Berenike is in southern Egypt on the Red Sea. Ptolemy II found the city in 275 BC and named it after his mother. Ships called at the port to bring luxury goods from all over the world and Indian elephants to defend the African borders of the Empire. Around Berenike and along the caravan trails taking goods deep into the interior of Egypt, Roman legions had their camps, and on the hills the Romans built their fortresses. Their impressive ruins are still there. In the 7th century the city was abandoned by its inhabitants, and the port fell into disuse. The era of Roman rule in Africa was over. The Arabs moved in, but they were not interested in Berenike. The basin carved into the reef now filled with silt deposited by the fresh water flowing through the wadi. The once-thriving town had ceased to exist, and today there is nothing but sand laced with broken shells and corals. On the horizon bare mountains tops are visible, a huge orange colored sun sinks behind their peaks. Then darkness falls very quickly; a cold night sets in. The sky with its countless bright stars is overwhelmingly beautiful. Until daybreak, no foreign sound breaks the silence of the desert. At five oclock in the morning the sun again rises above the grey lagoon, and another day begins.
Every year archeologists from all over the world come to Berenike to sift the sand for evidence of the Roman presence. Not much is left. The days are filled with monotonous work, the nights are spent in the tents set up in the desert. One cant run away from here, there is only sand all around, thorny bushes, wasteland. There is nothing but work and sleep, sometimes an illness borne by the wind along with flocks of small, obtrusive flies. There are also local labourers here, Ababda Bedouins, the oldest inhabitants of these parts. In looks and temperament they are similar to the Sudanese whom they regard as their closest relatives. They are slim and supple, their skin is darker than that of the Egyptians. The appearance and dress are very important to them, they are always neat and even elegant. They never complain and never quarrel among themselves. They exude an inner calm, the indispensable condition for a life of peace.
The home of the Ababda is the vast expanse of the Eastern Desert between the Red Sea and the Nile Valley, a region covering the land from Kosseir in the north down to the southern borders of Egypt. From time immemorial, the Ababda have been nomads, wandering through the desert with their flocks of sheep and goats. They were always on the move, looking for water and food for their animals. They have no permanent settlements, they live in shoddily assembled wooden shelters which they simply leave behind when they move on, building new ones at the next place. In the past they made all the items for their everyday life themselves: pots and dishes and simple tools made of stone and wood, baskets woven from the roots of desert plants, harnesses and saddles for the camels. The women would gather herbs to cure illnesses and spin wool which they then wove into coarse fabrics with simple patterns to cover the walls of their shelters. As a result of their life in the desert the Ababda developed features which are common to all nomad people: indifference toward material things, hospitality, respect for nature, self-sufficiency and tribal solidarity.
Work in Berenike is neither difficult nor particular exhausting. It provides a small income for the Ababda and distraction in the monotonousness of their life. Every year more or less the same people volunteer, they are of different age groups but all of them are men. Most of them come from nearby, but some have travelled a long way, they come from Kosseir and Mersa Alam on the Red Sea, and from Aswan on the other side of the Eastern Desert. They like their work and the collaboration with foreigners, and they attach various hopes to these contacts.
Their work demands patience and concentration. Day by day and inch by inch they work their way through the sand with little brooms, looking for items the archaeologists are so keen on: pieces of glass, coins with the heads of Roman emperors, beads from India, fragments of earthenware from all parts of the world, sometimes bearing mysterious symbols and Greek inscriptions. Gradually the walls of the harbour, the foundations of houses and temples emerge from the sand. They are built from the grey stone of the reef to which Berenike owed its existence.
Our workers hope that one day they will find traces of their ancestors. The proofs of their existence must be held by the sand, and it is only because of the transitory nature of the material culture of the Bedouins that these traces are so hard to find. It is, however, a fact that the Ababda have inhabited this region since time immemorial. They witnessed the rise and decline of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Turks and Franks who passed through. Treated as robbers and barbarians, the Ababda were expelled outside the borders of the invaders. Excluded from the invaders cultures, they managed to maintain all their own traditions and with them an identity which did not change much over the centuries. To a large extent, this continuity was a result of their modest way of life and the harshness of the living conditions to which they were uniquely adapted.
Every morning the local Ababda arrive in small vans from their camps, after work they return to their places for the night. Those who come from further away live in two large white army tents on the edge of the camp. They are my neighbors. Whenever I pass by they invite me with gestures to join them. We become friends very quickly, and I am a frequent visitor. I try to learn their names and the Arabic words they teach me. Gama will be my guide. He speaks better English than the others; he is intelligent and knowledgeable. He tells me about the life of the Ababda, later I meet his parents, relatives and friends.
My neighbors in their communal tent share both the work and their modest earnings fairly among them. They eat jointly from the pot in the middle of their tent, they take turns gathering wood on the beach, washing up, carrying water and cooking. Their food is simple and tasty. Although they are herdsmen and owners of large flocks of cattle, the Ababda eat little meat. Meat is an expensive delicacy; sheep is slaughtered for the holiday or for the visit of an important guest. Everyday they prepare koshari (rice with noodles) on their small cooker, with it they have a special sauce made of lentils or potatoes with vegetables and spices. In the morning and in the evening the bake gors in the ashes of their fire - large, round and thick dough cake made of white flour, they have this bread with every meal.
Abdel Ghader, the oldest worker in Berenike, makes the best gors. He is 62 years old and still strong and swift. In the tent everybody treats him with great respect, he is the patriarch. Like many others, Abdel Ghader is from el-Nasr near Aswan; he usually works in the sugar cane fields where he earns most of the money for the support of his family. Abdel Ghader is always cheerful. He gives me a friendly smile, showing his healthy white teeth. Two of his front teeth are missing. He is dressed in galabiya, on his head he wears a carefully wound turban of thin white fabric. Like most Ababda he is attached to this traditional Egyptian garb. The dress of the younger men reflects the influence of international fashion. They combine their galabiya with jackets made in Cairo, sweaters with a washed out Calvin Klein logo and jeans of the same brand. Sometimes baseball caps, available at the local bazaar, replace the turban.
Walking past his tent, I see Abdel Ghader squatting on the ground and tidying up his modest belongings. I place a packet of sweet Egyptian biscuits on the ground, knowing that he will invite me for coffee now. Drinking coffee in company is an important part of socializing and an expression of hospitality. I would like a cup of coffee - Minfadlak findjan djabana, I say in Arabic, inviting myself and reminding him politely. Ive learnt these words a few days ago and whenever I use them, everybody smiles with approval. The preparation of djabana is always a special ceremony; one Im going to witness frequently over the next few weeks. First, Abdel Ghader places the coffee beans, which are still green, in a little skillet made from an old can, and roasts them over the fire. The rattling of the tossed beans and the strong fragrance of the freshly roasted coffee attracts others who come to join us. We squat on the sand around the small fireplace. Abdel Ghader grinds the hot beans in a wooden mortar, adding sugar and some ginger from the Sudan. Then he pours the mixture into a small, brown earthen flask. This is an item the Ababda never part with. Abdel Ghader keeps his flask in a case made of plaited colored straw. Over the years, the flask has become grey and black, it has been mended many times and reinforced with wire in several places. He now pours a little water into the flask, plugs the opening with a piece of cloth to keep the aroma in, heats it over the fire and then covers it for a while with hot ashes. A little later we sit there, smiling at each other and sipping the dark, ginger perfumed liquid from little bowls. The djabana is sweet and spicy. The ceremony of infusion and pouring is repeated several times, until I push my little bowl back with a determined gesture.
Several kilometers away from our camp, in the desert near the sea, lies the small settlement of Manazig. The shelters, knocked together from plywood and cardboard, house families with many children. Goats are grazing amidst the rubbish outside, and children are playing. The main occupation of the men in Manazig is fishing. At dawn they go out to the sea in small boats, every morning we see them in the distance, motionless on the wide expanse of the water. The fauna of the Red Sea reefs is particularly beautiful and varied, but not everything is edible. The occupation of a fisherman here is not without risks, barracudas are lurking in the depths, and they frequently attack humans. Now it is almost noon, the boats have just returned with their catch. Large, flat fishes are spread out on the sand, they have protruding teeth of frightening dimension. But they are supposedly harmless, and beside they are tasty and there are plenty of them in the sea. Fishmongers buy the scallops, crabs and lobsters for elegant Cairo restaurants, their vans are standing ready, engines running. They dont pay much, so little wonder that many men from Manazig work at the excavations during the season.
In Berenike there are also fishermen who have come from far away. My neighbor Jid has travelled here from Mersa Alam, a large settlement on the Red Sea. He is 22 years old and, like many men, Jid is eager to have an additional income, he is saving up to pay the family of his future wife. Getting married looks like a painful business transaction. The wife also requires gold jewelry, which serves not so much as a decoration but as insurance in case of his death or a divorce. And of course, they have to set up a household. It is due to this general tradition that marriage is not a simple matter for the poorer men, of whom there are many here. Marriage and the erotic stimulation connected with it are the main topic of the conversation in the tent. Jid is a very good singer. His voice is full of melancholy and longing for love. The melody appeals to me very much, although I dont understand the words. A few days later, Mustafa sings the same song for me again. He is also dreaming of marriage, just like Ahmed, Ali, Gama, and all young men in the tent.
Music is present everywhere in the life of the Ababda. When I visit the excavation site on the first day of my stay, I hear a small boy humming over his work, a beautiful sound in the quiet of the desert. At night I hear the men singing, and I see them dancing by the fire, they move their bodies rhythmically to and fro and clap their hands. These concerts are repeated every night. They also play the five-string tambura, a kind of simple guitar or lyre, and other, improvised instruments: plastic containers, empty cans, pieces of wood, objects which can be used for drumming and to produce ecstatic rhythms. They sing and dance at the same time and always together, in a group. It is obvious that it gives the great pleasure and is something their souls need.
The music and dances of the Ababda are different from those of the Egyptians, they are more rhythmical and somehow less oriental. Again and again, elements of their warrior past emerge in their dancing and singing. I often see them performing a simulated fight with large swords, in which all men participate in pairs. In another dance the old men, adolescents and children jump high like gazelles to the rhythm of clapping hands and guttural sounds. This is their way of displaying strength and virile energy.
The Ababda dont care for modern European music, nor are they particularly enthusiastic about Egyptian music. The music of the Sudan is closer to their hearts, and they frequently listen to it on their cassette recorders. These are traditional folk songs but also contemporary popular hits, full of vows of love, longing and promises of future happiness. On the whole, the music is quiet and pleasant to listen to. Their own musical tradition, however, always comes first for the Ababda. Gama, my invaluable friend, introduces me to the local musicians. Everybody around treats them with great respect. In Wadi Khareet near el-Nasr, Gamas friend Adala Ali performs a recital of song to the accompaniment of the tambura for me. I recorded the entire concert which comes to an abrupt end when a string of the tambura breaks.
After work it is time for a siesta, it gets very hot in the afternoon, everybody is tired and returns to the tents. Some take a nap, wrapped in blanket they lie motionless on their plastic mat. Others sit down for a game of dominoes, the passion of my neighbors and, next to football, the favorite pastime in Berenike. I hear the clatter of the wooden blocks and the raised voices deep into the night. Meanwhile, others are cooking and tidying up their tents. Then they wash before the meal and just before sunset they say their prayers in the desert. They do so with deep concentration, but not everyone says their prayers everyday. They mark the easterly direction - where Mekka lies, behind the sea - with shells and pieces of the reef arranged in a row to form their mosque. I watch them bowing down in the light of the sinking sun. Then it gets dark very quickly. It is time for tea, for a chat and for songs.
Every day Ahmed bakes flat cakes (fathir). He rolls the round, white pieces of dough on a stick and throws them with a swift and skillful movement on the heated lid of an old and rusty metal vat. The food lovers gather round him, when I pass by they invite me to join them for their meal. It is always nice to be with them, to squat on the ground, eat the plain cakes, and watch them, their eyes reflecting their joy of life. Ahmed came here from el-Nasr (Nassers town), a large estate near Aswan. The Egyptian government built the estate to house those who lost their homes when the Lake Nasser reservoir was created. A substantial groups of the Ababda live there together with Egyptians (Saidi), and Nubians. Forced to abandon the desert, they live a settled life in this sprawling estate of ugly concrete houses. The elderly find it difficult to get used to the new place. Some have built little huts from branches, others have arranged the interior of their houses in the traditional way to make it feel like in the desert. The young people are less attached to the old traditions and dream of a better life, of work in the city, sometimes even of emigration. Here, as everywhere in Egypt, the unemployment rate is enormous; everybody is looking for some sort of work. Ahmed is twenty; he is still living with his parents. He has worked in Berenike for several seasons now and has learnt some English here. He is a straightforward and kind hearted man. He talks in a loud voice and has a big smile. I am fond of him, and we have become friends. Ahmed looks after me. When we take the bus from Berenike to el-Nasr he makes sure that Im not overcharged for my ticket. Cheating foreigners is a very common thing in Egypt, but Im his hawaga. Ahmed argues fiercely with the driver over every piastre and wont be convinced that the foreigners are wealthy and can pay more. He buys the food himself, so the shopkeepers wont be tempted to cheat when they see me. In el-Nasr I take pictures of Ahmeds whole family, his mother, his father and his sister. They live in a cardboard hut.
It is a chilly morning and still dark, in a while the sun will rise from the sea. Every day we photograph the trench early in the morning, because at that time the light is best. Sleepy and shivering we wait in silence for the right moment, immediately after the sun has risen. The Ababda are wrapped in blankets. Ahmed, Mansur, Ali, Mustafa and Jid set up the old ladder from the top of which Im going to photograph the site. The footsteps in the sand are hastily covered up; they must not be visible on the picture. The workers set up a screen of heavy white canvas to protect the excavation site from too much sunlight. Steve, the American boss of the mission in Berenike, supervises the procedure energetically. His Arabic is excellent and he himself photographs everything too, he is a perfectionist and knows what he wants. The clouds are turning purple, and it is getting light. The sun is rising fast from the water that stretches to the horizon. We have only a few minutes and must hurry. First, Steve climbs the ladder, his various pieces of photographic equipment hanging round his neck, then it is my turn. Slowly and cautiously I climb the unsteadily rung. Everyday I have the same fear that the ladder will collapse under my feet, and I will fall down. The Ababda holding the ladder make encouraging gestures, from up here I see the people with the canvas screen. A moment of concentration. For a few minutes I am the director of this performance and feel very important, then I climb down - not without some relief. For today its over, tomorrow well come back to the same place.
Zbigniew Kosc © 2001 Amsterdam
translated from Polish by Esther Kinsky © 2001, London
All Rights Reserved