Hiking in the South Sinai
Egypt’s South Sinai has suffered in recent years from economic decline and a perceived threat of terrorism. But a new initiative from the Bedouin tribes — a cross-country walking trail — hopes to reverse that trend. Writer Bethan Staton asks the question: what are its chances of success?
I T ’S J U S T PAST MIDDAY and the desert slopes of Jebel Barqa in Egypt’s south Sinai are washed with winter light. The land and sky are vast; the empty sands dotted with curved, fluid sandstone structures. These hollow domes, supported by bubbled pillars and archways, are the carved forms of winds that have rushed through these lands for centuries.
Suddenly, a Jeep appears on the horizon, marking a solid outline on the sands. When it reaches the caves, the vehicle stops and a group of men pile out. From the foot of one of the strange shelters a few Bedouin stroll out to meet them. Within minutes a fire has been built, tea is boiling and a meeting commences. It lasts for well over an hour before the visitors, who work for the country’s National Park authority, climb back into the car. Sheikh Musallam Faraj, dressed in a brown jellabiya, bounces back to a crowd of hikers sitting in the stone cave. “That was a really fantastic meeting,” he gushes, grinning like a child.
This is how things get done here: the imoblemsomptu summit was a check-in on the Darb Sina, Egypt’s first long-distance trekking path. The 220km route spans the south Sinai, from its coastal plains to the central high mountains, and is the work of a cooperative of local Bedouin, including Musallam Faraj, who want to boost the area’s ailing tourist industry. The first hike, in December, was attended by walkers from as far afield as New Zealand and the USA, joined by Egyptians and Bedouins, in what organisers hope will be one of many journeys on the trail.
It’s a badly needed project. The Sinai, situated between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Red Sea to the south and serving as a land bridge between Asia and Africa, is strategically crucial territory. It was invaded by Israel during the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Six-Day war in 1967, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, before being reclaimed in 1979 following the 1978 Camp David Accords. But even so, it is a part of Egypt that’s frequently forgotten. The 1.4 million south Sinai Bedouin population have a distinct history and traditions, but they often feel marginalisedby the Egyptian state. There’s a higher occurrence of poverty and deprivation among this semi-indigenous population, and it has worsened significantly since the Arab Spring, when the tourism that forms the backbone of the south Sinai’s economy collapsed.
Today, with increasing instability and autocracy, terror attacks across Egypt and an ISISaffiliated insurgency wreaking havoc in north Sinai, tourists are still keeping their distance, and the Bedouin tribes that have long relied on travellers for much of their income are suffering.
“For a long time not many people came,” explains Naser Mansur, a guide and member of the Jabaliya tribe from the south Sinai highlands. He’s explaining this as he leads the group of walkers down from the rugged peak of Jabal Katerina, Egypt’s highest mountain, during December’s hike. “After the revolution there were many problems.”
Mansur, like Faraj, is part of the small team of activists and guides who have created the Darb Sina, in the hope of remedying the depressing slide of tourism. He is optimistic that the security situation, and tourist economy, will improve. The meeting in the desert may be a positive sign. In the past it would have been an unusual occurrence, but since the launch of the trail, organisers say the government has started paying attention to the work of the south Sinai Bedouin. “As the problems go down, tourism will go up,” Mansur says, puffing on one of the Bedouin cigarettes that last for hours and, in the past, marked with their creeping embers how many kilometres had been covered on the mountain paths. “But for some people, it takes a lot of time for them to trust.”
If things go to plan, the Sinai Trail could become an important means of building that trust. Today, much of what foreigners hear about tourist areas like Saint Catherine or the coastal towns of Dahab is alarming. Although it’s some 400km away from violent hotspots near the Gaza border, media reports often fail to distinguish the south Sinai from the more unstable north, and many foreign governments advise against all but essential travel to the area. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the region, but Mansur hopes the organised, accessible trail will be something visitors can recommend, and that by bringing more tourists to the Sinai it can boost jobs. The attempt is already bearing fruit: last November, the trail won a British Guild of Travel Writers award, impressing the local community. “I see all the Bedouin around me are really happy from this project,” Mansur says.
Mansur interrupts his thoughts to help Sheikh Faraj pick a plant, teasing the medicinal roots from the sandy ground. The two men have been friends for decades and the fact that they’re from different tribes — the mountain-dwelling Jabaliya and the Tarabin from the coast, respectively — is an important part of the work they do. One of the hopes of the Sinai Trail is to foster cooperation between tribes of the south Sinai, and it’s now managed by a cooperative of the Tarabin, Jabaliya and Muzeina tribes. The land of the route itself is equally split between tribal territories, and jobs and income are divided three ways. Trainee guides from each tribe joined December’s hike, and decisions are made through careful consensus. “The Sinai trail is different from the work we used to do,” Mansur says. “Before, we just arranged the hike, we sorted the camels. But this is different — it’s for all the Bedouin, for all the tribes. Nobody can be the boss.”
Faraj Suleiman is another guide on the trail. He usually walks in silence, but he speaks with feeling on this subject. “The Sinai has always been controlled by different people,” he says, explaining how he could write a book on how things have changed — and not changed — as his land switched hands between Israel and Egypt following war in 1967. Israel’s military rule, he believes, didn’t connect with Bedouin, but neither have the policies of the peninsula’s current governors. “If the Egyptians had done something different, they would have connected,” he says. “All the time Bedouin were here they expected things to change and be better. But they didn’t.”
ACROSS THE BEDOUIN COMMUNITIES of the peninsula, the disconnect Suleiman feels manifests itself in troubling ways. In Sharm El Sheikh, for example, guests can order a “Bedouin experience” where they’ll leave the resort for a night under the stars, dinner in a tent, mint tea, and perhaps a camel ride, under the guise of famous Bedouin hospitality. Often, however, the men in local dress are workers from mainland Egypt. Sharm might have originally been a Bedouin village, but its local inhabitants were relegated to the desert when it became a booming resort: between 1992 and 2007, all the plots of land in the town were allocated to Egyptian and foreign investors. “Egyptian people like the Bedouin, but just as an idea to think about,” Suleiman says. “As a picture, with camels… like a film they watch and then go on to the next movie.”
Legislation imposed by the Egyptian government, often in the name of security, has also complicated life for many locals. In 2010, desert safaris were banned, and last year the use of 4x4 vehicles was proscribed in both the north and the south Sinai. The reason — that Jeeps were used by terrorists in the north to transport and launch weapons — gave no regard to their necessity for Bedouin daily life in the remote terrain of the desert.
On the Sinai Trail, Bedouin life is part of the journey. In each landscape, from vast deserts to terracotta canyons and wadis rich with hardy green plants, the guides are moments away from an anecdote or reflection; advice on the use of medicinal herbs or hidden food, ghost stories or reminders of tribal law and its workings. An organisation run by the Bedouin themselves, organisers say, is far preferable to a watered-down version in which they are bit-parts in their own story. Some even hope the new respect between Bedouin and government might help make the authorities less dismissive of local people’s needs.
These efforts, however, are taking place in tough times. The floating of the Egyptian pound in November last year, and its subsequent devaluation, threw the economy into chaos. Meanwhile, terror attacks continue with grim brutality and an increasingly dictatorial government shows little sign of handling the developing crisis. It’s the Bedouin community, says Sinaianalyst Mohannad Sabry, that will suffer. “The impact of those losses are hitting the owners of the camp, of the structures that never got finished, the tribal community… everything,” he says. “You’re looking at a community crisis.”
Will a new hiking trail begin to rectify that? Organiser Ben Hoffler, a British writer who has lived in the Sinai for several years and works alongside the trail’s Bedouin organisers, thinks things are looking positive. “What we’re doing with the Sinai Trail is building something sustainable, regardless of luxury hotels, because it’s real and it’s working,” he says. Guides and organisers of the trail say bookings are up, and they’re hopeful about government support. And on the first hike of the trail the small community of Sinai supporters is equally optimistic. It includes many young Egyptians who make frequent returns to the Sinai, and participants came from farther afield too: Stewart Herman, a professor from Minnesota, was captivated by the south Sinai when he visited on a student trip six years ago, and had longed to return.
THE FINAL STOP of the Sinai Trail’s first complete trek is the peak of Saint Catherine. From the top of a 2,642-metre outcrop, blasted by icy mid-December winds, the view stretches from the Hijaz mountains of Saudi Arabia to the far-off peaks of north Africa, past the Gulf of Aqaba and a paper collage of mountains cut-out in differing shades of blue.
When the hikers gather around the fire, tired but happy after a long day’s walk, Naser Mansur stands to say a few words. Unperturbed by the thick smoke from the fire, he sounds like a philosopher as he conceals a smile. “Every visitor to the Sinai grows a tree,” he says, referring to the personal connections that bear fruit when individuals share the desert with others. It’s a fruit that local Bedouin can harvest as more people visit the desert and learn to understand and respect its ways.
With its lonely shelters, hidden tracks and uncertain future, the mountain and the desert below, it might not seem the most likely spot for things to grow. But among the group behind the Sinai Trail there’s hope that, with the right support and the right conditions, the south Sinai still has a chance to flourish.