In the summer of 2009, I devoted two weeks to the Sinai Desert. I loved my initial impressions of Egypt. Serenity and beauty abound. Egypt beams with radiant energy, from the ever-shining sun, and all those damn pyramids. I experienced Egypt, but not an extensive tour. My focus: the Sinai Peninsula, far from the hustle and bustle of Cairo or Alexandria, and just as distant from the towering, iconic pyramids of the Nile Valley.
Jerusalem to Sinai
This expedition onto Egyptian soil began at the border crossing in Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel. The drive from Jerusalem to Eilat meandered four hours through vast desert and desiccated mountains, past Jericho, the Dead Sea, and Negev Desert. Winding down the Judean hills east of Jerusalem, angling toward the Dead Sea, we bypassed Bedouin camps and improvised huts, with lean goats and camels grazing aside. Skirting the western rim of the Dead Sea, we sidestepped Ein Gedi, a lush oasis in the desert, and Masada, where in 72 C.E., 960 Jewish men, women, and children found refuge in a hilltop fortress built a century earlier by King Herod. Roman troops surrounded the families for nearly two years before the desperate Jews committed suicide en masse.
My nephew’s mother, Miri, a Yemenite Jew, pointed to theoretical locations of Sodom and Gomorrah. Her partner, Claude, from the coast of Monaco, traced the dried seabed now dividing the Dead Sea. Through the Negev Desert we navigated, an unforgiving terrain. Ultimately, we reached Eilat, at the northeast shore of the Red Sea, where the Gulf of Aqaba meets the nexus of Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Saudi Arabian borders. This basin has sustained a sizeable population since at least 8000 B.C. The hills outside are the likely locale of Moses’ sojourn in the desert. Aqaba, Jordan sits four miles east. The Saudi Arabian desert arises twenty miles south of Aqaba. Taba, Egypt, borders Eilat to the south.
We adjourned a mile short of the Egyptian border, where Claude worked as an instructor at a scuba diving camp. My nephew and I swam in the placid waters, basking in the afternoon sun. Over a Maccabee beer, I discussed Sinai history with a Russian diving guide and his girlfriend. We reconvened, two years later, at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem. That evening, Claude dropped me at the border, and I entered the legendary land of Egypt, the Sinai Desert.
The Sinai Peninsula
Bedouin tribes, distinct from mainland Egyptians, remain a majority on the Sinai Peninsula. These nomadic desert dwellers first appeared from the 14th through 17th Centuries C.E., from Arabian sands. Christian hermits too, once retreated to these desolate mountains. Today, many of the shop and innkeepers of the Sinai coast hail from mainland Egypt. The entirety of Sinai resonates with Egyptian mythology. Isis, Osiris, and Horus – the Holy Trinity – are essential to the lore that emanates. And papyrus lives on.
Historically, the Sinai belonged to Egypt. Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans conquered. Egypt regained possession in 1906. From June 1967, after the Six-Day-War, until the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the Sinai became a territory of Israel. Egypt acquired dominion in stages, starting in ‘79. In ‘82, Israel departed Sinai. The two have preserved an open border since ’79. Troubles along this segment of the border cause intermittent closures.
Tourism along the Sinai coast began to decline in 2004, when Islamic militants detonated a bomb in Taba, on the Israeli border, killing 34 people. In 2005, a bomb in Sharm al Sheikh, on the southern Sinai coast, left 60 dead. In April of 2006, three bombs exploded in and around Dahab, a hip coastal village, killing 23 people, including five foreigners. The blast wounded another 80 individuals. Egyptian officials deduced the attacks were planned by Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, an Islamic terror organization. Since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, militants have continued their campaign on the peninsula.
On the day I crossed, in May 2009, the border was free from disturbance. After weaving through armed guards and passport stamps, I took a shared taxi 45 minutes south to a Bedouin beach camp named Maganaa, splitting the ride with an intrinsically brave Israeli mother and her five-year-old daughter. Darkness descended. I bartered with the taxi driver and got deposited at Maganaa. From Israel to Egypt I traversed – my sense of place, again upended.
The camp sheltered ten guests, yet employed five staff. My abode, a comfortable hut paces from the sea, included breakfast, and cost less than $7 a night. The owner, Faysal, about my age, delivered a bag of Bedouin herb. “Keef Halak?” (How are you) – he asked. I nodded, smiled, and responded with English. He sat down, recounting a story, in fits of Arabic, bits of English, and poignant theatrics. His father founded the camp, but unexpectedly died as a middle-aged man. Faysal and his friends now manage the encampment. Dive teams and backpackers keep them afloat.
The next morning, I awoke with the sun. Gazing across the Red Sea, I glimpsed the Hijaz Mountains of Saudi Arabia, bathed in sunlight. In the foreground, shimmering, crystalline water, vibrant fish, and stunning reefs. I scanned left and right – no Western world, no modern convenience. I ate a hearty breakfast of beans, eggs, pitas, and dates. I conversed with a Canadian woman whose boyfriend was off scuba diving. The Sinai coast is renowned for obtaining diving certificates on the cheap. Not a diver, I swam instead, exploring elaborate reefs from above, all the while dodging hazardous sea urchins.
I caught the drift to move on, packed my gear, and flagged a taxi to a camp called Mondial in Nuweiba Tarabin, four miles south of Maganaa. Mondial, unlike neighboring camps, boasted modern bathrooms, though my showerhead was in disrepair. Gratefully, the shower contained a spout, near my knees, and I squatted to use it. Seeing no plush towels, I rummaged a hand towel from Jerusalem. The room was sparse, but adequate. I met a German spending his days bicycling and nights resting at camp, smoking menthols, sipping Nescafe, and cracking jokes with, and at, passersby. His penetrating green eyes, elongated nose, hideous cackle, and icy demeanor set him apart.
(Out my window at Mondial, with the Sinai Mountains in the distance)
The village once mesmerized more visitors. Shops were still spacious, stocked, and abundant, but devoid of consumers. A galabeya, an Egyptian tunic, retailed for three dollars. A handful of homegrown bananas cost twenty cents. As a breadbaker, a preferred stop was the state-sponsored bakery. Pitas were on sale – that’s all they baked – six large pitas for less than a quarter. I bought fresh goat cheese to complement them.
Over time, I settled in and began to enjoy, perhaps even exude, the Sinai rhythm of life. I rarely noticed alcohol. The occasions I drank a beer seemed dissonant. Daily, I negotiated the beach or road into Nuweiba Medina, befriending shopkeepers and locals. Infrequently, I encountered women, always hidden, but countless children roamed. Often, a cluster of seven to ten ragtag kids persuaded me to buy village wares – a bracelet, a necklace, rings, an amulet.
Each morning, I stepped outside to the greeting: “Welcome to Miami! Welcome to Miami!” It was the only English phrase known by Ahmet, one of the staff, and his smile indeed welcomed guests. His uncle, Ibrahim, owned the camp, and Ahmet spent summers tending tourists. Ibrahim drove from project to project, managing from afar, but with a heavy presence. A camp dog leisurely strolled the beach, while nearby shop owners shooed away stray cats.
(Prince Salim and friend @ Mondial in Nuweiba Tarabin)
Nuweiba introduced me to other fauna of the Sinai. A calm evening, sitting alone on a beach, a hundred paces from camp, gazing at the stars, I turned to see a fearless camel sauntering along the sand, within ten feet, with moonlight glinting off pupils. Another followed close behind. The next day, I passed a herd of goats feeding on dry shrubbery, adjacent to a housing project. A shepherd stood to one side. Still another occasion, I chanced upon an ungainly camel, head inside a dumpster, munching scraps.
One blazing afternoon, I approached five Bedouin women on the beach. They stood, grilling cuts of meat, presumably goat, around a provisional fire. With curiosity, I began photographing. An old, stout woman reproached and scolded in Arabic. Nonetheless, they were intrigued by my presence, inviting me to sit and watch picnic preparations, giggling and clacking when I tried English with them.
Said and Walit, two shopkeepers, served up my first home-cooked Egyptian meal. Okra, carrots, chickpeas, tomatoes, and spices, heady, Middle Eastern spices – perhaps cumin, coriander, and cardamom – simmered in the back of the shop. A robust ceramic dish filled with rice rested on the floor, accompanied by the bowl of stew. Seven people sat encircling the rice and passed the stew around. Each employee poured a spoonful of stew onto a portion of rice and scooped up the result with his fingers. Pass the bowl to the next person and wait for the stew to return. I watched with interest as the owner ate first, and with purpose. Scalding sage tea and chilled bottled water closed the feast.
The next afternoon, I stood outside a shop, in the shade, practicing Arabic, with Said and Walit, while they picked up English. Clouds gathered and drops began to gently descend. Nuweiba had not witnessed rain in years. The town stood still. Spectators looked on as drops innocuously fell by. The minaret rang out, and still, the people beheld this chance occurrence.
Sharm al Sheikh
After Nuweiba, I jumped a bus to Sharm al Sheikh, on the southern shore of the Sinai, three hours south of Nuweiba. A Bedouin passenger on board handed me a gift, three miniature seashells. Passengers smoked cigarettes. Pyramid, I observed, was the brand of choice. I followed suit. The drive hugs the coast, but then wraps inland to arid desert, amidst breathtaking Sinai Mountains, with sun refracting off limestone. I kept three seats to myself in the back of the bus. No one seemed to mind.
Sharm, with 35,000 inhabitants, may employ a third of them as taxi drivers. I hopped in the backend of a battered pick-up truck, a Bedouin taxi, and paid the standard tourist fare, sharing the ride with ten lucky passengers. The town did not impress. It strays from Egyptian or Bedouin heritage. In 2011, Hosni Mubarak, then fleeing leader of Egypt, relegated himself to this modern oasis. At my hotel, booked on laterooms.com, the staff displayed disinterest, bickering on price and guiding me to a room with a broken A/C. Even so, the hotel aesthetically pleased. The grounds were impeccable. Sharm, and the hotel, cater to European tourists, and hordes of Russians. I intended to give it a chance.
The next day, out of patience, I grabbed a taxi to the port, hoping to ferry off to Hurghada, in mainland Egypt, and the entrance to the Upper Nile, and the pyramids and treasures it holds. I stepped into the office and realized I’d need to join a tour group to reach the mainland. My visa was solely for the Sinai. I thanked the men and said I had a change of mind. I’d stay in the Sinai Peninsula after all.
I hailed another Bedouin taxi to the Sharm bus station on the edge of town. I met two college guys from Virginia at the station: one with green eyes, the other with hazel. We chatted, sipped coffee and tea, and reflected upon Arab and American worlds. Pacing to and fro, what seemed to be eunuchs, delivering drinks and trays, walking Egyptian-style, upright, with head-on-swivel. After a long wait, we hopped a bus for Dahab, half way between Nuweiba and Sharm, still on the eastern shore. North we rode, 90 minutes or so. On the outskirts of Dahab, at the bus station, we snagged a Bedouin taxi into town and set out to find a cabin camp.
Dahab is an ancient Nabataean port. The Nabataeans, a Semitic race, collected wealth in managing the Silk Road, later constructing the colossal rock-hewn monuments at Petra, Jordan, their financial base. Today, Dahab contains inns, cafés, nightclubs, dive shops, and merchants, lined up and down the coast. A paved path runs parallel to the coast, separating each venue from its attached outdoor seating area. Tourists and locals traipse the path while waiters retrieve a lassi, mint tea, or hummus plate. Patrons sit on the floor or low couches, known as divans, smoking tobacco from a sheesh, gazing toward the sea.
(Dahab cafés – courtesy of Lily Leung @ http://exploreforayear.com)
A favorite store was a tea and spice shop, where I purchased sage and mint tea. On the wall – the stoic gaze of an Afghani girl, with distant, emerald eyes, a photo captured for the cover of National Geographic. The shop sold Indian and Middle Eastern spices: fenugreek, turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, nutmeg, black pepper, among others. The shopkeeper insisted his store carries the only spices we should use in food. That afternoon, I wandered the coast, sampling coffee and beer at bayside cafés. Dahab is more lavish than Nuweiba, but less so than Sharm. I watched Star Trek with a burger and a beer and saw dimensional significance in the film.
Beer was not common in Egypt, but cannabis and hashish were readily available. The Virginia guys brought hash from Cairo, and a friend carried Bedouin grass. They rolled conical spliffs, mixing the grass and hash with tobacco, Mid-East style. Night set in. The Americans left and I sat in the small courtyard. Near me, seven Egyptians debated a weighty subject in Arabic. Suddenly, their speech transformed into the language of the plants around us. The words came from the plants, through the Egyptians, and into the world. Speech rolled off their tongues, showering reality with an enduring sense of peace, of harmony. The conversation soothed my soul and relaxed my brainstem. My body frozen, I peered at the plants and found relief. An hour after the Egyptians vanished, I stood and retired to my room. The ceiling fan provided a modicum of relief, and before long I slept, despite the heat.
The next morning, I enjoyed Arabic coffee and a cigarette at a neighborhood coffee shop. I connected with the Virginia guys and we snacked on olives, pitas, and cheese. They arranged a taxi to Saint Catherine’s Monastery for the subsequent morning. Dahab is the jumping off point for pre-dawn pilgrimages to the monastery, high atop Mount Sinai, a two-hour drive from Dahab, over bumpy, gravel roads. And, I’d heard tales this was not Mount Sinai. Instead, I parted ways and marched to the bus station. I owed Nuweiba a second visit.
Back to Nuweiba
At Nuweiba Port, milling were taxi drivers, bus drivers, a rare tourist, and fifty locals, lounging, smoking flavored tobacco from a sheesh, sitting on worn plastic chairs, huddled around a lone TV, blasting a 70’s black and white, Arabic dance and theater drama. A trio of inebriated Bedouin men invited me to sit and smoke the sheesh. I declined the smoke, but sat down anyway. They laughed at each other as the show went on in the background. After three minutes of conversation lost in translation, I moseyed off and hailed a taxi. The driver supplied a mint tea with two sugars. We cruised to Nuweiba Medina, the marketplace, and I walked the short distance to Nuweiba Tarabin.
Nuweiba Tarabin presented a comfort zone. Friendly locals. The only foreigners: an occasional German; a handful of Spanish and Russian. Local merchants might know Russian or German phrases. English, they seldom understood. A carpet seller from Alexandria, named Said, adept with English, stopped me on the street one afternoon. He invited me into the shop. We drank tea while he displayed books employed to study English.
(Carpet from Said’s shop)
A Bedouin stopped by on an old motorcycle and brought a package in. Said closed the door and unwrapped the package – a generous amount of herb. The Bedouin disappeared. Said and I resumed our English conversation. “Said,” he said, translates as “happy”. He projected the name well, and was set to open a second shop in the market. We strode to the shop, where construction workers stood by. He offered to let me manage it, and buy into the business. I grinned, but demurred.
A day later, the Sinai began to appear superfluous. I needed to return to Jerusalem. So I did. I stopped a bus by the side of the highway. The bus dropped me off at the border and I walked into Eilat, and back into a familiar world. I caught a cab with a Palestinian shrink from New York City and his Jewish wife, the two of them ranting on about Israel, Palestine, Iran, and the US. I waited three hours at the bus station and withdrew to Jerusalem, by the same route that brought me there.
So would I revisit Egypt or the Sinai? Would I tread onto its shore again? Absolutely! Egypt rewards explorers. Pyramids linger upon my list.
(Eyes of Horus)
–Also by Matthew Riter:
• Jerusalem: the Lion of this Kingdom
• Athens: On Colorful Footings