Stories from the Sands: Previously Semi-Nomadic, the Bedouin of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula Are Increasingly Settling Down to a Sedentary Life, and a Process of Cultural Adjustment Is Taking Place. among the Fading Customs Are the Oral Traditions Once So Pivotal to Tribal Communication. Nicola Harrison Has Spent the Past Year Collecting the Bedouin's Stories, Which Offer a Fascinating Window on Their Beliefs and Views

Article excerpt

"Some Bedu remember stories and some Bedu are better off milking goats!"

Harabiya's husband has forgotten the end of the story at a crucial moment. I press pause on my tape recorder as she hobbles over to join us at the fireside and banishes Mahmoud to the task of milking. He's shooed away with flapping hands and a flood of insults; creaking off to the goat pen, he giggles gently.

Harabiya settles her ancient frame beside me in the dusty yard of their home. "A thousand goats and a thousand camels and maybe a thousand stories, but now only old people remember the stories, and old people forget," she says with a wry jerk of her head towards the pen. I fix the small microphone to her red woolly jumper and she finishes the story with only a few momentary lapses.

The original people

Bound by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Red Sea to the south, the triangle-shaped Sinai Peninsula is 60,000 square kilometres of sandstone plateaus, gravel plains, jagged mountains and dry wadis. Conditions are harsh: temperatures on the coast can reach 50[degrees]C during the summer days and drop to -10[degrees]C during the winter nights, and annual rainfall rarely exceeds 100 millimetres.

The peninsula's position as the only land bridge between Africa and Asia has ensured a steady stream of visitors; its inhospitable climate has ensured that most don't stay for long. A combination of strategic importance and mineral wealth have also ensured that the region is no stranger to conflict--in recorded history it has been invaded more than 50 times, by everyone from Assyrians, Persians and Greeks to Arabs and Turks.

One of the few groups to have managed to exist effectively in this unforgiving land are the Bedouin--the 'original people'--semi-nomadic tribes-people whose relationship with their environment, combined with strict cultural traditions, has enabled them to make the Sinai their home. Despite influxes of pilgrims, soldiers and new governments, traditional tribal life has remained largely unchallenged for millennia. But the recent arrival of tourism and all its trappings has had an immediate impact.

As the last Israeli soldiers pulled out of the desert in 1982 following the signing of the 1979 Camp David peace agreement, the developers moved straight in. South Sinai alone has seen the construction of almost 25,000 hotel rooms and 50,000 more are planned. Tourists dive the world famous reefs and shop in gaudy boutiques while Bedouin settlements cling dustily to the edges of shiny Egyptian-built complexes. With these changes to the coastline have come inevitable changes to the internal structure of tribal existence.

Cultural adjustment

Seeking solace from the bright chaos of Cairo and all it offered a 20-year-old student of Arabic during the mid-1990s, I stepped off a bus in a place called Nuweiba for a weekend away. I was quickly seduced by the desert, its people and its mysteries, and went on to spend much of the next decade there, working as an interpreter, a guide, a teacher and a project leader. I set up a cooperative for women's handcrafts and established a small mobile school in the interior.

During this period I gained a deep respect for the efficiency and fluidity of Bedouin society and formed close friendships with a people whose cultural landscape is rapidly changing. From my base among the Bedouin of the Mezzena tribe, I've watched a process of cultural adjustment take place. Some traditions have intensified, some have mutated and some have begun to lose their relevance.

Among these fading customs are the oral traditions that were once so pivotal to tribal communication. Storytelling has fallen out of fashion all over the world, and a good story is getting more difficult to find. For the anthropologist, a folk story is a cultural mirror that reflects countless layers of social meaning; for the Bedouin, it's a chance to huddle around a fire on a freezing, starlit Sinai night with a glass of sweet black tea, and drift off into the rich imaginings of a people born to desert life. …