Sinai Trail, the Bedouin culture, St Catherine monastery

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The life is good
— Musallem Faraj Tarabin
 
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The trip to Sinai in Egypt was my first major adventure in the Middle-East region. And it was a blast. Few days spent on Sinai Trail in the desert and mountains have been truly a life-changing and eye-opening experience. I was introduced into the unique culture of Bedouins that are so much different from everything I experienced to this point. And I loved every bit of it.

This trip was a storytelling workshop led by professional photographer and story-teller Frits Meyst. I was one of the 4 participants. Throughout these few days, we produced various multimedia material for the Sinai Trail. They will use the photographs, video and audio bits and written word and promote tourism in the Sinai region. At the same time, this will help preserve the unique Bedouin lifestyle and culture. At the time of publishing this post, we are still hard at work in finalizing our story. This post is my own take on the whole experience.

The Sinai desert experience

The trip started in Sharm El-Sheikh where I spent my first night in Egypt. From there we transferred to the Sahara Beach Camp near the port city of Nuweiba. There we spent a night waiting for the remaining two participants to join us. Most of us came from overnight flights and we were tired. So some relaxing time in the camp, nap on the beach or short swim in the waters of Gulf of Aqaba was welcome. Behind the narrow gulf, the land mass of Saudi Arabia was visible. A little bit further to the north the countries of Israel and Jordan had their lands connected to the gulf.

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After a short briefing about the trip, we were ready to throw our backpacks onto the 4WD Land Rover and ready to embark on our Sinai Trail desert adventure. Joined by our Bedouin guide Mussalem, driver Attea, and two younger Bedouin guys Ahmed&Ahmed we left the Sahara Beach camp. After a quick stop at Mussalem's place (where he also picked up his youngest son), we left the coastline and entered the Sinai inland regions.

The countryside is pretty surreal. It has to be seen to fully appreciate it. The desert in the Sinai is very diverse with many different faces. There are wide open plains, high sand dunes, surrealistic sandstone hills and rocks carved by winds, flat-topped ranges and plateaus offering dramatic views, rugged mountains and a maze of long winding wadis, green oases, and hidden canyons. And the ever-changing light rendered this beautiful landscape in different ways during different times of the day. There are roads in the desert and they are “littered” by many security checkpoints we had to pass through. Once we left the paved road, we entered the desert environment. Attayeq, our Bedouin driver skillfully maneuvered the Land Rover in the desert.

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We ran into a couple of Bedouins there. From them, we learned about a camel race that was about to take place the next morning at 7am. Later came across a bigger group of Bedouins that were camping in the desert preparing for tomorrow’s race. This wasn’t planned but we operatively changed our plans. This opportunity was not to be missed. So we decided that we have to see and experience the camel race. And boy, what a treat it was.

We set up a camp and out guides prepared a delicious dinner for us. And of course, there was a tea or chai. "Chai time seemed" to be the most important time in a day of a Bedouin. Similarly to some of us (with coffee), they don’t start a day until they have tea. The tea is a strong and sweet one, while they drink the coffee without sugar. Tea is consumed several times a day and it is sort of a mini-religion there.

We slept under the free desert sky. It was one of the best nights I experienced on the trip. Although the daytime temperatures were around 20-25 degrees of Centigrade, during the night it dropped down all the way to zero. Or even below it. And we also had a light rain during the first night. It proved to be a God sent the next day during the race. There was much less dust kicked up by cars and camels. So far the Sinai Trail experience was nothing short of amazing.

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We wake early morning wakeup the next day. Of course, it started with obligatory tea but we quickly got ready for the race. I didn’t have the slightest idea what was about to unfold. Five of us got into the Land Rover wit Attayeq as the driver. Mussalem and other Bedouin guys got into the other car and we made our way to that starting line of the race. About 20 camels lined up on the start line with 12-15-year-old boys as riders.

Next 10-15 minutes were about craziest ones in my life. As the race started our car sped up to keep in line with camels. They were followed by odd 20-30 Toyota 4WD’s with all the other Bedouin. The drive on the desert surface is crazy. Hard rock or soft sandy surface, quick turns to avoid obstacles turned the car into a giant shaker. In those conditions, it was extremely challenging to take any sort of photographs. Let alone good ones. It was basically a "spray and pray" type of shooting with very high shutters speed. We hoped to get at least some images sharp. You do what you gotta do. We were flying inside the car. Literally. Imagine putting few pebbles into a can of coke and shake it violently. That was pretty much how we felt in the car. The scene in front of us looked like Mad Max chasing sequence. Close your eyes and picture 20 camels racing, chased by 20-30 4WD’s. Here and there some cars broke down, here and there some camels gave up. Attayeq proved to be an excellent driver. I bet he could do just fine in Paris-Dakkar rally. In the end, after 15 km the first camel reached the finish line of the race which was a random tree in the desert. As far as I am aware only 3-4 camels made it to the end. The victorious boy and camel were celebrated and congratulated by everyone. This was a lot’s f fun and huge adrenaline rush for everyone. Most definitely this was one of the highlights of the trip. Something not planned but spontaneous. Those things always turn out to be great. It proves the fact that that flexible itinerary is a must. Then we can experience these unexpected gems. This was a great insight into local culture and lifestyle.

Our next stop was a small Bedouin settlement. Of course, it started with an invitation for a cup of tea. I probably stop mentioning the tea, just assume we drank it all the time. After a delicious lunch with freshly baked bedouin bread, we walked around the settlement and took a few photographs. The bread was actually baked partially by our female colleagues Linda and Marion. As women, they were granted access to the Bedouin house and interact with the wife of our host. For us, men this was off limits. We are guests so it is of utmost importance to respect the local culture. Thus we didn’t try to push for any photographs of women. Unless they themselves would agree on that.

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We set up the night camp about 2 km’s from the Bedouin settlement. As the darkness covered the camp the night sky unveiled the most beautiful view of Milky Way. With no light pollution in the desert, the sky was dotted with myriads of stars. The only other light source was the dim glow from the small fire heating up the next serving of hot and sweet tea. As this is not really a holiday, we spent the time editing and reviewing the pictures from the day of shooting. We did this after every day to make sure we don’t accumulate a huge backlog of unedited and unreviewed imaginary. There was a small generator at our disposal. However, we limited the use due to the noise of the engine. Mussalem and his team of Bedouins prepared a tasty dinner. And after that, they had themselves some relaxing time. It was very interesting to listen to their stories. They patiently answered all out questions. The interaction between Mussalem and his youngest son showed his love for his children. I realize these people are just like we all are. They have their ups and downs, they have their families, love their kids, they are working hard to provide for them. It is just the fact that for most people, this culture is very different and distant. But once you gain some insight it starts to become more familiar. Throughout these few days, we all developed a strong bond with our guides. We were very appreciative of their efforts and hospitality. And it is hard not to feel comfortable around Mussalem. He is one of the easiest going guys I have ever met. Always smiling, always in a good mood. “Life is good” he often used to say, and these moments the life was indeed very good.

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The next morning we climbed up the mountain just behind our camp. I believe the summit plateau was above 2000m in altitude. The sunrise view over the valley was breathtaking and that surreal desert landscape just added to the overall experience. As nice as the view was, we were there to do a job, so before we could relax we had to get the shots to cover this part of the story. But this is something I love to do so it didn’t feel like working.

Once the sun rose up high in the sky we descended to the camp for a breakfast. It was time to say goodbye to Mussalem and other guys. We prepared for our drive more inland to St Catherine for the second part of the trip. Before we left we shot a short interview with Mussalem. We wanted to get his insight into the development of the Sinai Trail and generally the tourism in the area. He stressed the importance of this development to the local Bedouin tribes. Our job as storytellers is to convey his story to the rest of the world and encourage more people to visit Sinai. By doing that we can help the local Bedouin tribes to get more work. All this together it also helps to preserve the unique Bedouin culture.

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St Catherine and visit to the monastery

As we said goodbye to Mussalem we embarked on a ride to St Catherine. Atayeq drove us all the way to the Fox Camp in St Catherine where we stayed the next 3 night. It took about 2 hours. Just enough time to admire more of the beautiful landscape and reflect on experiences from last days in Sinai desert.

Upon arriving at Fox Camp, Cristina, an Italian lady in charge coordinating the Sinai Trail trips, welcomed us. Cristina was amazing and she took care of every request we had. We checked in to our room, had a cup of hot tea. Did I even have to mention that? :) And then we had a little chat about plans and activities we were about to do in St Catherine.

St Catherine is famous for its monastery. Officially "Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai", lies on the Sinai Peninsula, at the mouth of a gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai. The monastery is controlled by the autonomous Church of Sinai, part of the wider Eastern Orthodox Church, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built between 548 and 565, the monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. The monastery has become a favorite site of pilgrimage. And our visit was timed just right for this event.

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This place is a great example of a peaceful symbiotic coexistence between Cristian and Muslim religions. The first sign of this coexistence were two towers in the middle of the monastery. One Christian and one Muslim. During the day of pilgrimage, hundreds of pilgrims visited the monastery. And the local Bedouin tribes took over most of the security tasks during this important day. Police and military set up checkpoints on all incoming roads. Bedouins under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmed took care of creating a 20km safe zone around the monastery. Guarding all the mountain passes and valleys around the monastery they prevent any kind of unwanted intrusion during this important religious event.

We couldn’t miss this opportunity to photograph the pilgrimage, procession. And this was the only day when the church is open for public.

The documenting of the procession proved to be a tough challenge. There was a big crowd present at the day and it made the photographing and filming quite challenging. From photos I have seen, as a team, we managed to cover the even very well. It was a good insight into a regular day in the life of a photojournalist. Asses the situation, think, adjust, photograph and deliver. Sounds simple enough but trust me, it is not. Whoever thinks that the photographer only presses the shutter button, think again. That is only a small percentage of the entire job.

All and all this was a great experience. It was so great to see Christians, Muslims, and Jews in one spot engaged in friendly discussions. Sun was shining, tea was served and everybody was enjoying this beautiful day. What else could you ask for?

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In the afternoon we met Nassr, our Bedouin guide from Jebeliya tribe. He took us to a nearby Bedouin settlement where we met some locals, had a tea, smoked shisha. Of course, we took a lot of pictures. Turns out it is not entirely impossible to photograph women. Although their faces were covered or sometimes they only agree on photographs without faces, some agreed to be photographed. That s perfectly fine. The hands, embroiled outfit, Bedouin jewelry provide enough subjects that will work with the story even without a face. At the same time I have to stress that with the slightest sign of camera disapproval, we stepped back. Especially us, men. Ladies had little more freedom but even their photography requests were sometimes refused. No problem, we moved on to another subject. The most important thing is to respect the locals, their customs and habits. We are guests and it is us who have to adjust. I just want to clarify that all female pictures in this post are taken with their permission.

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In the mountains

A new day a new adventure. We set out for a day of hike in the mountains. Nasrr’s youngest son Mansour joined us on this hike together with young always smiling Bedouin guide Mousa. Our mission for the day was documenting our trekking experience and produce some trekking photographs for our story. It was a beautiful day and as before, the scenery was breathtaking. Nassr led us to many beautiful places and told us a lot about the life of the Bedouins in the mountains.

Nasr, Mansour, and Mousa were very good companions and very patient with our cameras. They answered all our questions about the Bedouin lifestyle. We hiked quite high, I believe we reached around 2300m of altitude. Weather was beautiful and sunny. But it is deceiving. Just a few minutes in shadows was enough to feel cold again.

It was an exciting day spiced up by a dogfight that suddenly started while having a break. We couldn’t figure out why the three dogs that were accompanying us started to fight so fiercely. I won’t go into details but from what I have seen later in the day and the next morning I assume it was a love triangle between two female dogs and one male. I guess the jealousy doesn’t avoid the animal world.

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In the evening had a party, the Bedouin kind. We had a traditional musicians in the house and it was good to see the guys working at Fox Camp as well as other Bedouin people having a good time. This was another very interesting insight into the life of Bedouin people and I enjoyed the night a lot. We did some photography, some recording and we generally enjoyed ourselves.

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Visiting Dr. Ahmed

On our last day, we set out to visit Dr. Ahmed. He is an interesting man, a walking encyclopedy of knowledge about plants, herbs, animals that he uses to heal people in the region. After a walk through a beautiful valley scattered with small orchards, we reached his place. The setting was stunning. His modest house was built next to the footpath and his green garden lied little lower in the valley.

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Only one glance at his face was enough to know, this was an extraordinary man. I don’t dare to guess his age you may guess for yourself looking at the photograph. Of course, we were welcomed by an obligatory tea, fresh dates, and tangerine for snacks. Then we witnessed and photographed a traditional Bedouin bread preparation. There are different ways to make the bread. I personally saw one baked in the ground and this one was baked on a sheet of heated steel plate. While waiting for the main course we continued with a snack of dates and tangerines from DrAhmed’s garden. The main course was a grilled chicken. I am not really sure what kind of herbs he used while grilling but this was one of the best tasting chicken I ever had in my life. Nice and crunchy skin while the tenderly grilled meat melted inside the mouth. The meal was complemented with a vegetable plate. And we finished off with, you guessed it, a cup of tea.

Walking in the garden after the lunch felt like being in a paradise. It is a beautiful place and I wished we could spend a night in the valley. It was very peaceful and tranquil. Dr. Ahmed is a very soft-spoken and modest person. He doesn’t like to be called doctor although everybody does call him that way. As he said, “I am not a doctor, that is a doctor” while pointing at the tangerine tree. What he means, it is all about herbs, trees, and spices and their natural healing powers. But I think all those without Dr. Ahmed’s vast knowledge are just plants.

I asked Nassr if he had some apprentice to pass this knowledge to. Apparently, there are few young bedouins but he didn’t really found the one and right person to teach. I hope this valuable knowledge won’t go to waste and he finds a right guy to teach. He started to write everything down which is good. In my opinion, the master and apprentice relationship would be much better. There is always a hope.

As we left Dr. Ahmed’s place behind, we walked through a canyon. Coming out of the valley we came about another, rather large Bedouin settlement. There we waited for a jeep to take us back to Fox Camp. Then I spotted a group of females in the distance and pointed it out to Linda and Marion. It was the chance for the ladies to get some nice female portraits. For us men, it was off limits so we stayed at our spots. It turned out the females were a bunch of young girls coming from the school. It was so good to see that these young girls are encouraged to attend school. In spite of being in the Middle East and of the Islamic faith. I believe this is busting a few myths about this place and religion.

This was our last planned experience of the Sinai Trail trip. After coming back from Dr. Ahmed’s we packed up and transferred to a port city of Dahab. We had one day and night to spare so we continued working on out Sinai Trail story. Dahab is quite touristy place so the feel was very different to the one we experienced with Bedouin on the Sinai Trail. When our time was up, we transferred to Sharm El-Sheikh for our early morning flights home.

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About Bedouins of Sinai

Bedouin tribes are the traditional inhabitants of the Sinai. They settled in the area at different times in the last 2000 years. They are mostly from the Arab peninsula, with the Jabaleya tribe a unique exception, being the descendants of people from the Balkan. Traditionally there are seven Bedouin tribes in South Sinai – the Tawara federation. The Bedouin are pastoralist nomads, although most are now settled in or around towns. They still maintain a strong link to the desert and mountains, and many families move out to their campgrounds or gardens at certain times of the year. The Bedouin way of life is very simple and slow, with a fine balance of work and leisure time. It is a closed yet very welcoming society, where a complex system of family ties and strong traditions play the most important roles.

The Bedouin have their unwritten law called Orf which even the Egyptian authorities accept. Each law was given a specific name like “Onwa”, “Doukhl” and “Hilf”. “All the land is a governmental property, however, the traditional usufruct rights of the Bedouin are respected by the Government of Egypt.” Decisions in important matters are made at tribal gatherings called Majlis (note the word is also used for the sitting room) with the participation of all and are based on consensus. The tribal sheik is regarded as the man of authority who rests his case on his wealth, his inherited prestige, his personal capabilities in helping fellow tribe members, and as a result of all of this-his occupying the most preeminent position in society.

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The Sinai Trail

The Sinai Trail is a 100% Bedouin-run community project. Today, the Sinai Trail is Egypt’s 1st long-distance hiking trail. It is a 550km, a 42-day circular hiking trail that starts and ends by the Gulf of Aqaba, connecting old trade, travel, and pilgrimage routes through one of the Middle East’s most iconic wildernesses.

In the beginning, the Sinai Trail involved just three Bedouin tribes, the Tarabin, Jabeleya, and the Muzeina. Today, altogether, there are eight Bedouin tribes involved in the Sinai Trail. Each tribe manages the particular part of the trail in its own land. Every tribe guides travelers across its lands to the borders of the next tribe. When something affects the trail as a whole, decisions are made collectively. All decisions about the trail and its future development are made by local Bedouin tribes. The Bedouin cooperative is supported by a wider Sinai Trail Team, including men and women from across mainland Egypt and Europe, who add extra skills and strengthen the project in key areas.

And here is where we come in. Our expertise as image makers and storytellers can further help the development of the region, tourism culture perseverance. The creative output of this storytelling workshop will be fully donated to the Sinai Trail and to be used as a marketing and promotional material. These small community projects are often battling with high financial requirements to run these kinds of campaigns and promotional event. Our mission as seasoned travelers and photographers is to give back to people who go the extra mile to make the traveler’s experience even more amazing.

This small article is my take on this whole Sinai Trail project. The final deliverable story is still being worked on at the time of publishing this post. It will contain the written word, photographs, audio and video bit put together into a cohesive story. Hopefully, a story that introduces and promotes the Sinai and Sinai Trail as a destination and unique culture of Bedouin tribes in the region. This way, we hope to help to preserve the Bedouin culture for future generations.

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Final word

My personal experience from the Sinai Trail trip is nothing short of amazing. When I first learned about this workshop, my immediate question was about the safety of the region. I still decided to go and I am so glad I did. The region is safe, and there is no need to be afraid at all. Bedouin people are kind, welcoming and very hospitable. If you decide to visit, you are up for a treat. If you were curious about the region and the culture it is a great time to visit as the place is not that crowded yet. Please give it some thought and don’t dismiss the idea just because something happened a few years ago. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or anybody from Sinai Trail.