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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Ababda Tribe: Nomads Between Egypt and Sudan

Ababda Tribe
A nomad walking in the desert. Photo by Hermes Images / AGF / Photononstop via AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

Tribes in Egypt have a strategic and influential role locally, regionally and internationally. This role extends to political, security and economic decisions, mainly because the tribes live on strategically important lands. The Ababda tribe is no exception, especially since they live in the border region of Egypt and Sudan. Like other tribes living on the international borders between two countries, this has placed them in challenging and conflicting situations. During wars and border disputes, these tribes can function as Egypt’s first line of defence or may constitute a weakness.

The Ababda between Egypt and Sudan

The Ababda are one of the most important and oldest tribes in Egypt. In a study published by the Egyptian Institute for Studies, the Sheikh of the Ababda tribe, Abdelmajeed Othman, claims the tribe descends from the prominent ‘Sahabi’ Abdullah bin al-Zubayr. Four main tribes descend from the Ababda, each comprising hundreds of smaller tribes.

The tribe’s origins are in the Egyptian part of the Eastern Desert. They are, however, no longer limited to living in deserts, valleys and mountains but have started inhabiting cities.

Since the Ababda live at the borders between Egypt and Sudan, they have linked both countries through centuries-old customs and traditions. The Ababda are critical to the Egyptian and Sudanese personalities, according to Marriage and Environment in the Shalateen by Gehan Hassan Mostafa. The tribe was an essential factor in the rapprochement of the Egyptian and Sudanese peoples as they created a shared dialogue between the two sides.

Despite the perception that the Ababda are bedouins, a study by the Egyptian Institute for Studies indicates that many are urban dwellers. While they adhere to the customs and traditions they inherited from their ancestors, this has not prevented them from pursuing science and knowledge or relying on modern technology.

According to Sheikh Othman, the Ababda number at least 10 million. They are judges, legal counsels, doctors, engineers, commanders in the army and members of parliament.

Border Protectors

The demographic distribution of tribes in Egypt shows how the Ababda tribe spread in the southern part of the Eastern Desert, from Ras Ghareb to Halayeb and Shalatin, increasing in numbers towards the south.

The tribe’s habitat is from Aswan to the Red Sea governorates and can be traced to the northeast of Sudan. The Ababda played a prominent role in defending Egypt’s southern and Sudan’s northern borders and have been masters of the desert routes since the Roman era. Recently, however, according to Noon Post, they are “on the list of marginalised groups and are disregarded by the Egyptian and Sudanese government alike.”

Othman says: “Since the dawn of history, the Ababda and Bashari tribes have been the protectors of Egypt’s southern border and are called desert warriors. They have been defending their homeland in all its wars. The Ababda and Bashari tribes comprised the early days of the Border Guard Corps because we know the desert very well and are natural trackers, which makes us experts in this field.”

The History of the Sons of the Jinn

The Ababda call themselves ‘Abnaa’ Al-Jinn’ or Sons of the Jinn, a name that led the Romans to weave the tribe into their ancient myths, as they imagined the Ababda as giants with distorted faces riding enormous mythical beasts. According to writer Mohammed Karim, the Ababda were at constant war with the Romans, by whom they were eventually defeated. In the Middle Ages, they acted as expert guides in the deserts they knew perfectly. The tribespeople accompanied the Hajj convoys from the Nile delta to the Aydhab Port on the Red Sea coast. Aydhab was the most important port for trade between the Nile delta, Yemen, India and the Mediterranean Sea.

In the early 19th century, Muhammad Ali Pasha invaded the Ababda’s territory. The Ababda then played a key role in annexing Sudan’s territories to Egypt. The Ababda’s role in guiding armies across desert routes where were it not for the tribe’s assistance, they would have been decimated is noteworthy.

Long History of Marginalisation

For decades, the Ababda have suffered institutionalised marginalisation and have been branded a source of unrest in border areas due to smuggling. The Border Guard Corps often confiscated their livestock within Egyptian borders for grazing in a militarily prohibited area and subsequently sold the animals at public auctions. The Ababda also detailed incidents where security forces opened fire on them while on their land. At the same time, the Egyptian regime refuses to provide the Ababda with the modern national ID cards they provide to all other Egyptians. Supposedly due to the difficulty of providing government services in remote areas adjacent to Sudan’s borders. As a result, the Ababda generally carry the old-fashioned paper IDs. Because of the tribal way of life, some do not even possess these, denoting little interest in obtaining official state documents.

The Ababda Society

In his book In The Land of The Ababda, Dr Samir Khawasik devotes a chapter to the Ababda community. Khawasik describes the tribes people’s physique as slim, resulting firstly from their environment, which requires a high degree of physical activity throughout the day to graze animals and search for stray camels, sheep and firewood, and secondly from the scarcity of drinking water and the lack of food.

The Ababda have a unique mail delivery system; the herders themselves. Each herder is responsible for communicating messages from one family to another, forwarding the messages orally.

The Ababda love freedom and praise Allah for not creating them in the city, as they feel sorry for city folk. According to Khawasik, Ababdi men share in the work of women, and women take on the men’s responsibilities when they travel. Women can herd camels, collect firewood, sew clothes and spin the wool of sheep and camels.

Weddings and Parties

Ababda weddings take place during a full moon, on the 13th, 14th and 15th of the Hijri month and last seven or eight nights. According to Sqawoa, wedding nights begin with the so-called ‘shaela.’ Each tribe presents gifts at the wedding.

The Ababda tribe is known for the ‘Shindatu’ art of embroidering red silk tightened on long palm leaves. In marriage ceremonies, red silk is embroidered with shells, beads and ostrich feathers to be presented to the bride.

Children participate in parties with songs and poetry and dance the ‘Tarbala’ — a dance with a sword and ‘Darka’ shield. Singers sing along with Tambura tunes.

Nature

The Ababda do not harm nature, exemplified in one of their famous sayings: “cut down a man and don’t cut down a tree.” The tribe’s elders punish those who infringe on nature.

The tribespeople have adapted to their environment for their sustenance. Qaburi Bread is a testament to this adaptation. Making this bread does not require ovens, gas or electricity, nor does it need pots. The dough is made of flour, water and salt and does not require fermentation. Wood is burned into embers while heating the sand below. As the embers are set aside, tribespeople dig a hole in the hot sand, similar to the chamber of an oven. They then place the dough in the hole and cover it with hot sand before placing the embers back on top. After half an hour, they remove the bread from the hole and clean the sand and ember off. The name Qaburi, derived from the Arabic word for grave, refers to the dough’s placement in the hole: similar to a small grave.

As such, Qaburi bread is a small demonstration of the Ababda’s adaptation to the desert that has moulded their lives and shaped their identity, habits and traditions.