Wadi Degla Nature Reserve offers sanctuary for Cairo residents

The Wadi Degla nature reserve, just 35km south of Cairo, is accessible to all, part of an initiative by the Egyptian Ministry of the Environment.
Saturday 05/10/2019
A local prepares food in Wadi Degla. (Al Arab)
A local prepares food in Wadi Degla. (Al Arab)

WADI DEGLA - Years ago, residents of Cairo, exhausted by the daily rigours of modern city life, could be forgiven if they were less than enthusiastic about experiencing Bedouin culture. After all, getting to it meant gearing up for seemingly endless treks in tough conditions with comforts few and far in between.

It could take hours to arrive at the Sinai Peninsula and trying to reach the Halayeb, Shalateen and Abu Ramad border triangle with Sudan.

However, the Wadi Degla nature reserve, 35km south of Cairo in the Maadi District, is accessible to all, part of an initiative by the Egyptian Ministry of the Environment. It was the site in August for the Nature and Local Cultures Festival that introduced city dwellers to ancient culture in the oases of Egypt’s western Sahara.

The reserve extends over 60km and includes rare plants, endangered reptiles and birds.

Most Cairo residents are unaware they can experience a desert adventure practically in their backyard and basically for free. Travel expenses cost 3 Egyptian pounds ($0.18) for Egyptians and 5 pounds ($0.34) for foreigners.

As soon as tourists hit the road between Maadi and Ain Sokhna resort on the Red Sea, the bustle and noise of the city fades. Only a short distance on an unpaved road stands between them and the vast spaces and cliffs of the reserve.

At the entrance, Bedouins who participated in the August festival pitched tents, the first of which belonged to the Ababda, one of the largest Arab tribes with territories extending from Sinai to Sudan.

At the centre of the Ababda tent hung two ornately decorated swords in their sheaths. Alaa Abdulhadi, a tribe member, pointed out that the weapons are hardly decoration.

“We still use fencing with swords and shields in some duels and competitions,” he said. “The duel ends when one of the competitors succeeds in disarming his opponent. Some of us will never go out without their swords hanging from their shoulders.”

Close to the Ababda tent was one representing the oases of Fayoum, south-west of Cairo. It showcased local wooden handicrafts and textiles. At its centre were two Nubian women painting henna on the hands of female visitors.

A few metres away was the tent of Al-Basharia, one of the tribes of the Halayeb Triangle, a region in dispute between Egypt and Sudan. Many women in the tent wore distinctive black garments and face markings to reflect their prominent role in Bedouin life, as manifested by the various sheep- and goat-leather handicrafts showcased for decorative and household use.

Hussein Merai, president of Al-Basharia Families Association, said he relished the festival as a chance to bring together tribes and share cultures. “The festival could have garnered double the attendance if it were in winter because the nature reserves flourish in that season and a carpet of green vegetation would be covering the Elba Mountain range, adding to nature’s splendour,” he said.

Most visitors seemed to be university students, impressed by what they saw in tribal customs, costumes, singing and dancing.

“Halayeb is still adhering to its Bedouin oral traditions,” Merai said, “but it is now relying more on written documents. Marriage in the past used to be performed according to the Sunna and public announcement. The tribe’s chief would gather the tribe members and publicly declare the young groom and bride married, without having to go through any documentation process

“Now, the state is very adamant on documenting all transactions and on issuing identity documents to the populations of the border zones. This step preserves the rights of the people and does not detract from our original customs.”

Alaa Abdulhadi, from the Ababda tribe, said that, even within the traditional tribes, modern life has been making inroads. Despite weak telecommunications infrastructure in the oases, it seems almost everyone has social media accounts.

Modernisation has also affected the language of Bedouin life. The “retana” dialect is only used by about one-tenth of Al-Bashaira, the president of the tribe’s association said.

Food was a highlight of the event, with thick kaboury bread on grand display. Almost unknown in Cairo, where thin bread is commonplace, kaboury is made of a flour-and-water dough that Bedouins cover in hot ashes of burning wood for a few minutes. They remove the outer layer that was in contact with ashes using a stone and the bread, up to 5cm thick, is ready to be eaten.

Another original Bedouin dish featured at the event was soulatah, consisting of meat directly grilled on special hot stones brought from the oases for the festival. For drinks, they served al-Jabna, an Arabic coffee prepared on firewood and mixed with ginger.

After the evening meal and until sunset, the Bedouins arranged people in circles to engage in singing and dancing. Music is an essential part of who they are, using it to anchor weddings, eulogies and most other get-togethers. Inside their tents, there is usually at least one traditional musical instrument and often a tamboura, a primitive stringed instrument.

“They have a simple lifestyle. They sleep and wake up early and avoid fast and fried foods that leave the worst effects on us Cairenes,” said student and festival-goer Islam Abdel Moneim.