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August 2019

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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
 
 
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Keepers of the mountain

1 August 2019

The Bedouin women of Egypt’s South Sinai are rarely seen in public. Now, guiding tourists through the desert they know so intimately, they seek to forge their own path

Without warning, our car veered off the highway toward… nothing. There was no road ahead of us, much less a signpost to mark the way. From the truck beds where we sat piled in with our luggage, I watched the last signs of civilisation disappear as we drove into the desert.

“The Hamadas are a very remote tribe,” explains Julie Patterson, one of the group leaders for our hiking trip with the Hamada Bedouins. We are heading towards their village in the valley of Wadi Sahw, in Egypt.

It’s a place with no telephone signal, no TVs and almost no bathrooms, but it’s not creature comforts we’re after. Our group of 23 women from six different countries is on the way to meet four very special women: the first female Bedouin trail guides in the Sinai desert.

The lives of Bedouin women are normally very restricted. Many tribes don’t even allow their women to be seen by foreigners, let alone walk with them. Most Bedouin women rarely leave their houses. They aren’t allowed take their children to school, or to go to the market.

“They can’t go anywhere, except to the mountains to care for the goats,” explains Zahra Magdi, an Egyptian woman whose company, Mountain Rose Foods, works with Bedouin women near Saint Catherine’s Monastery to cultivate fruit. Yet in a culturally contradictive move, the Hamada tribe allowed four women – Rabia, our group leader, along with her sister Um Soliman and their sisters-in-law Adia and Slooh – to lead us through their mountains on a women’s-only hiking trip organised by a co-op trekking organisation called The Sinai Trail.

According to Madgi, who is part of our hiking group, female desert guides make sense. “The women are the only ones who go into the mountains with the goats. They know the mountains better [than the men].”

Truly, the desert of the Bedouin women is spectacular. Follow her into the desert, and you won’t find a barren scene. Her land is teeming with life. We set off from the Hamada village and within the first hour of trekking, climb up to a natural mountain spring, munch on a delicious lemony chard that grows between rocks, and discover plants that are used to cure stomach aches, make soap or even applied as lipstick.

We hike slowly, covering only ten or fifteen kilometres per day, with frequent stops to allow even the least fit hikers plenty of rest. As we rest, we hear stories about the lives of the women and the desert they inhabit, reciprocating their kindness with stories of our own.

“This experience changed my life,” says Mona Prince, an Egyptian feminist author, who joined the trip in search of inspiration for her new book. “I had never had any contact with the Bedouin, but now I feel we are compatriots – we are all Egyptians.”

Like Prince, the women on the trip are as impressive as our guides. Among them are software developers, a visual engineer, master’s students, filmmakers, a European Bank worker and even a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Most of them, even the Egyptians, are meeting Bedouin women for the first time.

What struck me was the sense of humour they have,” notes Judy Hassan El Said, an Egyptian woman from Cairo who works in the outdoor industry. “They are so full of joy.”

The Bedouin women still don’t have permission to sleep away from their homes, so we return each night, immersing ourselves in village life. We chat with the women of the town and played with their children. Many of the trekkers pull out notebooks, coloured pencils and footballs that they had brought along as presents, delighting the little ones, who are rarely treated to new toys.

We share simple meals of chicken, rice, bread and salad accompanied by salty cheese and endless cups of Bedouin tea. Later, when the sky was dark and the stars had come out, some of us went off to sleep in ladies’ houses – two or three-room concrete blocks with no furniture – while others stayed in the Bedouin tents that had been set up outside for our comfort.

Living in the village, you can’t entirely escape the men, yet most seem to support the women in their new venture. The men drove the trucks that brought us to the village, and even help to prepare the meals for their female guests. Yasser, the 20-year-old son of Rabia, expressed pride in his mother. “She is a very strong woman. I’m happy for her.”

Strength is one of the words that define a Bedouin woman. Perhaps it’s the hours spent alone in the desert, or their childhoods, like Rabia’s – spent with her mother in a cave in the mountains – that make them so independent. Even during childbirth, we found out from our guides, women are expected to go through labour unassisted. When the child is born, the mother washes herself and her baby off on her own. Women here need to be sturdy to survive.

As I lie down under the three-sided Bedouin tent to sleep, Rabia appears by my side, zipping up my sleeping bag up around me. Behind her strength, I am surprised to find a maternal, feminine softness. Without a single word spoken in the same language, I feel a true kinship to this woman who I had met only days earlier.

One night, towards the end of our trip, all 23 women in our group crowd into the Rabia’s tiny living room, creating a de-facto women’s circle where we are free to ask our guides anything.

Leena El Samra, a financial analyst from Cairo, wonders aloud if the Bedouin women ever dream of a different life. “Is there anything you would like to do but you cannot do?” she asked them.

“I prefer not to work with the goats,” replies Slooh. “I would rather make a nice house; or make dairy products [like cheese].” Rabia however, is already living her dream. “This is the best thing that happened to us in a long time,” she told us. “When you came, so did the rains.” For the Bedouins, rain is the highest blessing, and Rabia, who I have come to think of as a maternal figure, credited us for its auspicious coming. For her, it is the ultimate sign of growth and change. Perhaps we were the seeds of change in her tiny, unmarked settlement in the valley of Wadi Sahw. Like many of the women who had joined the trip, I shared a hope that we were helping to create a future for the next generation of Bedouin girls. Riham, the 11-year-old daughter of Aida, who had frequently accompanied us on the trail, was living proof that we already had. While tying a friendship bracelet onto my arm, her smile fades, and for the first time, she looks at me seriously. “I will be a guide,” Riham says confidently, just moments before four white pickup trucks steal us back from the desert.

Words: Marisa Paska
Images: Nariman El-Mofty/AP Images; Getty images

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