Julie Paterson of Venues Adventures for Women writes the story of how a Bedouin woman became a trail guide in Sinai
Um Yasser, a middle-aged Bedouin woman of the Hamada tribe in South Sinai, was born in a rock house, but spent much of her childhood living in a cave dwelling in the desert, where she and her mother tended their herd of goats. The Bedouins are an old, conservative ethnic group, with laws that govern their behaviour in the desert. They have strong tribal and family ties, traditions and culture. However, in today’s modern world, things are changing fast, and the Bedouins are stuck between the past and the present. In some ways they have been left behind…
Enter Ben Hoffler, founder of the award-winning Sinai Trail, a hiking trail that stretches across the tribal territories of the Sinai Peninsula, and employs Bedouin men to engage in their age-old tradition of leading people across the desert. “Back then” they lead travellers, traders, pilgrims and suchlike. Today they lead tourists from all over the world. The Bedouins know the desert and it’s ways, where to find water, which plants to use for medicine or to eat, where to shelter from rain etc. But the Sinai Trail was distinctly male-dominated due to the women having to stay close to home.
For several years, Ben had been visiting Um Yasser’s family in their bare house in the desert. One day, unexpectedly, Um Yasser, offered to walk with Ben on one of his exploratory hikes. Meanwhile, I was running women-only tours across the globe. Ben and I met through the Sinai Trail. I had been living amongst the Bedouin and spent a lot of time with Bedouin women, so knew them well. We decided to collaborate to get a women-only trip off the ground, and to have Um Yasser lead it. And thus the Sinai’s first female guide came to be….
A month later, the trip was full with 16 women, mostly Egyptian, but also others from Korea, Lebanon, New Zealand, Holland and England. Ben and I visited the Hamada tribe to finalise details of the trip – sleeping arrangements (we intended for all the women to be hosted by 3 or 4 families), food menu and mostly importantly toilets…. Because there were none! (And you can’t have 20 odd people trying to go behind a rock in the morning). Ben and I made joked with each other about who was going to dig a couple of long drops and put a tent around them, neither us looking forward to attacking the hard ground with a spade (if there was one). We returned a few days later to find that we had been thwarted by Bedouin hospitality….Um Yasser’s husband, Ibrahim, had built a twin set of brick loos! How special to have a toilet made just for us! They also erected a couple of goat hair tents and were very excited about the ladies arrival the following day.