Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sinai: a passage to Dahab

Some have seen tensions between the Bedouin and others in Sinai, but the experience of Dahab indicates that everyone can pool forces to realise an Egyptian dream, writes Ibrahim Farouk in the fifth part of an Al-Ahram Weekly series

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From truck to camel safaris, tea gatherings and strolls through small towns: Sinai is the ideal melting pot; the whole world in Sinai and the road to paradise

The community in the Sinai town of Dahab is composed of many groups who share common interests that at times bring them together and at others keep them apart. Such are normal human relations. There are the Bedouin, the migrants from the Nile Valley, either from the Delta or Upper Egypt, referred in Sinai as "Egyptians", and there are the foreigners of different nationalities who have lived here for many years.

Within each of these categories there is a diversity that cannot be ignored. Not all the Bedouin belong to the Al-Mazinah tribe that dominates south Sinai or their historic allies the Al-Olaykat. These tribes are closely related through intermarriage and diyya (blood money), a financial penalty imposed by traditional law among the tribes in case of a crime or a violation of custom.

Work in the tourism sector has also attracted many members of other tribes in Sinai to Dahab, not just from the south of the peninsula, but also from the centre and the north, as well as people from elsewhere in Egypt. Then there are the foreigners who have also come here from all corners of the globe, predominantly British, Germans, Italians and large numbers of Russians who have settled here with their families in certain areas.

To decipher the relations between these groups, it is important to look at recent history and particularly the history of south Sinai after the peninsula returned to Egyptian sovereignty after the Israeli occupation that took place following the 1967 war.

In 1982 and 1983, Sharm El-Sheikh and then Dahab were liberated from Israeli rule, the majority of the residents in these areas being Bedouin from the Al-Mazinah and Al-Olaykat tribes who had never left their communities in Dahab and other locations throughout the occupation. They continued to herd and fish, land was plentiful, and they moved freely without interest in accumulating wealth or building private homes or living in luxury.

Theirs was the life of the desert and the sea. This was the life that they were accustomed to, and their lives there remained much the same as they had always been despite the Israeli presence. While it is true that some of the Bedouin worked with the occupation forces, according to Saleh Zogheira, who lived through those times, this did not mean that they approved of the Israeli presence. They stayed because they felt that they had been born on the land and they were determined to die there too.

They refused to make Sinai an international issue, declaring it to be Egyptian territory and they expressed their allegiance to Egypt at the Al-Hasna Conference. For this gathering, Israel's then defence minister had invited all the tribal elders and leaders in Sinai, as well as the world media, to announce their agreement to secede from Egypt and put the peninsula under international mandate. This was a similar move to that proposed in the recent chatter about Sinai after the events in the north of the peninsula over recent months.

Such was the image of Bedouin society in Dahab until the early 1980s when it was liberated from Israeli rule: a simple town where sea and mountains surround valleys and deserts, and the locals spend their time herding in winter and fishing in summer. But then something changed, with the town beginning to attract increasing numbers of visitors because of its calm and stunning environment, among them Israelis who had visited Dahab during the Israeli occupation and had later returned there, as well as Egyptians from Cairo and other governorates.

These visitors were keen to travel to a different world where desert life prevailed. There was no electricity, no concrete buildings, no crowded streets, nothing from the ways of contemporary life, with all its responsibilities and constraints. Life there was simple and alluring: in the morning there was swimming or diving off an enchanting beach, and at night there was socialising and entertainment in the shadow of palm gazebos and candlelight coming from candles in cut-off plastic water bottles embedded in the wet sand.

The town began earning a reputation as the perfect spot for diving and surfing thanks to newcomers from Cairo, as well as from Germans and Britons who first visited via the Israeli port of Eilat by crossing into Egypt at Taba. This required a revolution in services, especially in areas where tourists gathered at Al-Masbat, and small restaurants and caf│ęs began popping up owned by Egyptians from the Nile Valley and other Egyptians from Bedouin tribes.

Until the early 1990s, the town still lacked many services, but the new partnerships between the locals and their compatriots from the Nile Valley soon generated more development and competition to raise standards and prepare for new tourism activities. Dahab's reputation relied on its unique sites and charming natural environment, and foreign visitors became obsessed with this place where the sun never sets. It became a permanent destination away from the cooler climates of their home countries.

Partnerships began to grow that in time led to inter-marriage and strong human and economic bonds. Some figures from the former Mubarak regime and their cronies dominated key activities in the city in the 1990s and afterwards and controlled many exclusive areas of real estate, becoming very rich very quickly as they were able to sell these at astronomical prices to foreigners with Egyptian aliases. Such people were aided by influential figures in the government and security agencies before the 25 January Revolution, partially distorting the social structure of the town and surrounding areas and negatively influencing urban-planning and infrastructure. This compounded problems regarding water, sewerage, power and building licences, as well as cleanliness and garbage collection.

The corruption of the former regime was felt in Dahab as it was elsewhere in the country, and even today it still influences this spectacular destination that is blessed with natural beauty but has been ill-managed in the past in terms of saving its natural wealth and environment. Today, such conservation is an important demand made by many Dahab residents irrespective of their origins. However, this will never be achieved without resolving a key social problem inherited from the ousted former regime in the form of the conflict that has sometimes existed between the Bedouin and Nile Valley migrants, such frictions sometimes snowballing into battles for absurd reasons.

The mindset of the Sinai Bedouin might be summarised as follows: "this is our land, and if it wasn't for us you would not be here. You wouldn't have made huge profits to send back to your families in the Nile Valley and Upper Egypt. This is our land, and we protect you from danger and facilitate the jobs that you can't do. We have the toughest jobs, and we work to get them done. We transport tourists on safari trips and introduce them to the Sinai that they enjoy visiting. We offer everything that visitors to our land want to know about this beautiful and mysterious world of desert, culture and tradition."

As a result, the Sinai Bedouin have sometimes mistrusted those arriving in the peninsula from the Nile Valley, objecting in particular to the unjust distribution of wealth under the former Mubarak regime. Because of parallel misconceptions, those who have arrived from the Nile Valley in Sinai have sometimes had an unflattering image of the Bedouin. "The Bedouin are only interested in money, and we have generated a lot of profit for them. We bought land from them that they paid nothing for, partnered with them on projects, and brought them tourists from around the world. It is through us that they have learnt skills in trade, tourism and project management."

Each side feels that it has done the other a favour, and tensions have sometimes flared up, even developing into fights using weapons, fists or insults. The only beneficiaries have been those who have fanned such conflicts between Egyptians from Sinai and the Nile Valley -- the plotters of these unnecessary battles were often the security officers and sharks of the former regime. It was these people who profited from spoiling the relationship between Egyptians in Sinai -- whether natives or migrants -- making each side hostile to the other. This gave former regime officials and their cronies the upper hand when it came to collecting money from all sides.

The Bedouin do not come from another world. They are loyal to their country, Egypt. They love Egypt and would make sacrifices for it when it is in danger. Newcomers from the Nile Valley and Upper Egypt are also Egyptians trying to make a living and moving from one region to another inside their country.

Mustafa Al-Attar is one young Egyptian man who came from Ismailia to Dahab eight years ago and opened a small cell-phone repair shop in Al-Assla Square. He married there and started a family, and his shop is often frequented by Bedouin who treat him as one of their own. He shares the same affinities, has many friends among his Bedouin customers and shares their respect and love.

"Since I came here eight years ago, I have only ever experienced feelings of love and cooperation from the people of Sinai," Al-Attar said. "I feel I have become one of them, and since my parents died a few years ago I rarely go back to my hometown of Ismailia. I feel Dahab is my hometown now, and the Bedouin are my family and kin. I feel safe here, and for this reason my brother and other members of my family have decided to move here and partner with me on my project."

"There are no gentler people than the Bedouin of Sinai. They are polite, forgiving and generous, as long as you deal with them fairly and have cordial and friendly relationships with them."

Al-Attar lives like one of the natives. Residing in a housing complex that lacked a mosque, he and the community decided to build one by themselves. They wanted the local city council to supervise and license the construction, but the efforts they made were stonewalled by the bureaucracy. This was last year, but their determination and the huge changes triggered by the revolution meant that they were able to build a mosque, and the whole community went there for prayers during last Ramadan.

This young Egyptian, like many others who have settled in Dahab after migrating from the Nile Valley, argues that there can be no excuse for driving a wedge between the people of Sinai and the rest of the country. This would be a fabricated and baseless ploy, he says, because everyone is Egyptian and all have common interests. All are partners in building a precious part of Egypt that needs a lot of help.

"Sinai is vast, and we have not developed more than one per cent of the peninsula," Al-Attar said. "We, whether Bedouin or urbanites from other regions of Egypt, need to dream of developing it, benefiting from its wealth and defending it. We should not be sidetracked by false strife or conflict."

Like many others who came to Sinai from elsewhere in Egypt in search of work, Al-Attar admits that it is young people who have been suffering the most. The stranglehold of the former regime and its security agencies persecuted the Bedouin and newcomers alike and treated them equally badly. Ahmed Atta, 25, who has a diploma in agriculture and works as a chef's assistant in the tourism sector, tells his story.

"I tried several times to work in Sharm El-Sheikh, and sometimes it was difficult to put the money together to travel there, so I used to borrow it from my father. At the Sharm El-Sheikh checkpoint, the former regime security forces would make us disembark and line up in a humiliating scene. Although we all had the right documentation and IDs, they would deport us back across the line, as if we were enemies of the state coming from another country. Thank God things are completely different now. We feel we are in our country and that we can work and advance in it without being pursued or humiliated."

Magdi Atta, like many other young men who came to Sinai for work, confirms how the peninsula was oppressed by the previous regime, which especially affected young people and only provided protection and privileges to a small segment of the Bedouin and newcomers. Like other young people in south Sinai, Magdi says that the younger generations of both groups are the same as the other young people across Egypt who went to Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011 and that they share the same interests and aspirations.

"Today in south Sinai towns such as Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab you cannot tell the difference between Bedouin youth or that of any other governorate, whether by dress or interests," Magdi said. "Everyone uses a computer, has a Facebook page and twitter account. Everyone listens to the same music and works together on joint projects and enterprises."

Yasser Fuji, a photographer from Tanta, works in his private studio on the beach in the Al-Masbat district. Fuji says that there have been fights between the Bedouin and the people from the Nile Valley for frivolous reasons -- once a fight broke out because Bedouin children were playing in a restaurant and annoying some tourists. However, elders on both sides have put out the flames, and everything has returned to their normal warm and respectful relations.

All the Egyptians here, whether Sinai natives or newcomers, want to make a living and to work together to develop the area. It if wasn't for all of them, Egypt would not have the reputation it has for being so hospitable to tourists in Sinai.

East to west

INES, a Belgian national from Antwerp, never imagined what fate would have in store for her, removing her from a world crowded with people and action to a calm quasi-paradise in Sinai.

Depressed after ending a bad marriage with a fellow Belgian because their perspectives on life were opposed, he wanting to invest in the stock market and make money and she having grown up in a household that revered culture and the warmth of the family, she had lived with her former husband without joy and had even given up her favourite pastimes of painting and reading for a life that seemed ideal on the outside but was hollow on the inside.

In a moment of truth, she decided to give up her former life and to start all over again, never thinking she would meet her soulmate, an Egyptian who had lived and worked in Belgium for 15 years. However, she found Mustafa, and despite the obstacles facing a foreign suitor of a European girl from a close-knit family, his honesty and earnestness won her family over and they got married.

On their honeymoon in Sinai they went to Dahab and decided to settle there and start their project of a small tourism company that began by bringing over their friends and acquaintances from Belgium and Holland. Thus, they began their journey together from a small room in the Bedouin district of Al-Assla in Dahab.

Ines promoted their business online, and her husband made other arrangements. They partnered together on everything and would pick up tour groups the moment they landed at the airport, arrange their accommodation, sightsee with them at diving spots and other places, and guide them through Bedouin life.

They lived this way for more than seven years, during which time they had two daughters together, Iman, five, and Sama, three, all the while earning a good reputation in the European market thanks to flattering media coverage in the Belgian press. They expanded their business and became a small hospitality company that provides high-end private housing for their clients.

Dahab for them is home to both a Western and an Arab dream, and this has led to success, a good life and two adorable children.

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