Short Stories

Dahab Bedouin: Past and Present
by Donna Harris

So much has been written about the Bedouin and their traditions, for example, their famous pride, fierce tribal loyalty and strict code of honour, applied to the letter in the case of transgressions of their law. But what about how they live today?

The life of the Muzeina Bedouin here in Dahab has changed considerably in the last twenty or so years since they began to flock here, attracted by increasing volumes of tourists. The Dahab residents – as opposed to those who still live in the desert – live side by side with Egyptians who have migrated here since Sinai was handed back by Israel after the peace treaty of 1982. Families still keep livestock and own camels, and no backyard in Assala (the Bedouin village situated to the north of the touristic centre of Dahab) is complete without the “zareeba” or animal enclosure and the camel(s) outside, insolently observing the progress of passing jeeps and pick-up trucks before them. But in most households these are not the sole source of income. The effects of sedentarisation cannot be denied: many Bedouin men are now wage earners driving taxis and jeeps for dive centres, or landcruisers on safari. The ladies, many of whom have persuaded their husbands to provide the household with a satellite dish, now have access to many TV dramas and all the latest video clips. They have as many changes of clothes as can be afforded according to their husband’s income and the number of children who have to be fed, schooled and clothed. In short, they are starting to show signs of incipient consumerism. Couples do not marry quite so young these days, and there is a marked trend to have fewer children. Many parents now in their forties have as many as ten; if there is more than one wife, this figure can rise to fifteen. However, younger couples seem to be thinking more along the lines of having five or six children. The woman still does not work outside the home, but recently a handful of girls from Dahab were given a send-off party before their departure to El Arish in the north of Sinai, where they are to train as teachers. Maybe in the future, it won’t be so unthinkable for the ladies to work, and this could also open the doors to increased consumerism.

Susceptibility to outside influences

The effects of this consumerism can also be seen with the children. Many of the youths and adults have mobile phones and boys and girls are as crazy about pop videos, both Arab and European/American, as their western counterparts. One can no longer assume that a young Bedouin will have the intimate knowledge of the desert that his/her grandparents had. There is still a widespread knowledge of the medicinal properties of certain plants, passed on between the generations, and most families still have relations still living in small, remote settlements in the “mountain” as they term the desert. But there is no hesitation to go to the pharmacy in the event of illness, if they happen not to like the herbal answer too much. And of course, they now have access to a western style doctor and dentist here in Dahab.

No visitor to Dahab can have left without having made the acquaintance of the girls – and some boys – who sell their cotton bracelets and beadwork up and down the beach. Due to this activity, and in the case of the boys, their work with the tourists on camel trips and “dinners in the mountain”, many of the young Bedouin have a passable knowledge of English. Some of the girls are very talented linguists and pick up a smattering of phrases in a range of European languages.

Courtship and marriage customs

So how do the youth of Dahab find their marriage partners? In the past, almost without exception, marriages would have been arranged between families, infact until quite recently. One can still find many individuals under the age of forty who were “married off” in this way. But things have changed in the last twenty years. Although the choice of marriage partner is restricted to the tribe and probably also to a shortlist of a few families within it - bear in mind that the concept of family here refers to a large group of “extended” relatives, whom we would tend to label a clan - the young people nowadays mostly choose for themselves. At wedding parties, which are held in a valley near Dahab, a group of boys will dance in a semi-circular line whilst one girl at a time gets to dance her way around the whole semi-circle, drawing boys out of the line if she finds them or their dancing particularly appealing. At the end of a dance, gifts can be exchanged – a girl, with a few of her girlfriends to help her along, will approach the boy she liked best and she may give him a cassette of her favourite singer, for example. If a boy and girl really like each other, they will have some limited opportunities to get to know each other a little bit. In the evenings, especially in summertime and during Ramadan and the two big feasts, people socialise a lot, going from house to house for sessions of tea drinking around the fire. Young people of marriageable age have the freedom to circulate in same sex groups – in the case of girls this applies only to the less conservative households – and even if the girl has to stay home, her young suitor can always go to her house to drink tea, especially if he is related to her by blood. Of course, the ever present adult chaperones are not supposed to know anything, but within their peer group, the couple’s friends know who is “with” whom. After a certain time, and if the boy is impressed enough to want to prove to his prospective father-in-law that he can keep the girl in a financially satisfactory way – he will start to build his own house on his father’s land, or at least gather the income to rent an apartment in Wadi Mubarak – he will approach the girl’s father and ask for her hand.

In any community there are always individuals who are a little shy or don’t like noisy parties ... so how do they get married off? If a girl catches the eye of a man, he will certainly start drinking more tea than usual in her family house. If he thinks he stands a chance, he will go to her father or senior male relative and ask for her hand. Once the information has been passed on, it is then up to her to show her interest or lack of it. If she likes him, she will stay by the fire when he comes and demonstrate, albeit in a very proper and decorous way – as befits a respectable young lady who has been raised correctly – that she appreciates his interest. If she doesn’t want him, she’ll choose the moment of his arrival to go and see the neighbours.

Wedding parties in the moonlight

Engagement is not a big deal - unlike their Egyptian neighbours, the Bedouin do not throw big engagement parties – the boy simply gives the girl a ring. The traditional wedding party is held “in the mountain” as described above. Before dusk, livestock – a sheep / goat - will be slaughtered and prepared with rice and the guests will eat. When the bride arrives, she is greeted by the joyous trilling of the female guests. When night falls, the fun starts: young men drive jeeps and pick-ups around in flamboyant circles, hooting their horns. Then they huddle in groups and form the semi-circular lines ready for the dance. The boys make music “a cappella”; the group agrees on a riff made up of rhythmically enunciated chanting, the words to be repeated ad infinitum like a funky mantra. This is accompanied by drumming on an empty jerry can or other such sound producing vessel. The girls arrive and sit together infront of the line of men. One at a time they will get up and dance, draped in black velvet shawls extravagantly embroidered with silvery sequins which shine to great effect, especially on the night of the full moon.

Incidentally, it is not just the Bedouin youth who get to enjoy themselves with this mal’ab as the dance is called. Youths/young men and women up until the age of around twenty-five years dance together, men and women from, say twenty-five to forty form their own groups and the over-forties also have their own party. The latter is a little more sedate than the other two, with one man and one woman dancing together in a line, and is held at some distance from the louder youth celebrations.

The influence of Egyptian culture

Living alongside the Egyptians has rubbed off on the Bedouin in a few ways. Twenty years ago, there was a rigidly imposed system of hairstyles which denoted the exact social status of the female: one for unmarried girls, one for young wives who had not yet borne children, one for married women with children and one for older women of matriarch status. Nowadays, one can still see vestiges of these distinctions among more traditional Bedouin in the desert and in some other tribes other than the Muzeina, but here in Dahab it is all but forgotten. Even the famous burqa, traditionally decorated with coins and beadwork, is no longer worn by the grandmothers here. The married women and older ladies still wear the black tarha, but many younger unmarried girls wear headscarves of any colour they wish, and the emphasis is on comfort and practicality. The traditional chiffony tarha, with its beadwork, is frequently replaced with a plain black scarf in a less sweaty fabric, and it is possible to hear ladies complain about how hot it is to wear the former in the hot summer months. In the past it was absolutely compulsory for adolescent girls and women to cover their faces below the nose in the presence of any man they would legally be able to marry, but now in some households this social regulation also seems to be relaxing. However, in conservative households, the arrival of a man is still the signal for all the ladies present to re-arrange their scarves to ensure that they are properly covered.

Hospitality and family structure

The Bedouin are famous for their tradition of hospitality. Whilst there is a world of difference between the traditional nomad sitting in a remote desert settlement, and maybe not seeing anyone for days, and the relatively densely populated Dahab, this tradition has lasted the test of time and change of circumstances. However, if someone has a really intense dislike of a visitor to his/her home, here in Dahab the host will simply leave the unwelcome guest alone by the fire. This gesture has more force of expression than a westerner hurling words of abuse. The hierarchical structure of the family stands firm, and senior relatives in the pecking order must be obeyed; it would be unthinkable to question their authority if they give an order or to directly challenge them. Shouting insults in public would be socially unacceptable and individuals, especially junior or more lowly members of a family, learn to adopt a playful and jokey manner of handling annoying situations, where westerners would simply vent their spleen.

The Bedouin mystique?

The emphasis is still very much on the stability of the group rather than the wishes of the individual. Maybe this is one of the key factors which draw western tourists to the Bedouin like moths to a flame: occidental life at least for the reasonably well off, is relatively safe and comfortable, but as our life expectation becomes ever longer and our lives increasingly consumption orientated, we ourselves as individuals become more isolated. Somewhere in the core of our being, a light goes out: the fire of the soul must somehow be nurtured by a feeling of belonging to the group. So we turn to clubs and common interest groups to recreate this connectedness. Although certain groups of Bedouin, such as the Muzeina of Dahab, are in a phase of transition, they don’t need any special interest clubs to bond them together. Their unity as a community still stands firm and their social system successfully irons out any ripples of hostility between individuals. They will continue to be a source of fascination to visitors for many years to come and their reputation for hospitality is well justified. Marhaba !


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