Changing Bedouin lifestyles: from the tent to a house

Times are changing fast for the Bedouin tribes of the South Sinai. Up until around 30-40 years ago most of them used to live a nomadic lifestyle in the desert, moving with the seasons to feed their herds of goats and camels on the fragrant desert herbs. They lived in tents woven from goat and camel hair, called “beyt shar” (house of hair). However with the influx of tourism after the development of Red Sea resorts on the tropical coastline, several factors drove a lot of the population to live in towns.This combined with the Egyptian government seeking to control the Bedouins in the 1980s, the building of schools and requirement for children to attend, as well as long periods of drought creating a lack of food for the animals in the desert drove a large proportion of the population to settle into permanent housing, bringing lots of change in their lives.


An old nomad lady in her tent.

This meant giving up the traditional way of life and finding a new life – somewhere between still having nomadic roots in their blood, yet having to conform to modern society.  Today the coastal towns of Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba are full of dusty unnamed streets and a labyrinth of “Bedouin” houses. In the desert there are tiny ramshackle settlements. Mostly  the Bedouin live in  badly made brick houses, often left unplastered on the outside and shoddily made roofs. It rarely rains here, so a waterproof roof is not important – until you get a good downpour and the house gets flooded out. People with bad roofs thus curse the badly needed rain which breathes life into the desert, filling it with herbs and replenishing the wells and oases. Aesthetics are not that important to the Bedouins. A house is your shelter, a place to sleep, to keep out of the sun (and rain) and to entertain guests.

Inside the house Bedouins use cushions and rugs and sit on the floor just as they did in their tents – there are no couches – and a lot of houses are used like a tent. I once visited an old lady and we had tea in her hallway. A neighbour of mine routinely moves her rugs and cushions to different places in the house, thus the “living room” is a fluid room, depending on the time of year or even day. A room is a room, it does not have to be assigned a name like “bedroom”. Only the kitchen, with the sink, and the bathroom, have their designated uses. Sometimes if there are no cupboards or wardrobes you will see plastic bags of clothes etc hanging off the walls, just like they do in the tents. Bedouins don’t tend to clutter their houses with trinkets and ornaments.


The coastal national parks are the traditional fishing grounds of the Bedouin. Here they are not allowed to build permanent housing, so they build ramshackle, patchwork housing out of bits of wood. At first sight these scruffy houses look like a shanty town, but some of them are really a work of art. These houses can be taken down at any time and thrown on the back of the car and have no real worth, so if they need some word to burn, they might use a patch off the wall.


This house is a piece of art, a patchwork of wood!


This picture shows a make-do, temporary supermarket, with a sand floor inside and half opened boxes of a few things (candles, water, cigarettes, tins of food) spilling out onto the floor.

The Bedouin ladies in town still usually own a herd of goats, which they keep in a pen at night, and then let them out to roam the streets for rubbish during the day, whereas in the desert the nomads take their herd of goats out for the day to graze and then return at dusk. The women in towns are not as free as their desert counterparts, who have to be outside to milk goats, herd them, make cheese, do washing etc, and go about their daily tasks. In town, the ladies are mostly confined to their homes or that of their neighbours, and their jobs are mostly just domestic chores – washing, cleaning and looking after the children.  They move about from house to house using a network of back alleyways, passing through neighbours backyards so as to remain off the streets and to avoid being seen by men.


View of my neighbours goatpens in Dahab.

In the desert, adolescent girls go out for the day with the herd of goats, taking water, tea and sugar and some food. In earlier times the girls sometimes took a piece of pipe with holes in it, called a Shabaaba and used it as a flute to pass the time. The goatherder girls stop in the shade of an acacia tree and make tea on a fire and lunch. They love to invite anyone passing by for a cup of tea to break the boredom.


In town the men go to the shops to buy food, or the women send their children or brothers. If a woman has no male family members or children they will cover up in a black abeya and headscarf and go to the shop themeselves. There are also “mobile shops” – pick up trucks that regularly drive around the streets selling clothes, fresh fruit and vegetables, gas, and fresh spring water. The women buy from these trucks and thus don’t need much from the shops as they provide most of the necessities.


In the desert a nomad will take her donkey to “el misak” (a natural water hole that holds water after rain) with a goat skin to fill; however these days plastic bottles are used, or a water truck might even deliver a large large container of water.  To get food her husband comes once a week or so, or sends a male relative to bring her shopping – or she might even send one of her children on a camel to the shops. She may also use the “bush phone” and go to nearest settlement and find out who is going to town next and give them a list  – this person shops for several families at a time.

A Bedouin house or tent is always ready to receive guests. If you go to a town  ladies house for tea, this is never made with a tea bag and hot water out of a kettle. They all own a small, portable fireplace, called a mangad, which is where they keep a fire burning most of the day, with a teapot kept warm on the coals to offer any of the random people that come to visit a drink. Tea is served to the first person on the right and then in an anti-clockwise direction. It is important not to point the soles of your feet at anyone as this is offensive. The mangad (fireplace) is where information is exchanged between visitors. In earlier times there were no newspapers or radios, so the “bush telephone” was necessary – who they had seen where, what events  were coming up (weddings), who was sick or had died, if any camels had been sighted in the desert, etc etc etc. We might call it gossip these days, but it was a way of keeping track of your surroundings. Of course there is a certain amount of intrigue as well, as Bedouin societies are controlled by what others think of them, and it is important not to bring shame or dishonour on your family or tribe. What you do reflects on them. It is important to conform to the laws of the tribe for the tribal society to function, thus respect, generosity and hospitality are very important.


Sitting in the hosha, where guests are received, tea being made on the fire.

In the house or tent here is a specific place to receive male guests. In a house, this room may be elaborately decorated if the family happens to have money:  nice cushions, rugs and curtains hanging from the walls (even where there are no windows).  Usually every house, tent or settlement has a “mag’ad” – this is where visitors are received or where men congregate to socialize. In a house it is often a lean-to with a roof made of palm fronds (called a hosha)  in the yard, with mats and a mangad. At a nomads tent, it might be a free-standing arisha away from the other tents, or a separate tent. In a settlement you might find a mag’ad at the edge of the settlement in the form of a small stone square wall of rocks, or maybe even just a fireplace by itself. When male-only, non-family member guests are present, then the females retreat to “their” part of the dwelling: another room or another tent.

Modern life these days has meant a lot less freedom for Bedouin women in towns. They are confined to their neighbourhoods, they don’t get the same amount of exercise as a nomad woman herding goats and moving around all day, and they are slowly forgetting basic Bedouin traditions, like how to make “afiiq” (Bedouin hard cheese), recognise herbs, weave and sew, recite poems and sing old songs. There is more consumerism as their lives are infiltrated by television commercials and they desire unnecessary products. To be able to spend time with nomads at the moment is to spend time with what will soon just be part of their history.


An old lady takes an afternoon nap on the gravel outside her tent, just as she has always done…

One comment

  1. Linda Mitchell · · Reply

    Julie, I loved reading this. You gave me a real sense of how day to day life is changing for the Bedouins. I just hope I can visit before someone builds a shopping centre! Inshallah!
    Enjoy your tea with the ladies! Linda

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