- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

FARAFRA OASIS, Egypt- Amm Abd Rabu Abu el-Nour missed most of World War II. “News from out- side didn’t reach

the oasis back then,” the Bedouin elder recalled as one of his granddaughters entered his dirt-floor salon with a cup of strong, sweet tea.

These days, with talk radio, round-the-clock television and daily newspapers, the world elsewhere is as familiar to Mr. el-Nour as his vast Western Desert back yard.

“It is now 24 hours Iraq, Bush and Saddam,” Mr. el-Nour, who is in his 70s, said with a smile as he offered a guest his own cup of tea. “Things have changed so much for us here, but somehow for the better.”

Mr. el-Nour remembers when there was no road to Farafra, an oasis 280 miles west of Cairo. He can’t count the times he made the 10-day desert crossing by camel to southern Egyptian cities, where markets awaited his village’s dates, olives, figs and “mish mish,” or apricots.

Now, on days without sandstorms, you can drive from Cairo to Farafra in six to seven hours. There are enough markets and shops here to satisfy most local farmers. The Internet brings English tutorials into Farafra’s primary schools.

The “old village,” a cluster of sometimes crumbling mud-brick houses along narrow lanes, is located on a small hill above the “new” township’s sprawl of residential neighborhoods, schools, stores and coffee shops.

Fifty years ago, 300 people — all fellow Bedouins — lived here. Now, 3,000 Bedouins share the village and adjoining settlements with 10,000 Egyptians who moved from the overcrowded capital and Nile Delta towns such as Mansura. Hundreds of tourists come each year for guided treks into the White Desert.

Times and fortunes are changing for the 1.25 million Bedouins across Egypt, driven by population and financial pressures, agricultural, residential and industrial development, globalization and the information boom.

Some Bedouins worry that the life of the desert traders is disappearing. Strikingly, it is often younger Bedouins who are most anxious.

“Some people are sticking to their traditions, culture and habits, but not many,” said desert guide Tamer Mohamed Wahid, 21, while strolling through the old part of Farafra.

“Now people are worried about money, which is something people never used to worry about in places like this,” said Mr. Wahid, whose blue ski vest and denim jeans looked more suited to downtown Cairo’s malls and cinemas than a desert oasis.

Saad Ali, Mr. Wahid’s boss at a firm that takes tourists into the desert by four-wheel-drive vehicle or camels, is also among those worried about the extent of changes.

Mr. Ali said he wished “things would go back to the way they were before, when life was much simpler.”

“The older generation welcomes new things because they remember back when their lives and work were difficult,” he said. “But they can’t see what is happening, the change in people’s customs and culture. And this is only going to get worse.”

Indeed, Mr. el-Nour welcomes change and thinks life has gotten better. He said Bedouin social traditions that are important “can be preserved, not destroyed, by the new world.”

The Bedouins, proud and traditionally conservative people, are descendants of Arab tribespeople who began crossing from the Persian Gulf region into North Africa before Islam’s 7th century arrival in Egypt. The nomadic Bedouins spread along Egypt’s northern coast and deep into the Western Desert, and on to places such as modern Libya.

In areas like Farafra, the Bedouins anchored themselves to the land, growing crops and raising livestock like other Egyptian farmers. Such stability opened the way to schooling, health services and economic development.

The Bedouins of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula kept a nomadic life, sheltered for centuries by jagged mountains and forbidding desert. But even there, tourist resorts and towns are spreading and putting pressure on the region’s 300,000 Bedouins.

“I don’t think the Bedouin lifestyle is sustainable. I think these people will be pushed out eventually,” said Chris Czerwinski, director of World Food Program operations in Egypt. “Pockets of traditional Bedouin communities will continue for a while, but its disappearance is happening.”

The WFP, the World Bank and other U.N. agencies have been assisting Bedouin communities in Egypt for almost two decades. The WFP is leading a project on Sinai’s Mediterranean coast to help Bedouins who want to give up nomadic ways and learn to build homes.

“Something so simple like sawing a piece of wood is a task many Bedouins have never done, so introducing anything from the outside into their nomadic lifestyle is very hard,” Mr. Czerwinski said.

Novelist Miral al-Tahawy sees little future for the traditional lifestyle she knew as a Bedouin child, and chose to give up.

In the Nile Delta village where she was raised north of Cairo, Bedouin women rarely leave home during daylight hours, are expected to marry within the tribe and have little more than domestic work to look forward to during their lives, Mrs. al-Tahawy said.

“I am not a modern kind of girl, but at the same time I can’t be one of these Bedouin women,” said Mrs. al-Tahawy, 33,who moved to Cairo about four years ago to pursue her writing career.

Yet, while rejecting those ways, she also acknowledges the loss.

“My society has changed so much, and in a way I am an example of that change,” she said. “Everything is changing around us. The Bedouin can’t be like other people, so we have this dilemma. It is painful — the change is painful.”

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