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Published on November 13, 2008

Invisible People

It had been a good two years since my last visit to Fustat Wadi Al-Gemal, the venue of the Characters of Egypt Festival which lasted from 29-31 October (see Al-Ahram Weekly, issue 921). It was not without a passing moment of distress that my son Yassine and I unloaded the luggage from the car that had driven us from our doorstep in Cairo for a LE600 fee: "So many people!" he whispered in my ear, displaying the same symptoms of estrangement I was experiencing, for we were not accustomed to there being such a hustle and bustle under this particular star-lit sky. Shyly we began to reconnoitre our mission as our eyes gradually adapted to the dark and we challenged ourselves to minimal reliance on torchlight. The use of these devices, although indispensable when your tent is some distance away, always feels disrespectful, piercing as it does the dark veil of night.
There were people in every corner. The office tent was packed, cheers and loud clapping emanated from the main tent, accompanying vaguely familiar tunes. Circles of guests, cosily arranged around large cushions, dotted the vast grounds while a large bonfire attracted caffeine addicts awaiting the next round of ginger-spiced beverages. Footsteps were audible to and from the kitchen, bathrooms, kids corner, audio-visual conference centre and museum -- all housed in beautiful white tents -- while buses, jeeps and sedans constantly loading and unloading guests rendered the 6km off-road stretch connecting Fustat to the Marsa Alam highway almost in need of a traffic coordinator. This event is big. Bigger than I thought, I mused to myself as I quietly assumed the role of social butterfly once Yassine had run off to see if the camels were still awake, each of us attempting, his own way, to imbibe the floating energy before selecting a spot to settle down.
LEAPS, CAMELS AND DRUMS: Following a warm shower it was time to seek sustenance. As we walked in the large main tent I tried to identify the various groups occupying the low tables -- a futile attempt, it turned out, since members of the various tribes had already begun intermingling. The aim of the festival, as explained by Walid Ramadan, general manager of Fustat and founder of the Egyptian Desert Pioneers Society (EDPS) which, together with the Wadi Environmental Science Centre (WESC), organised the three-day event, was to provide a meeting opportunity for representatives of the various tribes that have inhabited different corners of our deserts for thousands of years without previously encountering one another.
Over breakfast, and following the first night's festivities that melted the ice, the aim had already born fruit as evidenced by the assortment of headgear (each bespeaking a different affiliation) gathered around the same table sampling madida and magly -- the first a sweet Nubian dish based on flour, milk and bean sprouts, the second a mix of puréed dates with cardamom and tamarind.
Out in the sun Omran, the youngest member of the Bishariya tribe, who two years ago tended the goats at Fustat, had now graduated to the level of gabana maker. Gabana is the answer to every coffee- lover's dream. Roasted on the spot over fire, the coffee beans turn from their original green to a rich dark brown and are then manually ground in a wooden container before being mixed with ginger, brewed and served sweetened in espresso-sized shots. Normally rounds of gabana can occupy hours as you stare at the view of the mountain range stretching over the horizon. This time, however, the games about to commence beckoned us to wind our way to where assembled Bedouins were making ready as international television channels began to roll.
First, physical strength was tested in round after round of tug-of-war; opponent tribes were placed at both ends of a thick rope while cheers from spectators drew every last iota of force from their muscles. And the winner was... the Ababda. Next came the far more entertaining rope jumping competition, in which the surprising agility of the Bishariya won the day. An incredibly high leap to a certain drum beat in their dancing provided them over the years with the required edge for winning this competition.
Then it was the guests' turn to climb the mountains for a clearer view of the spectacular valley where riders sped away on camel. Much to the Bishariya's chagrin, since they are the world's best camel trainers, it was Sinai's Eid Sweilam Al-Slym and Mohamed Mosallem tribes that earned first and second place on the camels they brought along to the festival, collecting LE10,000 and LE5,000 respectively. "It was unfortunate for the Bishariya and Ababda who had to compete on local camels trained to tread slowly for the safety of visitors," commented Ramadan, adding that "next year they will train camels especially for the race".
The spirit of the Nubian tribe required no special training, igniting in the attendees such abandon to the rhythm of their music that by sunset the main tent, its grandeur emphasised by Maha El-Gharbawy's exquisite lighting fixtures, was bursting with swaying energy. As the women inserted lit candles on henna paste in a round dish and began ululating, they announced the start of their bridal celebrations, drawing participants from every tribe and guests from all nationalities who lost themselves to the drum beat, guided by the pulsing cadence as they were unsuspectingly dragged, one after the other, within the women's circle. Despite their unrivalled success in the song department, Nubian Awad Abdel-Hafez Awad was stunned by the music of Siwa and Farafra, stating that hearing their singing and seeing their instruments were the highlights of the festival as far as he was concerned.
Storytellers from Sinai, Farafra and Siwa attracted avid listeners who grouped around the expiring embers of the fire late into the night, the suspense of their tales highlighted against a background of melodious applause echoing in the crisp air from the four corners of Fustat. One storyteller, finding some fragile urban nerves among our assembled party, was forced to withhold the next story since, involving, as it did, "otherworldly presences... it would prevent you sleeping till morning".
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD: As we walked to the valley where the last day's festivities were to be held one attendee remarked that after so many years of enjoying the places they inhabit "it's about time that we know, appreciate and learn of, as well as from, the people whose homes are our leisure destinations".
Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba in Sinai, the oases of the Western Desert and cities like Aswan are high on local and international tourist agendas. "Yet," she asked, "how much do we actually know about the real dwellers of these places? When I first went to St Catherine in the 1980s I was as amazed by the habits of the Bedouins there -- the way they dress, style their hair, cook their food -- as by the nature that surrounds them. I soon realised that they lead a much healthier life than what we term our 'civilised world'. I learned from Sheikh Ahmed in St Catherine that through herbs I could heal my digestive system."
Herbs was one of many sciences showcased during the festival -- along with astrological navigation and tracking -- with a special tent displaying the immense array of plants used by the Bedouins for medicinal and culinary purposes.
Flora, on which the ecological balance of the desert depends, has become a source of serious concern for the Bishariya who have not seen any rain for over 10 years. A suggestion was voiced to unanimous consent: it was agreed that after the Friday prayers all the festival guests would pray Salat Al-Estesqaa (prayer for rain) together, in the hope that the parched soil would soon drink.
"The Bedouins offer us nature and we give them processed life," said another guest. "They are the origin. We are the cultural aliens who don't know where we are going."
In his article "Where have all the Bedouins gone?" Donald P. Cole explains how the Bedouin have changed over the last century, and how the term Bedouin has evolved from a lifestyle to being an identity. Although the word Bedouin still evokes a tent-dwelling community forgotten by time in an inhospitable stretch of desert the reality is often quite different. During a seminar given by the leaders of the various tribes, an attendee sitting next to me suddenly turned in distress to ask: "Did he just say 'boss'? I heard right, didn't I? He did say 'boss'."
Hearing a word from the English language incorporated into a Bedouin's brand of Arabic was as shocking to this guest as was, to others, seeing tribe members exchange mobile numbers to water the budding friendships resulting of their encounter.
Ramadan's stance is unwavering when his opinion on such developments is solicited: "Are awareness, knowledge and evolution not every human being's right? The Bedouins are not an open air museum; they cannot be kept in the dark just for our entertainment. They have the same right as anyone else to learn from one another, to trade, to evolve."
The shyer Ababda and Bishariya, who maintained a relatively low profile, are now determined to put on a real show for the next festival. According to Ramadan, "the Bishariya and Ababda were not aware of the value of their specific culture, until they met the other tribes. Now they are more cognizant of their worth and have already devised a plan that will guide their preparations for next year's event," which also promises an increase in the number of participating tribes.
Salem El-Ayyadi, a representative from South Sinai, told Al-Ahram Weekly that EDPS member Eid Suleiman Benjazi, himself a Sinai tribesman, had ensured the participation of 80 members from the Sinai families of Al-Tarabin, Al-Mozina, Al-Ayyayda, Al-Sawarka, Al-Romailat, Al-Gayarsha, Al-Masaeed, Al-Hweytat and Al-Tayaha -- the latter from Wadi Al-Tih, the valley that was home to the wandering Jews for 40 years. El-Ayyadi, also a journalist for the monthly newspaper Al-Bawadi, distributed throughout local desert regions to cover Bedouin news, said that the Sinai families have become extremely enthusiastic about next year's festival as a result of the feedback they received from those who had participated.
Other than technical innovations -- like the camel-cart invented at Fustat Wadi Al-Gemal -- El-Ayyadi mentions the difference in Bedouin dialects as being his most striking discovery at the festival and amicability as the most overwhelming sensation he experienced.
"I not only struck friendships with members of other tribes, but also with Cairenes, like Azza Fahmi, who are eager to see our heritage flourish," he beams.
Fahmi certainly extends a strong hand when it comes to cultural preservation. In the course of 40 years she had collected rare fabric and jewellery pieces while on her travels to the different areas of Egypt. During a seminar she gave at the festival she expounded on the symbolic significance of the patterns and designs pertaining to each area, as evidenced by her private collection of jewellery and costumes displayed in the "museum tent". As a result of the event's success Fahmi plans to send more items to the Wadi Al-Gemal Museum collection, creating a permanent display until next year's round of Characters of Egypt. She has already contacted the festival management to collaborate on efforts aimed towards assisting Bedouin women in their jewellery making, a response to influences threatening their output. For one, the large inflow of tourism and the increasing demand for tribal handicrafts -- both a blessing and a curse -- has generated a flock of entrepreneurs who aim to direct handicraft production with an eye to what sells in the market. Consequently, women face a threat to their autonomy as they become engaged in producing items which are more indicative of market demands than of authentic tradition. Along with Ramadan, Fahmi will travel to the various corners of the country setting up workshops for the tribes, providing quality control in an attempt to preserve and enhance Bedouin women's skills.
The women of Nubia, who offered the only female representation among the invited tribes, not only showcased their crafts and festive abilities, but also the succulent food they are renowned for, like the fresh weika (a relative of okra) that was finished well before the end of the tasting rounds.
WORDS DO COME EASY: In the conference tent the poetry recited by members of the various tribes attested to their dexterity with words as one after the other eloquently, and effortlessly, mesmerised the assembly. I finally had proof of the proverbial existence of Bedouin poetry; I had experienced the tempo of their genius first-hand. But even that could not prepare me for the revelation I witnessed on the last day. After the Siwans enthralled the crowds with their fascinating dances on long wooden poles (emulating camel grace, I imagined), and the Farafraweya displayed the unrivalled synchronisation of their bodies to the beat of tabla, it was time for another quiet moment with poetry. Shaded from the scorching sun by the Hyglyg Tree that splashed abundant leaves at the foot of a barren mountain -- the green fruit of which tree, called balah al-sukkar, is said to cure diabetes when boiled -- and surrounded by the age-old serenity of the valley, we gathered for the Bedouins' verbal celebration of the event celebrating them. This was the moment of their tour de force. Competition ran as high as during the camel race, since riding the beast of language and understanding the language of beasts are among the most significant Bedouin accomplishments.
I looked back to find Yassine sitting behind me on the mountain, listening, transfixed. "Their Arabic is much more difficult than what I study at school," he exclaimed. "Where did the Bedouins learn these words and how do they know how to make them rhyme like that?"
Haj Hussein Eid, the most prominent poet in Sinai and the winner of the festival's poetry award, chuckled modestly when he heard the question.
"This brand of poetry is called She'r Nabaty, directly inspired from our surroundings, and can indeed sometimes prove a little complex for urban ears, yet it is easily comprehended by the Badou [Bedouins] across the Arab world," he explains.
Haj Hussein, who discovered his passion for words in his 20s, is not just a virtuoso poet, he is also a playwright whose interest lies in tales of love and danger. His official occupation? "A farmer, whenever there is rain," he discloses, "but among my favourite talents is impersonation. Behind a screen shrouding me from listeners I can conduct a conversation between five different people and no one would ever guess that they are all me."
By the end of our stay Yassine and I were revived. I was purified from my urban burdens, and filled with the joy that only comes from experiencing genuine life. My son, whose expanding curiosity about the world we inhabit was satiated by the incredible amount of information he processed while having fun, has now learned about traditions, camel riding, fire- making, track reading, plants, astrology, and, most importantly in such speedily globalising times, about diversity. He has sung with the Nubians, eaten the Ababda's food, heard the poetry of Sinai, balanced on the dancing poles of Siwa, jumped rope with the Farafraweya and prayed with the Bishariya for rain.

Abdeit bism elli ala al alam rageeb
Ya khaleg al ensan min teenen rateeb
Wi khaleg al jannat l'eshhab al habib
Wi khalagt elli wogoudha nass wi hajar
Al khatawi elli megassemha al kareem
Wel hagawi besaheb al arsh al azeem
Wi a'oudhou berrahman min sharr al rajeem
Westakhert Allah wi naweit al safar
Min ard Sina elli biha esht wi radeit
Wi shebe't fiha min al maaani wertaweit
Wi katabt beit al she'r yom enni naweit
Ajabel wojouh al nashama wabtesher
Ehna doyouf Allah fi Marsa Alam
Fiha rajal, fiha hayaa, fiha karam
Wi fiha osoud yeshhad lahom hebr al galam
Wi yeshhad lahom seif al maragel fil khatar
Wi magsoum li fi rehleti aaref naas
Min sobou' al badeya khayr al jenas
Yengedou koll el maani bel ehsas
Wakhoss nasen tefham bebo'd al nazar
Wi taheyya lel sho'aar fi yom al sebag

I begin, in the name of He who watches over the pen,
O Creator of man from damp clay
And Creator of Heaven for the Prophet's companions
And Creator of that the men of which are fuel.
Steps are divined by the Provider,
And supplications are raised to the God of the Throne,
The Merciful is my shield against the Devil's evil.
I prayed for Allah's guidance intending on travel
From the land of Sinai whence my content living,
Where I have wandered and quenched my thirst.
I wrote these verses the day I sought
To meet the faces of brave men and rejoice.
We are Allah's guests in Marsa Alam
Where we found manhood, grace and generosity,
Lions, to which attest the ink of our pens
And the chances of valor in menace;
I am destined to encounter on my travel
Lions among the Bedouins, finest of races,
Safeguarding values with their passion.
To the foresighted I dedicate my words,
And salute the poets on this day of match.

The above lines are by Sinai's tribesman Haj Hussein Eid, winner of the Characters of Egypt poetry award.

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