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Bedouin Culture in Egypt Dying in Drought


Facing Drought and the loss of grazing land for their herds, many Bedouin of southeastern Egypt are giving up their traditional lifestyle. The Egyptian Government and aid organizations have stepped in to help, but critics claim they are doing more harm than good. Reporter Cache Seel has details from Shalatin.

The sword dance of the Ababda is performed in celebrations and is used to welcome guests. Two men with swords and shields dance in a circle around each other to a drum beat while the gathered men chant and the women ululate. As the music ends the dancers lay down their swords and back away from each other with their hands held up to show it was all in fun.

The Ababda are one of two main tribes that make up the Bedouin population of Egypt's southeastern desert. The other is the Besharin. Although their traditional lands reach from the Red Sea to the Nile, differences in language and their nomadic lifestyle kept their culture intact and distinct from the rest of Egypt. Until recently these nomadic tribesmen were little changed by the millennia. Today their culture and even their language are dying.

Taha is an Ababda man living in an area called Gambeet.

Taha is explaining to an aid worker that his tribe's once large herds are gone. Now he says the average family owns at most six goats.

Taha is the only man present in Gambeet when we visit. The other men are out collecting wood to turn into charcoal. The charcoal will be sold in Shalatin, the largest town nearby and four days journey by camel. Charcoaling has become increasingly important as their herds continue to grow smaller.

Taha says things were not always this way.

In 1964, the Aswan High Dam was completed. Six years later the reservoir, called Lake Nasser, was full. An estimated 90,000 people were displaced and more than 5,000 square kilometers of land was submerged.

The only permanent grazing areas of the Ababda and the Besharin were left under water and the remainder of their lands have suffered from a decades-long drought.

Their camel herds, the traditional measure of wealth for the Bedouin, were decimated and the Ababda and the Besharin were left among the poorest of Egypt's poor.

Two years ago, the Egyptian government and the World Food Program began agricultural projects to offer the nomads an alternative to life in the desert.

Khaled Chatila, the Project Director for the World Food Program, has worked on numerous Bedouin settlement programs across Egypt, but the Ababda and the Besharin are unique in the problems they present.

"Because one of the problems we were facing is that they do not speak Arabic. Most of them will speak the Rotana which is the native language of the place," Chatila said.

The Ababda and the Besharin speak a dialect of Beja called Rotana. Beja is an Afro-Asiatic language that is spoken among nomadic peoples from Egypt to Eritrea.

Origins of nomadic peoples are difficult to trace as they leave little evidence behind for archaeologists. The history of the Ababda and the Besharin has been pieced together from travelers accounts and clues from their culture and language.

Accounts of their lives and customs date back to the ancient Greeks. The 'Lost Book' of Ibn Selim al-Assouani, written in 971 AD, contains similar descriptions of the Ababda and Besharin as those of anthropologists in the 1970s.

Anthropologist Shahira Fawzy lived with the Ababda and the Besharin from 1970 to 1985 and retains close ties. She witnessed the flooding of their homeland and lived with them through much of the drought. Fawzy is a critic of the agricultural programs and denies the premise that they are necessary.

"Those people have lived for thousands of years with droughts and with rains," said Fawzy.

As proof of the tribes long existence in the region she says that even today many of their utensils and fashions are exact copies of relics found in the tombs of Pharaohs. Fawzy says the programs designed to give the Ababda and the Besharin a reliable livelihood are having the opposite effect.

"In whose interest is it? What will they gain by switching people who have their own income into beggars? That's what you do when you change nomads into farmers," Fawzy said.

In Shalatin, the Ababda and the Besharin live in makeshift houses on the outskirts of town. Most of the men work as laborers in the camel market, earning less than six dollars a week. In order to survive this is supplemented with food aid and welfare.

In the past it was governments who relied on them. They were famous warriors. Pharaohs and Sultans paid them to keep the caravan routes open. The Beja speaking tribes were the only indigenous people to ever break the British infantry square, a feat immortalized in Rudyard Kipling's poem 'Fuzzy-Wuzzy.' The last Khedive of Egypt gave them a portion of the road tax to keep the Hajj route safe.

Though some of the Ababda and the Besharin cling to their traditional way of life, the lives of most of them have been as drastically altered as their homeland.

Rahman is Besharin, like all the tribesmen he only offers one name. For the tribes of the desert names betray family and tribal allegiances which can obligate two strangers to settle a centuries-old blood feud. To avoid trouble the Ababda and the Besharin offer only their first names to strangers.

Rahman is translating Arabic words into Rotana. Rotana is his first language and his Arabic is accented. His children, however, were born in Shalatin and don't even speak basic Rotana or know the customs of their people.

Still some customs remain. They still greet their guests with a ritual serving of thick, ginger flavored coffee called Jabana and honored guests are still invited to watch the sword dance which only ends when the dancers lay their swords on the ground. The dance is a ritual greeting for the Ababda but it could also tell their story.

The Ababda and the Besharin who fought off the Pharonic, Roman, and British empires have finally been forced to lay down their swords by the weather.

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