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Swords, shields and a whip: A Beja wedding night

We stood under the harsh sun waiting for our turn at the workshop. One of our tires was flat. We had been kindly alerted to the fact by a truck driver and we needed to fix the tire before we could go anywhere. The workshop was small. A car radio hung from the wall, blaring music that was definitely not local. The young man who was going to fix our tire had grown up in Cairo and spent around seven years in Hurghada until he finally settled as far south as he could. He had no tools to get the tire off the car, but we had everything we needed with us. The puncture was located, fixed, and we were on our way. A minor setback in what was otherwise a smooth trip.
To the west, wishing for gold
We continued on a seemingly endless road. We started getting bored of the unchanging scenery of rocky mountains and the occasional wind-swept tree. Our guide said he was taking us to a deserted goldmine. The thought of discovering an overlooked gold nugget lying in the dust was the only source of excitement at this point. We left the road and were soon slowly advancing over rocky terrain. The trick was not to drive over any large rocks that would damage the car’s underside, or sharp ones that would cut through the tires and leave us stranded in the desert.
We arrived at the goldmine and left the car to start an uphill journey on foot. The goldmine, set on the side of a mountain, resembles an ancient temple. It was first excavated by the British, and was abandoned when the gold ran out. There is still evidence of the workers’ quarters, but sections of the buildings are missing, as if someone intentionally removed them. Our guide explained that the missing parts were made of wood, which was destroyed by sun, wind and rain. It seems the gold-mining process consisted of two phases: bringing out the ore from deep caves into the mountain, and washing the rocks in a series of interconnected basins at the front of the mine.

The caves were too dark to venture into without flashlights and they contained large holes where workers once looked for the precious metal. To test the depths of the holes, we threw in small stones, listening to the sounds they made as they hit the side wall. We never heard them hit the bottom. There were remnants of wooden steps going up the sides of the hole. It was scary to know that if one of us fell he would surely never come up again.
Eighty kilometers later we arrived at a Bedouin camp. The camp had about three or four tents. There were around ten men, ten women and a lot of children. As our car approached the men turned their heads toward us, with two of them getting up and heading towards the car. We were not sure how we would be received. As we got out of the car, all attention was diverted to our guide. He was among family.
Inside the men’s tent: As recounted by Amr El Beleidy
One by one the men and children approached me to shake hands. The man who seemed to be directing the wedding had already showered me with praise and compliments and I tried to return them and more. I was overwhelmed by their number, and the attention I was getting. “Don’t get tired of shaking hands,” our guide said.
There was a mat on the sand at the side of the camp. We were too many, so the younger men and children sat on the sand and the guest spot was left for me. We were mostly quiet, occasionally exchanging a “How are you?” back and forth.
At first I sat and listened to their conversation. Most of it was in Rotana, a language of the tribes from Sudan. They started discussing swords, particularly how the old swords were better then the new ones. The old swords, passed from one generation to the next, had grooves along the sides that allowed air in while removing them from their sheathes. This made them faster to draw, and ensured they wouldn’t get stuck. An attempt to draw an old sword from its sheath proved this point.
Attention was then directed toward the shield. At this point I indicated interest and started asking questions. The shields were made of elephant skin and brought from Sudan. Elephant skin was folded over many times, making the shield sturdy but still light. The handle, also made of elephant skin, was tied on with giraffe skin. A piece of metal was overlaid in the center to prevent swords from stabbing through.
I was trying to ingratiate myself, but I had nothing to add to the conversation. Luckily one of our hosts discovered his mobile phone was set to the wrong date, and that’s when I came to the rescue. Setting the correct date on the phone seemed to break the ice, and soon a conversation about mobile phones, China and local politics ensued. In the meantime I had several phones laid in front of me waiting for me to correct their dates.
Children kept popping into the tent and the elders playfully threw them out. The young ones were tasked with throwing rocks at a crow that was trying to steal the food. Eventually, the crow snapped up some meat and flew away.
Dinner was a pot filled with dry bread and a little meat swimming in water. I ate with our guide, leaving him as much of the meat as possible since this was all he had talked about for a large part of the drive. Soon we departed the camp to see a few more sights.
Inside the women’s tent: As recounted by Pakinam Amer
I was led to the women’s tent by a Beja woman who approached me in slow, shy steps as I stood among the men. She covered her face with one end of her robe. Only her eyes, outlined in kohl, were visible. The young woman, no older than 17 years, was draped in a fushia khalag, a long piece of cloth that covers a woman’s body and is loosely wrapped around the head. Hers was transparent and finely decorated with golden thread. She wore it over a body-hugging top and baggy skirt. It looked beautiful and I made a mental note to ask later where she bought the material from and whether it needed any special tailoring.
The women’s tent was quiet. At one end sat the bride, her hands and feet covered in henna tattoos. Other women sat around her whispering and giggling. She smiled at me without speaking and her relatives seemed to welcome my presence. At the other end of the tent, older women were busy cutting and cooking goat meat. The skin of the slaughtered animals was spread out in the sun outside of the tent, close enough for the smell to reach us. Other women laid on their backs, enjoying the shade.
Some of the children watched me with wide, curious eyes, while others ran back and forth between the men’s and women’s tents and the rest played games or sat idly near their mothers. I was offered water and their special spicy coffee (jabana), and a young woman sprayed perfume on our hands and necks, until the scent filled the air (covering the strong smell of raw meat and drying goat skin).
The conversation turned from discussion of my name, which sounded strange to them, to cooking and whether or not I could master the art, and then to the different styles of clothing in Beja tribes.
Many of the women wore colorful jewellery and accessories, like diamond-shaped beads or golden rings braided into their black hair just above the forehead. Some had large silver or golden flat rings dangling from their noses, as well as anklets and bracelets. Their khalags were in bright reds, blues, and greens, in a variety of shades which complimented the women’s sun-tanned skin. The material is imported from Sudan, I was told, and each khalag cost at least LE100. It’s sold in the market, but as I’d expected, must be tailored before wearing.
The women of the mountains seemed very self-sufficient. In addition to the daily chores of cooking and cleaning, the women help the men herd goats, and know how to milk, slaughter, and skin animals. They also build their own tents, tailor their clothes, and braid their own cornrows, a popular African style of weaving the hair along the scalp (something that takes months or even years to master).
As I chatted with them, I was waiting for something to happen, I wanted to see something “exotic,” some sort of celebration, noise and color. I’m used to the wild and rowdy Cairo weddings and my mind carried images of Bedouin ceremonies I’ve seen in documentaries or movies. But it was early in the afternoon and the sun was still up, a “time for lying down” and relaxation, one woman told me.
No sooner had she said that than I was offered a small pillow. I looked at it for a few seconds before deciding it would be rude not to take it. “Lie down, lie down,” an older woman said. “Sleep for a while, we’ll brew some jabana [ginger coffee] for you.”
One by one the women around me fell into deep slumber. I surrendered, laid my head on the pillow and napped with them. A lazy breeze blew across my face, helping me fall deeper into sleep as the air carried the gentle laughter emanating from the men’s tent nearby. It was the last thing I heard before I was awoken by a child some time later. Our guide and my travel partner had decided to take a small tour of nearby valleys before we returned for the celebration and food. So I reluctantly got up and left the peaceful shade of the tent.
Moving on: Back to driving on rocky plains
We were back in the car again with our guide, heading deeper into the mountains. He had promised more sights of camels, wells tucked away into the desert and even farms developed by the United Nations agriculture program.
As we drove along, the topic of marriage came up again. We enquired about its traditions among the tribes. The bride, one of us noticed, was well older than the groom and we asked if it was her first marriage. It wasn’t. It’s easy for divorced women to be re-married within the tribe, our guide explained. Both marriage and divorce settlements are reached easily, and both cost no more than LE3000 to LE4000, sometimes less if the man is a close relative and pious. Age didn’t seem to matter either, as both older men and women seemed to find a partner.
Our guide, a mirthful man in his 50s, told us he had just chosen a young bride as his second wife. He laughed when we started showering him with questions.
“The first wife gets reda,” he explained.
Reda in Arabic means “satisfaction.” This is an amount of money, usually around LE3000, that is given to the first wife as compensation for accepting her husband’s second marriage. She can choose to take the reda in gold, or get a divorce and re-marry. The dowry is small, too, and the man pays it in camel, in addition to a leather whip and a large dagger. The woman weaves a string bracelet for the man to wear around his wrist.
We were shocked at how simple it all is. It also seemed to one of us that marital ties are perhaps less binding among the Bedouins, or at least that the couples are less obliged to take vows to stay together for better or worse: marriage partners moved on when it was convenient and appropriate for both parties.
To Cairenes like us, the traditions may sound strange, but the Bedouin seem happy with them.
Finally, we arrived at Abu Saafa valley and took pictures of the ancient wells and chalk carvings on the rocks in the mountains. “These drawings were carved here hundreds of years ago,” explained our guide, without giving many details. The drawings were very simple, mostly of cows, and we joked that they might have been drawn up there by the Bedouins to attract tourists.
We drove back to the wedding. Jabana was brewing and food was being prepared. Wooden stakes were inserted in the sand and a group of women built the bride and groom’s tent, with men helping out as needed. One of us started taking pictures and the other chatted with the men. Both groups united as the celebrations and the dancing started.
It was a macho dance, with men and children dancing with shield and sword. In the ritual dance, two men–as if in a duel–held their swords up high with one hand and their shields with the other, shaking the swords until the flexible edge vibrated as they stamped the ground and moved in a circle. Others gathered around, clapping, singing and beating drums.
For a minute or two, they kicked the ground and waved their weaponry, then they abruptly left them on the ground. The fastest two people to run to the center and pick up the weapons get to resume the dance. Everyone participated. One of us was offered the sword and shield after they were deposited directly in front of his feet.
A man passed by spraying perfume.
Knowing that we had been ordered by the military to spend the night in Shalateen and not in the mountains, we wanted to move before the darkness crept in, and it was painful to be pulled away from the celebrations and the kind, joyful people. But we had no other choice, and after they wished us well and we promised to send them pictures of the wedding, we headed towards the asphalt–back to Shalateen again.
Shalateen and Back Again travel series continues every Wednesday. Next week, Amr El Beleidy and Pakinam Amer describe their last day in Shalateen and their overnight stay in the Valley of the Camels.

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