The paved road soon comes to an end. Then it takes another 1½ hours (I suppose it would take half a day on a camel :-) along twisting, up-and-down, bumpy tracks to a Bedouin village. The striking landscape is similar to the region east of the Sea. But we are merely in part of the Sinai; the “real” desert, the ocean of sand, is way north of here. As it is, we have all the sand anyone could want in the passes among the rocky peaks.
Nearing our destination, a few excited boys appear on camels to race around us, checking our progress. The village is a small random collection of seemingly half-finished homes with the more familiar outlying tents. A gaggle of kids, possibly all the children, has turned out to assist the tourists with the prescribed “Bedouin experience.” The little girls wear the hijab but otherwise it’s a motley collection of T-shirts and sweaters.
Along with such intervention comes schools. It’s a huge catch-22. The parents believe “learning” will entice their children away from the traditional life. If they get too much education they will likely leave the tribe for greener pastures. Pun intended. Family is everything. Therefore children are seldom in school long enough to learn more than fundamentals.
An hour or so later at our genteel pace, we find refreshment waiting at a purpose-built, rudimentary compound. Not before more confusion and milling around at the dismount. With sign language and graphic facial expressions, the kids haggle fiercely for more than the expected tip. Mission accomplished .. for the most part .. and they vanish. It’s disappointing to me that our “experience” does not include a Bedouin tent. Or at least a facsimile.
We are gratefully directed to the shade of an open hut; our guide huddles with the local men and the jeep drivers in another. The sun is so overbearing I can’t get a decent photo in the starkly contrasting interiors. Boiled mint tea may sound strange on a blazing hot day but the effect was refreshingly welcome. The men bring us a snack of fresh goat cheese and lebe, cooked on a fire as we watch and make admiring noises. Handmade crafts are displayed for purchase. Sadly, you can hardly say we are interacting with them. I wish to, but can’t, dissociate myself from some of my companions who are dressed for a California beach romp in shorts and sleeveless shirts. Hasn’t anyone heard of cultural respect?
Passing back through the village later, the young boys reappear all scrubbed up for Friday prayers. Where is the mosque, I wonder. Are they saying goodbye to us or wanting money for photo opps?
Reflection: In case it wasn’t apparent, my unease during the day had increased. I felt disengaged, disconnected, tourist-trappy. Not that I think a North American female will ever have the slightest meaningful dialogue with these people, but the ambivalence, the paradox, was too ironic. We seemed to be amidst a trial start-up business for this particular village or tribe. I think they haven’t resolved the means to their end, which is presumably to strengthen their micro-economy. We seem to be mere objects of mild curiosity to the children, or perhaps we are viewed only as cash machines.
Limited exposure to us apparently inspires no thoughts in them of leaving home so tradition is safe on that front thus far.
The awkwardness is entirely forgivable. I know of successful ventures amongst the Bedu in other places where tourists are accepted not only as economic contributors but treated with friendship and good humour. One has to spend more than a few hours with them.
Map: Wikipedia; all photographs BDM 2011.
Numerous previous CAMEL posts are on http://brendadougallmerriman.blogspot.com. See CAMELS label.