In the past, the Bedouins used to be considered as a "well off" class, because they were self sufficient. In the second world war, when food became scarce and people went hungry in Lebanon, the Lebanese villagers sought their help. But after modernity and urbanization and rampant drought took hold of the country, they became impoverished. They turned from a self sufficient people who had its own livelihood, customs and Bedouin traditions into a different community. The Bedouins today are torn between the past and the present. In the past, they see their glorious history, as it was them who made the Great Arab Revolt and fought the colonialist over centuries, and provided the revolutionaries with weapons wherever they were present. In the present, they only see marginalization and dependency..
SHARM AL-SHEIKH, 19 November 2008 (IRIN) - Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt's glitzy coastal tourist resort, may seem an unlikely home for Bedouin squatters, but they too live off tourism, or rather the waste left in its wake.
A 20-minute drive from the main highway takes you to a Bedouin squatter area on the city’s outskirts from where Nawal, a young woman, sets out early each day with her younger sister for the main refuse tip, to sift through rubbish.
"We used to have a good life. We had a lot of animals, we used to make milk and butter and cheese," said Nawal, reminiscing about her past. "It was a sweet life. Everything was available. Now it's awful."
The estimated 30,000 Bedouins in the Sinai peninsula have had to contend with severe drought over the past few years, and this has forced them to change their lifestyles: No longer are they able to derive an income from their animals.
"When the pastureland disappeared, we had to leave... We have had to come to Sharm al-Sheikh and settle down next to the rubbish dump," said Otayeq Sallam.
One of the draws for the Bedouins is that the Sharm al-Sheikh tourist industry churns out rubbish all year round.
In the tourist resort of Nuweibaa, some 150km north of Sharm al-Sheikh on the Gulf of Aqaba, an NGO called Himaya (protection) is helping needy Bedouins.
It collects and sorts rubbish, selling some of the solid waste to cover costs and making the organic waste available free of charge to Bedouins it deems need help, allowing them to sell it on.
"We separate the solids from the organic waste, which is distributed free to needy Bedouins. The solid waste is compressed and sold by the tonne to factories in Cairo," said Walid al-Sayyid, who works on the project.
Proceeds from the sale of the solid waste also help the NGO fund regional development projects. One such project is the renovation of classrooms in primary schools in South Sinai. Another is the creation of green spaces in urban areas, he added.
However, not all local Bedouins are satisfied: "The NGO has made deals with local hotels to get their garbage. Bedouins can no longer get it for free, which is unfair," said Ibrahim Sweillam, a Bedouin who does not receive waste collected by the NGO because he is not classified as being in need. For him, Bedouins are better off organising their own affairs." (Thanks Marcy)
Far from any romanticism, I cannot help feeling that rubbish recyclers is not really what Bedouins do best, and that there should be a better trade where they can use their skills in extensive animal production to make best out of the dry environments. But this needs to be thought much better than that. And why should Bedouins and NGOs fund schools and green spaces? Where is the government? Too busy serving the plutocracy?
Bedouins in Lebanon have completely diversified their livelihoods in the past 20 years. Our research shows that only about 30% still keep sheep. Today I was at a workshop for Bedouin maternal and child health organized by a group of researchers from AUB. They all came to AUB's Bekaa campus, AREC. There were about 30 women, and the local sheikhs were also invited. The women came in a bus, but the sheikhs came in very fancy cars. I counted: one Hummer (big size), one BMW X5, and five or six US 4x4 such as Envoys and Trail Blazers, all recent models. Being a sheikh must pay well.