The night bestowed its opaque veils on the mountains and, little by little, our camp disappeared into the dusk. Only a headlamp flashing here and there would indicate an occasional movement. We would gather around the fire waiting for the dinner to cook, relaxing on the rugs with a cup of tea, our feet finally resting free of the hiking boots. The stars would twinkle above – confident and strong before the moonlight would fade them away – and the milky way – the “fruity way” as the Bedouins call it – would illuminate the heavens’ boulevards. And although we were hungry and the aromas wafting out of the cauldron would make our mouths water, what we were really looking forward were the tales our guides were keen to share after the meal. For, there is a storyteller inside every Bedouin who, like his father and grandfather before him, continues to pass on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation by keeping the oral inheritance alive.
The Tale of the Magnificent Tracker
Bedouins are legendary trackers and, rumor has it, there are some who can recognize each of their goats or camels just by their imprints on the sand, or can understand if a footprint belongs to a man, a woman, even a woman who has already given birth to children. All of them, however, pale when compared to the Magnificent Tracker and his superior skills.
Once upon a time, there was a prominent sheikh who invited a Bedouin tracker to the wedding of his daughter. The tracker had to travel from afar so, when the night fell, he stopped at a rich person’s house and asked for shelter.
“How is it possible that you have been invited to the wedding, while I, a sheikh myself, have not been honored with such an invitation?”
“I am no ordinary tracker,” the traveler explained. “I have a unique ability to analyze signs and discover hidden information.”
“Give me an example,” replied the puzzled sheikh.
The tracker looked around and, after a few moments, he noted:
“Your horse is the son of a cow.”
In shock, the sheikh turned around to look at his beautiful horse that was standing a bit further away. It was a magnificent animal, pride to any horseman.
Quite upset with what he considered to be a false and ridiculous comment, he shouted: “This is impossible. This animal comes from generations of powerful horses; how could you even think there can be any connection to a cow!”
“Ask your people,” replied the tracker calmly. “You will discover that I am right.”
Indeed, the sheikh asked those who had been taking care of the horse and, to his surprise, he learnt that when the foal was born, its mother died, so they had to put it next to a cow to be fed.
“How did you know?” asked the sheikh in amazement. “Nobody knew about this, not even me. And no one could ever suspect. What is your secret?”
“There is no secret. As I told you, I am an excellent tracker, and I can interpret all the signs I see. When horses need to wave the flies away, they nod their heads up and down. Yours moved its head right and left, the way cows do. It was clear it had spent a lot of time with them.”
Impressed, the sheikh opened his door to the tracker and welcomed him to his home, asking his servants to bring bread and cheese so that they would dine.
After dinner, they both sat under the stars talking, until, at some moment, the sheikh asked the tracker: “Now, please tell me something about myself.”
“I would never do that,” the tracker resisted. “You are my host, we just had dinner together; you are my friend now.”
The sheikh insisted and, finally, the tracker said reluctantly.
“Although you think you are the son of a sheikh, in truth, you are the son of poor people.”
For a few moments, the sheikh remained speechless, unable even to grasp what the tracker had just told him. After he recovered from the shock, he asked for his father who, being an old man, had retired long ago from running the estate and was living in peace and silence.
“This man insists that I am the son of poor people,” shouted the sheikh, pointing towards the tracker. “Is there something I should know?”
The old man looked at the sheikh in sadness.
“My son, this is true. When we were young, my wife and I could not have children. A young couple who worked on our estate just had twins. So, there I was, a man of power and property but without an heir, and this couple had two babies whom they did not have the means to feed. We agreed to take one of the kids and raise him as our own, passing on our name and wealth to him. It was for the best, as everybody gained from this arrangement – you, most of all.”
Overwhelmed by the revelations, the sheikh turned to the tracker and, with a broken voice, he asked him to explain how did he uncover this secret that had been hidden for so many years.
“A true sheikh would have prepared a royal dinner to honor a guest of my status,” replied the tracker gently. “Instead, and despite your admiration for me, you offered me bread and cheese – a very humble meal. This shows that, regardless of your wealth and rank, you still think and act like a poor person. Because abundance does not depend on our surroundings; it always sprouts from within.”
The Tale of the Grateful Man
Once upon a time, there was a Bedouin man who lived in a tiny village and had a son named Youssef. When his son grew old enough, the father gave him five golden coins – all his savings after a lifetime of hard work – and urged him to travel to bigger villages and start his own business.
Youssef thanked his father and set off on his journey. After several days, he reached a small town where people were getting ready for the funeral of an old man. The young guy helped the villagers to dig the grave, but when the time came to bury the deceased, a big commotion arose. The old man had left debts and, unless they would be settled, the creditors refused to allow the body to be buried. Unfortunately, the old man did not have any children or family, and the fellow villagers were poor and could barely handle their own expenses. No one could afford to pay the amount, and the soul of the old man risked remaining restless forever. At that moment, Youssef decided to intervene and pay the debt himself, considering that he is young and strong, and can always earn more money, while the burial of the old man was not something that could be postponed. He met with the creditors, and he finally had to pay all his five golden coins to settle the outstanding amount.
Penniless, he went back to his father, having no clue as to how he could start again. The father collected all the food he had in the house and divided it into two, keeping half for himself, and giving the rest to his son for his new journey. He advised him though that, if he had to choose a business partner, he should make sure it would be a man who would wait for him at the dinner table and would never start eating without him.
Youssef set off again with his father’s blessing and his share of the food in his bag. He passed through several villages and numerous inns, and every time he would explore a potential business partnership, he would follow his father’s advice: to test the partners, he would pretend he had something to do just before dinner and, then, he would return to the table only to find everyone eating without waiting for him to come back.
Finally, he reached a village where he met an old man. They started talking, and he realized this was a man with a lot of knowledge and abilities, and he could become the perfect partner. He reran the dinner-test and was excited to see that, when he returned to the table, the old man was still waiting for him without having touched the food, so that they would eat together.
“I am too old and weak to do any physical work,” the man said, “however I can handle the negotiations and close the deals. Then, we split in half all the revenue, which, I think, is a fair deal.”
Youssef agreed, and they started a business that grew more and more every day, for they were both hard working and ethical, and collaborated in harmony.
Many months passed by, and they finally reached a land where a wealthy Sheikh had a daughter who was cursed: every time she would marry, the next morning her husband would be dead. Youssef saw the young woman from afar and fell in love with her beauty, so he decided to take the risk and marry her; the old man would hide behind a wall, checking on what was happening during that fateful first night to protect the new groom from any danger.
The sheikh agreed to the marriage and, at night, the couple receded to their room which was covered in carpets and was beautifully decorated with expensive furniture. The old man hid behind a column and kept his eyes open for the upcoming danger. Indeed, after a while, a huge snake crept from under the bed, slithering towards the young man, who, properly warned and prepared, turned and slain the serpent, setting his wife free from the curse. The next day, the sheikh’s men who arrived to dig a new grave, found, to their surprise, the couple healthy and happy.
A few weeks passed by and Youssef decided it was time to return to his father. The sheikh gave him fifty camels and the three of them – the couple and the old man – set off for their journey. While they were traveling, though, the young man took his partner aside and told him: “Now I am married, and I have enough property to stay with my father. I think it is time to stop our collaboration and say “goodbye.” Of course, based on our agreement, half of everything I own now is yours, so you can take the twenty-five camels and live prosperously for the rest of your days.” The old man shook his head: “Your property is not only the camels; you also have your beautiful and rich wife, I am entitled to half of her too!” Youssef looked in shock and disbelief: how could his trusted partner utter such horrible words? Then, the old man smiled: “Fear not, I was only toying with you. I am the soul of the man whose debts you paid so that I could be buried. To return the favor, I have been by your side ever since, helping you and protecting you. Remember: whatever you give to others, it always comes back to you, multiplied and in unexpected ways.” And, with these last words, he vanished, returning forever to the land of the dead.
The Tale of the Treasure Mountain
Next to the Ein Hudera Oasis, there stands a tall mountain with several heaps of sand on one side. Although it looks no different than the rest of the surrounding landscape, this is not an ordinary mount. In its depths, it hides a treasure that was seen only once and, ever since, people have been trying to regain access to it.
Many generations ago, there was a young Bedouin who, as he was walking in the region, fell into a crack and landed inside the mountain, in a cave that was full of golden coins, jewelry, and priceless artefacts. Somersaulting with joy, he picked a few coins – as many as he could carry – and exited on the other side of the mountain, in Wadi Rum, rushing to tell his story. When he returned though with his friends and the necessary bags to carry more of the treasure, he was unable to find the entrance to the chamber again. Since then, people keep digging to find the doorway and, at night, one can sometimes hear voices coming from the depths of the mountain: they are the spirits who guard the gold, scaring the treasure-hunters away.
The Tale of the Good Friend
Once upon a time, there were two young men, Mohamed and Ahmed, who were very close friends. Since the day they were born, they shared everything together – their games, discoveries, thoughts, and dreams – and were never seen apart except for when they returned each to his house to sleep.
A prolonged drought came, though, and the people in the village had to leave their homes for more hospitable lands. The two friends went separate ways, as Mohamed’s father moved his family close to the Nile where he successfully grew camels and goats, and Ahmed’s family moved to another part of the Sinai mountains. The boys kept thinking of each other, and whenever a traveler would come at their door, they would eagerly ask for news of each other.
Years passed by, the boys grew into two handsome men, and there came the time for Mohamed to get married. He naturally invited Ahmed to the wedding, and, for the first time, Ahmed traveled towards the Nile to reconnect with his friend. Just before Ahmed’s arrival, though, Mohamed’s father died and, consequently, the wedding should be postponed. However, Mohamed did not want his friend to feel guilty and unwelcomed, as if he had brought bad luck with him, so he decided not to tell him anything and, instead, conceal his sadness and proceed with the ceremony – even though it would be a mariage blanc. A few days later, as Ahmed was walking by the Nile, he noticed a beautiful girl. By the way she wore her hair, it was clear she was a maiden and, her charm and grace were such that he immediately fell in love with her. He confessed his feelings to his friend who, in the description, recognized his “wife-to-be”; still, he did not want to cause any sorrow to his dear friend who, he could see, was deeply in love, so he did not reveal his connection to the woman and, instead, urged him to proceed with marrying her. The new couple left to return to the mountains and only there did Ahmed learn the truth.
More years passed by, and Mohamed – who had never learnt while his father was alive how to take care of their animals properly – gradually lost all the family fortune and was reduced to poverty. In his misery, he believed he could find refuge and support at his friend’s house – who, in the meantime, had built a fortune himself – and, as such, he sold the little he had left and moved to the mountains. Ahmed indeed opened his arms to welcome his dear friend, however, when Mohamed asked him to share his herd with him, he remained silent for a moment, and then he said: “My animals do not belong to you, I do not see why I should give any of them to you.”
Devastated with despair and a bitter feeling of betrayal, Mohamed left and, for several days, he roamed the mountains, contemplating on his life, even considering whether he should continue living or not. One night, though, as he was sitting on a rock, he noticed two people coming his way, their faces entirely covered, carrying a big, heavy box. When they saw him, they approached him and asked him to keep an eye on the box, as they would go back to town and bring another one. Indeed, they returned with a second chest and, once again, they asked him to guard them both so that they could fetch a third one. When all three trunks would be there, they would split them in three. If they would not return, though, Mohamed could keep the two boxes. Hours and days passed, and the two men never appeared again. After losing hope that they may come back, Mohamed opened the boxes to discover a small treasure in each of them. Thanking his good fortune, he returned to the town where he bought new camels and goats and started a business. Also, one day, a young woman accompanied by an old lady, passed by his house and asked to stay with him to help with the household. He accepted gladly and, to be socially correct, he married the woman.
In time, Mohamed’s business grew and flourished. As a rich man once again, he decided to invite all the prominent men of the town, including his friend, to a feast. Once they all gathered, he started sharing his story: the years he spent by the Nile, the growth and decline of his family’s fortune, the death of his father, his white marriage, his return to the mountains, and finally, the betrayal of his friend.
“This is my so-called friend,” he said, pointing towards Ahmed.
The rest of the men moved uneasily and looked at Ahmed with disbelief.
Ahmed remained silent and a soft smile formed on his lips.
“Had I given you my animals when you asked me, you would have repeated the same mistakes as in the past because you would have neither knowledge nor appreciation for what you would possess. I was one of the “bandits” though, and, with this small trick, I gave you the money you needed to start your new business – where you succeeded based on your hard work and the necessary knowledge you gained on the way. I also sent my sister – whom you married – and my mother to help you in the house and embrace you with love. But you had to go through the disappointment and hardship to gain the wisdom you have today. This was my biggest gift to you, my dearest friend.”
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
To read more stories on my hiking adventure along the Sinai trail, check also the articles on Human Portraits Carved in Sand, an amateur’s botanical notebook, ghost stories under the sun, Bedouin culinary explorations, or the mysterious Nawamis.