Settling Down: Bedouin in the Sinai


On April 25, 1982, a profound change occurred in life in the Sinai desert. Under the Camp David accords, Egypt resumed control of the final third of the 26,000 square-mile peninsula from the Israelis, who had taken the area in the Six-Day War in June, 1967. At that time no paved roads penetrated southern Sinai. The Israelis built a major coastal highway from Elat south through Nueba and Dahab till Sharm-el-Sheikh and up the west coast through At-Tur and Abu Rudeis to Suez. They also developed diving centers and tourist facilities along the coasts of the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez, and in Yamit, on the Mediterranean near the present border.

The 50,000 native Bedouin stood to benefit from employment, medicine, transportation, water, trade and tourism. Finding tourists a bountiful source of money, Bedouin flocked to the coast especially in the last five years, to provide taxi services, palm huts for overnight shelter, kiosks and coffeehouses, camel and jeep trips, fish, clothing, and souvenirs such as hand-woven goat-hair carpets. They constructed a village in Dahab, called Ossela, now the largest Bedouin settlement in Sinai, with about 1,000 residents. Houses were fashioned with corrugated tin, palm fronds, and driftwood. The skyline of Ossela is even interrupted by a television antenna or two.

On the shores of a coastal settlement, nude Israeli bathers confronted the scrutiny of heavily garbed Bedouin residents.

With Egypt back in control of the Sinai, laws against nudity and alcohol consumption are strictly enforced. In Suez, a hotel manager ran out into the sea fully clothed to protest to a young foreign female guest that she must wear a one-piece bathing suit.

The Egyptians discourage tourists from making contact with the Bedouin, whose lives are also under stricter control. Bedouin are now required to buy a license to fish, even if just for their own families.

For the Bedouin, the change to Egyptian rule will alter the lifestyle adopted under Israeli occupation. Trucks loaded with fresh and canned food and other household items no longer arrive from Gaza once a week. Nor will trucks with fresh water come right to their villages. Medical supplies will not be available to them for quite some time. An Israeli medical program brought pregnant mothers into hospitals to bear their children and heart patients to Tel Aviv. Now they are lucky if they can get a visa for Israel in order to get to the hospital in Elat.

The Bedouin do not recognize nation-states; they do not pay taxes or ascribe to any government. Israeli settlements - 8,000 residents strong at their peak - and roads started a process of curtailment of nomadic movements, doubtless to be exacerbated by the Egyptians. The camel's importance as transportation is outweighed by the usefulness of pick-up trucks or jeeps. In the near future, the nomadic ways of the Sinai Bedouin might come to an end.

One of the favorite pastimes of Israelis and tourists was to travel up the wadis in jeeps or on camels. Under Israeli occupation, one could travel anywhere one pleased and for $15 a day hire a camel and Bedouin guide. These trips could be organized for any number of days and people.

Egyptians have all but banned these camel and jeep trips. Military posts were erected in each wadi to bar entrance, and military checkpoints every thirty kilometers along the main road (which everyone is now directed to follow) allow the government to keep tabs on tourists. Special papers and insurance from an automobile club from the country in which the car is registered are now required and can cost up to $40, which discourages one-time only Israeli tourists from driving their cars from Elat south. Instead they take the bus, and are more likely to get caught overnight in a hotel. This will have a marked effect on the income of many Bedouin, who could be seen pulling up in front of their tents or palm huts in Mercedes. "One wonders if they will be able to retain such assets under the Egyptians.

Getting supplies from Elat or Gaza is a far simpler endeavor than bringing them from Cairo. The Egyptians will have a hard time matching Israeli efforts. Food and gas can still not be purchased in Sharem; they must be hauled from outside. Before the political transition, Bedouin bought as much tea and canned goods as they could afford. Now they are willing to sell their hand-made jewelry at half the price they asked last year, so they can purchase Israeli goods before the supplies run out. Egypt plans to build a big new department store in Nuweiba, catering especially to busloads of Israeli tourists anxious to buy food, cosmetics, watches, and other commodities for cheap Egyptian prices. Egyptians hope to tempt tourists down from Elat to keep local hotels filled.

The Egyptians claim that they want to move settlers from mainland Egypt and Cairo to the Sinai, to build universities, roads, hospitals and tourist centers. However, in Sinai, one is now required to sleep in a hotel or in a caravan. No camping on the beaches is allowed. This will surely hurt the Bedouin economy in Dahab, where Bedouin owned and operated palm-frond huts for rent and popular coffeehouses that played music and sold alcohol and food to low-budget tourists. Whereas the Israeli government was interested in Sinai as a recreative area, for its own citizens, Egypt is interested in wealthy tourists.

Each tourist is required to spend $30 a day, and must change $150 into Egyptian currency in order to enter Sinai for more than forty-eight hours. The cost of visas is different for each nationality, and determined by the wealth of the country in question and the strength of their political alliance with Egypt. The English pay the most.

The diving in southern Sinai is spectacular, with visibility exceeding 100 feet, a plethora of underwater life and easy access by land.

There is considerable fear that the reefs will not be adequately protected by the Egyptians. Rumor has it that Egyptian soldiers are grenading the area around Ras Mohammed for easy commercial fishing and are ruining the reef. Whether the story is merely exaggerated from a lone incident or is really an ongoing practice is not known. But if true the situation can certainly be contrasted with the Israeli occupation when people were prohibited from taking shells, lobsters, fish and corals from the area. The area was cleaned of trash and posted asking tourists to protect the beauty of Sinai.

Although tourism provided many Bedouin with jobs, other effects of tourists on their environment caused irreversible damage. Many palm trees died because ignorant tourists built fires in their midst burning their roots, causing them to fall.

Every tree in the desert is owned by someone. In Ein Umm Ahmad in February, 1982, a tourist accidentally set fire to the oasis, wiping out 200 meters of date palms.

Bedouin fishermen recall that fish were far more plentiful 15 years ago before the growth of tourism.

An effect not as evident to the Bedouin themselves may be basic changes in traditional values such as hospitality and in traditional social structure as a result of sedentarization, wage labor and labor migration and increasing dependence on a market economy.

But the Bedouin received certain benefits under the Israelis. They supplemented their traditional jobs of harvesting dates, herding goats, fishing, growing wheat and vegetables, and trading by working for the Israelis on their farms, in their hotels, on their oil rigs, and in other concerns. They also earned considerable income directly from tourists. It is not clear if the Egyptians can sponsor commercial activities that could provide similar levels of income.

When asked about the transition, the Bedouin answer, "We must wait and see."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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