It’s easy to romanticize the lifestyle of tribes of the desert. At the annual Characters of Egypt festival, which showcases many of the tribes of the country, urban Egyptians, foreign tourists and journalists recently filled Wadi el-Gamel, or the Valley of the Camels, for a glimpse of groups of people not usually under the spotlight. The music and dance performances by tribes was enough to highlight many cultural traditions. But the real concerns of the tribes themselves focused on land issues.
"Sinai has no proprietorship; there’s no such thing as buying and selling the land to or from the government. And in case someone tries to force something on us we surely will depend on our weapons for a resolution,” said Mohamed Muslim, who was designated to speak on behalf of people from Nuweiba during a tribal law discussion.
Land, particularly in Sinai, has frequently been a political issue. After the October War of 1973 Sinai became an important security zone for the government. Bedouin tribes staked their claim to land in the peninsula. Now much of the coastline has been developed for tourism by investors, and the interior is the next frontier. One of the organizers of the festival, Waleed Ramadan, wants to invest there.
Ramadan, who manages the ecotourism site at Fustat Wadi el-Gemal, asked the tribes during the tribal law discussion if they would sit with him to discuss investment. They all agreed.
"We lived on this land a long time ago," said Sheikh Ababda, who said he comes from the land between Zaafarana and South Sinai, "If someone wants to make investments we sit with him and close the deal. I have nothing to do with the government. If this investor is looking for sustainability and security, he has to buy the land through us because that’s the only way we can guarantee that no one will claim his land again."
Sheikh Ababda also added that, "I accept the investor based on mutual benefits: whether he is providing work for the tribes people, the amount of compensation, and profit sharing."
The types of benefits he cited agree with the principles of ecotourism, which include "[building] environmental and cultural awareness and respect" and " [providing] financial benefits and empowerment for local people," according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) website.
Wadi el-Gemal aspires to be an ecotourism site, and for the most part it fulfills that role. For example, it incorporates cultural exploration of local tribes, as opposed to the all-inclusive packages of many hotels that keep tourists and locals segregated.
On fulfilling the environmental component of ecotourism, however, Wadi el-Gemal, could improve. Empty plastic bottles piled up in a valley behind the entrance to the camp. Guests at the festival used wasteful modern toilets and showers, while a truck that collected waste had a leak dripping on the ground. Most of the guests also stayed in colorful tarp tents made for use in forests, unlike the hand-made Bedouin tents, which often blend into the background like camel hairs in the sand.
Still, little of the valley’s original landscape has been altered and the local tribes are as much a part of the experience for visitors as touring the desert.
"We are inspired by their way of life," said Ramadan. "To use it for tourism, our way of developing it is to [keep] it as it is without developing it."
Although the country’s nomadic tribes, an estimated 45 according to the event’s website, have coexisted in Egypt for a long time, many of them have never interacted with one another because they’ve tended to respect traditional boundaries of land. According to the festival organizers, many of them met for the first time at the inaugural festival last year, and about 160 tribesmen of an estimated 300,000 that inhabit Egypt attended this year, representing about ten regions of the country.
The emphasis during the festival was less on the individual tribes than on the area from which they came. This is, among other reasons, to make learning the names of about two dozen tribes less difficult; the leaders of the tribes themselves, usually referred to as sheikhs, gather regionally for matters of law and dispute resolution. Tribal laws in Siwa, for example, are divided into those pertaining to water, land proprietorship and conflicts.
"There’s a specific assembly especially arranged for water conflicts," said Sheikh Omran of Siwa. "In Siwa we are 11 tribes with 11 sheikhs. If someone from another tribe takes my share of water I go to the sheikh of this tribe and then he sets up a meeting with the other tribes’ sheikhs. Usually the sheikh has 9 assistants and they have to resolve the issue with him. It’s usually resolved by money compensation, depending on the kind of problem."
Although the tribes have their own customs and laws, disputes over land and water did not appear to overshadow the wisdom they’ve gained from years of cultural solidarity.
"I separate my soul entirely from materialism," said Dahab Qobbara, a designated leader representing Aswan. "You have to be content with what God gives you, that’s what I believe. Being content is an endless treasure, and if you are not you’ll have to keep chasing after a mirage forever."
Before the tribal law discussion began, Bin Adel al-Tihi from North Sinai, recited a poem he wrote about the land and a love for its people:
Egypt, you the place where real men come from
The homeland protectors keep us safe from harm
Land abundant and spacious
It is so copious in all places
This land is embracing us Arabs
These Arabs have pure hearts
And honesty they impart
Welcome, suburb and the city
They are unique in their generosity
God, never degrade the Egyptian people…
The people of this country love the land
Our heads are always up high
And it never goes down until we pray to God.