Winter Showers, May Flowers

Click the link below to read our latest article in Egypt Today:

Winter Showers, May Flowers

“Desert guru Eid al Atrash provides an oral history of the spring pasturing traditions of the Bedouin of Sinai”

By Krista Masonis and Eid al Atrash

Photography by Eid Al Atrash

Heavy rains fell on the parched high mountain plateaus of South Sinai this winter, leaving a bountiful crop in their wake. As small green sprouts push through the cracked earth offering promise of nourishment and health, this spring the Bedouin nomads…”

Zuara at the tomb of Sheikh Haboos

The tomb of Sheikh Haboos.

Small, domed tombs, like the one of Sheikh Haboss pictured above, can be found throughout the Sinai peninsula. When Bedouin need guidance, a blessing, or help with a problem – for example if a relative is ill, a wife is pregnant, or good crops desired – many will visit and pray at a holy sheikh’s (like a saint’s) tomb to ask for an intervention of their behalf from Allah. When this takes place on a sheikh’s birthday, it is called a “mulid”. Otherwise, this practice is known as a “zuara” and, depending on tribal traditions and the tomb visited, happens only on certain days.  Mondays and Fridays are reportedly the busiest days for a zuara at the tomb of Sheikh Haboos, although it is  not uncommon for one to happen on other days as well. Typically a zuara involves the sacrifice of a lamb, a shared meal, and – during a mulid celebration – much music and dancing. Nearby to most tombs you will find small stone buildings, “maq’ad”, used as shelters for praying, meeting, eating, and – of course – tea drinking!

Men from the El-heywaat tribe slaughter a sheep at the tomb of Sheikh Haboos.

On a recent safari to the area near Sheikh Haboos’s tomb, we were invited to join a zuara by a group of Bedouin from the El-Heywaat tribe who were visiting from the Taba region. That’s an invitation that is hard to refuse! So we turned the truck around and backtracked to the tomb. Our guide, Freyj, happily helped set up carpets inside the maq’ad. As the man who would slaughter the sheep cleaned and readied for the sacrifice, the others prayed, started the fires, and began the preparations for the meal. Dried palm fronds that had been collected along the way and a large palm trunk found next to the maq’ad were used for the fire that would cook the meat. Smaller dried plants were lit for the fire built inside for tea.

The cooking pot on the fire.
The cooking pot on the fire.

Chunks of meat were thrown in the pot of boiling water with several handfuls of mountain salt. Livers and other innards were chopped and placed in a separate pan with oil and water. It would take several hours for the meal to cook so the men sat inside, sheltered from the chilly wind, as they drank tea, smoked, and chatted about a variety of topics. Eventually, the liver was served on a large round metal tray that we all sat around using pieces of thin fresh bread to scoop up bites of liver. After about another hour and a half, the meat was ready. Although we did not stay to share in this meal, the men would not let us leave empty-handed, being sure we had plenty of meat, both raw and cooked, to take back to camp with us.

Mulids are celebrated throughout Egypt, by both Muslims and Christians, and the Bedouin of Sinai have their own unique traditions for these rituals, traditions that have changed over the years to these more simple, quiet affairs. You can read more about mulids in Egypt here.



The Bedouin Tribes of the Sinai: Lecture Book by Larry Roeder (2005)

Upcoming International Conference in Cairo

For those of you in Cairo, there will be an International Conference from November 29 to December 1, 2012, entitled “The Arab East and the Bedouin Component: Features and Tensions from Late Antiquity to the Present“. The conference is being held at AUC, Tahrir Square Campus.

Click the link below to see the program/poster as a PDF:

The Arab East & the Bedouin Component_poster 

We would love to hear from anyone who is able to attend!

Recommended Reading: Bedouin Poetry

Bedouin Poetry From Sinai and the Negev

Author: Clinton Bailey

Published by Saqi Books, 2002

ISBN 10: 0863563309

ISBN 13: 9780863563300

Unfortunately, this title is not available locally in Egypt. At least, I’ve never seen it! It is available from or from the publisher’s website.

And a description from that website about the book:

The desert dwelling bedouin have always been a subject of intense fascination. Their culture and ethics are still largely a mystery. Like other non-literate peoples, the bedouin have a strong tradition of oral poetry, which plays an indispensable role in their daily life. Clinton Bailey has spent more than twenty years among the bedouin of Sinai and the Negev, studying their culture and recording their poems as recited around the campfires. This book presents 113 poems which reflect bedouin attitudes to a variety of personal, social and political experiences. The poems are also presented in Arabic script and in phonemic transliteration. They are arranged according to their purpose: poems of expression, communication, instruction and entertainment, and poems reflecting the Bedouin response to Turkish, British, Egyptian, and Israeli rulers from 1882 to 1982. The author also devotes chapters to discussing the role that poetry plays in bedouin life, and describing how ‘desert’ poetry has persisted from pre-biblical times to the present.

My thoughts:

So much more than a collection of poetry! Every time I picked it up, I was in awe of the amount of work that went into it – collecting and verifying the poems, transcribing, transliterating, and translating – and then there’s the narrative! Bailey has provided the background information on bedouin culture, history, and language that provide readers with the insight they need to understand and appreciate the poems and some foundational knowledge to help them understand the bedouin’s previous way of desert life.

It is a book that I will come back to often, especially to read the poems in Arabic (what I can of them, anyway). I found the poems in the chapter “Poems to Entertain”, well, the most entertaining. 🙂

If you want to learn about traditional Bedouin culture, buy (and read!) this book!

Videos about Sinai Bedouins

LKG Media – Digital Artists presents:

Badawis: Documentary on the Sinai Bedouins

and a short film

Bedouin Nightmare

I cannot embed the videos so click on over to the group’s webpage to view these two short films. The first, the documentary, is a brief overview and chat with an elder Bedouin tribesmen about their life in the Sinai desert. The second, the short film, is  sure to provide a good giggle, despite its scary title! Many thanks to the creators for making these available online. 🙂

Characters of Egypt: Festival of the Tribes

Later this month, from October 29 – 31, the Characters of Egypt Festival will take place in Fustat Wadi El Gemal National Park.

The goal of the festival is to provide a meeting opportunity for representatives of the various tribes that have inhabited different corners of our deserts for thousands of years without previously encountering one another.

In celebrating the diversity which weaves Egypt’s unique fabric, Characters of Egypt creates an opportunity for all attendees (tribesmen, Cairenes and foreigners) to engage with one another, as all connect through an energizing spirit that revives, replenishes and reveals the splendour of mankind.

There will be music, dancing, storytelling, poetry, camel races, games, food, and more!

At the Characters of Egypt Festival 2009, 8 teams will represent 21 tribes hailing from 11 destinations in 6 different desert locations: Siwa, Matrouh and Farafra (Western Desert), Al-Arish (North Sinai), Sharm El-Sheikh, Mount Sinai, Dahab and Nuweiba (South Sinai), Aswan (Nile Valley), the Red Sea Mountain Range (South-Eastern Desert) and Marsa Alam (Southern Desert).

Still waiting for more information about who will be there this year and the daily schedules of events. But I’ll be there!! So if you are free that weekend and interested in learning more about the indigenous tribes of Egypt, consider making your way to Wadi el Gemal for what we hope is an awesome festival!