The South Sinai is unique for many reasons, but the thriving Bedouin culture is a great reason to visit in its own right. As is often the case with traditional cultures, modernization and the shift toward cities has made it challenging to preserve the knowledge and wisdom that has accumulated from generations of inhabiting a region. Hiking tourism is unique in that it gives the traveler an opportunity experience the richness of these cultures in their own environment, and it also provides an economic reason for younger generations to learn and preserve their traditional knowledge. Evan Bryant had an opportunity to help scout trail possibilities in the Sinai for the Abraham Path and he experienced this lesson first hand:
It was important to us, while planning our trek through South Sinai, that we rely on local Bedouin guides for the duration of the journey. This is their land and their heritage, and we wanted to walk through it with the people who know it the best; to learn about their culture and to see the desert through their eyes. So naturally we were quite excited to meet our first guide from the Tarabin Tribe who would be with us for the first four days as we walked through his tribal territory.
When we met Musallem Faraj, we were reclining on cushions drinking Arab “shay” (tea) around a low table at the seaside restaurant of his Sahara Beach Camp, in Ras Shetan. The sun had already set behind us, and the jagged line of the Hejaz Mountains of Saudi Arabia towering over the Gulf of Aqaba had just blended with the deep purple sky and disappeared into darkness. He entered the palm-frond-roofed beach restaurant like a king in his castle, or quite literally, a sheikh in his tent––but without the slightest pretension––greeting his guests with twinkling eyes, and a broad, easy, white-toothed smile shining through his full, black beard, his face elegantly framed by a traditional Bedouin red-and-white-checkered keffiyeh (also “shemagh“ or head-scarf). At last he reached our table and sat down to meet us.
After cordial greetings, we dove straight into the topic which was top on our minds: the trek. We mentioned how grateful we were that we were going to be guided by him through his territory––as well as by two other Bedouin guides through theirs––expressing our interest in learning about Bedouin life.
We couldn’t have known it, but these words struck at the very heart of Musallem’s deepest love: his desire to preserve the culture of his people, which in the face of modern lifestyles and the temptation to earn easy money through consumer tourism at seaside resorts, he is seeing disappear all too quickly. Referring to the oral tradition of the Bedouin, he said,
“You, in the West, keep your knowledge in libraries and books, and you don’t really know it. We Bedouin keep our knowledge with us, and if we don’t pass it along, it is lost forever.”
He then excitedly told us of his plans to open a school in Bir es Sawra, in South Sinai, to educate people about Bedouin knowledge; knowledge of nature, the desert, camels, and of food, crafts, and culture. “For my people, and people in the world, for everybody.”
As an example, he explained the traditional Bedouin desert greeting.
At a distance they first raise a hand and say, “As-Salaam Aleikum!” (“Peace be upon you”). The other replies, “Wa-Aleikum Salaam” (“And peace upon you”). This was especially important in old times, because if you didn’t say it, it meant you were an enemy. Then they approach one another and shake hands. And last, and most endearing, they touch noses and look eye-to-eye.
“Look for that when we’re in the desert. I guarantee you’ll see it.” And we did!
For the next four days Musallem continued to prove his passion for teaching about nature and Bedouin culture, something he’s done in countless tours over the past 22 years. The moment we set foot on sand at the Ras Shetan entry point in Wadi el-Melha, he gathered us around several species of plants to explain the various ways that they conserve moisture in the parched desert climate––some with a milky substance in their leaves, others with a waxy coating, and others in tightly bound fibers. He explained the traditional uses of each plant, for food, tea, dye, or medicine.
The most impressive to me was, “lasaf,” a type of low-lying caper bush (caparus sinaica), which grows pendulous red fruit, the seeds of which taste almost exactly like dijon mustard!
He pointed out subtle geological features in the towering rock walls around us. Volcanic basalt flows cutting dark stripes in the red granite. Boulders on the path with sharp edges belying their relatively recent tumble to the wadi bed, versus the large smooth boulders evidencing thousands of years of water coursing over them during seasonal flash floods.
With Musallem, every detail of the desert was full of wonder. “Subhan-Allah!” he would say. An Arabic phrase with no proper translation in English, but which indicates the beauty and wonder of creation. It didn’t take long for us to catch on…“Subhan-Allah!”
Speaking of his affection for his homeland he told us, “Sinai is beautiful, man! Mountains are a nice feeling, you feel protected, maybe you see a wall around you and you feel safe. In the big desert you feel naked. I like it here.”
Each morning we had the opportunity to watch him bake “libba” bread directly in the coals of the fire (a thick traditional Bedouin flatbread).
And not only we watched and learned, but also little Ahmad, Musallem’s nephew. Musallem explained that he wanted to bring Ahmad on our trip so that he could pass the Bedouin knowledge along to him. “He is too soft. If he stays home he just watches TV and plays video games. He needs to learn!” And learn he did. Quite obediently and always with a smile, even when put to the test,
“Boy,” Musallem ordered, (he always called him “weled,” Arabic for “boy”), “…put my coat on the camel!” as he threw his black leather jacket on the ground away from Ahmad, who dutifully scampered over to retrieve it and put it away. “Boy, get the flour bag!” “Cut the onions!” “Fetch the camels!” “Load them up!”
Musallem also explained that the reason he’d chosen Hajj Eid, our jolly old cameleer, was that he wanted to learn from him too. “He has so much knowledge, and when he’s gone, it’s just gone.”
And perhaps most enjoyable of all, every evening we would all sit around the campfire drinking hot chai, while Musallem shared Bedouin history with us and told old ghost stories.
His school may not be open yet, but Musallem certainly has a classroom in the desert. It was a joy learning from him––and it’s an honor to pass it along.
– Written and photographed by Evan Bryant