Desert guru Eid al Atrash provides an oral history of the spring pasturing traditions of the Bedouin of Sinai
By Krista Masonis and Eid al Atrash
Photography by Eid Al Atrash
Heavy rains fell on the parched high mountain plateaus of South Sinai this winter, leaving a bountiful crop in their wake. As small green sprouts push through the cracked earth offering promise of nourishment and health, this spring the Bedouin nomads are taking to the mountain areas blessed by rain.
The Bedouin are najayeen (pasturers). When they say the word their faces light up — it is a happy time, a time of celebration and abundance. Between March and May, Bedouin tents are scattered across the highlands. Each cluster of tents gathers members of a single tribe. Some families still use the traditional black goat-hair tent for shelter, but these are disappearing as Bedouin abandon their traditional lifestyle for settlement. Random canvas and cloth from the homes of settled Bedouin are replacing the waterproof weave with swathes of cloth sewn together in a cacophony of color and texture, supported by sticks, rope and rocks.
Within a tribal encampment, extended families form smaller clusters of tents. Each family’s livestock — goats, camels, sheep and donkeys — are housed nearby in a zareba (animal pen). Baby goats are left to sleep and eat around the family tent, bringing hours of fun to the young children, while the rest of the animals are taken to pasture by the young girls and women who collect herbs and firewood as the animals fill their stomachs with the spring herbs that dot the horizon. If the girls are lucky, a donkey will carry their herbs and firewood back to camp. Otherwise, they transport it in a large sheet slung around the back of their head that drapes down their backs. As the sun begins its descent in the afternoon sky, with two or three kilometers behind them, they return to camp to rest next to the fire fueled by the gathered wood.
Over 45 different types of herbs grace the landscape of Sinai. Essential to Bedouin life, they provide food for the animals and the Bedouin, seasoning for food and drink, and healing for traditional medicine. Delicious herbs, such as jahg — something like gargeer (wild rucola) is a springtime specialty to be enjoyed fresh with meals. Dried herbs like mountain chamomile, oregano and mint are used to season food — be it cheese, butter, soup, meat, rice, vegetables, dried fish, or other delicacies like partridge and lizard. These herbs are often added to the sweet black tea for which the Bedouin are renowned. The girls and women collect a bit every day so that by the end of their pasturing, they have enough for the year ahead. Some of these herbs and flowers bloom throughout the spring months. Others appear only for a short time before being beaten down by the sandstorms that blow through the peninsula every spring.
There is a long tradition of using herbs to help restore and maintain health among the Bedouin. Marmareya (wild sage) is used medicinally for throat and chest complaints, as well as stomach upsets. Qayssum (lavender cotton) eases infections. The list of physical complaints and herbal remedies is detailed and long and the knowledge is passed down in families and within tribes from generation to generation. Bedouin healers are found in every tribe; tapping centuries of experience, they work with herbs and use in other techniques — including acupuncture with heat and the hot springs and sands of Sinai — to keep their people healthy.
While the girls and young women are away from camp with the animals, the older women and those with children stay behind to care for the tents, clothes, little ones and food. Every so often their gaze turns to the rolling hills in search of the silhouettes of their younger counterparts as they return to camp. Early each morning they milk the goats, and place the fresh milk — rich in goodness from the spring herbs — in a goat skin, blow it up until it forms a firm, oblong shape, and swing it back and forth until butter and buttermilk are produced. The butter is set aside and seasoned with fresh sheeh (Absinthium Wormwood) herbs, bringing nutritious, delicious flavor to any meal. The buttermilk is placed in a loosely woven cloth to drain until it forms cheese (afeej). Tasty and tangy, the cheese is left on a plate to dry over the course of a week or so, and then stored for use through the year. One of the Bedouin’s favorite summer meals is melon fatta, which is made using the dried cheese, along with melons grilled on the fire, small pieces of traditional bread and fresh herbs.
As for the men, they are busy seeing to their family’s sustenance by meeting other tribesmen to share and trade news, supplies, and to explore future areas of cooperation. Many business and personal deals begin and end over the weeks of pasturing. Those who have gardens plant seeds of corn, eggplant, tomato, melon, cucumber and pumpkin. The Bedouin know where the natural underground water basins form after the rains and above them will plant their crops. Holes are dug, seeds are sown, and a wire fence encloses the garden to protect its wealth from the grazing goats and camels. No further watering is required, no pesticides are used. The seeds will take from the aquifers and produce in the coming months. Those families still leading a traditional Bedouin lifestyle will move from their pasturing settlement to these gardens at the end of spring where they will settle to harvest the vegetables, wheat and corn.
A strong and independent people, deeply rooted in tribe and traditions, the first tribes migrated from the Arabian Peninsula around the 13th century, traversing modern-day Jordan and Israel, to settle in the Sinai. Twenty-two tribes, speaking 16 different dialects, live in Sinai, dividing the land and its water sources among them. Each tribe claims common possession over their territory, its members tracing their lineage back to a common ancestor. Some tribal members come from families who joined the tribe to obtain its protection and hold a lesser status.
Today most pasturing families return to their homes after the pasturing, where they have settled in the villages, towns and cities of Sinai. The fading of Bedouin culture that began in the middle of the last century has accelerated in more recent times, fueled by drought and the comforts of modern-day life.
After more than 20 years of drought, the spring flowers and herbs are fewer in number. Some herbs are endangered due to over-harvesting and animals are thin, producing less offspring. Breathtaking valleys are drying up — the acacia and palm trees look tired, their leaves struggle to stay green, surviving only because of their deep root systems. But almond trees, whose beautiful, fragrant blossoms and delicious fruit were once prized by the Bedouin, are now serving as firewood, their shallow roots unable to find water.
This year the rains have come, but not the tourists. The Bedouin of South Sinai, many of whom are settled and rely on tourism for their sustenance, celebrate the rain and its bounty, yet worry about their livelihoods. With little or no work, they are gathering in colorful ramshackle tents across the mountain plateaus, breathing in the air of spring, enjoying each other’s company, sharing stories — and drinking lots of milk. et
Eid al Atrash heads Bedouin History Desert Safari which supports the documentation and preservation of Bedouin life through its website and safari programs. It is the only safari company customizing trips to visit the Najayeen where visitors are offered traditional goat hair tents equipped with comfortable mattresses, clean linens and blankets as shelter. All meals are cooked on an open fire and served buffet-style. And the sweet Bedouin tea is always flowing.
For more information go to www.bedouinhistorydesertsafari.com