Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 September 2009
Issue No. 963
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

My favourite camel

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Part of the fun event that took place last year marking the launch of the Characters of Egypt 2009

THE RED Sea coast south of Hurghada is probably as yet the most untouched environment in Egypt. With the resident Bashariya nomads -- a Hamitic people related to the Beja of Sudan with some 4,000 years of history behind them, an international reputation for being the best camel trainers on the face of the planet, and their own language -- Marsa Alam boasts grassroots traditions as well as natural wonders not to be found elsewhere in the country. Ancient Egyptians distinguished between the black and the red land: the mud of the valley, and the sand of the desert. Yet their present-day forebears often forget that, besides the Nile Valley -- home to the cities and the sedentary life of the farmer -- there is another aspect to existence in this part of the world: the desert, the camel, and the astounding variety of nomads (numbering some 300,000 individuals who belong to some 45 tribes) using the one to navigate the other. Egyptian nomads claim connections with the Arabian Peninsula, the African south, and Berber North Africa; yet the tribal heritage of Egypt remains a seldom-unearthed treasure trove of history, art and culture, and the environment in which it continues to flourish is often the most aesthetically compelling.

Last year the first Characters of Egypt Festival, held in the Bashariya stronghold-cum-national park of Fustat Wadi Al-Jimal, some 45km south of Marsa Alam, was finally brought together by two of the most interesting non-profit organisations working in Egypt today: the Wadi Environmental Science Centre (WESC), which specialises in alternative and supplemental science education based on direct experience of the environment; and the Egyptian Desert Pioneer Society, a desert-exploration and development NGO that has worked closely with Bashariya for many years now. Together the organisers sought to bring together as much of Egypt's nomadic heritage as it could, with representatives of various desert destinations as well as local residents presenting visitors with food, performances and sporting activities in the stark beauty of the Eastern Desert. This year the number of participating destinations has reached eight: with Matrouh, Siwa, North and South Sinai, Farafra, Nubia, Bashariya and Ababda -- the Bashariya's Arabic-speaking cousins, located slightly northeast of Bashariya territory. On 29-31 October, under the auspices of Minister of Tourism Zoheir Garana and Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Maged George as well as Red Sea Governor Magdy Qubaisi, the Characters of Egypt will include, among a multitude of activities, desert navigation, shadow reading and camel riding.

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