Rehab Eldalil retraces her Bedouin roots – with help from a community in South Sinai

Keepers Of The Land. All images © Rehab Eldalil

Collaborating with indigenous tribes in Egypt, the photographer uses local stories, poetry, embroidery and nature guides to reconcile her own ancestry

For many years, Rehab Eldalil felt like something was missing in her life – but she could not say exactly what. Growing up, the documentary photographer remembers feeling in limbo and having no grasp of her ancestry and this unexplained spiritual connection with Sinai and its Bedouin community. In her first book, The Longing Of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken, she articulates a journey of self-discovery through a multidisciplinary approach that helped her reconnect to her past and reimagine her artistic future.

“I started this project in 2009 to trace my heritage,” Eldalil tells me from her home in Cairo. “I was sitting with a Bedouin elder who was curious about my last name – which translates to the guide – and I discovered I had Bedouin ancestors, most likely part of the Jebeleya tribe, who’ve been inhabiting the St Catherine region in South Sinai for more than 1400 years. I was re-rooting myself without even knowing. The project opened up a wider question about belonging, and over time I realised this was not just my storyit was the community’s story, and I had to involve them in the work.”

Eldalil describes the multi-sensory book – which includes images, soundscapes, diaristic texts, embroidery, poetry and a field guide of over 40 species of native plants and herbs detailing their medicinal potential – as an “alternative archive of modern Bedouin life”. The book succeeds by dismantling the hierarchy of individual authorship, insisting upon nuance, consent and collaboration.

The creative process began with conversations, with participants discussing what belonging means to them and how it shapes their lives. Every individual made the active decision to take part – men contributed poetry, the elders shared stories and wrote the field guide, and women hand-embroidered over Eldalil’s portraits, choosing what to reveal and conceal.

Ten years in the making, the project offers a vivid representation of photography’s potential to be a multifaceted and co-created exercise. But the work also embodies Eldalil making peace with the fact that she will always be a stranger in the community.

“The project opened up a wider question about belonging, and over time I realised this was not just my storyit was the community’s story”

“When I discovered the truth about my ancestry, I felt I had found home,” Eldalil says. “Yet it’s bittersweet, as no matter how much I integrate and understand my personal history, I still felt like a stranger somehow. Over the years, I’ve come to respect those feelings and realise that this story is not just about the Bedouin community. It’s about all of us who have been disconnected and are moving around the world trying to discover where they belong.” 

Tragically, the book has also taken on historical significance in the last year as the Egyptian government redevelops parts of Sinai, including Saint Catherine. “The ‘new nation’ project plans to create cities across the country while building a new capital,” explains Eldalil. “Houses have been demolished, valleys have been paved, and concrete has quickly crept into the nature reserve, completely altering the landscape. I realised that this book isn’t just a contemporary archive; it is also a document about the natural and cultural heritage of the region, which is about to change completely.”

Rehab Eldalil, The Longing Of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken, is out now (FotoEvidence, Trobades and Premis Mediterranis Albert Camus)

Gem Fletcher

Gem Fletcher is a freelance writer who contributes to publications such as Aperture, Foam, The Guardian, Creative Review, It’s Nice That and An0ther. She is the host of The Messy Truth podcast - a series of candid conversations that unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today. You can follow her on Instagram @gemfletcher