, the upholding of Bedouin law. Bedouin society is hierarchal, large family groups are headed up by a senior male member and within a tribe there are also several Sheikhs who perform a somewhat judicious role, adjudicating disputes between members and assisting in smoothing any potentially contentious inter-tribal relations.
The Bedouin language is a dialectical variant of Arabic and is changeable across tribes. Although the majority of Bedouin can also converse in Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial Egyptian Arabic, when speaking to one another it is always the local variety which is used. Traditionally Bedouin Arabic is a spoken language with a rich tradition of oral poetry and stories which were passed on generation by generation. As more mainland Egyptians have settled in the Sinai the language has merged somewhat with the ‘Amiya’ (Egyptian Arabic), however in the mountains and less frequented regions the dialects have remained intact.
The traditional dress is still worn by many Bedouin, this is unsurprising as the clothing is well-suited to the desert heat and unforgiving sun. Men wear Jalabeyas, long loose fitting cotton robes (often in white) and a keffiyeh (head scarf, often red and white) on their heads to protect from the sun. Bedouin women wear something similar although their Jalabeya dresses are normally much more colourful and are often intricately beaded and patterned, when they are outside of the home they will also don a long black Abaya (coat).
The Bedouin are widely known to be incredibly hospitable and welcoming to travellers and visitors, a tradition that is perhaps born from the harshness of the desert surrounds, custom dictates that visitors must be treated respectfully and be well nourished before setting forth again. Politeness and honour are virtues that are of key concern to Bedouin society and it is these values coupled with the impeccable hospitality that make a trip to the Sinai and an insight into Bedouin culture such a fascinating and unforgettable experience.