Bedouins

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Bedouins are nomadic Arabs that traditionally herd sheep, goats and camels in the desert of the Middle East. The term "Bedouin" describes the way of life. The Arabic word "Bedu" means "desert dwellers".

The Bedouin settled in the Sinai after the Arab / Islamic conquest of Egypt (in the 7th century) and originate from the Arabian Peninsula. They are the real inhabitants of the Sinai, traveling through the desert as nomads or semi-nomads.

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The Sinai desert is home to 10 to 13 Bedouin tribes. Each tribe claims a certain area. The Aleiqat-tribe was one of the first tribes in the Sinai. Their territory is the West Coast. An exception is the Gebeliya-tribe (literally 'mountaineer') of the area around St. Catherine. Their ancestors were from Romania and Alexandria and brought to Sinai to to build and protect the monastery. They have no real Bedouin origin.

Today there are few nomadic Bedouin. Most have settled, in remote places in the desert or in villages and (coastal) cities. Yet you will discover many intact customs and traditions when you visit.

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Bedouins live in relatively closed groups, with their own laws, rules, traditions and customs. At the head of a tribe is a Sheik. He has no absolute authority, and in complicated matters is deemed to consult tribal council. Because Bedouins are used to live like this, they often have great difficulty when authority and power from outside the tribe is forced upon them by the Egyptian government for example. A Bedouin is a democrat at heart and thirsts for freedom and independence.
Bedouins are rather suspicious and they are very cautious about their own background. Hospitality is highly appreciated by the Bedouin and is a fundamental rule of life in the desert. Immediately, a carpet is spread for the guests and sweet tea is served. If you are treated with the Bedouin coffee, then enjoy the centuries old tradition and the respect shown here.

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Each guest can count on 3 days accommodation, care and protection. (Even a member of a hostile tribe). Complex and strict rules, which all Bedouin will respect, make this hospitality into something that is unparalleled. A Bedouin wants his guest to be as well as possible. He gives you lots of food and, if necessary, he gets nothing. The food is simple. There is a common dish eaten for which the right hand only is used.

Islam is deeply rooted in their culture and prayer is an integral part of life. They do the ritual washing before prayer preferably with water, but if not available, then they perform this ritual with sand (as outlined in the Koran).

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The Bedouin are now not the only inhabitants of the Sinai. Mainly because of tourism there are increasing numbers of "non-Bedouins " to live and work in the Sinai. The Bedouin encounter many problems through all innovations and changes. Once they moved from oasis to oasis. The nomadic life is becoming increasingly difficult. The power from outside themselves increasingly meddles itself with the lifestyle of the Bedouin in the Sinai and attempts to deter them from their nomadic existence. Nomads are more difficult to control. This goes hand in hand with a policy of exclusion. For centuries Egypt has shown little interest in this area and its inhabitants, but since the Camp David accords (Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Desert) and the rise of tourism, people realized how much money the coast of the Sinai is worth. The Bedouin who lived there for centuries were basically ignored. The rise of tourism has had dramatic consequences for the Bedouin. There are major conflicts between the Bedouin and the Egyptian government on the one hand and other large investors. The government has identified the coast of Sharm el Sheikh to Taba as major development in the 80's of the last century. The "Egypt Riviera" was attracting major foreign investors, and everything was done to make everything as easy as possible for these investors. In the first phase of the development of the coastal area the Bedouin were hardly mentioned even as workers, because wages were extremely low. There were workers from parts of Sudan and the Egyptian mainland that were prepared to work very hard for very low wages. The Bedouin were given a special status under Egyptian law. They would work in some tourist areas as a guide, taxi driver, camel driver or vender. Also they started developing camp sites in coastal areas, notably for low budget tourists.

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From the mid 80's things became disastrous for the Bedouin. Those who owned land on the coast had to stand and watch as the Egyptian government sold their land to foreign investors, particularly large hotel chains. Bedouins were denied access to Sharm el Sheikh and driven into the desert when they had no work or property there. In the summer of 1999 saw the last expropriation action: the army has destroyed a large number of campsites run by Bedouins, north of Nuweiba. The last 20 years were pieces of coastal land was granted to Egyptian and foreign companies that invest in tourism. The country, which for centuries belonged to the Bedouin, was simply taken, they could not prove that they lived in that area before 1982, at the end of Israeli occupation. Obviously they did, but at that time the largely illiterate people, who lived semi-nomadic, had no chance against the government.

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Nowadays there are police posts established in the Sinai. There was a sense in the government that they had to get under control this land and its people but in some way. But the way they did this, combined with a lack of understanding and respect, has led to Bedouins now feel less "Egyptian" than ever. The Bedouins were for centuries accustomed to the fact that the Sheikh is the one to whom they are held accountable. The Sheikh is someone they respect and they confront as equals. Conflicts were resolved within the tribe and that went well for centuries. Now the government is trying to get a grip on this, without taking into account these ancient traditions. This leads to major conflicts. The Bedouins do not accept this interference in their culture. There is no mutual respect and friendship between the Egyptians and Bedouins. There are also groups of Bedouin who live in the hinterland and are not in touch with the changes in the coastal strip. They are not registered anywhere. A real integration of the Bedouin in the Sinai with the rest of Egypt has little chance with the current approach. Egyptians are encouraged to move to Sinai to work there in tourism or other industries, but the Bedouin are systematically excluded. Camel rides and Bedouin festivals in the desert are real tourist attractions in Sharm el Sheikh, but are rarely if ever organized by real Bedouins because they have no license to do this work. The result is high unemployment. Because of their remote location, the food transportation costs are greater. So while the Bedouins have less income, their food is more expensive. The Egyptian government has very little consideration. Today, they do promise on paper to distribute money towards this minority. But this promise has remained paper mainly. In reality, so we learned from the functioning of the international development support system, most money never even reaches the target group. Tourism is one of the principal means of livelihood for many Bedouin.