Stories from Sinai

The following memoirs of events I witnessed in the 1970s and ’80s, among the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai Peninsula, reveal perspectives that may seem ironical in Western eyes. The intention here is not to disparage them, but rather to show them against the background of the lives that the Bedouin have experienced for many centuries, in their effort to survive under desert conditions. Having lived among and studied them for fifty years, I appreciate the Bedouin as exceptional human beings whose views are no less valid than our own. Author’s note.

We were sitting on a dune overlooking the glittering Red Sea east of Sinai. The mountains of Saudi Arabia could be seen in the distance. It was 1984.

With me were the renowned smuggler-poet Ayaad and his eldest son, Salim. They had asked me to join them “to discuss something serious,” out of earshot of those who were encamped with them. We knew each other well. I had been recording and studying Bedouin poetry for some fifteen years, and Ayaad was the best poet in Sinai.

Once we were seated in the sand, our legs folded before us, Salim, facing me, opened the discussion. He rose to his knees, and looking into my eyes with a mix of friendship and threat, he said, “Doktour Bailey, we want you to help us.”

“Gladly,” I offered. “What can I do?”

“When you next come down to Sinai from Israel,” he explained, “we would ask you to stop at Ahmad’s Garage in the Gaza Strip, not far from Khan Yunis. There, Ahmad will take apart the gearbox of your jeep.”

“Take apart my gearbox?” I exclaimed. “There’s nothing at all wrong with it! Why should he take it apart?”

Here, his older and wiser father entered the talk in a softer tone. “Doktour,” he said, “you know that since the border between Egypt and Israel went up, it is hard to get ‘goods’ into Sinai. The situation is very bad for many of us. So we thought that if you could go to Ahmad, he can put a package of ifyune [opium] into your gearbox, and you could bring it over the border-crossing with no problem at all. No one will suspect you. When you get here, Mansour, whom you know, will take it out of your gearbox, and you can go on your way.”

Then, after a slight pause, he leaned in my direction, smiled into my eyes, and said in barely over a whisper, “I will give you 14,000 [Jordanian] dinars on the spot. What do you think about that?”

They peered at me in anxious anticipation.

But I didn’t have to think long. I had no doubt that Ayaad would pay up “on the spot.” My mind, however, went quickly to the image of myself languishing for God knows how long in a less than friendly Egyptian jail should things go wrong.

“Nope,” I finally confessed. “It’s not for me.”

“What?” they shouted, wide-eyed. “Have you no self-respect?”

“Self-respect?” I answered, amazed. “What does self-respect have to do with it?”

“Without money,” they asserted, “how will you feed your guests?”

Just then, the fisherman Jum’a came into sight below us, emerging from the sea with his nets over his shoulder. “Look at Jum’a!” they cried. “He used to bring hashish here from Aqaba in his boat and had guests in his tent every day—and plenty of mutton to feed them! But since he quit smuggling, his tent has been empty. No one goes there anymore. Do you want to end up like that?”
Views on Israel

In 1979, one month before Israel was scheduled to carry out the first stage of its withdrawal from Sinai, in keeping with the Camp David Accords signed with Egypt that year, I decided to pay a visit to the chief of the Dawagra tribe. My intention was to seize perhaps a last chance to sit with the chief, whose name was Jum’an Huwayshil, in order to clarify a few points of Bedouin law with him. I was writing a book on the subject. The elderly chief sat as a judge in tribal conflicts, and I was keen to get his views. I had been impressed with his mastery of the law, whether at trials I had attended or from the discussions I had held with him over the years.

Jum’an was encamped at the end of a long, barren, and sandy peninsula, locally called the Zugba, that jutted into the Mediterranean Sea via a shallow bay called Bardaweel. That was the Arabic name for the Crusader king, Baldwin I, who reputedly died there on a foray against Egypt.

When I arrived at his lone tent in my beat-up Land Rover on a Monday morning, Jum’an greeted me warmly, lit a fire with the branches of dried bushes, and set about preparing me tea and coffee in keeping with custom. Then we got down to business and talked almost nonstop during the next two days, even into the night. He shared with me many welcome insights into the subjects we discussed: the place of women in tribal law, the role of guaranty in dispensing with jails, and some intricacies of revenge.

In the early morning of the third day, three lads from Jum’an’s tribe turned up at his tent to consult him on an issue of perceptible impor­tance. On the following day, the Egyptians were expected to send a reconnaissance team to check out the area that Israel would soon be leaving. The lads owned a makeshift café on the main road between Gaza and the Suez Canal, and they wanted their chief’s advice on which flag to fly over it—Egypt’s or Israel’s, as they had been doing for the past twelve years.

As the lads began talking, Jum’an noticed them eyeing me somewhat askance. Not knowing who this evident Israeli was, they wondered if it was safe to discuss their issue in my presence. Hence, the chief, in an effort to allay their fears, assured them they needn’t worry. “Doktour Bailey is our friend,” he declared.

In a crude breach of conduct toward my host, however, I allowed myself to quip: “I hope you’ll still say that after Israel leaves.”

Taken aback, the old chief exclaimed, “I have no complaints against Israel. Israel is good.”

“Good?” I asked. “What’s so good about Israel?”

Jum’an reflected for a few moments, then declared, “Three things are good about Israel . . .”

“Which three things?” I was curious to know.

“Respect, Democracy, and Freedom,” he asserted in a chiefly tone.

“How was Israel respectful?” I queried.

“Well,” he affirmed, “in the twelve years of Israel’s rule, there wasn’t a single case of soldiers harassing our shepherdesses out with their flocks.”

“And democracy?” I pressed. “What does it have to do with you? You’re under occupation.”

“That’s right,” he avowed. “But when Egypt ruled here, and I went to see the governor in el-Arish, the sentry at the gate would ask me what I wanted; and when I told him, he would say, ‘Sit over there!,’ outside the compound. I might sit there all day and never get to see the governor, because the guard didn’t even call him. Under Israel, when I go to see the governor, the sentry, once I tell him what I want, directly calls the governor’s office, and I go straight in. That’s democracy!”

“And freedom?”

“Well, as you know,” Jum’an explained, “your governor convokes all the chiefs once a month, so that we can air our complaints and hear his demands. And during the meeting, he lets us smoke. That’s freedom!”
Honor and Money

In 1974, in southern Sinai, I was in a large company of Bedouin on pilgrimage to the shrine of one of their local saints when, as we were all seated on the ground in a circle, an argument broke out between a chief, called Munayfi al-Jabali, and a younger tribesman, called Salim Abu Sabha, sitting across from him. The chief was asking Abu Sabha what had happened to a consignment of hashish that he was supposed to deliver to fellow smugglers on the east coast of Egypt. The drugs were valued at 140,000 dinars, the smuggling currency at the time (equiva­lent to $200,000).

Abu Sabha, slightly unnerved, professed that when he was at sea in his small boat, a storm came up, catching him as he was rounding Sharm al-Shaykh, and sinking his boat. “Everything went down,” he averred, “including the ‘goods.’ I myself barely got to shore.”

“Well,” Shaykh Munayfi rejoined, “they want you to come to Egypt and swear that your story is true. One hundred forty thousand dinars is a lot of money.”

“Fine,” Abu Sabha, having regained his confidence, casually declared, “I’ll go there and swear an oath, but only when the [Israeli] occupation is over.”

At that, all those present, aware that no one knew when that would be, broke into laughter, thereby insulting the chief. So he loudly directed a counter-insult at Salim: “I’ll make you eat the sole of my shoe!,” that is, “You will yet eat shit.”

Once everyone dispersed, Salim and some clansmen waylaid Munayfi in a remote stretch of desert, shot him, and left him to die. The chief, however, was found and nursed back to life.

A Bedouin trial was subsequently held, where Abu Sabha was fined 19,000 dinars—a huge sum for any Bedouin. Nonetheless, he accepted the sentence with equanimity, even evident pride. He was pleased that everyone now knew he possessed the resolve to protect his honor, which had been slighted by Munayfi’s affront, no matter what the cost. Further to make the point, he went on to renege on the payment he owed the chief, even after the final date that guarantors had set.

For such delay, tribal law gave Munayfi the right to turn to these guarantors, whom it sanctioned to wield their greater might to force Abu Sabha to pay. The chief, however, ignored this option, preferring instead to handle the matter himself. That meant revenge.

Thus, one night, Munayfi’s four sons attacked Salim in his tent, intending to kill him, although they only managed to cut off one of his fingers. Even worse, however, Salim’s barely clad wife was with him in the tent and struggled with the assailants to save her spouse. There­upon, the brothers took turns pinning her down during the fray, an act—they later claimed—meant merely to protect her, lest she get hurt. Abu Sabha, however, insisted that a physical struggle with a woman, even in the absence of sexual intent, warranted an “honor trial,” a trial that would allow him, in keeping with the law, to determine the ultimate fines.

At that ensuing trial, at which I was again present, Salim addressed the “judge of honor,” asserting that Munayfi’s sons had “mounted an attack during the starless dark of night and come to a woman in the midst of her tent when she would be sleeping, her head bare.” Another spokesman at the trial backed him up, proclaiming the legal maxim: “Though a wolf is eating her flock, a man must not approach and awaken a shepherdess napping at pasture, lest he see her mouth unveiled and her head bare.” “Moreover,” Salim added, “Munayfi’s sons actually touched her. And the law states: ‘Laying one’s hand on a female is fined.’”

In the end, Munayfi, owing to his sons’ attack, which also violated the rules of truce that must prevail during a legal procedure, had not only to forfeit the 19,000 dinars that Salim was fined in the previous trial, but also to pay Salim 35,000 dinars, mainly for violating his wife.

When I left the trial in the company of the chief, saying things that might soothe him after losing a total of 54,000 dinars, he dismissed my concern, assuring me he was pleased. “My honor is now restored,” he proclaimed. “Money comes and goes. If we have it, fine; if we don’t have it, fine. But we must always have honor. Honor shows strength and keeps us safe.”

Whenever I asked a Bedouin about a point of tribal history that he didn’t know, he would advise me to check it out in “the monastery,” averring that everything I wanted to know could be found there and in writing. The monastery referred to was St. Catherine’s Monastery, standing since the year 565 in southern Sinai’s bare mountainous landscape, at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Knowing that Bedouin were traditionally unlettered and had probably never been in the monastery’s renowned library, I suspected that their claim was baseless, the upshot of a centuries-long fantasy that sprang from their awe of Sinai’s most imposing structure. Nevertheless, owing to my need to supplement some random and often unstructured materials I had heard from them, I ultimately succumbed to their suggestion and decided to pay the monastery and its library a visit.

Getting into the library, however, was not so simple. Back in 1859, its most notable treasure, the Codex Sinaiticus, was stolen by a German scholar, Constantin von Tischendorf, who put it into the hands of Czar Alexander II of Russia. So, by the time I wanted to use it, the library had been hermetically closed to visitors for 120 years. I therefore conceived that my best ploy would be to fortify myself with two letters of recommendation: one from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and one from the Greek Consul in the same city.

When I arrived at the remote monastery, however, their letters did me no good. After consulting with the resident monks, Archbishop Damianos informed me that my use of the library was out of the question.

Dejected, I left the monastery and began walking back to my jeep. Along the path, however, I ran into my old acquaintance, Shaykh Muhammad Abu Luhaym, chief of the Jabaliyya tribe. This tribe, reput­edly originating in Rumania, had been serving the monastery for a consecutive 1,400 years, cooking for the monks, cleaning and repairing, and tending the monastery’s widely dispersed oases. Theirs was probably the longest contractual bond in the world.

Seeing my state, Muhammad asked if there wasn’t some trouble. When I told him about my frustrated plan to use the library, he directly said, “Don’t worry! I’ll take care of it.”

We returned to the monastery and went straight to Damianos. “Doktour Bailey is my friend,” proclaimed the chief in Arabic, “and should be allowed to work in the library.” The archbishop, though clearly taken aback by this barefaced intervention, was equally unwilling to rebuff the head of his entire workforce. So forthwith, he gave me his consent.

Damianos’ permission was resented, however, by the young monk Paulos, who was responsible for the library. This became clear after he opened the great door for me, exposing the moderately sized, single room of the library with its three encompassing balconies of book­shelves, each filled with what seemed to be black-bound religious books up to the ceiling. How could I know what was there for me? So I asked Paulos, “Is there a catalogue?” “No!” he roughly retorted. “And be quick to find what you want and get out!”

Searching the unintelligible stacks, with the relentless monk at my back pestering me to hurry, I doubted that I would find anything of use. Suddenly, however, my eyes fell on a group of some eight, random, leather-bound volumes, none of them in black. Taking one in hand, I found it to be a ledger, inscribed in vernacular Arabic, of transactions the monastery had had with the Bedouin, going back to the fifteenth century.

“I’ll take these,” I blurted to the monk, who, gathering them up in his arms, passed into a plain, adjacent room (where the monastery, incidentally, hung its precious collection of icons that had survived the Byzantine iconoclasm of the eighth century), laid the volumes across the simple writing table on which I was to work, and left.

On the second day of my reading through the ledgers, I came across a page dated to the sixteenth century but averring to be the copy of an earlier document. It laid out the story of Shaykh Muhammad’s Jabaliyya tribe, telling how the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who had built the monastery, upon learning that the neighboring nomads were harassing the monks, ordered the governor of Wallachia (part of today’s Rumania) to send 100 men with their families to protect them.

Almost immediately upon discovering this confirmation of the oral tradition concerning the Jabaliyya, in walked Shaykh Muhammad together with Damianos to see how I was doing. Excitedly, I told him of my finding, showing him the page. “Read it!” he bid me. So I read it out to him down to the concluding part which quoted Justinian as saying that “they will be slaves of the monastery forever,” using the Arabic word abeed for slaves.

“What?” shouted the swarthy Muhammad, understanding abeed to mean ex-African blacks, as in the Bedouin dialect. “It’s a lie!” he cried. “We are not abeed!” Pulling his mouth wide open with his forefingers, he said, “Count my teeth! I have 32 teeth! Everyone knows that the abeed have 34.” Then he raised one of his bare feet so I could see his sole. “Look!” he ordered. “I have an arch! Everyone knows that the feet of the abeed are flat!” Finally, pulling a pen from his pocket, he com­manded me in Arabic, “Cross it out!”

“I can’t cross it out,” I rejoined. “This paper doesn’t belong to me.” And casting a glance at Damianos, I could see that the old archbishop was petrified. So, in a last ditch effort to calm the chief, I picked up the Arabic dictionary I had with me, opening it to abeed. “Look Shaykh Muhammad! Abeed can mean slaves, servants, helpers, and worshippers. Don’t you know that abeed Allah means ‘those who worship God’?” The chief, only slightly mollified, grunted a reluctant concurrence and left the room with Damianos.

I myself stayed at the monastery for another few days, trying to finish reading the ledgers, and put the incident with the chief behind me. Once I was home, though, and going over my notes, I realized that there were some points I had to recheck. So, after a month’s time, I returned to the monastery unannounced.

On my way up to the entrance, I ran into Shaykh Muhammad, just as I had on my earlier visit. Surprised to see me, he greeted me warmly. And I politely asked, “How are you?”

“Fine,” he said, smiling. “Everything’s all right now.”

“What’s all right?” I asked, somewhat startled. “Was anything wrong?”

Taking a piece of paper out of the breast pocket of his long Ottoman-style coat, he waved it in front of me, saying, “You see this? It’s a letter from Damianos saying we are not abeed. I keep it with me all the time!”
Women Behind Men

In 1971, the Military Governor of Central Sinai arranged with several Bedouin chiefs to make a camel trip from Bir Hasana, south of the Mediterranean coast, down to a spot in the southern part of the peninsula, southeast of Suez. The chiefs would each supply camels for the trip and accompany the governor while he passed through their successive tribal territories. The excursion was to last five days.

I was invited to join the trip together with an archaeologist working in Sinai and his wife, and a travel writer with his son. Early every day the local chief and some of his tribesmen would get the camels saddled and pack the food we would need and our belongings. Then we started off, to travel about 35 miles before we encamped for the night.

The last day had us riding through the lands of the Alaygat tribe, escorted by its chief, Swaylim al-Zumayli. That morning, after drinking a glass of tea, I was sitting on a low hillock with Shaykh Swaylim, watching his tribesmen as they loaded our mounts. Noticing that the camel designated for the governor was being placed behind that of the archaeologist’s wife, I playfully asked the chief, “How is it that your men are planning to let a woman ride ahead of the governor? Are you trying to insult him? Would you allow that if he were a Bedouin?”

Sensing that a cultural judgment might lay behind my remarks, he acquitted himself by claiming, “You’re right, Doktour, but we know you do things differently.”

“Okay, Shaykh Swaylim. But where does the order of men and women among your people come from?” I prodded out of interest.

“It comes from you,” he answered as a matter of fact, “and from Our Lord Moses [Sa’eedna Mousa].” And he went on to explain. “As you know, there has always been bad blood between the Children of Israel and the Children of Pharaoh. Well, one day, Mousa was walking in the street and saw that an Egyptian was fighting with an Israelite and about to overcome him. So he hit the Egyptian and killed him. And when Pharaoh heard about it, he was furious. People came to Mousa and advised him to flee.” Shaykh Swaylim leaned toward me to make sure I was getting the point.

“But what does that have to do with women and men?” I pressed with impatience.

“Well,” he continued, “Mousa fled to the desert and came to a well called the Well of Midian. Seeing that people there were watering their flocks, he thought it best to sit down against a nearby tree and rest until they had gone. He fell asleep.

“When he awoke, he saw two shepherdesses still at the well, but they couldn’t water their flock. Some shepherds had sealed it with a huge stone that they couldn’t remove. Mousa went over to see what the matter was, and they told him their problem. Thereupon, he himself lifted the rock (that otherwise required two men to lift) and proceeded to water the goats. When he had finished, he went back to the tree and sat down, and the girls, the daughters of Jethro [Shoo’ayb], went home.

“When they arrived, they told their father about the stranger who had moved the stone, watered their flock, and didn’t say an untoward word to them. ‘Where is this strong and decent man?’ he asked. ‘Why didn’t you invite him to our tent to break bread?’ he scolded. To one of his daughters he ordered, ‘Go find the man and tell him your father wants to meet him.’

“So the daughter of Shou’ayb went off and found Mousa under the tree. She told him that her father invited him to join them. ‘Where does your father live?’ he asked her. She said, ‘I’ll show you. Follow me!’ and she set off before him.

“On the way, a wind began blowing and raised her dress, so that Mousa could see her thighs. ‘O no,’ he called out. ‘You walk behind me, and tell me: Turn right! Turn left!’

“Ever since then, Doktour, Bedouin women walk behind their men.”
Clinton Bailey