Who are the nomadic Bedouins in egypt?

What is the story of Haj Hani and Ali Zaraay?

Crawling on Dust is about the lives of the Nomadic Bedouins of different tribes who are on the move. They have no address, and keep looking for a source of living. Ali Zaraay, the visual anthropologist documenting the Nomadic life, started to see himself,  rebelliousness, and instability through the journeys and the experiences of the Nomads. Ali's right hand was "Haj Hani" a generous man from the Nomads who collaborated with Ali for many years to make this visual research possible. 


Nomadic Bedouins are part of Arab tribes that moved from the Arab peninsula after the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. But mainly most of the current Bedouin Nomads came to Egypt around 400 years ago. Since then, they have been moving looking for water. With time, they started spreading in groups all over Egypt, from the borders in Sinai and Marsa-Matrouh all the way to Upper Egypt. Some settled and some kept moving. Haj Hani is from the Bedouins in the eastern side of Delta, the ones that kept on the move and did not settle. It is very important to note that the Bedouins in Delta, are different from the one’s in Sinai or Matrouh, because they for centuries have been in proximity with the city/village people and Falahin. They are distinct from other Bedouin tribes; their youth and women are relatively more liberated and integrated in public spheres but they still adhere strongly to their traditions and customs. For some of them especially youth constant movement is a choice, but some are just raised this way. This project started as a fulfillment to an anthropological curiosity of “the other”, but then Ali became on the road just like these nomads - a one ticket journey and struggle of self-realization.
















Though adhering to their ancestors’ traditions taking all the hardships of the environment, the nomadic Bedouins live a simple lifestyle in coexistence with these challenges. Their lives lack any aspect of the modern world. This strengthens patience. They rely heavily on the available natural resources in their life; pillars of their temporary tents, “nests” they call them. Stability is not something the Nomadic Bedouins relate to. Their different cultural aspects are all interesting enough and important to document.

Bedouins differ in appearance and traditions. They don’t resemble settled communities, their culture is very different. Their music, appearances, and lifestyle is quite unique to them. Their youth own unique opinions and notions, different to any of the city and village inhabitants. They communicate and adapt with any city or village they stop in for a while. This is challenging because the inhabitants of these cities are ignorant of the Nomadic culture and population and mostly associate them with violence.

Nomadic Bedouins are forgotten and marganlized, and that was one of the reasons why Ali wanted to get close to their daily life to give them voice and bring their stories and experiences to the public. Together with Ali, I decided to work on bringing their stories visually to be communicated to the public. We decided to focus on their youth, because they unlike their grandfathers were more exposed to modernity and thus are unsatisfied with their instability but continue to live it. Many of them see that if they were given access to education and a normal life they would have been better off, just like Ali.

Ali has befriended and accompanied the families of some of these Nomads and have seen the hardships of their constant journeys. The main characters are from Haj Hani's and his wife's family; through them a lot of the Nomads' lives was explored.

The millennial generation of the Nomads still choose this nomadic lifestyle? This generation unlike their grandfathers is more exposed to the outside world; they tend to spend more time in local coffee shops in nearby villages, keep updated with international news and sports. But they still go back to their tents every night, and continue travelling with their communities and herds constantly. 

Hani El Sayed Selim

From Al Hababla Tribe, Nomads of Egypt's Delta 

He is the main reason this research came about. 

He is a man who wanted to put his people on the map.

Travelling, and always being on the move is something that Ali had always wanted to do in his personal life. Being close to them, made him see the daily life of movement, both the glorious parts and the miserable moments. They envy each other's lives; they are looking to settle and he is looking for movement.  This was what kindled me to document the Nomad's dreams and lives. Some of them tried to settle in adjacent villages, but “a settled life” was not where they found home or satisfaction, the majority came back to the nomadic life. A constant journey is their home and sense of freedom despite all its hardships. 

Ali, not very different from them, come from a small village in Minia in Upper Egypt and 8 years ago he rebelled against the status quo he was raised to expect and live in such a small village. Ali  travelled to Cairo and since then he has been on a constant move. It was only through this ongoing journey that he realized that his real struggle is just like the average youth of the nomad: they both do not know what they really want.  They both didn’t have a good opportunity in education or being equipped enough to face the real world and realize their dreams. 

In Ali's  journey, no place felt like home except the one in his small village. It represents a stable and a secure life, that doesn’t fit him anymore even if it feels like home. And just like the nomads, the constant struggle in movement is where he slowly started to realize one thing he really loves; documentary photography. Through Ali's eyes, this project explores what in their journeys tempt them to pursue the nomadic life. Just like them, Ali still struggles with what he really want to do with his life because he wasn’t well equipped for this journey that he deliberately decided to take.


VIDEO | Haj Hani Speaking about their roots and ancestor's story.

The History of the Project

Ali started working on this story in January 2016. Since then, he was trying to identify and understand the different tribes of nomads in the Delta region. This project started as a quest to visual anthropologically research the life of these Nomadic Bedouins, but then as it developed it became more personal. It started as an attempt to document “the difference” and the “other”, but then Ali came to realize the similarities,Ali started to see himself in their struggles, dreams, and instability. At the beginning some of them refused to be photographed, especially women, and others see that there is not any benefit of telling their stories but after time the majority that Ali met helped him in understanding theirs lives. 


Ali's gate to the world of the Nomadic Bedouins was Hany who facilitated my entry. In him first phone call with him, Ali asked if he can visit them wherever they are. Back then he was in Belqas city in the Eastern Delta. When Ali arrived there, Hani told Ali that they already left. He later started to avoid communicating with Ali and rejected my visit twice unjustifiably. It was unfathomed because he already did appear in media outlets before. When  Ali insisted on knowing the reason for his rejection he said “My Buffalo died”! This astonished Ali and made him interested even more to pursue this research.


Lack of safety is something Nomadic Bedouins always live with due to the nature of their lifestyle and profession. This made them very cautious and careful about dealing with any foreigner trying to intrude their lives and to be very concise and frugal about the information they share. To penetrate this, I tried to be present in social events, such as weddings, and through this I tried to form friendships with many of the people. Despite being a closed community, they are very generous and easily get to know people and build friendships


In the beginning Ali started spending time with them without a camera to easen our conversations and ensure them that he is interested in their stories and not just photographs. Ali started reading about their history and roots and familiarizing himself with their past and present, with their way of life. Then, he started taking personal portraits of them as they requested and printed it and gave it back to them. This broke the fear of the camera, as many of them were photographed for the first time, and encouraged them to be themselves around the camera.  


Ali started analyzing political and legal implications of living without an address, crossing the modern state borders and only recently getting IDs and official papers and how as a result the public institutions deal with them. On an economic side of their lives, how they make living and trade in markets and sell their livestock.  


This work made him see the hardships they face as they travel, how they find their routes and next destination. Additionally, I got to better understand their relationships with the the inhabitants of the cities they travel through. 


On the way, there is always a high possibility for accidents that the Nomadic Bedouins could face. Even the agricultural ways are equally jeopardizing because it is very narrow, many were also lost by drowning in canals and drainages. Epidemic diseases come with no earlier notice, even to animals. But the journey has to continue anyway. Some gave up this life style and settled and found an urban job. But many pursued the nomadic life despite all the challenges. They follow their animals and try to feed them on the leftovers of the agriculture crops, this of course helps them spend less on their animals and profit more. Urban intervention and the fact that many agricultural lands turned into buildings hindered their journey because it narrowed the ways they pass through and made it harder to find agricultural lands.


During the past few years, Ali looked into their life with a more general scope. But eventually decided to see their world through one family; Haj Hani's - where he can tackle so many political, social, economic and generational asspects. 

Then I, Farah Hallaba, met Ali late 2018 when he was giving a talk about this project and his documentary photography. It was the spark that made me interested to continue a degree in Social & Visual Anthropology. And in a year, Ali and I got closer and we decided to work together on this project. 

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© 2020 by Farah Hallaba         All Pictures © Ali Zaraay

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