Meet Egypt’s Sinai Bedouins marking Ramadan with goat ghee, shisha and store-bought coffee

Preparations for communal gatherings begin 10 days before the start of Ramadan

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Among the sand dunes and valleys of the Sinai in Egypt, Bedouin tribes are keeping local traditions alive this Ramadan, with customs passed down through generations over hundreds of years.

Anticipating the call to maghrib prayers, members of Al Huwaitat and Al Mazinah tribes gather in a small seating area while the younger men sat out in the desert.

They wait at diwans, or tribal meeting halls, where daily fasts would soon end.

In the diwans, distinctly Bedouin designs are etched into seats and stitched into carpets surrounded by symbols of modern living – a TV set, an air conditioner and a refrigerator.

Bedouin iftar

As radio speakers crackle with the call to prayer, the tribesmen prepare to take their first bite of food from containers placed on handmade carpets.

In a display that unites the old with the new, mountains of rice and goat meat placed on massive trays will be their first meal of the day. They will wash it all down with fizzy drinks and mineral water.

Al Huwaitat tribesman Sheikh Fareej Salem, host of this Ramadan feast, says preparations for the mass gatherings begin 10 days before the holy month starts.

Despite the pandemic, Egypt opens its mosques for Ramadan prayers

Despite the pandemic, Egypt opens its mosques for Ramadan prayers

"The Bedouins set up special areas stocked with food and drinks from family homes in nearby valleys where people can have iftar if they happen to be passing by," he says.

One of Ramadan's staples among the Bedouins of Sinai is el gareesha – a dish made from crushed wheat, goat ghee, cumin, herbs and lentils – and zalabiya, a flour-based, deep-fried, sugar-coated dessert.

Tribal laws 

Aside from the colourful aspects of Ramadan in the Sinai that have been kept alive for generations, unique social norms are also still observed.

Couples are not allowed to get married in Ramadan, according to Bedouin traditions. Customary court sessions are also suspended for all cases except murder, when an initial hearing is held and then the case is postponed until the month is over.

"Customary law is firm and strict and compulsory for all tribes that wish to sort matters away from city courts and police stations," says Eid Salem, a member of Al Huwaitat tribe.

After dark

Over a pile of lit wood, two pots full of tea and coffee come to a boil while plumes of shisha smoke rise from among the newly fed Bedouins who consider Arabic coffee the official drink for Ramadan gatherings, especially if the month falls at hotter times of year.

The coffee, once roasted in bulk and prepared each day for a night of meetings, catch-ups and conversations after iftar, is now bought freshly ground from sellers. Each serving is enjoyed with a date or two.