“I was born in the desert,” says 60-year-old sheikh Karam Allah Amer al-Abaddy, as he sits down to boil a pot of green coffee with cardamom and ginger over coal. The coffee, known as Gabbana, is something to gather around in Wadi Kherit, located west of the city of al-Qoseir along the Red Sea. The wadi takes its name from a shrub known to grow in the area.

The mood is somber as Karam Allah begins to speak of his tribe’s displacement from the Eastern Desert, where the Ababda had resided for hundreds of years, herding livestock. That changed in the 1970s, however, when the scarcity of rainfall and general changes in the climate forced them from the desert. Today, the tribe is facing displacement once again. However, this time, it is not the climate but state investment plans that have pushed the Ababda tribe into a constant quest for gold to survive.

“Exile is cruel. Our eyes are teary. God, bring us together so our purpose is achieved,” Karam Allah sings, while recalling inheriting the sheikhdom of the Ababda tribe in Wadi Kherit from his father. From the Ababda tribe he also inherited his dark skin, along with features carved by the mountains reflecting the terrain of the desert.

A disappeared era

The tribe has long lived an unsettled lifestyle, traveling from one valley to another in the desert before the difficulties of life drove them to seek stability. But, like water, this turned out to be a mirage. At times, they traveled due to the scarcity of rain, leaving behind the lives they inherited. At other times, the state displaces them, forcing them to leave farming behind. Karam Allah heard from his ancestors that the origin of the Ababda tribe extends back hundreds of years ago, when they migrated from the Arabian Peninsula and settled in Egypt’s Eastern Desert between the Nile Valley to the west and the Red Sea to the east and from Sudan to the south up to Aswan and even Sohag to the north. “In the old times, there was rain and prosperity,” the sheikh says.

Karam Allah used to herd livestock with his father in the vast desert until the gradual decline in rainfall left many of their livestock dead from drought. At this point, one of the tribe members and a member of Parliament intervened and reached an agreement with the state to build a town in the Wadi Kherit for the Ababda, distributing houses and pieces of land to help them settle. Indeed, in 1973 the state distributed 1,400 feddans (588 hectares) of land in the Wadi Kherit for use by 500 families from the tribe. Then, in the early 1980s, the town came under the authority of Aswan Governorate instead of the Red Sea governorate.

But the tribe was bigger than 500 families, and others remained homeless. “Life became unbearable,” Karam Allah says. Some of the tribe then moved from the mountains down to Aswan, Kom Ombo, and beyond Nasser Lake, but many remained in the mountains. Others settled informally in Wadi al-Allaqi and Wadi Kherit. Around the valley and along the Eastern Desert, the tribe lived for generations trading camel, herding livestock and gathering medicinal herbs, while also using their tracking skills to help the Armed Forces find outlaws.

Unstable livelihood means a brush with death

Young Suleiman is a 28-year-old Ababdady living in a town in northeastern Aswan with a large portion of the tribe. The tribe members there are illiterate because the state only recently began building schools, Suleiman says. The state has not provided them with a means of livelihood as it did with other residents in the south. The Ababda members who did not move to the city know nothing of government employment and do not have pensions or own any agricultural land, he adds.

In the absence of alternatives, Suleiman went to work mining gold in the Wadi al-Allaqi protectorate, one of the barren Eastern Desert valleys 180 kilometers south of Aswan. The valley’s area is 23,800 square kilometers and has been known for its richness since pharaohs sought its yellow metal to make jewelry for the living and the dead. As an informal gold miner, Suleiman endures severe working conditions. Some of his coworkers have died lost in the desert, some were buried in mine collapses, and some have died of thirst while waiting for supplies to reach them. During the weeks they spend in the desert, they are haunted by border guards and hyenas. “I could have been one of those who died or were arrested,” says Suleiman. Despite these difficulties, Suleiman sees no alternative until his turn comes to join the others in prisons or in graves. But he hopes to find enough gold to allow himself and his family to live a dignified life without the need for this work.

Not only the Ababda benefit from wildcat mining. Abou Mo’men migrated several years ago from his small village in the Delta to look for gold with the tribe. “God gave them gold because they are kind,” says Abou Mo’men, referencing a verse from the Quran. Mining for gold in this area is as old as its mountains, he notes. Sudanese groups like the Bashaira inherited mining skills from their ancestors in the kingdom of Kush, and then taught them to the Ababda tribe, with whom they share family bonds. The area is also very sensitive because it is a border area and has border guards and an intelligence presence due to widespread trafficking in humans, drugs and weapons, says Abou Mo’men. This is why working in this area is dangerous, he concludes. “In the gold business, those who pay more, get more,” explains Abou Mo’men.

The tools and methods the tribe uses for mining are very basic, yielding negligible quantities of gold compared to what Gulf companies with an abundance of expensive equipment can extract with less time and labor. Some of these companies get formal mining permits for other stones but then mine for gold in secret, says Abou Mo’men. Some of the Armed Forces personnel also mine for their own private interest with the help of the wildcat gold miners through an arrangement to split the extracted metal.

The state as a competitor

In pursuit of a dignified life, informal gold mining increased among the Ababda and the Bashaira around 2011, prompting the state to crack down on the practice by establishing the Shalateen companyfor mineral resources in 2014. At the time, the company offered the tribe members mining permits in exchange for expensive taxes on the extracted gold. The tax exceeds half of what is extracted and the company does not offer any protection in exchange, an arrangement the tribe members see as tax farming.

Most of the Ababda utterly reject cooperating with the state because they believe that “the riches of their land are theirs to have,” explains Abou Mo’men. These riches are obtained with extreme difficulty and in harsh working conditions in a cruel desert environment. Several of the tribe’s members have been buried in rubble when the structurally weak wells they dug collapsed, while others have ended up in prison, according to Abou Mo’men.

Members of the Ababda are not looking for wealth; rather, they yearn for a decent living, says Abou Mo’men. They seek peace, he adds, recounting the story of Hassan Abou Sadek, who mined for gold for a while and then bought agricultural land and livestock to return to his original profession as a livestock herder in the area spanning to Halayeb and Shalateen.

Urbanizing the desert without its people

State officials began a rumor that members of the Ababda won’t farm because they prefer herding livestock, says Abdallah al-A’abady, one of the people present at a gathering at Sheikh Karam Allah’s place. This was used as a pretext to not offer the tribe agricultural land. But the reality proves them wrong as all the feddans that were distributed to the members of the tribe in Wadi Kherit in the 1970s were cultivated with wheat and sugarcane, as recounted by Karam Allah and others. The farmers then bought the land from the state in installments and became full legal owners of their farmland. Karam Allah and his father Amer, the sheikh of the tribe in Wadi Kherit in the 1970s, each received a house and 2.5 feddans (a little more than one hectare). After the sheikh’s death, the inheritance among his descendants split the ownership of the land. Karam Allah Amer and his five siblings did not receive land at the time because they did not have identification cards. Sheikh Karam Allah says the state overlooked them while distributing land in the new Wadi al-Nuqra project despite its proximity to the Wadi Kherit region and the mountains they reside in.

The Wadi al-Nuqra project is an agricultural development project launched by former President Hosni Mubarak covering 65,000 feddans (27 300 hectares) across five villages. The state brought young graduates and elders without land into the project, while ignoring the Ababda tribe members who live around it. The project was designed to have the five villages distributed over several governorates in the region, while administratively the project was under the aegis of the Nasr al-Nuba center in Aswan. Agriculture engineer Nasser Sultan arrived at one of the project’s villages, al-Amal village, to receive his 5 feddans (2 hectares) in the year 2004. The village extends across 1,800 feddans (336 hectares), with 360 residents benefiting from the project. In the meantime, there are large-scale investors who have acquired more than 10,000 feddans (4 200 hectares) each, according to Sultan.

The Lawi land—historically a region in which the Ababda herded livestock and depended on rainwater before digging their own artificial lakes in 2004—is now part of another development project. The tribe was surprised by the project, and some of its members preferred to remain in the mountains surrounding the valley, herding livestock on the project’s land between growing seasons. At other times, they used the grass that grew in the drainage from the irrigation channels, or bought forage from farmers to feed cows. But other tribe members left the land to the new landowners and migrated to other remote areas.

The problems with the Lawi project arise when a herd of cows moves down to the land during the agricultural season, and as it is hard to control the herd, the crops get destroyed. This is when disputes between the landowners and the shepherds turn into a direct conflict. The state intervenes only when customary arbitration methods between the farmers and the Ababda fail, Sultan says. Sultan adds that in the chaos of the revolution in 2011, some Ababda members took over some of the state land near the land of the project beneficiaries. Then they sold the land to others. Tribe members believe that the land was theirs before the state established the project, and that they are more deserving of its wealth. The other side also has a case to present.

Temporary residence until further notice

The story of the Ababda is one episode in the government’s approach to displaced residents looking to benefit from their land, says Ahmed Zaazaa, an architect at 10 Tooba, applied research on the built environment. What happened to the Ababda also happened to the former residents of Heliopolis in Cairo, and of Sharm el-Sheikh. In fact, most of the previous residents at the outskirts of cities have been displaced, the architect says. The same thing is happening now, with slightly different details, to the longtime residents of the Maspero triangle, Nazlet el-Semman and al-Warraq.

Zaazaa asserts that historical ownership of land should be a right. It does not make sense for families who have lived somewhere for generations to have no right to continue living in their home, he says. So when the state decides to plan the reconstruction of an area, it must involve residents in the planning process.

There are different types of extralegal ownership, such as those practiced by Nubian villages and by Arab tribes in the Sinai, says Yehia Shawkat, an architecture researcher at 10 Tooba. These forms of ownership allow the residents sovereignty over the land and the freedom to have it even if they do not have legal documents for them. For example, nobody can buy any land in the Nubian villages without partnering with the Nubian owners. But to reach this type of customary ownership requires some level of organization similar to the Nubian tribes who advocate and negotiate their rights with the state and are continuously exerting pressure through media and parliamentary councils.

Article 78 of the Constitution stipulates that “the state guarantees citizens the right to decent, safe and healthy housing, in a way that preserves human dignity and achieves social justice. The state shall draft a national housing plan that upholds environmental particularity, and guarantees the contribution of personal and collaborative initiatives in its implementation. The state shall also regulate the use of state lands and provide them with basic facilities, as part of a comprehensive urban planning framework for cities and villages and a population distribution strategy. This must be done in a way that serves the public interest, improves the quality of life for citizens and preserves the rights of future generations.”

But the reality is entirely different. All the governorate of Aswan does is occasionally coordinate with the Armed Forces in facilitating the work of medical convoys, food supplies and civil services to register citizens for identification cards, as per information shared by Mohamed Hassan, the head of communications for the governorate. This is also particularly true in Wadi al-Allaqi, a border area plagued with poverty that is considered a hub for the Ababda, who should have the same, full rights as any other citizen in Aswan, as stated by Hassan himself.

Translated by Waad Ahmed

This dossier was produced as part of the activities of the Independent Media Network on the Arab World. This regional cooperation brings together Al-Jumhuriya, Assafir Al-Arabi, BabelMed, Mada Masr, Maghreb Émergent, Mashallah News, Nawaat, 7iber and Orient XXI.