The Bedouin Jebeliya tribe of the St Catherines area (South Sinai, Egypt) is full of interesting characters. In fact, I have never met so many interesting people in one place. Being around these people, with all their knowledge, fascinating old skills and wisdom, is a privilege and I learn something new every time I visit.
Jamil Attiya – a true man of the desert
When you sit and talk to Jamil, you really feel like you are talking to someone special. His kind face is full of wisdom. Jamil is a true man of the desert, he possesses the knowledge that most Bedouin men used to possess as a means of survival and daily life. He has many skills:
-he can read camel footprints: he can tell whether the camel is pregnant, if it has a rider, or if it is injured, if it was running or walking. He can see how old the tracks are. He can recognise a baby camels tracks and know who it’s mother is. He can also read human footprints and can recognise the same persons feet with or without shoes, and recognises car tyre tracks and who the car belongs to.
-he can read stars – the North Star is the most important as it never changes place, and he can find his way using the stars. In earlier times, Bedouin often moved at night as there were no roads and the stars showed the way. He can see if a disaster might be coming by reading the stars too. He also forecasts the weather depending on where the clouds have come from.
A lot of these old skills are being lost, as camels get replaced with cars, stars are replaced with roads, storytelling is replaced with tv, and other skills are replaced with smartphone apps!
Jamil has visited Brazil representing Bedouins at a conservation conference and also Italy representing the Sinai at a Slowfood competition with local honey (he won the prize out of many countries).
Awad – the last traditional jewellery maker
Awad learnt to make tin jewellery from his father, who invented the technique when he was in Ain Khodra oasis, watching women try to make their burqas lighter by beating the coins on them to make them smaller and flatter and then beating designs into them. He took the idea and used tin to make necklaces called “qalb” (meaning “heart”), which Bedouin men used to give to their betrothed as a sign of love and commitment. These day women prefer gold and silver, so his skill is a dying art. He also makes rings, bracelets and earrings by beating and hammering tin. Nobody particularly wants to learn the craft from him, as it is a lot of work, so he is the last jewellery maker of this kind in the Jebeliya tribe.
Scorpion Doctor Sa’adi
Dr Sa’ad is a scorpion doctor in the village. The name for such a doctor is “el Howi”. I went to visit him with a Muslim friend who was getting immunised against snake and scorpion bites by eating a tablespoon of sugar mixed with his spit. After she had her spoonful I found a spoon was coming my way and was in my gob before I could defend myself! When Sa’adi was young, he was stung by a scorpion and survived. This meant he had special powers.
The children of the village get immunised by him as babies by eating a mix of coffee and ground-up scorpions. This supposedly prevents them from dying when getting bitten by a scorpion. Sa’adi also cures people that are bitten by scorpions by rubbing his spit on the bite.
Traditionally Bedouin mothers rub a mix of ground scorpions and coffe onto their nipples whilst breastfeeding to build up immunity to scorpion stings at an early age.
Ramadan – a local character
Dr Ahmed Saleh – herbal medicine doctor (left) and Mohamed Eid, Bedouin tale collector (right)
Mohamed Eid has spent a lot of time the last few years collecting tales from Bedouin story tellers in order to make a book. As a child he used to listen to an old lady in El Tarfa, where he was born, who used to gather the children around her to tell stories. At the age of about 7 he moved with his family to St Katherines village. He missed the old ladies stories . Mohamed’s mother told stories to her children, but usually repeated the same ones he already knew. In 2007 Mohamed decided he wanted to collect the stories for himself, so spent many hours visiting renowned, old Bedouin story tellers (men and women) in their desert homes, and would go home and write them down. He collected about 55 stories and then one day someone asked him why he didn’t publish a book, which planted the idea. Mohamed recognized the fact that to tell a story is a skill and a way of sharing experiences. After analyzing the stories he finds messages and wisdom hidden within them. He also wants to improve the image of Bedouins, whom he thinks are sometimes perceived as being primitive cavemen and are just associated with tents and camels. The exact opposite is true. They have a complex social system, just laws, rich traditions and a wealth of knowledge to help them survive in the desert. Anyone who takes the time to get to know them can only admire their old way of life.
When Mohamed visits a story teller, he will often start telling a story himself, either to jog the memory of the story teller, or he will tell it so badly that the story teller wants to take over. Another tactic he uses to get a story teller “in the mood” for a story is by taking a tourist with him (usually female) – so the story teller will want to show off for his audience. The book that is yet to be published will contain tales belonging to an ancient culture, and not to a specific Bedouin tribe. The tales have moved from community to community through trade and contact with other tribes. Each story has one topic but can be told many different ways depending on the story teller. The tales talk about life experiences – often the story teller hides himself in the tale to pass his lesson to the next generation. In ancient times story tellers were famous. Nowadays the stories are being lost, as new generations become more interested in modern substitutes
Dr Ahmed Saleh – herbal medicine doctor
Whenever I go to visit Dr Ahmed, there always seems to be a steady stream of Bedouins with all sorts of ailments, passing through his consultation room. Sometimes there are 4 of us sitting in the room, drinking sweet tea, which is being kept warm on the electric fire, while Dr Ahmed does his consultation. The tiny room has shelves packed with herbal remedies.Dr Ahmed has prescriptions for eczema, hair loss, fish and lactose allergies, immune deficiency, high salt levels and rheumatism. The Sinai has 472 medicinal herbs, which include 19 endemic and 42 severely endangered herbs.
Amongst other things, Dr Ahmed also fights a war on opium. After tourism collapsed after the revolution, many locals turned to opium fields as an alternative source of income. It is shameful, hard work. His aim is to get local opium growers to stop producing opium (which is, at this end, a lot of work and not much gain) and produce herbs. He is having success with this project.
After all the patients have gone, it is nice to just drink tea and talk with this interesting man.
Rajab Eid – Bedouin mountain and desert guide
Rajab was born in a cave in Sheikh Awad, not far from St Katherines village. When I go to St Katherines, I often hike with Rajab. On our first hike together up Jebel Abbas Pasha, I asked him if he was a camel as he was only carrying an empty water bottle. He told me he didn’t feel thirst like I did, because as a baby he had had a tiny piece of his uvula cut off, which supposedly stops you from feeling thirsty – a tradition in his tribe! Funnily enough though, when we are out hiking he always drinks MY water! He tells me all about the many herbs growing along the way, like the soapy one called arjam in the picture below. His father taught him about the stars …but he forgot it. He does however make a mean cup of herb tea and awesome tabana (bread baked in the sand) and is just a nice guy to be around. I learn a lot from him about Bedouin ways, herbs and the mountains.