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Bedouin Lifestyle Fades as Modernity Intrudes

Changes undermine traditional life, for both good and ill. Money had been irrelevant, for example; now, its lack is cause for concern.

May 11, 2003|Paul Garwood | Associated Press Writer

FARAFRA OASIS, Egypt — Amm Abd Rabu Abu el-Nour missed most of World War II.

"News from outside didn't reach the oasis back then," the Bedouin elder, 74, recalled as one of his granddaughters entered his dirt-floor salon with a cup of strong sweet tea.

These days, with talk radio, round-the-clock TV and daily newspapers, the world elsewhere is as familiar to el-Nour as his vast Western Desert backyard.

"It is now 24 hours Iraq, Bush and Saddam," el-Nour said with a smile as he offered a guest his own cup of tea. "Things have changed so much for us here, but somehow for the better."

El-Nour remembers when there was no road to Farafra, an oasis 280 miles west of Cairo. He can't count the times that he made the 10-day desert crossing by camel to southern Egyptian cities, where markets awaited his village's dates, olives, figs and "mish mish," or apricots.

Now, on days without sandstorms, you can drive from Cairo to Farafra in six to seven hours. There are enough shops here to satisfy most local farmers. The Internet brings English tutorials into Farafra's primary schools.

The "old village," a cluster of sometimes crumbling mud-brick houses on narrow lanes, sits on a hill above the "new" township's sprawl of residential neighborhoods, schools and stores.

Fifty years ago, only 300 people -- all Bedouins -- lived here.

Now, 3,000 Bedouins share the village and adjoining settlements with 10,000 Egyptians who moved from the overcrowded capital and Nile Delta towns. Hundreds of tourists come each year for guided treks into the White Desert.

Times and fortunes are changing for the 1.25 million Bedouins across Egypt, driven by population and financial pressures; agricultural, residential and industrial development; globalization and the information boom. Some Bedouins worry that the life of the desert traders is disappearing. Strikingly, it is often younger Bedouins who are most anxious.

"Some people are sticking to their traditions, culture and habits, but not many," Tamer Mohamed Wahid, 21, a desert guide, said while strolling through the old part of Farafra.

"Now people are worried about money, which is something people never used to worry about in places like this," said Wahid, whose blue ski vest and jeans looked more suited to downtown Cairo's malls and cinemas than a desert oasis.

Saad Ali, Wahid's boss at a business that takes tourists into the desert by vehicle or camel, is also among those worried about the extent of changes. Ali said he wished "things would go back to the way they were before, when life was much simpler."

"The older generation welcomes new things because they remember back when their lives and work were difficult," he said. "But they can't see what is happening, the change in people's customs and culture. And this is only going to get worse."

Indeed, el-Nour welcomes change and thinks that life has gotten better. He says Bedouin social traditions that are important "can be preserved, not destroyed, by the new world."

The Bedouins, proud and traditionally conservative, are descendants of Arab tribes who began crossing from the Persian Gulf region into North Africa before Islam's 7th-century arrival in Egypt. The nomadic Bedouins spread along Egypt's northern coast and deep into the Western Desert, and to places like Libya.

In areas like Farafra, Bedouins anchored themselves to the land, growing crops and raising livestock like other Egyptian farmers, opening the way to schooling, health services and economic development.

Sinai Peninsula Bedouins kept a nomadic life, sheltered for centuries by jagged mountains and forbidding desert. But even there, resorts and towns are spreading and putting pressure on the region's 300,000 Bedouins.

"I don't think the Bedouin lifestyle is sustainable. I think these people will be pushed out eventually," said Chris Czerwinski, director of World Food Program operations in Egypt. "Pockets of traditional Bedouin communities will continue for a while, but its disappearance is happening."

The U.N. program, along with the World Bank and other U.N. agencies, has been assisting Bedouin communities in Egypt for almost two decades. The food program is leading a project on Sinai's Mediterranean coast to help Bedouins who want to give up nomadic ways.

"Something so simple like sawing a piece of wood is a task many Bedouins have never done, so introducing anything from the outside into their nomadic lifestyle is very hard," Czerwinski said.

Novelist Miral al-Tahawy sees little future for the traditional lifestyle she knew as a Bedouin child and gave up.

In the Nile Delta village north of Cairo where she was reared, Bedouin women rarely leave home during daylight hours, are expected to marry within the tribe and have little more than domestic work to look forward to during their lives, al-Tahawy said.

"I am not a modern kind of girl, but at the same time I can't be one of these Bedouin women," said al-Tahawy, 33, who moved to Cairo about four years ago to pursue her writing career.

But, while rejecting those ways, she acknowledges the loss.

"My society has changed so much and, in a way, I am an example of that change," she said. "Everything is changing around us. The Bedouin can't be like other people, so we have this dilemma. It is painful -- the change is painful."

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