In one of Egypt’s most spiritual places, Bedouins find peace and resilience

Connecting with Bedouin roots in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt: "What I always see is an unconditional love for the land."

By Rehab Eldalil
Published 10 Jun 2021, 14:51 BST
The Loniging Of The Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken

An embroidered photograph of Mahmoud Abdo in his home in Al Tarfa Village. His cousin Nora Mohamed embroidered the image.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Driving on the narrow road toward the imposing mountains of the Sinai Peninsula, the wind is cold, but the sun is warm and clean air rushes into my lungs. I take out my driver’s licence in preparation for the upcoming military checkpoint. “Where are you heading?” comes the usual question. “St. Katherine,” I respond, referring to the St. Katherine Protectorate, an Egyptian national park that is home to the Bedouins. The officer looks skeptical. I can almost hear his thoughts, which I presume to be along the lines of this: Bedouin women don’t drive, and they don’t wear pants.

I first came to this sparsely populated desert region, situated between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, 15 years ago. I was a teenager running away from Cairo, longing for something I couldn’t comprehend. I didn’t know then about my Bedouin ancestry, nor that I would find a home away from home in these mountains. What little I knew about Sinai had come from my father’s stories about when he was stationed here during the war and Israeli occupation in the early 1970s.

Zeinab Ibrahim, 27, makes her way back to the village of Al Tarfa before sunset with three other Bedouins after a day's walk across the mountains to feed the village herd. Al Tarfa is among several settlements nestled between the imposing mountains of the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. Zeinab, who is preparing to become a bride, asked for a "sparkling red dress from Cairo" to wear at her bachelorette party, a gathering that is referred to simply as henna. "It's much more important than the wedding dress," she says. "Henna is where the fun happens."

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Yasmine Oum Mohamed, stands for a portrait in the sparsely populated desert region in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, home to the Bedouins. The mother of five has been involved in a community effort that uses embroidery and poetry as a form of expression. She is from Sheikh Awad, one of the many villages in the Sinai that remain without electricity or running water.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Young Bedouin women wear henna on their hands to celebrate the first day of Eid. Expensive Bedouin gold accessories have been replaced with plastic rings due to the community's economic challenges.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

My attachment to Sinai has grown beyond stories since that time. On my first visit to the St. Katherine Protectorate, I was taken in by a Bedouin family. Sheikh Ibrahim treated me as one of his children, and his daughters, Zeinab and Mariam, became like sisters to me. Then, in 2018, I was part of an effort—in collaboration with the Bedouin villages of Al Tarfa and Sheikh Awad—to open a volunteer-based clinic, which provides free medical services to a community that has long struggled to find proper medical care. Bedouins came from different tribes and regions in Sinai. Everyone is welcome.

The Jebeliya tribe, the oldest indigenous community, has been inhabiting the region for more that 1,400 years. Tribal members protect the sacred land, home to the ancient St. Katherine Monastery, and Mount Sinai (known in Arabic as Jabal Moussa, or the “mountain of Moses"), where Moses received the Ten Commandments, according to Jewish, Muslim and Christian teachings. The community has survived wars, forced relocation deeper into the mountains, drought and pandemics.

Bedouins remain keepers of the land, despite a long list of challenges: limited medical care, declining economic prospects, COVID-19, and a lack of infrastructure and access to education.

Moussa Algebaly, a member of the Jebeliya tribe, lies under a flower plant after working on his garden in Al Tarfa Village. After years of drought, a major flood occurred in mid-March 2020, providing an agricultural opportunity for the Bedouin community amid the economic shortfall as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Over the years, they also have been victims of discrimination, stigma and stereotyping. During the Israeli occupation between 1967 and 1982, Bedouins insisted on remaining on their land and were labelled by the larger Egyptian public as traitors for doing so. Their resistance to the occupation—by working as guides to help Egyptian Army forces get through the mountains without detection—was overlooked. Too often, they are misrepresented as closed off and hostile to modern ways.

Naturally isolated from the rest of Egypt with their settlements nestled between the high mountains, among them Mount Sinai and Oum Shomar, the Bedouins find peace in solitude. Today, the land that serves as their home is considered one of the most spiritual places in Egypt.

With the job losses that came after COVID, many in the community are no longer able to afford to pay for medicine. The clinic was forced to close due to the pandemic.

A father and son walk over the hill to watch the last moments of sunset. Fathers within the Bedouin community help care for the children when the mothers are off walking the village herd for hours.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Forms of self-expression 

Before COVID-19, the community had been involved in a four-year project that used embroidery and poetry with some of my images to engage in forms self-expression. Until the 1990’s, women were prohibited from being seen by men from other tribes without consent. As part of this community effort, female Bedouins added embroidery to self-portraits printed on fabric. This way, they controlled what to reveal or conceal.

In this embroidered photograph, Hajja Oum Mohamed, 53, is seen standing in her garden. Up until the 1990’s, women were prohibited from being seen, even in photographs, by men from other tribes without consent. As part of a community effort that uses embroidery as a form of expression, female Bedouins add embroidery to self-portraits printed on fabric. This way, they control what to reveal or conceal.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Nora Om Aly, from the Al Tarfa Village, uses embroidery on a photograph of her hands.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Yasmine Oum Mohamed used embroidery to enhance this photograph of a centuries-old traditional Bedouin house in Sheikh Awad Village built with rocks from the surrounding mountains.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

An embroidered photograph by Nora Oum Jamil of her husband Ashraf and her youngest son Jamil in the living room of their home.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Poetry also plays a big role in the Bedouin culture. Males in particular hold poetry circles during holidays, weddings and on Friday evenings. In this participatory project, some members of the community wrote poems that captured their feelings toward my images. This collaboration resulted in a series of diptychs. The poems seen below were both written by Seliman Abdel Rahman Abu Anas.

We are the Arabs the genuine Bedou'
We carry loyalty and kindness at heart
We walk with all kinds with no hate
We protect our guests and welcome them
No colour but all colour equally Equals without calculations.
We shake hands to form bonds Our hearts has no doubt but agony

 Mohamed Ghonim, 12, adjusts his scarf as he plays with his friends in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. As part of a four-year community effort, original poetry written by males is coupled with photographs. Poetry by Seliman Abdel Rahman Abu Anas. Photo and poem translation by Rehab Eldalil.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

We are the Arabs the genuine Bedou’
We carry loyalty and kindness at heart
We walk with all kinds with no hate
We protect our guests and welcome them
No colour but all colour equally Equals without calculations
We shake hands to form bonds
Our hearts have no doubt but agony

By Seliman Abdel Rahman Abu Anas.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Oh valley, your love is a home for the soul’s joy
Whenever I see you my heart grows I come to you in longing full of pains
My soul returns to me as I approach your grounds

By Seliman Abdel Rahman Abu Anas.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

A woman stands against the wind as she waits for her turn to enter a local community clinic. 

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

 

Oh valley, your love is a home for the soul’s joy
Whenever I see you my heart grows
I come to you in longing full of pains
My soul returns to me as I approach your grounds

Love for the land 

I return to Sinai every few months, hauling medicine for those suffering from chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. I’ve been back five times since the pandemic began to spread just over a year ago to deliver medical aid. With each visit, I am hopeful that the following month we will be able to reopen the clinic.

My next visit later this month will be different—I’ll be attending Zeinab’s wedding. I’m looking forward to witnessing old traditions that remain intact: camel races in celebration of the bride and groom and village feasts. Some traditions have already disappeared: the fully embroidered Bedouin dress with pure gold accessories and the houses built with sturdy rocks collected from the mountains, camouflaging the entire village in its surroundings.

Other traditions such as handmade crafts have evolved, prompted by a younger generation of Bedouins who want to keep pace with the world. What I always see is an unconditional love for the land. This interconnectedness runs through my blood and is what pulled me here 15 years ago to find my roots and my way home.

Youssef Ateyya stands for a portrait in his family’s garden in Gharba Valley. He collects khodary leaves to grind and sell to merchants and customers.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Concrete apartment buildings stand empty in St. Katherine. The government intended the structures to house Bedouin locals and workers coming from across the country, but they disregarded environmental laws and Bedouin culture during construction.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

A photograph of a flower sprouting from dry land embroidered by Om Anas from Al Tarfa Village, St. Katherine, South Sinai, Egypt. 

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

A photograph of Nadia Mohamed embroidered by her and her cousin Mariam Ibrahim from Al Tarfa Village.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

An embroidered photograph of Jebel Al Banat, a local mountain, by Yasmine Oum Mohamed from Sheikh Awad Village. Legend says that three girls jumped off the summit instead of going through with arranged marriages.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

From left, Nora Mohamed, Nadia Mohamed, Hoda Mohamed, and Mariam Ibrahim  stand on a hill in front of the mountains of South Sinai, Egypt in February, 2021. Every day, the women of Al Tarfa Village walk in a group of four from sunrise to sunset leading a herd of sheep and goats. As the animals feed on wild plants, the women talk, share concerns, ask for advice, and learn from one another.

Photograph by Rehab Eldalil

Rehab Eldalil is a visual storyteller based in Egypt. Her work focuses on the broad theme of identity explored through participatory creative practices. 

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Eldalil's work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers working to inspire, educate, and better understand human history and cultures.
 

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