contributor perspectives

The Sinai Nomads Know How to Survive in Our Changing World

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
8 MINS READApr 13, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
A view from the Sinai Trail, Egypt's first long-distance hiking trail.

A view from the Sinai Trail. Three Bedouin tribes joined forces to create Egypt's first long-distance hiking trail to take advantage of the tourism trade.

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As changes in climate make the planet drier, the lifestyles of nomadic Bedouins may offer guidance. These peoples and tribes have survived in deserts for millennia, preferring life under a billion stars to life under an urban roof, respecting Earth's immeasurable power of life and death, and seeking her abundance under sandstone and granite, and in delicate desert flora.

I recently spent a week walking with Bedouins in the South Sinai desert along with 12 other international travelers. I serve as executive director of the Abraham Path Initiative, and my companions and I found our footing on stretches of the Sinai Trail, which the initiative supports. The Sinai Trail is Egypt's first long-distance hiking trail, currently measuring 250 kilometers (155 miles) and extending from Tarabin tribal territory (near Nuweiba on the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba) through Muzeina territory and up to the 2,285-meter (7,500-foot) summit of Mount Sinai — territory of the Jebeleya, or "Mountain" tribe.

For an urbanite like me, the challenge was tremendous. Not a day went by without my heart pounding like timpani, sweat rolling down my sides and legs begging for mercy from cruel and unusual punishment. At the end of each day we cheered our personal victories, recognizing the might of the mind in surmounting towering trials. We walked uncountable kilometers in fine white sand and climbed narrow passes that seemed to go on forever, evoking scenes of pathos from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Each evening we sat with our Tarabin guides and Muzeina hosts at a tenderly managed and minimally wasteful campfire, revived by sweet tea and enjoying freshly baked bread, beans, cucumber and tomato. One night, we had fish "cameled in" from the coast and grilled under the full moon.

Were we in danger? Perhaps if someone stumbled on loose rocks and fell. Perhaps if one of us twisted an ankle. Perhaps if one's stomach declined the fresh vegetables. But the dangers that headlines would have us fear seemed as far away as Orion's bow, arching over the night sky.

Sharing With Strangers

Many common presumptions about the Sinai deserve to be revisited. News media point to pockets of Islamic State fighters in the north and trade in poppies and cannabis. Bedouins are stereotyped as fierce, rebellious and independent to a fault. And some of this may be true, but in different ways than the media conveys.

"We've stopped ISIS more than 20 times," Abu Atwey, of the Tarabin tribe, told CNN in 2015. "We went out with more than 50 cars and kicked them back. We told them they aren't allowed in our territory. ISIS is scared because we are united."

"We have eyes everywhere," Musallem Faraj, our amiable Tarabin guide, assured us. "If anyone comes into our territory, we find out who they are and why they are here. Usually they are more than welcome."

Concern for the safety of strangers is a deeply held Bedouin value, as is sharing hospitality. Men and women of the tribes pass along knowledge dating back generations about how to live within limited means. During Earth's predictably arid years to come, these traits may be increasingly valuable.

Though my companions and I felt comfortable with the Bedouins, the Egyptian government may not share our feelings. In early April, Stratfor contributor Hilal Khashan wrote that from its very inception, the modern Egyptian state has marginalized the Bedouins, regarding their way of life as a relic of bygone eras. Today, Khashan wrote, authorities still see Bedouins as enemies of the state and treat them as such. Yet Cairo does make distinctions between the North and South Sinai governorates. While supplies to Gaza may be funneled through the north, and both Israel and the Egyptian government target suspected Islamic State targets there, South Sinai offers scuba diving, hiking and religious pilgrimage sites cherished by people of various faiths. The Greek Orthodox monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, popularly known as St. Catherine's, has been guarded by the majority Muslim Jebeleya tribe for centuries.

New Opportunities

The rising popularity of long-distance walking and experiential tourism is bringing new opportunities for job growth and international recognition to the Bedouins of South Sinai. And visitors can gain a good look inside a heritage of eco-appreciation that, if not buoyed, may be lost to the temptations of technology and modernity. Bedouin guides keep their culture front and center during walks. Musallem Faraj stopped us regularly along the way to identify plants with medicinal and nutritional value.

The samwa plant has medicinal properties, according to Bedouins in Egypt's Sinai Desert.

A samwa plant. "This plant is antiseptic and will heal your rash," Bedouin guide Musallem Faraj told a group hiking the Sinai Trail in Egypt.


"Look at this," he said, holding a bouquet of tiny, thorny, upward-facing leaves. "This is samwa. It is open, like a hand. This plant is antiseptic and will heal your rash. You mix it with water, put it on your skin. Drink it. Tomorrow your rash will be gone."

At another stop: "This is remf." Musallem had a leggier cutting in his hand. "Chew it if you have a cough." A number of us tasted it. It was a bit bitter, encouraging saliva to wet our dry mouths.

"And lasaf." Musallem pointed to a capparis species of plant growing from a fissure in what the Bedouins aptly call the "Colored Canyon." Here, pastel sandstone identical to that of Jordan's renowned Petra is eroded into a dazzling, narrow walkway. Lasaf leaves gather dew and water vapor from the air, drizzling it toward the roots where it is stored.

Humans have long sought ways to capture dew. In July 2017, Stratfor contributor Luc De Keyser wrote that ancient civilizations from the Atacama and the Namib deserts all the way to the South Downs of England took their cues from plants and rock formations to induce condensation. In the Sinai, this tradition continues. Moreover, lasaf leaves and seeds are spicy to the taste. If you smash the leaves, you can use them as a salve for sore knees and joints. Gently snap the leaf in two and you'll find a sticky, spicy film that can serve as a bandage on a small cut. In a world going dry, plants like lasaf could have increasing value.

Bedouin guide Musallem Faraj points to a lasaf plant growing from a canyon wall. Lasaf leaves gather dew and water vapor from the air, and can be used as a salve.

Bedouin guide Musallem Faraj points to a lasaf plant growing from a canyon wall. Lasaf leaves gather dew and water vapor from the air, and can be used as a salve.


On the back bowl of Mount Sinai, our Jebeleya guide Nasser told us about za'arool, a medicinal plant that used to grow abundantly toward the top of the mountain. "We see less and less of this herb at the top of the mountain because it's become too hot," he said ruefully.

Timeless Lessons

There are lessons for the modern world in the lifestyles of Bedouins and their predecessors — lessons emerging from trial, error and survival, as well as from legend, lore and faith. A story in both the Bible and Koran tells of a young Canaanite named Joseph who had a talent for interpreting dreams. It came to pass that when Joseph was a prisoner in Egypt, the pharaoh called on him to explain dreams in which "there came up out of the Nile seven sleek and fat cows," and while they grazed, seven other cows, "ugly and thin," came up from the river and ate the fat ones. The pharaoh also dreamed of "seven green ears of corn and seven others, withered." Joseph answered the pharaoh's questions, predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of hardship. He recommended the Egyptians increase their food production and storage in preparation for the famine to come.

The 2018 edition of the journal Egypt and the Levant does not rely on religious mythology. It points to archaeological evidence that there was an increase in food production in the late Bronze Age (about 3000 B.C.), and that the surplus was distributed to neighboring realms such as Canaan and Hittite as a means of soothing possible deprivation-fueled unrest. The tension between "haves" and "have nots" is not a modern phenomenon, and the Egyptians recognized the prudence of sharing bounty with the hungry to quell the unwelcome mass migration that can be caused by climate change and its concomitant sociopolitical complications.

For historical and contemporary Bedouins, sharing with strangers and providing water to the thirsty is the first recourse. Traditional law declares that access to and use of water is open to anyone that needs it. Intertribal relations, though they may be strained in other aspects of life, are mitigated by recognizing and respecting what it takes to survive in these harsh climes.

The Jebeleya, Tarabin and Muzeina tribes of southeastern Sinai that created the Sinai Trail came together as business partners when they recognized they could all benefit from the tourism trade. Some work as guides. Some supply food. Some supply camels or jeeps. Outside investment brings English classes and Wilderness First Aid training. In February, the three tribes forged an unprecedented agreement with five additional regional tribes to more than double the length of the Sinai Trail. Their goal is to enhance the quality of life for more of the 300,000 people who call Sinai's desert "home" by sharing its majesty and the simple gifts and teachings that are key to survival. Along the way, they may well enhance our urbanite understanding of the world as well.

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