Arts & Culture

Arab Tribes of the North Coast: A Tough Life Smoothened by SPF100

Arab Tribes of the North Coast: A Tough Life Smoothened by SPF100

Tribesmen in St. Catherine, Sinai, cooking dinner on the way up to Mount Sinai. Credit: Enas El Masry
Tribesmen in St. Catherine, Sinai, cooking dinner on the way up to Mount Sinai.

All photographs by Enas El Masry.

It was the year 1995 when my family and I first set foot in one of the –now, many- beaches and resorts of the North Coast (along the shores of the Mediterranean), stretching from the outskirts of Alexandria, and expanding in the direction of Marsa Matruh.

Back then, we barely had tap water from surrounding wells, and there was no electricity yet. During the nights, we would light our way using gas lanterns, which was for a late-20th century-kid quite amusing.

Despite the lack of so many primary services, the one thing that was there prior to our arrival, and has not changed since our first visit to the North Coast is the tribal presence there. Every year, vacationers flee to the sea and soon flock back to their urban lives, yet the Arab tribes remain stationed.

The Arabian tribal existence stretches along the North Coast from El Amriya to El Salloum.

Despite the shared origin for most of the northern Arabs, they belong to so many tribes; some of which are Al Barahema, Shetour, Egnashat, Azayem, Egma’at, Ekhrafa, Al Ramly, Al Eshabat, and many others.

The First Relocation

It all started during the Italian raid on Libya in the late 1930s which lead many of the tribes to flee across borders into Egypt. Even after the situation had settled, some people chose to stay in Egypt, while others preferred to return to their home land, creating what seems to be two headquarters for the tribe.

Although Egypt did seem like the better option for a while, it wasn’t that tender to the immigrant tribes later on. “Back in 1966, I had to walk to Libya for 15 days and back, just to supply the basic needs of life,” narrated Amm Saleh from the Eshabat tribe. “One of those times, I barely gathered 70 pounds to return and fell for this trap,” he joked while pointing at his wife, Rose.

Amm Saleh Credit: Enas El Masry
Amm Saleh of the Eshabat Tribe

Having settled in the middle of nowhere, the new settlers’ lives revolved, in the first place, around providing the basic needs of survival.

Tents kept them sheltered, water came from wells, food was provided from the agriculture of barley (which they depended on for bread-making in the absence of wheat), and –on limited scale- tomatoes, in addition to the protein supply from the sheep and cattle they raised. Transportation was secured on camel backs, and for everything else, there were the markets.

The markets which were scheduled each day at a different city served for much more than trade and goods’ exchange. Health care was also tended to at the markets, and people with the basic medical knowledge were considered doctors and entitled to looking after people’s health and prescribing medications.

In the rocky paths on St Catherine, camels are still the only possible means for commuting
In the rocky paths of St Catherine, Sinai, camels are still the only possible means for commuting

Just like any culture with no electric supply, life was born at the break of dawn, and put to rest when the night decided to draw down its curtains.

“You could have described our lives as Bedouin, but unlike Bedouins, our life was stationary,” said Amm Qasem of the Eshabat Tribe, who also happens to be the Tribe’s Mayor’s uncle. “The situation was rather tough back then.”

The Social Life

When you’ve lead such a tough life, it sort of starts to reflect on your features; but just as you find the purest of wells beneath the driest of deserts, so are the spirits of the rigid looking tribal Arabs.

The feature that has earned tribal Arabs a lot of fame is probably their generosity. “We never shut our homes’ doors,”said Amm Qasem pointing out to a very clear welcoming sign for all by passers to join in for a gathering or a meal, even if not previously invited. “In the city, siblings may pretend not to be home to hide from one another behind their closed doors”

Dr. Ahmad, a renowned veteran of herbology in Sinai, preparing dinner for a number of guests
Dr. Ahmad, a renowned veteran of herbology in Sinai, preparing dinner for a number of guests

But the greater beauty, how I see it, is having preserved am amazing sense of simplicity within their community.

Until not very long ago no courts were available for civilians, the reason why matters of judicial invocation were decided upon through traditional councils lead by the tribe’s chief. During those councils, the chief would try to resolve the problem between the conflicting parties in a manner that pleases both sides. If no middle ground is reached, they resort to the provisions of Islamic Shari’a to come to a decisive conclusion.

Although the government now provides courts for civilian tribal Arabs, they still prefer to resort to their councils. “The traditional councils seek to bring peace to everyone, while courts look into the case, and rule for one party over the other, regardless of any hatred it might create,” said Amm Saleh.

Rose, Amm Saleh's wife
Rose, Amm Saleh’s wife

Even getting married in one of those tribes seems to be a lot easier of a mission that in the city. Until they were lately obliged to fill in legal papers to document the holy bonding of two people, the only thing they had to do was publicly announce the news to the tribe, and the marriage procedure was fulfilled.

Still, the government’s interference in the course of their lives wasn’t all that bad. The basic introduction of electricity changed a lot about the rigidity of the life they had known. Moreover, education and schools were first provided in the surrounding cities around the year 1956.

Luxury touches all

But the change of life did not merely stop at taking warm showers, or watching television for entertainment. With a new influx of demands to serve the vacationers, several new doors opened wide.

A few things about the tribal culture would have been almost impossible for the pampered urban population to cope with. Thus, instead of scheduled and pinpointed markets, super markets that provide all sorts of merchandise, as well as pharmacies, grocers’, butchers’ and so on started to scatter along the desert road and in between resorts.

Services were also improved to fit the lifestyle of the newcomers. Electric supply was extended to farther places, and wells’ waters started to reach the homes through taps. Furthermore, decent health care centers with actual qualified physicians are now located at several points along the road.

On mountain tops in Sinai where there is no electricity, people still use gas lanterns
On mountain tops in Sinai where there is no electricity, people still use gas lanterns

Yet the city didn’t just facilitate more services and merchandise outlets, it brought about something far more important. Vacationers of the city introduced new knowledge in agriculture (more crops such as figs, olives and dates are now planted), construction and even satellite dish installation and maintenance.

Although this new era has increased the income sources, it also increased the Arabs’ dependence on the holiday seasons, leaving them in a rather harsh condition in the absence of getaway seekers.

How deeply have their lives been altered?

Both Qasem and Sabry seemed to stress the fact that the core morals remain unscathed against the introduction of the several luxuries, but further chatting revealed what they wanted to keep silenced.

Once upon a time, when they survived on the least Mother Nature provided them with, there was not much to brag about, but now that the pickup trucks have replaced the camels and the villas have replaced the tents, materialism is starting to work like a virus. Nonetheless, they assured me that the core values remain intact.

A child waiting for his father in a pickup truck to return from the market, North Coast
A child waiting for his father in a pickup truck to return from the market, North Coast

On a deeper scale, and what posed as unquestionable, is that the youth and teenagers of the modern time have gone a lot softer than their previous generations.

“If the luxurious lives they live today seize to exist, they won’t be able to handle the life we led when we were their age,” said Amm Qasem. “They’ll all head for the city!”

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I am a free spirit who finds sanctuary in wandering. People are what I'm most passionate about, and I write to bring forth their stories.

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