CAIRO: In the heart of the fancy Cairo suburb of Maadi lies the district of “Al Arab”, named after its original inhabitants, Arab Bedouin tribes from Sinai who first settled there and are now striving to maintain their Bedouin heritage amidst a strong wave of urbanization fueled by the education of younger generations.
At iftar in Ramadan, at their ma’ads — rest houses named after each family of the tribe — they serve large plates of rice topped by grilled meat. In their Bedouin style, everyone eats directly from the main plate. After iftar, it’s time for family gatherings where tea is served and cousins chat about almost everything.
A branch of the Tarabin tribe in Sinai — currently locked in a feud with the government — Arab families living in the capital could trace back their Cairo presence to the Mohamed Ali era and even earlier. However, they only started to get IDs and be recruited in the army since King Farouk’s reign in 1936.
Although he spent his whole life in Cairo, Hassan Hussein, an old man in his 60s, speaks with an unmistakable Bedouin accent and wears a traditional galabeya. He points with pride to the family tree placed in the middle of the ma'ad, documenting the roots of the family. However, he regrets that family members no longer inform them of newborns so that they can add them to the tree.
“Ever since people started getting an education and things have changed a lot; people became open-minded and got more involved with metropolitan Egyptians,” Hussein says.
The biggest example of such change, according to him, is marriage between family members and “Egyptian peasants” — something that their ancestors would have never allowed. An old Bedouin proverb says families prefer “a crocodile to eat” their daughters over allowing them to marry outside the family.
In the Bedouin mindset, a peasant only works on the land owned by the Bedouin while slaves are there to serve them; they shouldn’t mix with either of them through marriage.
Until recently, Cairo’s Bedouins managed to maintain some of their traditions, such as hosting guest in ma’ads without asking them about the reason for their visit for three days.
The Abu Diab family remains in charge of sorting out feuds between the rest of the families. In such arbitrations, each family brings a neutral judge to a host’s house. After eating the specially prepared banquet, each side presents their complaint and a ruling is made that everyone is obliged to follow.
On the other side, the position of a head-Sheikh for each family has disappeared and it’s up to people like Hussein to document the family’s history.
He takes special pride in his family saying they are descendants of prophet Mohamed.
Tarabin, a name derived from the valley they first settled in called “Taraba” in Saudi Arabia, are originally called Boqom tribes but found it easier to refer to the valley after they moved to Sinai.
A strong, hot blooded tribe, as they describe themselves, consisting of over 120 families each between 300 and 5,000 members, the Tarabin tribe enjoys a “hectic” history full of conflicts with governments and other tribes.
According to records, the first Bedouin settlers in Cairo were Hussein Abu Shweimy and Hussein Abu Nafee’ in Basateen on the outskirts of the current Maadi. But, they never stayed in one place for a long time; they soon left to what is now called “Arab Al Der.”
They then split again due to problems with successive governments and inner conflicts; some left to their current place in Maadi while others moved to Al-Saf in Helwan.
After forced acquisition of land — through building fences around pieces of land that no one dared to trespass — they later distributed them to their children and sons-in-law.
“They had a nomadic lifestyle and had no farsighted plans for the future; but this changed with the arrival of Ali Hussein, an ambitious man who helped us settle where we are now,” Hussein said.
A strong, charismatic man with connections with the palace, Ali Hussein is considered one of the founders of Maadi as he used to hire family members as workers and guards for the projects conducted by the Maadi Company as well as Jewish properties in the area.
He had strong ties with Ibrahim Abdel Hady, former Prime Minister during King Farouk’s reign. At election season, he rode around electoral constituencies with political candidates and at the end of the day prepared huge banquets for his special guests.
He was rewarded with a grains warehouse in Old Cairo as well as developing strong ties with the police who loosened their strict grip over Arab tribes that constantly got into trouble with local residents.
“They were feared among the residents for their firm and aggressive nature; they committed crimes carelessly without being held accountable,” Hussein said.
After his death, Ali Hussein left a vast estate of land, the grain warehouse and more than LE 148,000 among others, but they were all squandered by his son, according to Hussein.
“By then, the revolution had taken place and younger generations started to join schools and later became policemen, doctors and engineers and got more and more urbanized, abandoning a lot of the Bedouin traditions,” Hussein said.
Although communication is almost lost between Tarabins in Cairo and those in Sinai, they are following carefully the updates of the situation between their relatives and the Egyptian government.
“Violence will solve nothing, if the government kills one Bedouin, they will kill five policemen; authorities should sit and talk with them and try to solve their problems,” Hussein said.
Seeing how the government is dealing with the Tarabin Tribe, other tribes in Sinai — although in a feud over land and drug deals — decided to stand together, according to Hussein.
Tarabin has an advantage over other tribes like Byada and Ababda tribes through its ownership of land in northern, southern and middle Sinai.
The tribe is spread throughout Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Gaza and is involved in smuggling weapons and aid to fellow tribe members in Gaza, Hussein said.
“A Bedouin’s first allegiance is for his tribe then comes the country in second place,” he added.
However, according to Hussein, the government, instead of rewarding the Tarabin tribe for their efforts during various wars with Israel, took their land in premium locations by force and sold it to foreign investors.
“They weren’t allowed to work nor to acquire licenses for their cars; instead, people from other governorates were brought to work in Sinai,” Hussein said.