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Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness

Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness
Foreword by Leo Tregenza

The first modern ethnographic portrait of the Ma'aza Bedouins.

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March 1992
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207 pages | 6 x 9 | 39 b&w illus., 5 maps |

Between the Nile River and the Red Sea, in the northern half of Egypt's Eastern Desert, live the Bedouins of the Ma'aza tribe. Joseph Hobbs lived with the Khushmaan Ma'aza clan for almost two years, gathering information for a study of traditional Bedouin life and culture. The resulting work, Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness, is the first modern ethnographic portrait of the Ma'aza Bedouins.

  • Foreword by Leo Tregenza
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Desert and Its People
  • 2. Nomads and Neighbors
  • 3. A Desert Livelihood
  • 4. Belongings and Beliefs
  • 5. The Bedouin Landscape
  • 6. A Bedouin Natural History
  • 7. Conservation and Conservatism
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix I. Bedouin, Latin, and English Plant and Animal Names
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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From the tabletop summit of the South Galala Plateau, we saw the plain of Wadi `Araba, where we had begun walking at dawn, stretched out below us all the way from the Gulf of Suez to the Nile Valley. We soon lost this view in the plateau's labyrinthine canyonland. Saalih `All paused frequently, for he had the difficult task of navigating this terrain. Muhammad Umbaarak walked confidently just ahead of us, setting our pace. Although in his early seventies, Muhammad walked with the ease and grace of a young man, and he took the whims of the Galala landscape in stride.

We stopped to rest in `Adayd, one of the Galala's largest gorges. Saalih and Muhammad teased one another like boys, and I watched as Saalih dumped the contents of his friend's sufun out on the sand. This purse of ibex skin held everything that Muhammad considered essential for his everyday needs. Saalih itemized the contents: the steel striker, flint, and tindercloth that graybeards like Muhammad often use in place of matches; a book of matches; a knife; a signet ring bearing Muhammad's name and the Muslim year 1367 (A.D. 1941), used for those rare but inevitable government documents requiring a Bedouin's signature; the identity card that enabled him, like all Egyptians, to buy subsidized goods in government cooperatives; a seashell to be applied to the skin in the event of a scorpion sting; antimony powder for an eye infection; a gazelle horn used to store this powder and the dipstick for applying it; an aspirin; some wire; a pencil; cash; tweezers, for adding and removing glowing coals from his tobacco pipe; and the pipe. Muhammad had forged the bowl of his pipe from a piece of an Israeli aircraft that had crashed during one of the wars with Egypt. He had carved its stem from the wood of the wild fig tree.

"Men who dwell in the country are better than men who dwell in the city," wrote Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, "for the former seek only the necessities of life from the soil not the superfluities and thus do not give their hearts to material things. Men who dwell on the land have a strong feeling for the common good and only those who have this feeling can dwell on the land" (Father Kevin Wall, personal communication).

This book is about a people who live unencumbered by material possessions, bound by kinship and livelihood to a desert wilderness of sand and rock. Their home is eastern Egypt, between the Nile River and the Red Sea. Their tribe is the Ma`aza, the "Goat People." Their clan, a subunit of the tribe, is the Khushmaan, the "Nose People": all clan members living today are descended from a common male ancestor of twelve generations ago whose name was al-Khasham, "the Nose." The Khushmaan are pastoral nomads: pastoral in that they raise sheep, goats, and camels; nomadic in that they move these animals to wherever rain has fallen and pasture sprouted in the vast Eastern Desert. They have no fixed dwellings: home is a mobile woolen tent or a temporary windscreen of dead plants.

This book is a portrait of Bedouin life. The emphasis is on how the Bedouins themselves view their world. Remarkably, this approach is widely discouraged in modern scholarship on pastoral nomadism. The anthropologist Emanuel Marx, for example, complains that some of the classical writers about nomadism were content with reporting what the Bedouins told them about Bedouin society and that even the most acute observers emphasized those aspects of society that the Bedouins themselves regarded as the most important (E. Marx 1978, 42). Emphasizing what the Bedouins believe to be important is precisely the object of this book. As a geographer trained in the humanistic tradition, I am convinced that the beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions of a society profoundly influence the ways in which that society uses resources. In turn, the landscape with its associations of plants, animals, and people reflects the values of that society. Therefore, there is no more important subject of study than what members of the society believe is most important.

A principal goal of this book is to record some of the raw material of Bedouin imagination and experience. This purpose is also disavowed by some scholars, including Neville Dyson-Hudson, who dislikes the "Sears Roebuck" tradition of Harold Dickson and other "able but incidental" observers who painstakingly cataloged details of everyday activities and beliefs of pastoral nomads. At the same time, Dyson-Hudson laments the "simple if somewhat gloomy truth" that extraordinarily little is known about human behavior in nomadic societies and insists that, in order to break free of old, unsatisfactory generalizations about nomadism, much more information must be acquired about specific situations in nomadic life (Dyson-Hudson 1972, 5, 21). Marx reminds us that in the classical literature on nomadism—including, apparently, the "Sears Roebuck" works—there remains a great deal of raw information that modern scholars have not exploited adequately. "The common belief that our knowledge about the Bedouin is extensive and that we understand their society better than other sectors of the population of the Middle East is unfounded," he concludes (E. Marx 1978, 43). It is hoped that this book will increase knowl edge about a particular group of nomads whose insights would otherwise go unrecorded and, more generally, about a way of life that is disappearing all the way from Morocco to India.

Perhaps this book will also promote understanding. One reason for the retreat of pastoral nomadism is that nonnomads do not understand how Bedouins live and view life. This ignorance is a source of fear and repression. Rather than try to change the nomads, sedentary powers-that-be might, with more understanding about the desert people, benefit from the detailed knowledge and extraordinary skills that Bedouins have acquired through ages of habitation and experience in the wilderness.


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