Sinai Trail: Walking the Nomadic Paths

Wild Guanabana - Nov 8, 2017

All photographs by Enas El Masry

Reaching out and connecting is an innate human tendency. Some people reach out through mindful observation, while others do so through conversation. However, there’s nothing like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to really understand them.

For as long as we’ve inhabited the deserts and highlands, nomadic tribes have walked these ragged terrains and made them home. Beneath the surface, many secrets and plenty of wisdom lurked awaiting to be discovered. With each step closer to nature, man's pool of knowledge and understanding of himself and the world around him grew deeper. For many generations, this knowledge has been passed down solely through practice. 

Today, as the urban influence grows stronger, many indigenous cultures, such as Egypt's Bedouin culture, are up against the threat of extinction without leaving any traces behind. To save Sinai’s Bedouin identity from its otherwise inevitable fate, members of South Sinai’s local community have collaborated to bring forth a first-of-its-kind project in the region, the Sinai Trail.

Stretching over 200 km from Ras Shitan on the Gulf of Aqaba to the city of Saint Catherine, the Sinai Trail is hailed as South Sinai’s first inter-tribal project, which aims at overarching community development. Unlike other community development projects that focus on a certain area, the Sinai Trail passes through three tribal territories – Tarabin, Mezeina, and Jebeleyya territories. On the trail, Bedouin leaders, interns, and cameleers from all three tribes cooperate to bring together an experience of a lifetime.

Led by Musallam Abu Farraj of the Tarabin tribe, Faraj Sulaiman of the Mezeina tribe, and Nasr Mansour of the Jebeleya tribe, the first group to walk the full length of the Sinai Trail successfully completed the journey on December 10th, 2016.

Before the Middle East knew the luxury of railways, camel caravans were the most common means of commute across an entwined network of trade and pilgrimage routes that covered much of the Middle East’s desert terrain. Orchestrated by the Bedouins who knew the deserts and highlands like the back of their hands, taking merchants and pilgrims across the peninsula was a lot more than a job; it was life.

In the absence of text books that teach how to lead a nomadic life, Bedouins, whether shepherds or desert guides, took it upon themselves to preserve their culture by passing on their nomadic ways to younger generations through apprenticeship and mentorship.

Nowadays, job opportunities that secure a space for Bedouins to practice their nomadic lifestyle have become scarce – mostly confined within the off-the-beaten-track tourism market – which raises the pressing concern: what will become of the Bedouin culture if no one practices it?

“We need it, you need it,” says Musallam. “The old ways are useful for everyone.”

According to certified mountain guide Ben Hoffler, “the Bedouin culture is as old and rich as some of the world’s most ancient cultures; the only difference is that it’s undocumented.

“Imagine the loss if, for instance, the ancient Egyptian culture were to be erased from history. A culture as old as the Bedouin holds knowledge of as much value.”

Besides the shrinking chance for Bedouins to practice their nomadic ways, younger generations find very little necessity to learn how to survive the wilderness. Once upon a time, it was a matter of life and death that Bedouins knew how to survive the wilderness, whereas today, younger Bedouins have easy access to the luxuries of our modern dystopia.

Why is it important to keep the nomadic ways alive?

“I believe humans were meant to live close to nature. We weren’t meant to live in cement blocks on top of one another,” Hoffler adds. “Maybe one day we’ll collectively find that we need to go back to the natural ways of dealing with nature. It’s very important for people whether they live in the city or the wilderness to know how to deal with nature.”

Even if we continue to live our lives in the city, periodic breaks away from the city and into the nature are necessary, as Musallam puts it, to “change your scale in life.”

Far from museum halls and centres of culture preservation, one of the world’s oldest and richest indigenous cultures is hanging by a thread, pleading for attention. Will you answer the call and help preserve it by walking its path? Will you give it life by learning its ways?

The call is yours.