Bedouin music from the Bahariya Oasis

The population of Egypt is concentrated in the cities of the Nile Delta and Valley. Less than a tenth of the territory of Egypt, which covers approximately 1 million square kilometres, is populated. The rest is a vast desert, uninhabited save for a few oases. Among these, the Fayoum Oasis has its place in the spotlight thanks to the many prestigious portraits of the Ptolemaic era that were discovered there. Further west and less accessible, there is a string of as yet little-known oases that curve north to south, plunging into the Western Desert, also known as the Libyan Desert. These are Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga. As recently as the eighties, it took four or five days in a truck or a jeep to reach Bahariya by track from Fayoum. Since then, a tarmac road has been constructed to link the oases, and the journey now takes only five hours. As far as the Bahariya Oasis this road follows the rail tracks that carry iron ore from the Managum deposit to the great steelworks of Helwan, near Cairo.

In the sixties, the Egyptian government thought up a vast industrial and agricultural development project for the oasis region, the so-called New Valley project. The reserves of fossil water were overestimated, or proved to be inaccessible, the project was abandoned and with it the policy of settling the oases with unlanded peasants from the Nile Valley and Delta. Other more recent attempts to develop the oases, such as agricultural diversification, and rice growing in Bahariya, have also proved to be unachievable, mainly because the ground water is drying up abnormally quickly. Traditionally and since ancient times, the economy of the Western Desert oases rests mainly on the cultivation of date palms. Truly a nourishing tree, the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) reigns absolute. It is the economic lung of the region, giving life rhythm and shaping the landscape.

Since the recent opening of the oasis road to foreigners, these magnificent green palm groves melting into the immense expanses of desert have inevitably attracted the interest of the tourism industry. Moreover, archaeological discoveries are a reminder that the history of the oases is closely linked to that of the Nile Valley in Ancient Egyptian times, and this incites an economic redeployment, based on the model that has developed along the great river. Finally, the natural splendours of the desert such as the "black desert" or the incredible "white desert", with its masses of gigantic calcareous concretions resembling a sea of icebergs, also constitute a major asset for touristic development of the region. The inhabitants of the oases, who lived in almost total isolation and who had, without too much difficulty, integrated the settlements involved in the New Valley project – and, close on their heels, certain advances likened to "progress" – are today confronted with upheaval on a more cultural level, this time induced by the outside, western, world. Even though the numbers of visitors will probably remain marginal compared to those experienced in the Nile Valley, it is to be feared that rapid acculturation and resistance movements will result.

Paradoxically, the development of these fragile microcosms can also encourage and revive the protection of natural and cultural patrimonies.

The term "Bedouin" comes from the Arab badawi (badu in the plural), which designates the Arabs living in the desert, generally nomad cattle breeders. In Egypt, in the oases, these populations have long since been settled. Nevertheless, belonging to the Bedouin community distinguishes people from those who assert their Nile Delta or Valley identity. In this sense, "Bedouin" popular culture and tradition is naturally distinguished from city culture, but also from that of the Nile Valley, in this case the so-called Nubian, even though there are reciprocal rhythmical and instrumental influences. In fact, these oasis populations, especially those from Bahariya, are close to the Libyan Bedouins. Indeed, it is only since the end of the sixties that they are administratively attached to the governorate of Gizeh. Previously they depended on that of Marsa Ratrouah ("the far off page"), on the border with Libya. The Bedouin traditions of the oases have not been studied in depth because of the difficulty and above all, until recently, the prohibition of access, to the Western Desert.

As for the music of the nomadic Bedouins of the Near East or the Arabian Peninsula, the Bedouin music of Bahariya carries on the tradition of the poet (shaer) who sings his own poems and musical phrases, generally short and repetitive, with variations. The instrumental or sung repertory also bears similarities, such as the solo singing and the importance accorded to poetry, or the alternated singing (soloist and group) linked to collective dancing and the events of social life.

Among the most frequently played instruments in the oases and by the Western Desert Group (Ferqet Sahara Garbieh), are the simsimiyya, a pentatonic lyre with five strings stretched over a round resonance box, very common in Upper Egypt (1); the various sorts of double clarinets, arghûl, which are no less famous, with a melodic pipe and a drone pipe; the small Bedouin double flute, also called satawiyya (with five or six holes), and the inevitable percussion instruments or drums, tabla and dof.

1. Further south, beyond Egypt and Nubia, there is a rectangular version of this lyre, called basenkob. It is played by the Beja of the Hamashkoreib, in the Sudan. To be discovered in the same collection: Basbar- Songs of resistance and other songs of the Beja people, by Arka Mohammed Sabir & Sidi Doshka. Colophon Records, Col CD 112.

CD tracks

  1. Instrumental (orma)
    There are three types of arghûl, with different tonalities according to the size of the pipes. The biggest, the arghûl al kebir, which can be over two metres long, has almost disappeared today. Nevertheless, the musicians themselves still define three types of arghûl according to size: the big double clarinets (a long drone and a shorter pipe with five holes) are called arghûl baladi, literally,rustic arghûl, the medium-sized ones are called orma (two pipes of the same length) and the small double flutes are called satawiyya or magruna.

  2. Instrumental (magruna)

  3. Mawwâl (simsimiyya)
    This is the name given to the improvised introductions of a song. The mawwâl are not usually accompanied by percussion.
    Four mawwâl evoking the solitude of being in love precede this song. Several poetic plays on words maintain the ambiguity of the narrative, one word having several meanings: "wind" and "love", "empty" and "my uncle", etc.
    Two extracts, respectively from the first and the last mawwâl:
    (...) "I wish to rest against the little wall, in the shade of the great palm trees, and savour their fruit. Such happiness!"(...)
    "Love (the wind?) knocked on my door (...) I went outside and found love (the wind?) and the door... two liars! And sadness returned."

  4. Instrumental (arghûl baladi)
    This instrumental piece is usually danced to. Thirty years ago, the women still participated in these dances. Today, it would be inconceivable and unseemly for a woman to dance in public.

  5. Alam (simsimyya)
    The alam  are the very first words recited in a song, before even the mawwâl are begun. In this love song, the beauty of a loved woman is compared to the shine of the evening star. In turn, reference is made to:  the dusk (negmed al fagh), the beauty of her eyes, etc. "My love is far away, but tell her to wait for me", and then: "I love her and what happens to me is of no importance." 

  6. Instrumental (arghûl baladi)

  7. Instrumental (satawiyya)
    These recordings were made in August 2003 in the Bahariya oasis, near the village of Bawati.