Bedouin hospitality & the beauty of the White Desert

The Bedouin people are a desert dwelling Arab ethnic group who originate from the Arabian Peninsula, typically animal herders they migrate to the desert in the rainy season then move back towards the cultivated land during the dry summer months.

Traditionally they travel the desert searching for food and water, sometimes travelling for days before they arrive at their final destination. Each tribe would have an area of land under their responsibility from which they would make income by allowing travellers and traders to pass through. As knowledgeable guides of the desert they controlled the desert trade routes, and escorted caravans.

Bedouin men and women traditionally carry out different roles in society. Bedouin men are generally the ones who go out to earn a living for their families, some work today as safari guides, drivers, shop keepers, or in construction and maintenance. Whilst the women work in the home looking after the house, the family and the livestock of goats and camels.

It is traditionally found that Bedouin women are not allowed to socialise with other men outside their family circle, or unless they have been invited into their home. But with modern times this is starting to change, you may find some Bedouin women working outside the family home as care workers or sometimes in shops in some Egyptian towns and less strict Arab countries. The women are very skilled at jewelry making and make beautiful handcrafted pieces that are sold in towns by themselves and their children.

I had the privilege to not only meet some Bedouins but to be cooked for and entertained by a few very friendly, very interesting and energetic men on a desert safari in Egypt. Bedouins are famous for their hospitality and they did not disappoint.

We took a jeep into the white and black desert in Egypt’s Western Desert, it was hands down the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. I found myself in the desert many times during my stay in Africa but still, nothing compares to my memories of the night spent there. It was like an alien land, I could have been on a completely different planet, a planet made from chalk full of strange rock formations formed by rare sandstorms in the desert. It was spectacular and thinking back I feel I might not have appreciated its true beauty until now, when I am home looking at my photos and writing about it.

I will never forget waking up by the sunrise the morning after, it was the most incredible sight I have ever seen. The orange-yellow blast of rays breaking through the rocks, casting a shadow over the desert sand and illuminating its true beauty. That morning was my reality check, it was the time when I realised exactly where I was and how lucky I was to be there. The true natural beauty of this environment is something that I will never forget, and although I have the photography to remember I don’t need it. I  have a clear mental photograph etched into my mind as a reminder to never take things for granted.

The huge white rock formations in the shape of mushrooms and other bizarre shapes jutting out from the sand is found in the Western Desert 30 miles north of Farafra Oasis, a small Oasis town inhabited by approximately 5000 Bedouins. Dakhla and Bahariya are two other Oasis’ near the White Desert which too are lived in mainly by Bedouins.

These quaint little towns have little to offer the tourist in activities or entertainment but so much to offer if you want to take a glimpse of real Egyptian life miles away from the thousands of tourists following you round the pyramids or ruins. It was fantastic to have a coffee in a tiny little cafe being served by friendly locals, women smiling coyly from beneath their burka, young children staring at you in confusion, maybe one courageous little girl waving at you, they rarely see tourists, nothing in comparison to the amount of tourism the big cities like Cairo, Aswan and Luxor get. But this makes it all the more special, it is still untouched by Western ways and my personal opinion, these little towns have so much more to offer than the bustling cities and I would have loved to spend more time in them.

Most of the Bedouins have proudly managed to maintain their natural and rural way of life for thousands of years. They have survived in the dry and harsh desert regions of the Middle East, by living on their herds and by supplying meat and dairy products to the more urban communities.

Forget about Bear Grylls , the Bedouin people can teach us much about surviving extreme conditions. They are excellent trackers recognising animal and human tracks and they are able to find their way in the desert without compass or map.

We were picked up and taken first to the Black Desert, a stark contrast of course to the crystal chalk characteristics of the White Desert we would later find ourselves in. The Black Desert is volcanic rock formations with lots of black gritty stones, the views of course are spectacular. You can climb on top of a large peak and look out across the vast desert,no one else in sight. This desert is uninhabited so the only way is a jeep safari, much like the one that we did.

The Bedouin people are warm and genuine, speaking openly about their family and how they need to earn money to provide for them and the difficulties they face in modern times.

They are divided into five related tribes and you can find them all over desert regions from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria and basically anywhere else that has desert. Over the years due to various economic reasons a few have ceased to lead a typical nomadic lifestyle and instead live in normal society in order to make a living and support their family, this makes it difficult to determine the actual population of Bedouins.

Starting in the late 19th century, many Bedouins under British rule began to favour a semi-nomadic lifestyle but later in the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers of Bedouin throughout the Middle East started to leave the traditional, nomadic life to settle in the cities of the Middle East.

There are various economical reasons for this but Government policies, oil production in the Persian Gulf, as well as a desire for improved standards of living are the main ones and effectively led most Bedouin to become settled citizens of various nations, rather than stateless nomadic herders.

Government policies pressuring the Bedouin have in some cases been executed in an attempt to provide services (schools, health care, law enforcement and so on), but others have been based on the desire to seize land traditionally roved and controlled by the Bedouin.

In recent years, the Bedouin have adopted the past time of raising and breeding white doves for an income but the tourist safaris are also another source of  income. Traditionally Bedouin people practice folk music and poetry, and dance. We got the privilege of a little performance after they had cooked u delicious traditional Egyptian meal consisting of a potatoes stew and rice, and of course tried the famous Bedouin tea made from tea leaf with sugar, and desert herbs of habuck and marmaraya.

They got out their drums and fiddles and sat around a fire beating their drums and chanting, instantly we all started dancing and clapping to the beat of the music, dancing round a fire until we were ready to drop onto our sleeping bags and sleep under the clear desert stars. A night I will never forget, one of the many cherished memories I have brought home from Africa.

The Black Desert in the Western Desert

The White Desert, Western Desert

The White Desert

The Black Desert

The White Desert

The White Desert

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