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A long-distance hiking trail in Egypt has reunited Bedouin tribes in the name of jobs and tourism

A long-distance hiking trail in Egypt has reunited Bedouin tribes in the name of jobs and tourism
Hikers led by Bedouins move along the Sinai Trail in South Sinai, Egypt, in May. (Nour el Din Sherif / For The Times)

Bedouin hiking guide Mussallam Faraj beamed while chatting late into the evening in a desert in the southwest of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

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In the background, some hikers pitched tents or searched for spots to place their sleeping bags in the open air under the stars. Others sang and danced to the beat of the traditional darbuka drum and oud.

“I’m very excited,” said Faraj, who is part of the Tarabin tribe.

The celebratory mood came with the more than 100 hikers from around the world who gathered in an area called Serabit el Khadim for a two-day trek in May to mark the extension of the Sinai Trail — a long-distance trail that crosses South Sinai. The area is home to the Alegat tribe, one of eight tribes participating in the Bedouin-led hiking initiative, which aims to boost tourism.

Faraj in 2015 helped launch the original, shorter version of the Sinai Trail — Egypt’s first long-distance hiking route — that crossed through the territories of the Jebeleya, Muzeina and Tarabin tribes. The new trail, which will open fully in October, crosses the territories of all eight tribes once known as the Towarah Alliance, including the Alegat, Awlad Said, Garasha, Sowalha and Hamada tribes.

The trail will lengthen from a nearly 137-mile route taking 12 days to a 342-mile route taking 42 days, stretching from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Gulf of Suez.

The tourism industry, central to South Sinai’s economy, was hit hard by years of political turmoil after the Egyptian revolution in 2011. An ongoing Islamist insurgency in North Sinai and the downing of a Russian plane in October 2015 over the peninsula further compounded challenges to the tourism industry.

The Sinai Trail’s founders believed a collective initiative would be more effective than working separately in such dire times. After all, members of the alliance worked together many years ago to escort travelers through the region before that system faded away with time.

The sheiks of each tribe came to an agreement Feb. 20 near St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after a year of discussions.

The agreement sees the reassembling of the alliance — whose members would work together and help one another in times of need — aptly around a hiking route, given the importance of walking to Bedouin identity.

“Bedouin history is traveling, so it’s something that feeds our culture,” said Faraj, adding that Bedouins once moved from place to place with their tents and families. “Today we don’t do this, but we hike.”

The revival of the alliance provides a moment of deep pride, said Yossef Barakat, a guide from the Alegat tribe.

For the Bedouin, escorting travelers and pilgrims through the Sinai has a long history. Each tribe would shepherd travelers — including Muslims heading to Mecca and Christians to St. Catherine’s Monastery and Jerusalem — through its lands before passing them on to the next tribe.

The eight tribes are set to restore this tradition across South Sinai — adapting it for the modern era on the Sinai Trail — with each tribe taking over the guiding of hikers as they move through their territory.

In 2016, the Sinai Trail was named the “Best Wider World project” by the British Guild of Travel Writers. Since late 2015, it has attracted more than 500 hikers and provided jobs for more than 40 Bedouins, including as guides, cameleers and cooks — a figure expected to increase as the longer trail comes into operation.

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The trail’s success in creating jobs, said Barakat, was why his Alegat tribe decided to join: “We have a lot of people who weren’t working.”

Despite the economic benefits for each tribe, persuading the five new tribes took some time, said Ben Hoffler, a co-founder of the trail and author of “Sinai: The Trekking Guide.”

Some of them didn’t see its relevance, as they hadn’t traditionally experienced tourism in their areas. The founders also had to “find a way to make them all feel equally compensated and valued” given the big differences in their land size, he said.

There were also rivalries and conflicts between certain tribes owing to old power struggles and feuds that date back to at least the 18th century.

The fact that the tribes have been able to unite holds potential beyond the Sinai Trail, Hoffler said.

“They’re walking a lot together, working a lot together, they’ll form relationships, they’ll get to know each other and I’m sure that that will expand in other ways in the future,” he said.

During last month’s hike in Serabit el Khadim, the Bedouin guides and hikers got a surprise taste of what it could be like to walk with a tribesman from North Sinai.

On the second day, guide Nasser Mansour of the Jebeleya tribe introduced the elderly and shy Salim Salam, from the Badara, Sinai’s poorest tribe.

Salam had been making his regular six-day trip by camel to the town of Abu Zenima for food supplies for his family ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, as his own area lacks shops and amenities. As he returned, he met a friend from the Alegat who suggested he join the hike to break up his grueling, solitary trip.

Mansour pointed at the vast plateau of Hadabat el Teeh behind him in the distance, representing the historical boundary between North and South Sinai, on which the Badara live.

Salam, he said, had told the guides, “We have a very nice area there, please come to us one day.”

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