I might have some more wrinkles on my face now, but I don’t care. If this is how you get wrinkles then I want some more!
Furrowing my brows at the sun I witnessed one of the most unique events in the world, and had one of the most amazing experiences in my whole life.
“Characters of Egypt” is a desert cultural festival that takes place every year in Fustat Wadi el Gamal, a camp around 100 km south of Marsa Alam, Egypt. Basically, all the tribes from all the Egyptian deserts gather in this camp for 3 days a year, sharing their culture, habits and knowledge.
I’ve heard that last edition (2009) was a bit of a mess, as there were way more visitors than expected and the volunteers were just a few – that’s why this time the organizers turned to CISV for support organizing and manage the event. So everything was so smooth and the not-so-many visitors were overall very pleased of the experience.
The festival is at its 3rd edition and not only the members of the tribes come to take part in the event, but now they are also eager to come back and meet their friends from across the desert they met in the past editions. It’s amazing if you think that back to the first edition, some of them didn’t even know about the existence of some other tribes!
The aim of the festival is to “responsibly promote Egypt” and fight the marginalization, stereotypes and prejudices about the Egyptian Bedouins from Egypt’s urban population.
As a member of CISV, the NGO organization in charge of volunteering and organizing the event, I was assigned to the “publicity – documentation” function – basically I had to deal with the press and photographers (super interesting acquaintances!) and wonder around the camp to take pictures, shoot videos and write about the events. I must say I was very lucky to have this opportunity. It all came by chance.
*flashback!* I had an interview for a job last month – some of you may remember about the writing job I was aiming to get – but they didn’t hire me. The person who gave me the interview told me I was not hired, but that she would keep me in mind for freelancing. And since I was planning to attend Characters of Egypt as a visitor, I told her I could write about that if she was interested. She answered she was going with the team and asked me to join her. She’s the person who gave me this amazing opportunity. So I must say… Thank you Rowan!
We arrived at the venue 2 days in advance to set up the camp – it was not easy at the beginning because all the volunteers spoke Arabic and I’m a rather shy person so I had some trouble in getting to communicate. But little by little I got to know some of them – we were about 90 volunteers! – and I can say I have new amazing friends now.
The Festival started with a parade – all the tribes marched, dancing and playing their music. It was around midday. The sun was high. But I had the creeps. Can you imagine?
And after that, it was a nonstop party. In the outdoor court the tribes kept dancing and playing music almost all the time. In the conference tent they told us about their laws and habits. But the best part came in the night…
There were tribes from all over Egypt: Ababda and El-Bashariya (the resident tribes), North Sinai, South Sinai, Nuba (Aswan), Siwa, Farafra. Their tents were outside our camp, and their celebrations went on until the late night. As volunteers we had to wake up at 6 am every day, but we couldn’t renounce spending the night with them… Some tribes kept loudly playing and dancing, some others were more quiet, and with the background music of a “oghud” (one of their typical instruments) you could sit, sip a Bedouin tea, and talk to them. It’s amazing how they enjoyed the conversation with a smile on their face. You could tell how proud they were to share their traditions… probably not every day someone shows some interest in them.
The tribal pride showed in every single thing they did – apart from the dancing and playing music there were competitions every day, such as camel races, high and long jump, “tug of war” (the game where 2 teams pull a rope until one of them crosses the line), and “sega” – something like chess but with stones.
Unfortunately, due to my poor (but not for long!) Arabic skills, I couldn’t really get all that was said in the tribal poetry and law sessions, but I had my 15 minutes (actually around 60!) of fame thanks to an astronomy lecture held by an Italian professor – they needed someone to translate from Italian to English and… there I redeemed myself! Then someone else translated from English to Arabic. And I’d like to know the final result :D
I was so flattered all the time. I felt and I still feel so lucky for having the chance of taking part in all this – and not as a tourist but as part of the staff! I think I can say I’m the first Italian who did it :-) …Italian pride coming out!
It was really sad when they all left. They put their camels on trucks and left for their far destinations. But I’ll tell you something even if it’s going to destroy some romanticism – some of them already added me on Facebook!
*note: For the full photo album click here!
More posts to come. Just a quick overview this time… but I have sooo much to tell. I’m now back in Cairo and still thinking of the desert!