Sinai Peninsula, Bedouins and Eid al-Adha

Hello class! Glad you enjoyed the video of Cairo ‘rain’. It makes me homesick in a surprising way to know it was pouring rain in Portland when you watched it. I will have to adjust to the rain, but I definitely miss varied weather patterns. In Cairo, for most of the year, it is just a question of how much smog cover there will be on a given day.

As I mentioned in the rain post, last week was Eid al-Adha, a Muslim festival and national holiday in Egypt. Me and a few friends went to the Sinai Peninsula, a part of Egypt you may have noticed in my post about the St. Anthony’s monastery by the Red Sea. As usual, here is a little video to introduce both the Sinai and Eid al-Adha.

Sinai Peninsula. Cairo is off the map to the west, Israel/Palestine are to the northeast, and Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the east and southeast, as well as the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

As you know, Egypt is an African and Middle Eastern country. The bulk of the nation is on the African continent, but the Sinai Peninsula is considered part of Asia. It has been physically separated from the rest of Egypt ever since the Suez Canal was built in 1869 to connect the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea in order to make shipping goods easier. In many ways, the physical severance of the Sinai from Egypt underscores its history and reputation as a semi-autonomous region, meaning it is really quite independent from Cairo and the government.

Do you think of certain regions of the US as ‘independent’ of the rest of the US? Alaska or Hawaii? I have never been to the deserts in Oregon, so I’d love to hear if you notice any striking differences or similarities.

A major reason for the Sinai’s uniqueness is that many of the inhabitants are Bedouins who have lived in the area for hundreds of years. The Bedouins in the Sinai are traditionally nomadic, living in small groups based around family relations and traveling with herds of sheep and camel. Today there is still some of that but most Bedouins rely on tourism. Remember how I mentioned a while ago that people living in Egypt, whom you might assume to be from Egypt, often will have their own answer to the question “where are you from?” In Cairo, the Christians, like my landlord, will often say they are Egyptian and not Arab, as in they were here before the Muslim conquest of Egypt over 1000 years ago. Or some will say they are Arab first and Egyptian second, like one of my Arabic teachers. Adding to the diversity, the Bedouins are generally known to refer to themselves as Bedouin before Egyptian.

Boats going through the Suez Canal

Like in North America, where there are a huge number of different indigenous (or Native American or Indian) groups, it is not a good idea to lump all Bedouins into a single category. They can vary drastically from each other in culture and language. But for a foreigner like me, learning all the names and distinctions is understandably confusing and the temptation is to say broad statements like “Bedouins do this”. Just keep in mind that there are around 4 million Bedouins in almost two dozen countries and that I am unfortunately not an expert! For instance, just look at the amount of names on this map:

Bedouin woman in the Sinai, 1920s.

Bedouin Man in the Sinai, 1920s

Bedouins also speak a different dialect of Arabic than the people of Cairo. Depending on accents and exposure to media and so on, they can understand each other. But occasionally, my Egyptian friends tell me, they can’t understand a word of what is being said to them. On my trip I stayed at a place called Ras Shittan just a few miles from the Israeli border. Despite the proximity, I didn’t expect to see Israelis and I definitely did not expect to hear so much Hebrew being spoken. But the camp had perhaps a dozen young Israelis as well as Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, as opposed to Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza, who do not have Israeli citizenship (but that is a topic for a different blog!). A couple times a fellow guest would come up to me and speak to me in Hebrew expecting me to know what he was saying since practically everyone there could speak both Arabic and Hebrew. Interestingly, when my group moved an hour and a half south, the Hebrew dropped off completely, instead replaced by Russian tourists.

Another reason for the amount of Hebrew spoken in northern Sinai is that Israel completely owned the Sinai from 1967 to 1979, when Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty and Israel pulled out of the peninsula.

The hut we stayed in at Ras Shittan.

Since the Arab Spring revolutions started, the mostly impoverished Bedouin population in the Sinai has been more at odds with the rest of Egypt and have begun resisting in various forms. One well publicized method has been the occasional and brief kidnapping Americans, mostly. So far, no one has been hurt and they were all released quickly. This summer, a group of mainly Bedouin men stormed an Egyptian military outpost in the middle of the night and killed 16 soldiers. As you can imagine, opinions in Cairo range from those who say the Bedouins have been systematically treated as second-class citizens by the Egyptian government to some who say Bedouins run the Sinai like a mafia and engage in dangerous smuggling of refugees.

Bedouin preparing tea in Wadi Rum, Petra

Many people go on desert hikes, camel trips or go sleep in Bedouin camps for a night. I didn’t do this in the Sinai, but I did go to Wadi Rum desert in Jordan this summer where I got a tour and stayed the night in a Bedouin camp. Deserts are absolutely stunning at night, the most overwhelmingly quiet place I have ever been. I get migraines easily, and being in over 100 degree sunshine the whole day was a pretty direct route to a migraine. That night, as my traveling partner slept like a baby, I turned miserably without any painkillers and eventually stumbled out of the camp around 2 in the morning. The moon was completely full and I had no trouble seeing. I wandered a 100 yards alone and, surrounded by as much silence as physical pain, I tried to make myself throw up in order to relieve some migraine pressure. It was probably the strangest collision of intense, seemingly opposite physical feelings I’ve ever had.

Our Bedouin tour guide Mohamed playing the Oud

Burdah Rock Bridge in Wadi Rum

View of Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum’s distinctive, stark rock walls and mountains rising suddenly out of the sand.

Sunset

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