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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Mount Sinai

In this excerpt from his new book The Bedouin of Mount Sinai: An Anthropological Study of their Political Economy, published June 2013, Emmanuel Marx reflects on how a short visit led to a decade-long study of the Bedouin people of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.



Soon after the Israeli forces occupied Sinai in 1967 the peninsula was inundated with many kinds of tourists and journalists. I avidly listened to their glowing accounts of the Bedouin of Sinai. Yet for several years I hesitated to visit Sinai. I wavered between fear and hope that I would be tempted to study the Bedouin, and again experience the intellectual and emotional tumult of my earlier study of the Negev Bedouin.


That first study had engaged my undivided attention for five exciting and memorable years. Between 1960 and 1963 I did 18 months of field work in the Negev, wrote a Ph.D. thesis and a monograph (Marx 1967). The effort involved in living with and understanding the Bedouin had been considerable, and even at the time I knew that the experience had transformed my sociological thinking and would also deeply affect my life course.


On completing the study of the Negev Bedouin I decided to move in an entirely new direction, in order to add a second string to my professional fiddle. My vague desires rapidly took a clear shape when Max Gluckman from the University of Manchester invited me to join the Bernstein Israel Research Project, a comprehensive research project on the adaptation of Jewish immigrants to a new life. From 1964 to 1966 I lived in Maalot, a new town in Galilee. Most of the townspeople, as well as the immigrants who were still arriving in large numbers, were of Moroccan origin. A handful of officials catered to basic needs of the new arrivals, such as housing, social welfare, health and education. There was hardly any local employment, so that the townspeople continued to depend on the assistance provided by the State. While there were many large households with growing needs, conditions in the town did not improve over time. The townspeople became so inured to subsisting for years on a combination of relief work, national insurance and social welfare benefits, that they considered the monthly welfare checks as equivalent to regular wages … They provided an extreme instance of the Welfare State in action, showing how it controls and humiliates the people it presumes to help.


I found some of the social consequences of this situation quite surprising. Thus, kinship ties, even those between members of the same household, were tenuous to the point where they were no longer prepared to help one another when in need. Parents often refused to support their grownup children and siblings would not aid one another financially. Yet, if we may rely on the anthropological literature, Moroccan Jews were distinguished by strong family links. The town’s schools too were not very effective. While some of the teachers were excellent, the pupils expected little from adult life and their scholarly achievements were quite low. It was strange to hear many townspeople complain bitterly about their utter dependence on bureaucrats and their poor life chances in the town. Yet they rarely moved away, even though many of them had kin and friends in more prosperous places. Finally, the relations between some of the officials and their clients were punctuated with minor violent incidents, which, so I thought, generally ended inconclusively.


In short, the townspeople were for me an ‘exotic’ society, quite distinct from the Negev Bedouin, whose actions had always made perfectly good sense to me. I could not fathom their behavior, and I found their often-heated exchanges with officials especially perplexing. Only many months after leaving the field I began to understand the complex structure of these violent encounters and, in the end, I concentrated my efforts on analyzing them (Marx 2004).

I mentioned above that when Israel occupied Sinai in 1967, I did not rush in to study the local Bedouin, as I feared to be drawn into a long-term commitment … For good measure, I also refrained from joining any of the popular tours of Sinai. Instead, in 1968 I deliberately became involved in what was to become a long-term study of Palestine refugee camps under the Israeli occupation (Ben-Porath and Marx 1971). I followed the rapid integration of the camp dwellers into the larger economy, observed how the refugee camps evolved into regular urban quarters, how the refugees gradually transformed their simple shelters into decent dwellings and consolidated their ownership of the homes. Yet the flow of United Nations aid continued unabated. But I also learned that these developments did not affect the refugees’ resolve to return to their ancestral homes, and became convinced that as long as the refugees and their descendants were not compensated for their sufferings this moral issue would stay with us.


My self-imposed cordon sanitaire worked well, until the day in 1972 when Mr. Moshe Sela, an official of the Israeli Civil Administration in South Sinai, came to see me. He offered to arrange a short visit to the region … He knew intuitively that there was nothing that I wanted more than to meet the Sinai Bedouin. No wonder I walked with open eyes into the honey-trap. The short visit resulted in an extended period of fieldwork in South Sinai, during which Moshe Sela became a trusted friend, taskmaster and interlocutor.


Between 1972 and 1982 I spent altogether twelve months in the field. It was a rather turbulent decade that comprised on the one hand, rapid and uncontrolled Israeli colonization, and on the other – a period of relative economic prosperity for the Bedouin, punctuated by several serious political and economic crises, including the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. At an early stage I realized that the study should focus on the political economy of the Bedouin of Mount Sinai … Only in the mid-1990s I realized that the economy was more complex and variable than I had thought, and that drug smuggling, pastoralism, horticulture and trade rivaled labor migration in importance. From then on all my thoughts concentrated on examining these aspects of the economy.



Emanuel Marx is Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. He has published books and articles on the Bedouin of the Negev (Israel) and South Sinai (Egypt) and edited, with Sir Jack Goody, the work of Emrys Peters on the Bedouin of Cyrenaica (Libya).