The eastern desert is inhabited by the Ma’aza bedouin and the Ababda bedouin tribes.
These tribes have been involved in mutual raiding and tribal feuds, but settled peacefully after numerous disputes in their home lands around the beginning of the 20th century.
The northern Eastern Desert is inhabited by the Ma’aza bedouin tribe. Ma’aza means ‘Goat People’ and the goat is the totem of this tribe. The tribe is subdivided into clans (read ‘families’), in which each member of the clan can be traced back over several generations to one forefather.
The Ma’aza tribe has its origins in Arabia and is of semitic origin. The tribe comprises about 20 clans, of which the Khushmaan clan has by far the most numerous desert-dwelling clan members (many bedouin settled along the Nile). In the eighteen century few households of the Ma’aza tribe began settling in Egypt. The Khushmaan clan was among the last to migrate from Arabia. Around 140 years ago, Kushmaan residency in Egypt began when Sulimaan and Umbaraak brought their families to the Eastern Desert. Both men were Khushmaan descendants from Mish’al, who 5 generations before had founded the clan by distancing himself from his father Faayiz. Mish’al had a disfigured nose and was nicknamed ‘al-Khasham’ (the Nose) from which the clan takes its name Khushmaan.
The Khushmaan tent is build of thick durable blankets woven from goat hair, the blankets are sewn together and stretched over a frame of wooden sticks from the acacia tree.
In the desert most families consider a special area their home-land. Especially during summer when regular watering of livestock is needed, a family will settle in their home-land near a well. In winter they can move site regularly, depending on where the rain fell, to alter the grazing for the animals.
The southern Eastern Desert is occupied by the Ababda tribe.
They make up the arabic speaking tribe of the Beja, a indigenous hamitic race that occupies the southern areas between the Nile and the Red Sea coast in southern Egypt and the Sudan. The Beja date from 4000-2000 BC and were most probably related to the ‘Blemmeys’ that had alternating friendly and hostile relationships with the romans during their occupation of the area 2000 years ago.
The Ababda are also called ‘The children of Abad’. Abad came from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt around 1300 AD (around the same time the Beja converted from Christianity to islam) and is buried in Wadi Abadi near Edfu. He claimed to descent from Abdellahi, the son of the famous Zubeir Ibn el Awwaam, a close relative of the Prophet Mohammed and one of the first converts to Islam. Zubeir was slain in Iraq at the battle of the camel in AD 656.
The Ababda hut is build of matting woven from the leaves of the dom-palm. The mats are stretched over a frame of long curved acacia sticks and fastened by wooden skewers. The lower outsides, and insides of the hut are covered by blankets and hand woven woolen carpets.
The Ababda live partly in small settlements along the coast, and partly as isolated families in the mountains. Their main source of income is their livestock of goats, sheep, and (when wealthy) camels. Along the coast fishing is the main activity. Over time though more and more families move to villages and the men find work outside the mountains as in fi construction work or the tourist industry.
Apart from strong black sugar rich tea, their most common social drink is ‘gebena’, or hand roasted coffee beans, that are ground with ginger and poured into a round earthen jar with a long neck. With added water the jar is placed between the glowing embers of the fire to boil, and the coffee successively served with loads of sugar in small porcelain cups. The minimum number of rounds to drink is three.
Bread makes up the main dish of their diet. It is made from flour, salt and water and can be kneaded into a thick round shape baked into the sand with firewood, called ‘gurs’, or baked on an iron plate into thin pancakes called ‘fetir’. The bread is mixed with sour goat milk or fat for the meals. At special occasions a sheep or goat can be slaughtered and the meat grilled on hot rocks.