Exploring the Red Land II: Shahira Fawzy - The Lady of the Eastern Desert

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 26 Jul 2023

Egyptian anthropologist, human rights activist and designer Shahira Fawzy lived a life with 'no margins' among the desert tribes of the Red Sea.

exploring the red land part two
Photo courtesy of shamel fawzy.


Visiting the Eastern Desert means paying tribute to one of the Red Land's most inspiring figures.

After visiting Wadi El-Gemal National Park in the second part of our series, Ahram Online shares the inspiring story of Shahira Fawzy (1954- 2022) an Egyptian woman who charted her path living among the region's Bushari and Ababda tribes.

"Help us, help you, help yourselves" was her motto in life, explains her brother Shamel Fawzy, who shared with us how his late sister left her mark on Egypt's remote southeast.

An artistic-minded young woman from Heliopolis in Cairo, Fawzy's life changed completely when she came to live with, study and help the isolated Ababda and Bushari tribes during academic field research in 1978.

The two tribes, the largest in the Eastern Desert, were then struggling with radical changes in their environment caused by the creation of Lake Nasser and the High Dam.

Her thesis at the American University in Cairo titled "No Margins: Lake Nasser and the Ecological and Socio-Economic Dislocations among Nomads of the Southeastern Desert" tells their story.

The Photos in the article are courtesy of Françoise SUMMERS.

Old Nubian shores

According to Fawzy in her thesis, the Ababdas and Busharis are sub-tribes of the Beja people of eastern Sudan, living in southeast Egypt between the Nile and the Red Sea.

The nomadic tribes would traditionally migrate between wells near the Red Sea coast and the "sweet sea" shores of old Nubia along the Nile, lush with vegetation and dotted with villages.

"Every July it was green and ready to be grazed until October, on account of the receding water of the old Aswan Dam, which was usually opened at the beginning of April every year, leaving three months of seed throwing and wild vegetation," writes Fawzy.

In July 1963, on arriving at the shorelines the nomads found no pasture on the sweet sea; Nubia had disappeared with its villages and markets. There was nothing but water and barren rocks."

Life after!

The nomads had no choice but to retreat to their wells in the Eastern Desert. This resulted in overcrowding and forced many to seek refuge among more settled kinsmen in Aswan, Daraw, Alaqi and Sudan.

Fawzy decided to help them, but first had to earn their trust; it was far from simple.

"By the second month of (the one-year) study, I was welcomed into most of the houses of those nomads. Being a woman made it possible for me to interview women, which might have been impossible to do if I were a man... 

On the other hand, women anthropologists, also suffer from the patriarchy ideology; I was never taken seriously by the men of the camp, who would answer my questions with a collective giggle. This situation lasted for quite a long time before I could convince them of the importance and usefulness of what I was trying to do," she explains.

" Help us, help you, help yourselves"

Fawzy did all she could to help the people of the Red Land make the best of their situation.

To sustain themselves, the Ababdas and Busharis needed more wells and small gardens dug along their migration routes; this Fawzy provided at her own expense.

At just 20 years old, she acquired funding from the Oxfam Relief Agency, as well as the European Union, with which she dug 25 large wells surrounded by small gardens.

"She built a small complex that included a sabil, a small school, a clinic and a mosque, between Wadi El-Alaqi and Lake Nasser," remembered Shamel Fawzy, her brother.

Brick by brick

Fawzy was not alone in her efforts to help the tribes of the Eastern Desert. Françoise Summers, a former colleague, reminisces about her experiences with Fawzy:

"I met Shahira in Manchester as we were in the same residence hall. I was finishing my studies in architecture and she was enrolled in the PhD program. The following summer she invited me to visit her in Egypt and my desert adventures started then!

It was amazing to see her surrounded both by the nomads and the few French consultants who were studying the area. She told them I was 'Fardos' as Françoise was a difficult name to use! She explained how these families were enduring hardships surviving in the deserts. They liked her very much and she was welcomed by all the families. She would listen to all the stories and explain to me their traditions and way of life.

Finally, she got funding to start a project in Wadi El-Alaqi where she initiated the vegetable garden project. We also built a mud brick building with traditional Nubian vaults to be a centre to help the community, " recounts Summers to Ahram Online.

A brilliant career

From this point onwards, Fawzy's career in social aid and human development skyrocketed.

Through her NGO named Capacity, Fawzy helped market Ababda and Bushari leather handicrafts in Cairo so the tribes could have additional revenue.

She worked on reviving El-Tulli and handmade looming in Upper Egypt, and through an ILO program she implemented the concept of micro-credit to women in Upper Egyptian governorates such as Menya and Assiut.

She also led a UNICEF project with the women of Sohag.

"In the nineties, in El-Hodaidah, Yemen, she helped implement a yearlong award-winning training program for doctors and nurses to upgrade local healthcare, " added her brother Shamel.

By the new millennium, Shahira Fawzy's official humanitarian post ended, but her passion for desert people continued to thrive. Sahara Art Gallery continued to exhibit the nomads' handicrafts, along with her own designs inspired by her favourite people.

Tribe members' faces are printed on dresses, and galabiyas are inspired by traditional Saharan designs.

Throughout her rich and inspiring life, Fawzy was awarded multiple international awards, was the main theme of several award-winning documentary films, and continues to be dearly respected and missed.

Like the name of her Master's degree, this woman lived a life with " No Margins".

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