The Beja

bejaThe Beja are an ethnic group that in ancient times occupied the area between the Nile and the Red Sea, from as far north as modern-day Aswan, to Atbara in Sudan. They are the modern-day descendants of the Pharaoes, making them one of oldest ongoing civilizations in the world. Now they mostly live along the Red Sea coast, from South-Eastern Egypt to Eritrea.

Within the Beja are a multitude of clans of varying names but which share language and customs. Ahmed Said comes from the Hadandawa, the largest of these clans. They are traditionally nomadic, expert camel riders, and fierce warriors; they defended their land against Turkish and British colonization through centuries of bloody struggle. Rudyard Kipling, after hearing of how they defeated the British army’s famous square formation, wrote a poem about the Beja called “Fuzzy-Wuzzy.” This event is also portrayed in the film "The Four Feathers."

Although having converted to Christianity and later to Islam, the Beja often forgo religious conventions in favor of traditional practices. Beja poetry, a highly developed oral tradition passed down over countless generations, is a prized element of their culture, often presented in combination with two other Beja essentials: coffee, called jabana, and the masankop, the traditional lyre featured on the Otaak Band album "Bejawiya."

Like their cousins in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, the Beja often wear their hair in a big afro with long dreadlocks underneath. They make superb leather and carved wooden items, and a variety of natural oils for the skin and hair. They carry an array of weapons, including swords, daggers, spears, staffs, and shields, and are experts with the boomerang, called bilbil, in both fighting and hunting. Many of the typical men's dances mimic fighting, with swords and sticks, and feature high jumping and difficult movements, showing the dancer's athletic skills. Women's dances are elegant and restrained, some imitating the movements of particular birds, and showing the women's modest poise.




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