The Changing Sinai

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Ahlan, Nora!” exclaimed the two Bedouin boys who had just come to the door of my art gallery in Dahab, Sinai. I have worked for 20 years in the Sinai as a photographer, and know many of the Bedouin families there well. Because Laura is an unusual name for the Bedouin, they call me the more common name Nora, which means “Light” in Arabic.

“Do you remember the boy you photographed two years ago in Ras Abu Galoom standing on his camel?” they asked me. Who could forget a teenage boy showing such incredible faith in his steed, neither tethered nor held? His spirit and love of life could not be more fully expressed. “He is the one that was killed last week in the car accident!” they cried.

“You know him—Selim abu Auda—and his three friends and his wife—only one week they marry—killed on the road!” The curvy unlit highway tempted speeders to take chances. “Don’t you have his picture?” they pleaded. “Where is his picture? You must bring it to his family!”

Having spent much time with Selim’s family, I knew his mother would be heartbroken. The death seemed ironic because Selim loved the quietness of the desert. He resisted the temptations of the coast, with its steady influx of tourists ready for Jeep and camel safaris, diving escapades, late-night drinking, and dancing in discos. Selim’s death was a violent demonstration of the collision between the Bedouin and Western development. With more than 38 dive clubs, Dahab has grown in two decades from a sleepy oasis of 50 Bedouin families to a bustling tourist resort.

The local Bedouin population has grown, but not enough to oppose Egyptian development of the entire coastline of the Red Sea, now lined with resort hotels. Initially, the Bedouin did not believe in land ownership, but thought the land should be communally owned. They used to argue among themselves about the right time to harvest dates. Now they argue about who owns a particular date tree so the land it is on can be sold for a small profit. Each tree might belong to several family members, so this issue can be divisive. Suelem abu Ahmed explained, “The government officials came here and said we must buy our own land, the land my grandfather lived on. So we saved and borrowed and bought our own land, the land our family lived on for at least three generations. Afterward, we filed the papers in Atur. They came again from the government three years later and said we must show these papers and make from them new papers. When we went to the court in Atur to get the papers, they said they couldn’t find them.

“Now last week they come with bulldozers and knock down the beautiful cafeteria I built on my land to make food for tourists. How should I feed my family? I have eight children.”

“Didn’t they bulldoze your place before?” I asked, sure I had heard him tell me this last year.

“Yes, this the third time they do this. Three times I buy materials, expensive too, to get wood and palm frond walls from Cairo. Not possible to get these around here anymore. They have been used by Egyptians coming here and building their own camps and cafeterias.”

In the gardens of Ossela, where Jameela stands as a young girl in 1980, over half the trees have been chopped down as Egyptians, foreigners, and the Bedouin forced to compete have built their government-standard cement houses in the middle of the date palms. I recently visited Jameela and her three children in her house in Dahab. “I don’t understand why they do not keep the trees as garden.” she said. “Why not build the houses outside the trees? Why cut the trees when there is empty desert space all around to build in? I loved to walk through the palms. Now I cannot leave the house except for visit my sister next door. My husband is afraid for me. Look at those buildings there.” She pointed to the landscape in the distance where 10 four-story cement buildings loomed like prison barracks. They were meant to be apartment complexes to house the first of 6 million workers that the government wished to move from overcrowded Cairo into Sinai. “Now we don’t take the goats to the mountains every day, like before. That too dangerous, all these Egyptian men here now. Now we keep the goats inside the mountains and women stay there with husbands to look after them.”

Jameela’s husband, Rathi, entered the house. “When we built this house we just married and wanted to live outside the village, a little away from people,” he said. “We didn’t know these buildings come next to us. When they finish and the people come, they can look inside our house and watch us from above. I don’t want my wife to feel threatened by them, and lose her privacy. These are workers, just men, not families, who move here.”

“What will you do then?” I asked.

“We move to the mountains, far inside, so that we not have to build again.”

“But inside the mountains, will you have electricity and running water, as you do here? Will you have your satellite dish for the television?”

“No, probably not. We leave all that behind and things go back like before. Better.”

Bedouin have little training in skills that would allow them to earn money in areas other than tourism. A few have learned to be dive masters. Even those who make a good living regularly guiding divers don't seem to have a knack for saving.

Some Bedouin have become big-time entrepreneurs, building four-star hotels or setting up mining operations, but most are just getting by making land deals and trading livestock. They try to set up meetings with government councils to plan new ways to create income, as the tourist market is troubled by politics. The women experience some success on their own through cultivation of their traditional beadwork, thanks in large part to a workshop an American woman recently set up with the Nueba Tarrabin tribe.

Eventually, the computer could help the Bedouin make headway. What could be more Bedouin than a laptop? Perhaps as girls learn computer skills in school, they could set up Web sites to sell their beadwork. The issue of women having a public profile is a sensitive one that will need time to overcome. But things are changing for Bedouin women as the men realize that women in many parts of the world are skilled workers, and as the need to bring in more income forces men to allow women to work. In the photograph of girls gathering dates from the palm trees in Bir Zreir, the gestures are lively because the girls' father insisted that I photograph them. Another girl, in a photograph I call “A Pose for Posterity,” made her own decision regarding this matter and at a swa’araa—a dance to celebrate the ancestors—she removed her black thoub so I could see her colorful patterned dress. She placed her hands in a considered clasp, as if to say this position is how she wished to be recorded for posterity. The look in her eyes is one of bright hope and courage. I admire her and wish her all the freedom she can find—what a Bedouin loves most.

Laura Zito is a photographer who has worked in the Sinai for 20 years.

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