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Pass it along––A Bedouin Classroom in the South Sinai Desert

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.”

Taking notes and learning about edible plants.

Taking notes and learning about edible plants from Musallem.

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.

Tastes like dijon mustard

Tastes like dijon mustard

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.

The geology in the Sinai is spectacular.

The geology in the Sinai is spectacular.

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).

Baked fresh every morning directly on the embers of last night's fire.

Baked fresh every morning directly on the embers of last night’s fire.

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!”

Hajj Eid, our jolly old cameleer and Ahmad, Musallem’s nephew.

Hajj Eid, our jolly old cameleer and Ahmad, Musallem’s nephew.

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.

Musallem Faraj leading the way

Musallem Faraj leading the way

– Written and photographed by Evan Bryant

Trail-Scouting Dispatches: The Goat Rescue

One of my favorite trail encounters on the Abraham Path centered not on people, but on a small goat. My co-workers have insisted that I write the story of it up as a blog post, while I’ve been concerned that it will come off as me just talking about what a swell guy I am for helping goats. I seem to be in the minority opinion here, though, so you be the judge.

This past April, I was out scouting a section of trail in the Craters Region by mountain bike. At the western rim of the Large Makhtesh, I had finished the day’s work and was sitting in the Negev sun, eating some snacks. Suddenly, the desert silence was interrupted by a forlorn bleating. Nearby, half-hidden in the scrubland, was a small, staggering kid (ed.: a baby goat) with no other goatkind in sight. 

This is unheard of; when there are goats, there are generally either zero goats, or a crowd of more than fifty. I ran to the nearest hilltops to scan the immediate area, in case a nearby flock might have shed a member, but there was nothing. I concluded the kid must be from a large flock I had seen about 3 kilometers down the wadi I’d come up, and had somehow gotten separated.

As the saying goes, “with small goats comes great responsibility.” This little guy clearly did not belong out here, and, as far as I could see, was thoroughly lacking in survival skills. Whether by dumb luck or by the act of some caprine guardian angel, I was now tasked with discovering where the goat belonged, and seeing it safely there.

With a pat on the head, I befriended it, and soon had it following me – but not very fast. It was only around 3 kilometers to where I’d seen the shepherds and flock, but at the rate I was going, it would have taken over an hour to get there. After a painfully slow few hundred meters, I decided to stash the mountain bike and carry the goat. Aside from the occasional loud, agitated bleating and spasm of kicking, this seemed to be working. 

As I went on, the kicking grew more desperate, so I tried having the goat follow me again. Soon it seemed to become more reluctant to move on its own: each time I set it down, it would follow me for ten meters or so, then hold its position and start bleating in sadness or defiance, if those are ways in which a goat can bleat. 

Getting fed up with this, I decided I was going to have to carry the thing the rest of the way. I gave it many more chances to walk (especially whenever it got squirmy) but this seemed futile. So we continued in an awkward alternation of carrying, switching arms, bouts of kicking and squealing, deposition of goat upon ground and subsequent scooping up again. 

Although this goat likely did not understand English, I found myself speaking to it as I would to an uncooperative child. I inquired as to the purpose of all this kicking, and whether the bleating needed to be so loud that it rattled my eardrums. I explained that, since the option of being left to die in the desert was off the table, the baby goat must choose either to walk on its own four feet, or to be bundled awkwardly in my arms. I explained how much I would appreciate it if the goat would make its choice and stop complaining. I promised we would soon be home with its family, and sooner if it would please shut up.

This latter promise was not made in entirely good faith: I had no way of knowing the flock would still be there when I reached the spot, nor even whether it was the correct flock. If it were a strange flock, I didn’t know what to expect – would the other goats ostracize it? Formally initiate it and raise it as one of their own? Cannibalize it? Treat it as an interesting curiosity? Give it a wedgie and steal its lunch money? I don’t know how goats live. 

However, right flock or no, any shepherd could eventually track down the true owner; there aren’t all that many people living out in this particular backcountry. And it was the middle of the day. Typically, a shepherd will bring their flock to a certain spot and graze the area for the day, not moving too far until later afternoon when it’s time to go home. So I slogged on, counting on the hope of finding an appropriate place for my passenger.

Finally, I approached the spot where I’d seen the flock. They had been here, as evidence by the tracks and livestock poop littering the valley floor, but there was neither sheep nor goat in sight. So I set the baby goat down and told it to stay put; then, ignoring the shrill unhappy noises it began to emit, I headed up over a hill to get a view of the area. 

The profiles of several sheep a few hills over showed me I wasn’t too late. With a new burst of energy I hauled the goat (which was getting more and more upset about being carried as we went on) up to the edge of the flock, and hoped that it would be drawn to the presence of its own kind. The newcomer and the herd began to bleat back and forth at each other, but the little guy was still standing in place, not making any headway toward the flock.

I plopped the baby a bit closer to the others and finally, it wandered in fits and starts up a hillside, to where a goat that could only be its mother emerged from the crowd and started licking it. Success! On seeing this, the elderly shepherd came over and immediately handed me some saj bread (a hearty Bedouin flatbread easily cooked in the field), presumably in thanks, and introduced himself as Salem.

The whole time I’d been carrying the goat, I’d been concerned I was being too rough with it – perhaps that was the reason for all the kicking and squealing. But Salem’s first reaction was to grab the thing by its hind leg, drag it over to him, and give it a big fat kiss on the top of the head. Luckily, he did not do the same to me. Instead, upon hearing my story, he summoned his daughter to take some photos of this unusual gathering.

I needed to leave in order to catch a bus, and in any case was eager for a shower to remove the smell of goat from me. I petted the goat one last time, shook hands with Salem, and departed. I hope he’ll enjoy trying to get people to believe his tall tale of the time a foreigner in a bike helmet emerged from the desert, hauling a reluctant baby goat back to its mom.