The Bedouin

The traditional inhabitants of the Sinai are Bedouin tribes who settled at different times in the last 2000 years. They are mostly from the Arab peninsula, with the Jabaleya a unique exception, being the descendants of people from the Balkan. Traditionally there are seven Bedouin tribes in South Sinai – the Tawara federation – but some other tribes from the north have moved in more recently. The Bedouin are pastoralist nomads, although most are now settled in or around towns. They still maintain a strong link to the desert and mountains, and many families move out to their campgrounds or gardens at certain times of the year.

Sinai Bedouin
The Bedouin way of life is very simple and slow, with a fine balance of work and leisure time. It is a closed yet very welcoming society, where a complex system of family ties and strong traditions play the most important roles. It is a real experience to walk with a Bedouin guide and learn from their age-old survival skills and about their culture.

 

Map of South Sinai Bedouin tribes
Map is based on the St. Katherina’s Visitors Centre map.

Map of Bedouin tribes in South Sinai. Tribal territories often overlap and there might be pockets of land on the territory of another tribe.

Borders are well known to tribesmen, though they generally do not prevent movement of individuals or groups in the area. Grazing and water resources are available to all tribes through inter-tribal agreement. Under traditional law individuals who discover new water sources are able to settle next to it, so long as it is in their tribal area – however he would not be allowed to prohibit use of the water by others. Individuals can have the rights to exclusive cultivate an area of land, however the viability of this is dependent on the availability of the water.

 

The Bedouin have their unwritten law called Orf which even the Egyptian authorities accept. Each law was given a specific name like “Onwa”, “Doukhl” and “Hilf”. “All the land is a governmental property, however, the traditional usufruct rights of the Bedouin are respected by the Government of Egypt.” Decisions in important matters are made at tribal gatherings called Majlis (note the word is also used for the sitting room) with the participation of all and are based on consensus. At these gatherings “all might speak, but most weight attached to the words of men of recognised authority.” “The tribal shaykh is regarded as the man of authority who rests his case on his wealth, his inherited prestige, his personal capabilities in helping fellow tribe members, and-as a result of all of this-his occupying the most preeminent position in society.

References:
• UNDP Global Environment Facility
• Larry Roeder
• R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs, Cambridge 1930, 79. (W. Montgomery Watt)
• Blending Tradition and Progress in the Desert
• Free photo ebook with glimpses of Bedouin life: The Sinai Bedouin: a photographic journey
Free 2-way dictionary based on local dialect: discoversinai.net/english/free-pdf.html

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