Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2011
Issue No. 1055
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Of camels and Bedouin

No beast is dearer to a Sinai Bedouin than his camel. Samir Sobhi explores the role played by the "ship of the desert" in Bedouin life and traditions

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Sometime ago, a friend and I were discussing ways of developing the Sinai. The Peninsula has a unique character, and its inhabitants have a character all of their own. A close look at Sinai Bedouin families reveals that the camel is an inseparable part of any family unit, and that it has such an important position in Bedouin life that it plays a leading role in Bedouin customs, traditions and even legislation.

I suggested that the best way of developing the Sinai would be to expand the trade in camels. Why not make use of the Sinai's proximity to Sudan via the Al-Arbeen road to establish a trading route, I asked. If half a million camels from Sudan could be brought up this road and given to the Sinai Bedouin, a magnanimous project could be kick-started between Egypt, Sinai and Sudan to the benefit of all.

The camel, this wondrous beast, has many stories to tell. It is considered to be a member of the family in the Sinai, being both a means of transport and a source of food and clothing. It is known as the "ship of the desert" and the "hero of the Haggan race", running at a speed of 60km per hour when in full health and physical fitness. Its legs are almost invisible as it jumps through the air.

Because the camel is the pillar of the family, the wealth of local tribes is measured in camels, with these beasts being used to store Bedouin wealth. Camels are used as dowries on marriage, and they are a means of resolving conflicts between tribes when used to compensate for crimes or to make ransom payments.

There is a "camel judge", called a Zeyadi, in the Sinai, whose name comes from his tribe and who judges matters of camel theft. There is also a Massouk, an expert on camels and camel teeth, who handles camel-related fines.

Local traditions enforce respect for camel ownership, and hence serious punishments are meted out to camel thieves. Sometimes a thief or his tribe will have to pay a fine for every step a camel takes between the place of a theft and the place where a camel was later taken.

ORIGINS OF THE CAMEL: Camelus is a Greek word derived from the Phoenician and Hebrew gamal. According to Ibn Al-Manzour's mediaeval dictionary the Lissan Al-Arab, a camel has the same status as a boy or a slave.

A camel's stomach is divided into "rooms" or bladders that are filled with water when the camel drinks and can remain full for 20 to 30 days. The drinking process itself can take up to 15 minutes. A camel eats tree branches, thorns and grass, and it can see equally well by night as by day.

It can endure significant physical exhaustion. Its paws are flattened and even-toed, in order to ensure stability. The reason it is called the "ship of the desert" is because it endures better than a donkey, is easier to lead and can carry heavier burdens.

The Bedouin make wool feeding bags for their camels, and a camel's saddle is called a watar or haweya. Alternative names include a ghabeet or shaddad. The camel has two belts of hair extending round the front of its stomach and back to its posterior. Among the many benefits camels bring their human owners are meat and milk for food, hair for clothing, skin for shoes, belts and gloves, and tails for fuel.

A camel's life span is 30-40 years. The Arabs say that this is one of "God's mercies".

There are two kinds of camel: the single-humped Arabian camel and the dual-humped Bactrian camel. The latter are among the largest members of the camel family, whose members also include the vicuna, the llama, the guanco and the alpaca. The camels of the Sinai are relatively small in size, light yellow in colour and are suitable for riding.

Camels were once the main form of transport in the Sinai. However, with the increasing dependence on cars and other vehicles in modern times, together with the paved roads that now link the different parts of the Peninsula together, this use has declined, leading to a parallel decline in the importance of the camel.

Today, there is less interest in raising camels and in training them and breaking them in. This will eventually lead to large numbers of free-roaming camels grazing in the desert without their owners. Camels are slow to breed, and they mate for the first time at the age of five and then once every two years afterwards. They can produce thousands of kilos of milk over a period of 15 months.

THE MILITARY ROLE OF CAMELS: In the past, whenever the Bedouin decided to fight, they would ride hagan, or small camels. These they would ride until they reached close to their target, and then they would lie low on the ground, leaving their camels with men remaining behind to protect them. They would then go forward and engage the enemy. If they ran out of ammunition, they would unsheathe their swords, only returning if either clearly victorious or vanquished.

On the battlefield, the Bedouin would cry their sisters' or their daughters' names, crying "I'm the brother of so and so, or the father of so and so," and then "killÒê¦ kill." However, in addition to this military role they would also cherish their camels and sing to them, camel songs being called hedaa.

Regarding the influence of such songs on camels, it is said that an Arab prince once passed an Arab sheikh and saw a slave tied with iron shackles. The prince asked, "what did this slave do to deserve such punishment?"

The sheikh replied, "follow me" and took the prince to the camels' stable. There he turned to the slave and ordered, "sing to them." The slave sang, and the camels jumped excitedly to their feet, as though nothing was wrong with them. The sheikh explained that "this slave brought these camels a long distance carrying heavy burdens while singing to them to increase their speed. The result was this state of exhaustion."

Each Bedouin tribe has its own special hedaa songs that distinguish one tribe from another. A tribe like the Teeh sing hedaa songs to their camels while they are giving them water, though they also sing to them while sitting on their backs, calling these songs mawaleya.

CAMELS AS CURRENCY AND IN MARRIAGE: Camels are often used as fines, since they are the traditional currency of the Sinai. The rape of a virgin from a man's own tribe entails a fine of six camels, while the rape of a widow from another tribe entails a two-camel fine, provided the widow files an immediate complaint. If she doesn't do so, the fine is one small camel.

Polygamy and early marriages still exist among the Bedouin, and a man is required to judge fairly among his wives, providing each of them with a tent and staying with each of them equally at night. If he neglects one of his wives, she will tie a knot in a thread for each time he neglects her, eventually taking the knotted thread to her family who will then take it to a judge. The judge may then order the man to pay one camel for each night he has neglected his wife.

Such has been the role of the camel since it travelled from Africa to Asia and from Egypt to Sinai and on to Iraq, Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula. The Bedouin also invented tattoos to identify ownership of their animals, because pasturage extended over large areas where camels and cattle were left to graze alone. The tattoos differentiate animals with different signs and shapes, proving the ownership of each tribe.

The Bedouin characteristically hold large celebrations for marriages, the entire tribe coming out to participate. In the morning, there is a huge camel race among the men, while in the evening there is folk music with singing and dancing. The camels also "dance", sometimes alone and sometimes when ridden by their owners.

On the day of a Bedouin wedding, the bride's father will ask the groom a traditional question three times, "do you accept to marry my daughter?" The groom answers, "yes" three times in front of witnesses. The bride's father then gives the groom a small piece of wood, known as a kasla, and tells the groom, "you are engaged to my daughter, and from now on she is your responsibility."

When the groom takes the kasla he tells the bride's father, "I accept her as my wife, by God's sunna and the Prophet." The Fateha is then read from the Quran.

A special tent called a barza is prepared for the groom, and the bride enters the tent accompanied by a close relative. The women remain outside with the men. The groom's relatives will slaughter cattle for the guests at the wedding at the door of the barza: they play instruments and entertain the guests, and the groom's relatives give presents in the shape of cattle, wheat and money.

The groom stays with his bride in the barza for between one and three days. Custom dictates that the bride should leave the barza before the third day, and the husband follow her to live with her in the wilderness, away from the tents of his family, for a period of between one week and one month. During that time, his family will send him food, until another tent is prepared for them near their tents. This will be the married couple's new home, and the tribe sings special wedding songs to the bride.

Generally speaking, a Bedouin man is careful to provide a suitable marital life for his bride, fully carrying out the family's responsibilities. There is close mutual respect between a man and his wife, with each partner taking care of the other's rights. Marriage in Sinai is made by word of honour, and there are no documents or contracts, although more recently marriages have been registered with the governorate administrations.

Even after the spread of houses in some places in North Sinai, and the move of many Bedouin to homes built of stone or bricks, some Bedouin still live in tents made of camel hair, built in the shape of a bull with doors facing east. The tent usually has nine supporting pillars, three in the middle and three on each side. It is divided into two sections, one for the women and the other for the men.

However, today living in tents only takes place in winter and spring. In summer, the Bedouin build huts made of branches and straw called aresh, the origin of the name Arish. The huts are furnished with monsef, round wooden plates for serving food, bateya, smaller plates for the head of the family's use, karmeya, or zalfaa, smaller dishes used to bake food and present food to guests, and henaya, smaller, deeper bowls.

The huts also typically contain kadah, square vessels made of wood with a handle and beak used for camel milk and water, and a stone flour mill and a sieve. There are also large iron sheets for baking bread and aluminium pots and pans for cooking, which the Bedouin buy without lids. Coffee is made in a large copper coffee pot.

One of the most important pieces of furniture is the ekhrag, a blanket used when travelling and made of white or coloured wool. There will also be a mezwad, something like an ekhrag and made in the same manner and used to carry flour. A qerba is a water vessel made of sheep skin. East of Arish, the Bedouin use pottery vessels instead of the traditional qerba.

Magareb are sacks for tobacco made of deer or cattle skin. Flints for making fire are obtained from Mount Yalek, or Mount Ouf east of Aqaba.

BEDOUIN DIET: The Sinai Bedouin depend on wheat, barley, corn, rice, lentils, dates, fish and meat in their diet, using mills to grind flour, which is then kneaded in bateya. Bread is rolled out in sheets, or baked as round, flat loaves called malla.

The Bedouin also eat a specialty called greesha. This is made by grinding wheat until it is still rough and granulated in form, and then heating it, pouring it onto a plate and pouring fat or oil over it. To cook aseeda, they boil water in a pan and gradually pour flour into it, stirring it until it thickens and then pouring it onto a plate. Milk is sometimes used instead of water, and this is then called telbana.

Matboukha consists of malla bread cooked in milk and then in hot fat. Dafeena is bread or boiled rice in meat bouillon. When the Bedouin grill lamb, they build a stone cooking place with a little door. This is then filled with firewood, which is lit and allowed to become red hot. A lamb or goat is then slaughtered and skinned. After the animal has been cleaned, it is wrapped and placed in the stone oven. Embers are scattered on it, and it is allowed to bake for an hour or so. The result is a truly delicious grill.

Dakka is a plant that grows wild in the Sinai desert. Plants such as zachum, wormwood, watercress and thyme are also used in Bedouin cooking, these being dried, ground and mixed and used for dips with malla bread.

A Bedouin woman does not eat with her husband at the same table out of courtesy to him, and she doesn't call him by his name either, using his elder son's, daughter's, or father's name instead. A woman will also commonly swear by her father's head and not that of her husband.

Bedouin women are characterised by their grace, lightness of movement, intelligent eyes and dark complexions. They are also famous for their tattoos, especially their facial tattoos. They are famous for their hospitality, their willingness to help others, to defend the family honour, to care for neighbours, express gratitude, keep oaths and take pride in their ancestry. They are courageous, especially so when it comes to demanding their rights. They have a love of equality and freedom.

BEDOUIN CLOTHING: A Bedouin man will wear one shirt beneath another called an Abu Kerdan, in Arabic the name of a bird and thus named because of the length of its sleeves: should the wearer allow his hands to fall to his sides, the sleeves would almost touch the floor.

Over this shirt, Bedouin men will wear a kabr, something like a caftan, and on top of that a black cloak called a dafya. In winter, they wear a geadan made of untanned lamb skin worn outside in so the fur is on the inside. The Bedouin turban, or marira, is particularly famous. It is made of white cotton, with the marira being a headband made of lamb or camel wool. The Bedouin might wear a coloured silk shawl or a white wool shawl over their turbans, tying both back with the marira.

Bedouin women also wear Abu Kerdan shirts, which they buy dyed blue and then darken with dye made from plants. They tie the shirt round their waists, and they might use a red belt called a saghifa, which has a fringe descending to the knee. Bedouin women's veils are heavy in style covering the entire face with only the eyes showing. They consist of a weka, a piece of black cotton cloth with embroidered silk thread covering the head and tied beneath the chin. Pieces of gold, silver or copper are used to cover the face from the nose to beneath the chin and possibly descending to the belt.

The head veil covers the forehead, with rings dangling down the sides onto the shoulders. Strings of old coins, called shakka, dangle downwards. Perhaps all this material was originally designed to protect the face from the sun.

The borko, or veil, is a head dress that the Sinai Bedouin women decorate with care. It is closer to a symbol than a mere piece of clothing, and its colour and decoration reveal social and marital status. At the same time, the borko is also a symbol of the tribe of those wearing it. Beads also have a special status for the women, and coins and beads are sewn onto the khemar, the headdress and parts of the dress.

A Bedouin man will wear rings on only two fingers, the ring finger and the smallest finger, and these are set with precious stones. Sometimes names are written on the rings, and they can also be used as signet rings.

SINAI SOCIETY: Everyone in the Sinai goes to the market, which is the central gathering place for the area and the place where merchandise is shown off in the most expansive fashion, showing the land and the people that produced it. There is a Thursday market in Arish, a Saturday market in Rafah, a Sunday market in Sheikh Zoweid, and a Wednesday market in Koseema. The latter is famous for a spring called Ain Gadirat six kilometres outside the town, which is the only spring in Sinai that can be used to irrigate olive trees.

Bedouin markets are well organised, with products displayed neatly and simply. The Bedouin use either cash or bartering in trade. One of their most important local products is herb medicine: gaabara is used for indigestion, baaithran for toothache and hanzal for constipation.

Popular tattoo artists work in the Bedouin markets, this being a form of decoration prized by Bedouin women. Tattoos on the forehead are called halil, and on the sides of the mouth there may be tattooed flowers. On the lower lip and down to the chin Bedouin women may have howaifer tattoos, with tattoos called darb appearing on the chin.

On the back of the fingers and on the palms of the hands up to the wrists and elbows there may be tattoos of scissors and fish. From the feet up to the middle of the leg Bedouin women may have different sorts of tattoos, depending on local tastes.

Bedouin markets are full of beautiful, colourful clothes, many of them highly decorated and embroidered. Earrings and bracelets are made of silver, shells, amber and coral, and rings are made of different semi-precious stones of various colours. Head and chest amulets are made of coloured beads. Exhibiting great skill in manufacture, these also often include beautiful old silver coins.

Doctors can also be found in Bedouin markets, being local wise men who cure head, stomach and back pains by cauterisation. Cuts are washed in a liquid made from boiling onions, and patients are made to drink a kind of onion bouillon, being thought to have antiseptic properties. Myrrh is mixed with fat and used as an ointment for wounds. Women in Bedouin markets may also cook tiny scorpions and sprinkle their ashes over their breasts while breastfeeding their babies as a form of inoculation against scorpion bites.

BEDOUIN TRADE AND INDUSTRY: Bedouin industry is a function of Bedouin needs. Women spend their time spinning wool, sometimes wrapping the raw wool around their heads and spinning it as they walk with a spinning wheel in their hands. They make covers for tents and clothes from goat hair, lamb wool or camel hair.

Bedouin spinning wheels are made of pieces of wood slightly raised above the floor, with a wool reel between them. A woman sits at the end of the reel and in her hands there is a knife which she spins with. Spinning this way is very slow: a woman can work all day and still end up with only two metres of wool.

Dying is also performed by women. They dye the thread used for sewing red, green and yellow with dyes extracted from wild herbs. They also make amulets used against wild animals called raqia.

When it comes to trade, the most important livestock traded are camels, horses and cattle. Camels are found in the Teeh and Lehwayat districts, and every year traders from Egypt go there to buy livestock, or alternatively the Bedouin may take their animals to Egypt to sell themselves. Camels, horses and cattle traded in the Sinai also come from Syria and the Hegaz via Arish and Nakhl, and many of the traders coming to the Peninsula and crossing to Suez or Ismailia are Arabs from Wagh, Genba, Moweilah and Aqaba.

Camels are hired out to tourists and government officials, with the Bedouin also dealing in fish, birds, deer, coal, turquoise, rushes, wood and pressed dates.

BEDOUIN TRADITIONS: Bedouin from the Sinai cherish their ancestors, and they give respect to dozens of graves in the desert that they visit each year on different occasions. When they visit such graves, they make offerings, including, for saints, slaughtering a camel, and for ancestors the head of a lamb or a goat. They also venerate the prophets, including the Prophet Aaron, the Prophet Abu Taleb and the Prophet Moses.

Just as they have the saintly ancestors, the Bedouin also have ancestors on whom they heap curses, covering their graves with stones. These include Hod and Amri, a legendary ruler of the Upper White Valley 10 miles from Awga on the Ghanza road. The Wararka, Bayaseen and Akharsa tribes also have a tradition of making slaughtered offerings to the sea, which is a pre-Islamic ritual.

Each year in spring they visit the coast, bringing their tents, horses, camels and cattle with them. These they then drive into the sea, slaughtering some of them and throwing their body parts into the water, saying "this is your dinner, O Sea!" The rest of the meat is cooked and is kept for feasting or for entertaining guests.

The Sawarka tribe also visit the sea, but they do not perform rituals. The Alaha celebrate for one night, from the evening to the following morning, and they make slaughtered offerings anywhere between Rafah and Arish. The Bayadeyeen and Akharsa tribes who live in Kateya descend to the sea at Mohamediya near Farma and carry out a magnificent celebration with horse and camel racing, the women uttering cries of joy for three straight days.

Other Bedouin traditions include pilgrimages to holy trees, there being two closely linked trees called the maqrounatan, literally the twins, south of Rafa well. Each of these trees has a branch that bends towards the ground, and inside there is a hollow where the Bedouin leave old and new coins, nails, beads and lentil seeds. Lanterns are hung on the trees' branches.

Over 50 years ago, the researcher Naom Shokeir asked the Bedouin about their visits to these trees and was told that the trees were honoured by Bedouin women, who would leave offerings in them and light them up with lanterns in honour of saintly ancestors.

The word wigdan means the expression of something that is instinctive and that comes from deep inside a man's soul. The wigdan of a people, literally their feelings, is their poetry, dancing, stories and myths. Among the Bedouin, the heda is a song that expresses happiness at a newborn child, or on occasions such as circumcision or marriage. It also praises spring and travel, especially travelling on pilgrimage.

The most important of the Bedouin entertainments takes the form of dahia, when singers stand in a line and one of them, the bedaa, improvises poetry. A woman called a hashya also dances holding a sword, the singers repeating the word "dahia, dahia" in rhythmic fashion as they clap their hands and rock their heads to and fro. The bedaa then begins to sing improvised poetry, and as he does so others will sing a previously learned chorus as they clap their hands and move their heads left and right, walking towards the hashya.

The hashya backs away from them as she dances, and then all present will sit down, their legs crossed beneath them, the hashya doing the same and all continuing to sing for a while. The men then retreat slowly, and the hashya, still facing them, follows until the group has returned to the place it started from, where all begin the dance once more.

When the Bedouin see the half moon every month they begin to sing, congratulating each other on its appearance and saying, "blessed be your month," to which the other answers, "for us and for you."

Òê˜BLACKENING' AND Òê˜WHITENING': Among the Sinai Bedouin, "whitening" consists of putting a white flag up over someone's house instead of stoning him, while "blackening" is putting a black flag up above a house as a sign of evil. A Bedouin man might call for help from another tribe to prevent some evil, and if the two tribes begin fighting, one of those present may say, "I throw my face, or the face of so and so, between you." If this happens, the conflicting parties should immediately stop fighting.

The face has great sanctity in Bedouin culture, and if a conflict continues after the "throwing" of the face, the owner can claim that his face has been cut and appeal to the Manshad, or judge. Depending on the nature of the litigation, a Manshad may sentence a man to a fine of between two and 40 camels, also depending upon the "degree of the cutting of the face". A Manshad may also sentence a man to having two centimetres cut off from his tongue in lieu of a fine of camels.

There are no prisons among the Bedouin, and therefore most sentences are in the form of fines, with the camel being considered a form of payment. Sentences of this sort are handed down in cases of murder and crimes of honour, with those convicted of stealing being made to pay four times the amount of the stolen goods to the owner, once the theft has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt.

MEANS OF SUSTENANCE: The Bedouin tribes depend for their living upon pasturage, hunting, fishing and trade. They practise some basic manufacturing, such as iron-mongering and making daggers, swords and other items.

The Maseed tribe is famous for hunting the eagles that descend on the Sinai in September, using other birds such as quails as bait. Once caught, the eagles can fetch very high prices, at times over LE10,000 per bird.

The Abu Safra family, part of the Romailat tribe, is famous for rearing the best Arabian horses in the world. The Meliti family, part of the Tarabeen tribe that lives in Abu Neitoun to the west of Rawafe Dam and south of Makdeya, is famous for breeding the best racing camels, called "pure camels" and known for their speed, strength and endurance. These are used for long-distance travel and racing, and prices can easily exceed LE1,000 per camel.

Among other tribes, there are the Al-Bayadeya in Rabaa, Nakhila and Al-Abd Well; the Al-Akharsa in Romana and Balouza; the Al-Samaana in Balooza, south of Romana; the Al-Masaeed in Gelban, south of Romana; the Al-Ababda in Masaghra district, Karira, Al-Gafgafa; the Al-Ihawyat in Felli district, Sheira, Umm Khesheeb; the Al-Howaitat in Markab, south of Umm Khesheeb, Al-Raha; the Al-Tarabeen in the Maghara district to Oga and Agrafa and the Bani Ateya from the Hegaz Arabs; the Al-Sawarka north of Al-Maghara to Mazar, and from Sheikh Zoweid to Shibana; the Al-Tawaila in Abu Tawaila and Abu Salem east of Sheikh Zoweid; the Al-Romailat east of Abu Tawaila to Rafah; the Al-Tiyaha in Kosayma, Al-Motamatni, Al-Hosna and Nakhl; the Al-Olaykat in Ras Mohamed, this tribe claiming to be of Bani Oqba ancestry; the Al-Mazeena in Tor, the tribe also being found around Moussa wells and in Taadiniya; the Al-Nowayat in Al-Monbateh; the Al-Gabaleya in the Saint Catherine's Monastery area, the tribe claiming to be of Roman origin; the Al-Dawaghra in the Al-Abd Well and Salmana district; and the Al-Sawalha, of Higazi origins and now living in Tor and the Feran Valley.

There are also the Barkeeta Arabs, who live in the Koteya district, which is rich with palm trees, and come from the Ababda, Al-Masaeed, Al-Akharsa, Al-Akabla and Al-Kattaweya tribes. Most of these tribes have recently moved to these areas, having branched out from the Sharqeya governorate and settled in the Sinai. They work in camel husbandry and can be seen after the date harvest travelling east in search of pasturage or west to the Nile Delta or Nile Valley. Once there, they work by trading in rice products and agwa, or dried dates, almost the sole produce of their land.

The Tyiaha tribe acquired its name from the Teeh highland in the Sinai where the tribe has settled. This is an unusual occurrence, as it is rare for an Arab tribe to adopt the name of a new settlement.

ORIGINS OF TRIBAL MOVEMENTS: Tribal movements began when the ancient Byzantine Empire entrusted the Arab tribes with the task of protecting its borders. The most famous of these were the Ghasasna, the Lahm and the Gezam, the last two of which are members of the Kahlan, and the sovereignty of these tribes once extended from Oman to the borders of the Sharqeya governorate in Egypt. They were Christian under the Byzantine Empire but converted to Islam after the Arab invasions led by Amr Ibn Al-Aas.

After the Islamic conquest, the Sinai itself was no longer of interest to the migrating tribes, and they found what they were looking for, riches and resources, in the towns and villages of Egypt. From this time onwards, the Sinai became a stopping-off point for Arab tribes migrating into Egypt. This state of things continued through the Mamluke and Ottoman periods, even as other Arab tribes arrived through the Sinai.

BEDOUIN LAW: Having discussed the role of camels in Bedouin life, marriage, food, clothing and commerce, as well as in their distinctive habits and customs, there is also their role in the Bedouin legal system to be considered and in Islamic Sharia law.

The camel is an important aspect of Bedouin law, which is applied by a judicial council made up of men who judge according to Bedouin traditions and customs. This council consists of senior members, who will attempt to find a path towards reconciliation in litigation, especially if there is not the required number of witnesses, or if the potential sanctions are high.

The council also includes the Mashad, also known as the Masmaoudi from the Masaeed tribe in Arish, who judges in matters of personal law, such as "face cutting", "blackening" and matters of honour and reputation. The Kasas judges in civil cases according to the damages suffered by the plaignant, defining the compensation or penalties to be paid. The Kasas is usually from Arish or Tor and from the Kararsha or Mazeena tribes.

The Aqabi is the marriage judge, judging in matters of divorce, dowry or dishonour. He is so called because he comes from the Bani Aqabi tribe, many of whom are judges. The Zeyadi judges in matters involving camels. The Mashba judges in cases where there are no witnesses, or insufficient witnesses, and he uses methods drawn from fire, water and dreaming.

In order to judge with fire, the Mashba heats a copper rod on a fire and waves his palms over it three times. He then orders the accused person to wash his mouth out with water in front of two witnesses, showing the rod to the witnesses. If these subsequently see "fire on the tongue" of the accused person, the Mashba pronounces him guilty. The Bedouin say that if the accused person is guilty, his tongue will dry out and therefore the fire will effectively have "burned" his tongue.

In judging with water, the Mashba takes a copper pot, and asks those present, including the accused, to sit down in a circle. They utter prayers over the pot, and they claim that the pot will then move by itself. If the accused person is guilty, the pot will stop in front of him. If he is innocent, it will stop in front of the Mashba.

In judging by dreaming, the Mashba will think about the accused person before going to sleep, the person then appearing to him in a dream if he is guilty. When he wakes up, the Mashba will pass judgment on the accused. The Egyptian writer Naom Shokeir notes that "in the entire Sinai Peninsula, I have only met a single Mashba, Sheikh Amer Ayad from the Ababda tribe, whom I met in Rafah in 1906. Sheikh Ayad inherited the title from his father Ayad and his uncle Oweimar."

There are various kinds of courts among the Sinai Bedouin, graded like courts in a regular legal system. Senior judges, including the Mashed, Kasas and Mashba, sit on these courts, which are arranged in a hierarchy of court of first instance, court of appeal, and court of cassation. The Bedouin have their own elaborate legal system, though it is entirely oral and unwritten.

Significant crimes among the Bedouin include murder, theft, insults, kidnapping girls, burning crops, trespassing, covering wells, unpaid debts and aggressions. If two tribes wish to bring about a reconciliation, tribal elders will meet and work out a system of compensation for unsolved inter-tribal crimes. The reconciliation is then sealed with oaths and vows.

While the regular Egyptian courts now work in the Sinai, as in every other part of Egypt, Bedouin law is still also applied.

Some well-known Bedouin proverbs include the following:

Protect the old, even if the new makes you richer.

Children are either for trading, compensation or loss.

God bless an obedient woman, a fast horse and a big house.

The seller is greedy, and the buyer a thief.

No head can wear two fezzes.

Well-thought-out lies are better than scattered honesty.

Half of money that is honestly earned goes to the devil, whereas the devil takes all money that comes by dishonesty.

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