The fate of this journey and whether it would go ahead where not really in doubt, despite all flights from UK to Sharm El Sheikh being withdrawn following the bomb on the Russian airplane and the killings in Paris. Plenty of people thought going would be foolhardy and this did increase levels of anxiety while travelling and in Sinai, though their fears were all groundless. Mahmoud and I started work on Tuesday 24 November when I arrived at St Katherine’s after a longer journey via Cairo and an overnight stop in Sharm.
St Katherine’s Library
Nora was also in St Katherine’s, having joined the “Sinai is Safe” Trek with over a hundred other enthusiastic trekkers, mostly from Cairo. A number of the trekkers had bought donations of books and games for the library and also pledged practical help such as teaching a literacy programme. Nora also went to visit a local school to check out the provision of school libraries. Nora has put some photos of the trek and St Katherine’s library on the Nawamis Development Society Facebook page. The library was very popular when we visited it on Thursday with the children getting to grips with the puzzle donations.
Floods and Wells
On Wednesday 25 Nora accompanied Mahmoud, Faraj and myself to look at wells in wadi Tarfa, Wadi Gharba (where we had lunch) and the Blue Mountains. Mahmoud had heard that the recent floods had been especially destructive in the Blue Mountains and wanted us to visit. We saw the sites of several wells that had completely disappeared under silt and gravel. The solar panels stood as rough markers in now featureless areas of desert, the wells having disappeared. Mahmoud thinks at least 6 will need complete restoration, although the well owners have yet to contact us.
The rains had mostly been very welcome and everywhere was becoming green, so the goats and camels will have plenty to eat. There are now hundreds of government dams in most of the wadis surrounding St Katherine’s. They were built partly to allow more water to soak into the water table and partly to reduce flooding. Unfortunately the fast build quality meant that many of these dams were empty less than 2 hours after the rains. Mahmoud had been to investigate our dams and found most of them full. Only the newly built Marufia dam in Farsh Roumana was dry as the rains didn’t get this far. Mahmoud and I saw Wadi Buleia dam full of water which was a lovely sight.
We went to see gardens in Wadi Gibal, Wadi Buleia, and Farsh Rumana on Friday. One contract was with a 17 year old young man called Mohamed Sala Am Darwish. His father had died about a year ago and as the eldest in the family he was finding work when he could to support the family as well as going to college 10 days a month in Dahab and supervising the restoration of the family well in Farsh Rumana. He has made an excellent job of it. He is looking forward to restoring the garden now to bring and income and food in for his family.
We were waylaid by another young man of 25 whose elderly father wasn’t able to get into the mountains anymore but the young man asked for a site visit and for help to restore his family well so he could grow food. Another young Bedouin had restored a well and garden in Wadi Buleia and there were several other young men in the mountains that day. It seems that having a garden, growing food and keeping traditions going is no longer the province of the older bedouin. There is a small but growing community of Oulat Saed Bedouin in Wadi Shagg who live there most of the time now, and several of them are young people, starting families. This interest in the old ways may have been forced on the Bedouin by scarcity of work as a result of lack of tourists, but they do seem generally interested and proud of their family traditions in the mountains. Time will tell if they can keep the gardens going. At least there are people like Salem and Amria (freshly returned from her pilgrimage to the Hadj) to give them a guiding hand.
What is somewhat disturbing is to hear how many young men are fatherless due to heart disease – often in their 40’s. I have come across 3 or 4 young well owners in this position and Mahmoud knows more. Such high numbers of fatalities compared with what we would expect in UK suggests preventable chronic health problems. It seems that there used to public health programs covering a variety of topics but these don’t happen anymore. Young men need their fathers.
We had a short visit to Mousa and the novice beekeepers on Saturday. They were very busy finishing off making frames for the 60 new hives – probably about 500 of them in all, at about 8 per hive. They seemed as happy as they usually are, which is very much! Mousa made some of his wonderful carob tea for us. He is going to order the swarms of bees now, for collection in February and the training is going well.
Security in South Sinai
When I talked to Mahmoud about security in South Sinai and safety, he said that I and St Katherine’s were 100% safe. He didn’t elaborate much at the time but by talking to others I found out why this might be so. The Bedouin have a very long tradition of networking between distant members of their tribe plus a feel for the landscape and their territory that we may not really understand or appreciate. They are always aware of any strangers coming onto their patch. There are Bedouin all over the mountains and wadis and they want to know the business of everyone, their own tribe included. No one can get into St Katherine’s without someone knowing about it – and unconsciously or consciously vetting them. The tribes also have unwritten agreements about what is their territory and about not ‘messing’ with each other. The Northern tribes know that if they disrupt tourism in the South, they will have to deal with the consequences from the Southern tribes. Complicated tribal law helps keep things running smoothly too. The army is aware of this network and so has employed around 10 Bedouin to be eyes and ears for them. The army themselves have very little knowledge of areas off the roads or who should be there or not. The checkpoints have all been beefed up with more buildings, sentry boxes on posts and outside Sharm, with about 6 armoured vehicles with mounted machine guns. Strangely this outward show of strength by the army is very unsettling while the calm network of Bedouin knowledge is much more reassuring.
The trip came to an end on 30 November and the next Wells Project trip is scheduled for end of February/beginning of March.