It was once so busy here, it was impossible for tribesmen to find a place to stay. Photo: Bethan Staton
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"Sinai is safe": the Bedouin tribespeople fighting a devastating tourism decline in the Egyptian peninsula

Tourists, central to the livelihood of tribesmen in the Sinai desert, have stopped travelling to the area due to unrest and terror.

Several miles from the nearest town, in the heart of south Sinai, a group of tourists are resting around a fire. Around their garden campsite, the distorted, terracotta mountains are silent. These travellers count among a tiny handful to have visited this part of the Egyptian peninsula in recent years.

“Not long ago if you came here, you wouldn't be able to find a place to stay,” local guide Naser Mansour says, rolling a cigarette in the red light. “All the gardens were full – I’d sometimes have to walk two hours in the wadi with my camels to find a place to sleep.”

From the Jabaliyya tribe and the mountain hub town of St Katherine, Mansour is one of many south Sinai Bedouin who have built a livelihood on tourism, guiding hundreds of hikers a year through the area’s rugged mountains.

Lately, however, the tourists haven’t been coming. After years of unrest and a rash of deadly terror attacks in the north and at the border with Israel, most foreign governments now warn against non-essential travel to all of the Sinai except Sharm-el-Sheikh, and tourists are taking heed.

“When there were a lot of tourists in the mountain, I thought it would be like that forever,” Mansour continues. “Back then, it was me and four others working all the time on the mountain. Now it's just me.”

Since Egypt's 2011 revolution, locals estimate, the number of tourists visiting the area around St Katherine has dropped from up to 5,000 to a few hundred annually. The decline has been economically devastating: many locals have sold their camels or shifted focus to small-scale agriculture; others have migrated to Cairo.

But some are fighting the decline. This spring, Mansour and a collective of local guides and activists organised Sinai is Safe – a weekend of hiking in the mountains around St Katherine. Nearly 70 people travelled to the event, hoping to challenge the perception of the Sinai as a danger zone.

“The narrative about the Sinai is framed by journalism and government travel advice. And unfortunately that takes away that ability of the local people to represent their own land,” Ben Hoffler, an organiser based in Sinai for six years, says. “With Sinai is Safe, we’re introducing Bedouin voices into this debate, because they know the Sinai better than anybody.”

Hoffler has chartered miles of trails in the south Sinai mountains which, while intimately understood by locals are largely unknown to outsiders. It’s the tight relationship between tribe and territory, he says, that guarantees relative security in the area: the Bedouin know every rock of the desert and don’t tolerate strangers in the areas they control.

“We have seven tribes around the Sinai,” Mansour says. “Every tribe protects one place, where he knows every wadi and every individual. If I'm walking in the mountain and I see anyone I don't know, I talk with him. He's not allowed in this place if I don't know who he is.”

Musallam Faraj, another organiser, says the attacks taking place in north Sinai are naturally a concern, but believes a strong governmental response and tribal protection will prevent troubles spreading to the south. “We’re working with tourism, so we feel responsible for everyone that comes to this area, and we try our best to protect them,” he says.

Among those hikers that travel to St Katherine, many say actually visiting was all that was needed to transform Sinai from a place of fear to one of peace. Awe for the untouched green wadis, moonlike caves, and warm mountains that peak jaggedly toward the horizon mean most pledge to return.

“For people that don’t know it's difficult to understand. They see this big unknown mountain, and think it carries lots of bad people. But that’s not right. It’s just the people from here,” Mansour, gesturing toward the hikers and guides eating and playing music around the fire, says. “Look what's happening on the mountain; fun, laughing, friends. It's different to what the people think.”

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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