Gilded Serpent presents...

Meet the Neighbours

Chapter 2 of Veiling in the Desert


by Shema
posted May 17, 2012

Shema portraitI sit here in my Bedouin house with a cup of green tea and some helawa (halva) and I can still hear the women laughing outside. Although my focus here is to learn the dance, I always feel that in order to understand a traditional dance form, I need also to understand the culture. I am finding that as I spend more time with the local women.

I am beginning to learn more about their motivation for dancing (or not), when it is appropriate to dance, in front of whom, as well as their particular sense of humour!

I would like to introduce you to these ladies, but I have already decided that I will not use anyone’s names, and will simply refer to people by their initials, thus preserving their privacy. This has worked well with the men in my blog [on another site] so far, but now I am writing about the women, I have a slight difficulty. When I am introduced to any of the older women, they are all referred to as “the mother of x’’, (i.e. Um-Mohamed, Um-Said, Um-Suleiman) both to their faces and when spoken about in passing. However, older members of the community may have known them before they were married and thus still refer to them occasionally by their own names–all of which makes it very difficult to keep track; as you may have guessed, there is more than one Said and Mohamed in the village! So, I shall do my best to mold their characters on the page: that you may feel a little closer to knowing them, as I am starting to know them.

These women are my neighbours in the village of Tarabin, Nuweiba. My house is next to a “yard”, with trees and shrubs and a shelter–not much more than a palm-leaf-covered wooden structure, the sides of which are swathed in blankets and goat-hair mats to create walls. It seems that several of the older Bedouin women live in these constructions, rather than in houses, and I wonder whether this is because it is the closest thing to a tent, for people who are forced to stay in one place but are by their nature nomadic.


Interestingly, the Bedouin use the word bayt, which is traditionally the word for a tent, rather than dar which is the Arabic word for house; although they are interchangeable since the Bedouin can slip from Bedu to Egyptian Arabic very easily. On the first evening in my house, I was taken by my “landlady” to sit in this shelter next door with three Bedouin women aged from 55-65; at a guess–it can be hard to age the Bedouin because they are people who live outdoors and often appear older than they actually are due to the effects of sun, sand and desert winds.  During this introduction,  they told me clearly that I am free to go where I want during the day, but in the evenings, I should come to sit with them and drink tea. (Incidentally, they have a wicked sense of humour, as I discovered anew tonight!) So, I have been spending my days cleaning and sorting out my house, and then, most evenings, I wander into the yard, greet everyone and sit down on a dirty blanket or ragged carpet that is dragged out and spread around near the fire’s embers. The women are always friendly and welcoming, and usually, Um-A will find the nearest tea glass, swill it out deftly with her fingers using bottled water (A Bedouin does not drink the tap water!) and fill it with the sweet, syrupy shai tea which is practically a food group here.

Um-A is the owner of this bayt, and never fails to ask me in for shai whenever I am passing.

Um-A's goatShe keeps sheep and goats, all of which are penned up opposite my house, and to which I throw all of my cooking leftovers and scraps. Her face is semi-covered by a half-veil which hangs from the bridge of her nose and is decorated with silver embroidery to match her headscarf which also has delicate silver designs dangling over her forehead. Her face–what I can see of it–is wizened but animated with faded blue tattoos on her chin and forehead. Deep wrinkles encase her eyes which belie a quick intellect and vibrant sense of humour.  She wears the traditional black thobe (dress) with embroidery, and a red scarf rolled up and tied around her waist, which is traditionally worn by Bedouin women to signify that they are married as well as to support the belly during pregnancy. (The younger generation do not follow this dress code and now there is no visible way to tell which girls are married–unless they choose to wear a wedding ring.) I was looking at Um-A’s feet tonight–they are flat, hard and tough, no doubt, but also small and perfectly formed, her toes sloping evenly down and the blackened nails trimmed short.

Every evening Um-A sits and teases wool into yarn; it is a fascinating process that she offered to teach me tonight (something that will please my own mother!).

BroomFirstly, she tucks the end of the wool into her left-hand sleeve, and then winds the excess around her wrist. In her right hand is a “bobbin”–a stick with a few smaller twigs cross-sectioning the end and a flat piece to keep the yarn on the spool. The process starts with her fingers teasing out the wool into a thinner strand before wrapping it around the bobbin and then twisting the whole unit so fast that (to be honest) still, I can’t quite see what is happening. Occasionally, she pauses to remove twigs or splinters of wood which have been caught up in the fibres. Once the strand is twisted to her satisfaction, it is wrapped around the bobbin and she attends to the next little section. It is quite hypnotic to watch. When she has finished, she lies on one side on her blanket, fishes around underneath and pulls out a small plastic bag. Carefully, she rolls for herself a “herbal cigarette”, lights it from the fire’s embers, then proceeds to smoke the joint beneath her veil.

We laughed a lot tonight. Um-M speaks some English; so we can hold a reasonable conversation between the two languages. She told me a very rude story about an Egyptian man (Now I know the Bedu word for “sh*t”!) that left us all in fits of laughter. Periodically, Um-S would blow her nose onto the floor, wiping it on her sleeve, or on the mat. She worked her way through several cigarettes and has a hacking smokers’ cough.

Tonight, Um-M suggested that I accompany her up into the mountains with her goats and donkeys for the day; we will bake bread, drink tea, and then come back down. “Aiwa!” I answer. These are the experiences for which I had hoped and considering that I have only been here one week, I am astounded by how much I am being invited and welcomed. This is not to say that there won’t be difficult times and challenges, but the overall feeling is one of respect, and I am doing everything that I can to ensure that I show the same respect to them.
Mistakes will be made, no doubt, but I am lucky to have had advice from local women and men as to how to behave. I have asked for honest feedback when I do get it wrong!

The women are all keen to show me their lives: to involve me and teach me, yet there is no patronising here.

breakfastThey respect that I have my own life, and they all know that I am a dancer, but it just doesn’t seem to bother them, and the young women love to come and look at my Egyptian dance costumes and false eyelashes! Tomorrow night I am going to a Bedouin wedding in the village, and everyone is insistent that I go and join in the festivities and see the dancing (as if I need persuasion). However, a male Bedouin friend has told me, in no uncertain terms, that I am allowed to get up to dance with the women, but I must not dance in front of the men during the second night’s Zeffa (procession involving driving around in jeeps and firing machine guns into the air, less subtle than the Shemadan!). Given that this man was there for my performance on New Year’s Eve to 100+ Bedouin men, I am not 100% sure of how the boundaries have shifted. These are all things that will become clear in time though, I am certain.

Tonight, when I left (itching to get in here and write before I forget everything) Um-M called me back: “Bintak!” she said, as she produced from her purse a tiny gold-coloured metal bracelet. It is something which dancers back home would discard as cheap and worthless, but I feel incredibly fortunate and very humbled. 

This little gesture alone has made it possible for me to get through another night in this foreign place, feeling that there are people here who care and who are kind beyond their means.  


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