Um Yasser, a middle-aged Bedouin woman of the Hamada tribe in South Sinai, was born in a rock house, but spent much of her childhood living in a cave dwelling in the desert, where she and her mother tended their herd of goats. The Bedouins are an old, conservative ethnic group, with laws that govern their behaviour in the desert. They have strong tribal and family ties, traditions and culture. However, in today’s modern world, things are changing fast, and the Bedouins are stuck between the past and the present. In some ways they have been left behind…
Enter Ben Hoffler, founder of the award-winning Sinai Trail, a hiking trail that stretches across the tribal territories of the Sinai Peninsula, and employs Bedouin men to engage in their age-old tradition of leading people across the desert. “Back then” they led travellers, traders, pilgrims and suchlike. Today they lead tourists from all over the world. The Bedouins know the desert and it’s ways, where to find water, which plants to use for medicine or to eat, where to shelter from rain etc. But the Sinai Trail was distinctly male-dominated due to the women having to stay close to home.
For several years, Ben had been visiting Um Yasser’s family in their bare house in the desert. One day, unexpectedly, Um Yasser, offered to walk with Ben on one of his exploratory hikes. Meanwhile, I was running women-only tours across the globe. Ben and I met through the Sinai Trail. I had been living amongst the Bedouin and spent a lot of time with Bedouin women, so knew them and the female Bedouin culture well. We decided to collaborate to get a women-only trip off the ground, and to have Um Yasser lead it. And thus the Sinai’s first female guide came to be….
A month later, the trip was full with 16 women, mostly Egyptian, but also others from Korea, Lebanon, New Zealand, Holland and England. Ben and I visited the Hamada tribe to finalise details of the trip – sleeping arrangements (we intended for all the women to be hosted by 3 or 4 families), food menu and most importantly toilets…. Because there were none! (And you can’t have 20 odd people trying to go behind a rock in the morning). Ben and I made joked with each other about who was going to dig a couple of long drops and put a tent around them, neither us looking forward to attacking the hard ground with a spade (if there was one). We returned a few days later to find that we had been thwarted by Bedouin hospitality….Um Yasser’s husband, Ibrahim, had built a twin set of brick loos! How special to have a toilet made just for us! They also erected a couple of goat hair tents and were very excited about the ladies arrival the following day.
The next morning 6 Toyota pick-ups laden with bags, women and gifts came flying through the desert about to start their adventure. The following three days the tourist group were going to live the simple life of the Bedouin. There was tangible excitement and anticipation in the air as the ladies also knew they were about to make history…
After a traditional welcome tea, lunch (Bedouin ladies were cooking up a storm in the kitchen) – I got hauled into the kitchen by Um Yasser. Panic had broken out. “Tahini! Tahini! What do we do with the TAHINI?? How do the tourists like it???” Obviously, unlike other Bedouins, out here tahini must be an unaffordable luxury. I told them to just leave it for now, they had enough stress going on. And then we were off for an afternoon hike, with Um Yasser leading the way and 3 female family members also acting as guides. We climbed up through rocky, burnt-orange wadis, stopping to see palm trees and water pools, and Um Yasser’s childhood cave dwelling. She showed us the low cave where they had slept and cooked, and where they kept the goats.What I find so special about older Bedouins is that they grew up as true Bedouins: born in the sand or in caves in the desert, with camels for transport and a meagre existence. They lived in tents and moved around looking for green desert pastures for their goats. They are the last of the true Bedouins and as they pass away, they take with them their old history, knowledge and oral tales. Today’s generation are growing up with cars and technology, and old Bedouin knowledge and culture is slowly being lost.
In the late afternoon we returned to our “basecamp” at Um Yasser’s house, where the rest of the evening was spent looking around the village, playing with very excited local children and distributing gifts to them. After dinner we had an early night. Some people slept in the tent, others slept in the houses of the Bedouin women, where they were clearly surprised to see how simply the Bedouin live. Um Yasser did her nightly rounds and made sure everyone was warm enough, throwing blankets on people she thought might need one.
Traditionally the local Bedouin ladies get up at dawn to herd their goats in the desert until early afternoon, when they return to the house to do domestic chores. But today was different. Today the Bedouin ladies were going to herd a group of tourists for 6 hours around a mountain, Jebel Adideya. Dressed in their long gallibeyas and cheap, rubber sandals we set off. As we gradually climbed up the side of the mountain, traversing around the back across a rocky plateau with incredible vistas of this vast and beautiful rocky, landscape, the ladies guided us like they had been doing it all their lives – they looked after their tourist herd as they would their goats. They made us tea on a fire, pointed out ancient rock art, and then prepared a tasty lunch of salad, tuna, cheese and homemade flat bread. After lunch a pot of tea was made with several large handfuls of sugar in it before we set off again.
Arriving wary back at “basecamp”, the Bedouin kitchen ladies plied us with more tea as we stumbled in. Hospitality knows no bounds here. The tourists made good use of their new toilet block, and jerry cans were filled with water from the rain water tank – their only source of water – for everyone to wash. After a huge dinner of rice and chicken and salad, it was time to get to know our lovely Bedouin guides a bit more, so we made a circle, Um Yasser’s older sister-in-law sat in the middle, and the hikers fired away with their burning questions: how did they meet their husbands, how do they divorce, what if he has more than one wife….etc
Our final morning came around quickly. After a small amount of rain in the night and more threatening in the morning, we set off into a chill wind to see some sights around the village, including the school (which was so basic, the ladies immediately wanted to send more supplies), an old Sheikh’s tomb and nawamis (ancient burial ground structures) , and then back to the house for…more tea…and good bye speeches…and hugs and tears. Somehow, in many small ways, everybody’s lives had been changed a little bit that weekend. The Bedouin ladies had become the first female guides ever to take a group in the Sinai. And the hikers had learnt a lot about the hardship of living in the desert in modern times, stuck somewhere between the present, and the past.
This is the news that went around the world, written by Nariman el Mofty, a journalist on the trip: