The Bedouin of Sinai

Sinai’s rugged tracts are home to desert dwellers, most of whom live in the north of the peninsula. The Bedouin – whose numbers are variously estimated to be between 80,000 and 300,000 – belong to 14 distinct tribes, most with ties to Bedouin in the Negev (Israel), Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia, and each with their own customs and culture. The Sukwarka, who live along the northern coast near Al Arish, is the largest tribe. Others include the Tarabin, who have territory in both northern and southern Sinai; the Tyaha in the centre of the peninsula who, together with the Tarabin, trace their roots to Palestine; and the Haweitat, centred in an area southeast of Suez, and originally from the Hejaz in Saudi Arabia.

The seven Bedouin tribes in southern Sinai are known collectively as the Towara or ‘Arabs of Al Tor’, the provincial capital. Of these, the first to settle in Sinai were the Aleiqat and the Suwalha, who arrived soon after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. The largest southern tribe is the Mizena, which is concentrated along the coast between Sharm El Sheikh and Nuweiba. Some members of the tiny Jabaliyya tribe, centred in the mountains around St Katherine, are said to be descendants of Macedonians sent by Emperor Justinian to build and protect the monastery in the 6th century.

Thanks to centuries of living in the harsh conditions of Sinai, the Bedouin have developed a sophisticated understanding of their environment. Strict laws and traditions govern the use of precious resources. Water use is closely regulated and vegetation carefully conserved, as revealed in the Bedouin adage ‘killing a tree is like killing a soul’. Local life centres on clans and their sheikhs (leaders), and loyalty and hospitality – essential for surviving in the desert – are paramount. Tea is traditionally taken in rounds of three. Traditional tent dwellings are made of woven goat hair, sometimes mixed with sheep's wool. Women’s black veils and robes are often elaborately embroidered, with the use of red signifying that they are married, and blue unmarried.

Sinai’s original inhabitants have often been left behind in the race to build up the coast, and they are sometimes viewed with distrust because of their ties to tribes in neighbouring countries, and allegations of criminal activity and links to terrorist cells throughout Sinai. Bedouin traditions also tend to come second to the significant economical benefits brought by development in the peninsula – benefits that, according to Bedouin activists, Bedouins have yet to fully experience. Egyptian human rights organisations have also reported ongoing persecution of Bedouin people, including imprisonment without charges, and there have been regular Bedouin demonstrations claiming mistreatment by the police. These concerns, as well as loss of traditional lands, pollution of fishing areas and insensitive tourism, have contributed to the sense of marginalisation and unrest.

Throughout the world – and especially in Egypt – tourism has the power to shape the destinies of communities. Travellers can help limit negative effects by seeking out Bedouin-owned businesses, buying locally, staying informed of prevalent issues and never being afraid to ask questions.

Protecting Sinai’s Fragile Ecosystems

Although much of Sinai is made up of hot, dry desert, it is full of life. Craggy mountains are sliced by gravel wadis in which sprout the odd acacia tree or clump of gnarled tamarisk, while a surprisingly rich variety of plants tenuously cling to the sandy flanks of coastal dunes. Once every few years, when storm clouds gather over the mountains and dump buckets of water onto this parched landscape, the entire scene is transformed into a sea of greenery as seeds that have lain dormant for months burst into life. For Sinai’s wildlife, such as the gazelle and rock hyrax (as well as for the goats herded by local Bedouin people), these rare occasions are times of plenty.

Yet these fragile ecosystems have come under increasing threat from the rapid onslaught of tourism. Until relatively recently, the only people to wander through this region were Bedouin on camels. Now adventure-seekers in ever-multiplying numbers are ploughing their way through in 4WDs and on quad bikes in search of pristine spots and, in so doing, churning up the soil, uprooting plants and contributing to erosion.

To minimise the environmental damage, the government has banned vehicles from going off-road in certain areas, including Ras Mohammed National Park and the protected areas of Nabq, Ras Abu Gallum and Taba. Enforcement in Sinai’s vast wilderness areas is difficult, however, and while rangers do patrol protectorates, a large part of the responsibility is left with visitors.

To help preserve Sinai's raw beauty, travellers who want to explore the region in depth should do it the old-fashioned way – on foot or by camel. Visitors should also be aware of rubbish, which has become an increasingly serious threat to Sinai’s ecosystems. All litter should be carried out and disposed of thoughtfully. Dive clubs located in Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh organise regular rubbish pick-up dives, and always find far more than they can collect. Sinai’s ecosystems – both those above and below the sea – should be treated with care.