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Volume 42, Number 2March/April 1991

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More Than Maps

Written and photographed by Dick Doughty

High in the peaks of the southern Sinai Peninsula, a half moon illuminates the quiet valley a few rough kilometers from Mount Sinai. With the family and friends of Mahmoud Mansour, his Bedouin guide, Joe Hobbs drinks tea around the open fire. Talk rambles, turns to Hobbs's travels and, later, to the shape of the earth.

"It is flat," says Saleh Awad, Mansour's aging uncle, "How could it be night here, yet day in America ?"

"No," counters the much younger Mansour. "Everyone knows it is round."

Hobbs, assistant professor of geography at the University of Missouri, sits quietly. Mansour asks his opinion on the issue.

"We have a theory," Hobbs says with measured diplomacy, "that it is round."

As one of a handful of Western experts on Egypt's deserts, Hobbs had come not to teach, but to listen. For seven months in 1989 he spoke with scores of Jabalia Bedouins throughout the ecologically unique High Sinai, gathering their advice for the Egyptian government on how to administer a 1000-square-kilometer (400-square-mile) national park in the Jabalia lands around Mount Sinai.

"The way that the Bedouins have been making a successful living off the desert for 6000 years should be an example to those who want to use the desert today," Hobbs says. Rapid development of tourism makes protection of fragile mountain ecosystems increasingly urgent, he explains: The Sinai hosts more than 450 species of plants, of which 27 are unique.

Among geographers, Hobbs's blend of fieldwork and advocacy makes him "both an anachronism and a man of the future," says Christopher Salter, chairman of the University of Missouri's department of geography. "As a man of the past, he fits right into that 19th-century mold of the geographer as explorer. He is contemporary because he combines expert knowledge with sensitivity and commitment to people, in a way that contributes to positive change." When Hobbs lectures on the Middle East at the university, he paints a complex picture. He talks about farming, about foods, about oil, Islam, the Palestine question, and about endangered wildlife and the diverse human cultures in the region.

"Geography isn't just maps," he emphasizes. "It's the relationships among politics, culture, and resources - and it's perspectives."

A native of Texas, Hobbs first stepped into the desert at age 10, when his family moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. "I was fired up," he recalls, "literally from the first instant."

One day not long after this move, he and a friend became lost while searching for desert lizards. A group of Bedouins gave them a place to sleep and, in the morning, accurate directions home. "They were so kind," he says, that their hospitality laid the foundation for Hobbs's enduring respect for desert people.

In 1986, after earning two degrees in fields concerning Egyptian wildlife and ecology, Hobbs turned his academic focus to people, living most of the year with the Ma'aza Bedouins of the mountains east of the Nile. His doctoral study, Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness, was published by the University of Texas at nearly the same time that Oxford University Press released The Birds of Egypt, a detailed, definitive volume that Hobbs co-authored. This year, a guidebook to the south Sinai is in the works. It will, Hobbs says, comprise more than maps.

Dick Doughty, formerly with Cairo Today, is working on his master's degree in journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

This article appeared on pages 8-10 of the March/April 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1991 images.