Early Monday morning we waited outside the Princess for the Israeli tour company's van to take us to the Egyptian border. When the van arrived, however, the tour guide told us his van was full of Austrians--he was taking nine of them on a six-day camping expedition in the Sinai-area mountains, and they had a lot of gear with them. Would we mind waiting while he dropped them off at the border and came back for us? The van was back in under five minutes; we could have walked to the border in less time than it took to clamber in and out of the van. The crossing at Egypt was much faster and more low-key than it had been at Jordan. This border has been open since peace was declared, following the Camp David accords signed by Begin and Sadat in 1979. Individual backpacker types, the kind you see hostel-hopping in Europe, or hanging out at meusli shacks in Bangkok and Khatmandu, were crossing individually or in pairs. The Egyptian border guards were practically asleep; they performed their duties grudgingly, morosely, but in a completely unthreatening manner. On the far side of the border we were met by our Egyptian guide, a young university student named Nabil, and our driver Mansour. We had a few minutes to wait while Nabil did some paperwork and paid our border crossing fees. Sitting in the back of our Japanese- made Land Cruiser, I busied myself trying to learn the Arab numerals.
Arab numerals should not be confused with the Arabic numerals which we so famously use. Arabs don't use Arabic numerals; they use Hindi numerals. Those aren't to be confused with the numerals the Hindis use, which are something else again, exactly what I forget. I once read about this somewhere. I hadn't noticed the use of the Arab numerals on Israeli and Jordanian money, probably because they also had Arabic numerals and English on each face; but the Egyptian money had one face with only Arab numerals on it, and this immediately drew my attention. By looking at the money and the license plates of parked cars, both of which are written in both numeral systems, I was able to work out most of the digits; Nabil provided the rest. It can be a bit confusing. While 1 and 9 are written basically the same in both systems, the number five in Arabic is written 0, and the number six is written 7. (As for seven, it is written V; zero is a raised dot.) And four is written as a backwards 3. Both systems actually arise from a common source. I was fascinated that this set of numerals, used in a large number of countries by millions of people, seemed so alien to my experience. I'm not sure I'd ever seen them before.
From the border crossing at Taba, we drove south along the coast. We stopped to get a view of the Salahaldeen Fortress, a twelfth-century island redoubt built in the middle of the Red Sea to repulse the Crusader invaders. As we continued down the coast, we passed a half dozen construction sites where large hotel complexes were going up. The whole coast is being developed, largely to cater to scuba divers. We stopped in the beach resort of Nuweiba for lunch. Nuweiba is nothing like Eilat; it reminded me more of some of the remoter islands off the Thai coast. It was like a hippie retreat. One-story shacks and low concrete structures shared the beachfront, lining a dirt-sand road shaded under palm trees. While lunch was being prepared my mother and I strolled along the road. There were stores selling groceries and locally made textile products; bungalow hotels; and small restaurants, with crude hand-written signs in English advertising spaghetti and hamburgers. (On the way into town we had even passed a Korean-Chinese restaurant, the Dong Yang or "East Sea".) Many of the restaurants maintained shaded areas across the road, right up against the sea. Here, under open thatched roofs, were low tables surrounded by wide sitting pillows, sectioned off by sea-smoothed driftwood logs. This was high tourist season. In the winter the desert temperatures are bearable, and the sun is tempting to denizens of colder climes. But the town was pretty empty because of the tourist scare, with only a few young couples strolling around, the women looking jarringly out of place in skimpy bikinis, their pale European skin contrasting sharply with the weathered brown of the Egyptians. Not that you could see much Egyptian skin; the bedouins know to keep themselves covered up in the desert, to protect against dehydration, and they keep to the shade when possible.
Our lunch was simple and delicious. We were served small plates of foul (a bean paste very similar to Mexican refried beans), a plain fried omelette, tahini, a small pinkish dish of feta cheese and tomato, and deep-fried falafel-like balls of mashed potato. These were all eaten with course dark pita.
From Nuweiba we headed inward, west. Our destination was Saint Catherine, site of an ancient and still-functioning Greek Orthodox monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, which is known in Arabic as Mt. Musa (i.e. Mt. Moses). We were now in high desert. The earth was built from the same basic materials as in Jordan, but now the scale was vaster. The mountains were higher, the views more distant, the sense of desolation greater. The road rose and fall in long, steep undulations. The English lettering on warning signs read "Let the Engine Work", presumably a Britishism for keeping the vehicle in low gear and not overusing the breaks. Twists in the road were prefaced with signs proclaiming "Very Dangerous Curve"; that first intensifier, unseen in my American driving experience, seemed to command attention.
The roads were well-maintained. When we came to an intersection, usually in the middle of nowhere, it seemed like a major event. Every intersection was manned by Egyptian guards. Traffic barrels, painted in thick horizontal stripes of white and blue, were placed at the intersections across the right lanes, forcing vehicles to slow down and stop for inspection. These makeshift traffic barriers lent the intersections a ramshackle air. Our driver usually had to show papers, identity papers for me and my mother. Our whereabouts were under the jurisdiction of the tourist police. At one point while driving we passed a small white bunker marked with the letters MFO; an American flag was painted on the side. The Sinai is still monitored by a Multinational Force charged with monitoring compliance with the peace accord stipulation that the Sinai remain demilitarized.
I noticed that Monsour had a number of cassette tapes in the jeep, and I asked if we could listen to one. It was Arabic pop. I didn't listen too closely, until I suddenly recognized a familiar melody. It was "Wild World" by Cat Stevens. (A day later, on our way back to Taba, the song played again. I was sitting in the passenger seat this time, and felt more comfortable with Mansour, the driver. I told him I knew this song in its original English version. He asked me what that version was about. I told him the singer felt sad because his friend was leaving him, but even though he was sad at her departure, he hoped she would be safe and happy. Mansour's English was rudimentary but had a certain solidity and elegance; I wasn't sure if he'd understood, or if, as sometimes happens, I'd spoken more confusingly for trying to be simple. Mansour said, "Ah, he loves her," and that seemed about right. Apparently the lyrics in Arabic are completely different.)
We arrived at the Saint Catherine monastary around 2:30 in the afternoon. Mansour dropped us off, and Nabil led us past the monastery onto the trail leading up to the summit of Mt. Sinai. It was a three- hour hike; we would see the sunset from the top, and hike down in the dark. There were a few tourists around, but they were outnumbered by the young Bedouin boys who usually earn their living on the tourist trade. They were hoping we'd rent a camel to take us up the trail. The trail wasn't terribly steep, but it was long. Every thousand yards or so was a small shack with a corrugated tin roof selling sweets and tea. The last quarter of the climb was on stone steps carved into the hillside by the monks of the monastery; this proved much tougher going than the trail. I left my mother and Nabil behind here, and powered up the mountain steps at a good clip; until near the top I was seized with a ravenous hunger. I stopped and bought a Snicker's bar, and chewed it greedily as I hiked, my breath rough around the soft chunks of chocolate melting in my mouth. At the top was a small chapel built by the monks, closed up. Here three or four Bedouin shopkeepers clustered together; one had a cardboard sign advertising tea, coffee, and hot chocolate in French, English, and crude, mistake-ridden Korean. Just as I had in 1989 in the hilltribe villages of northern Thailand, I marveled at the penetration of the world's greatest distribution system. You can find Coca-Cola in the remotest areas.
After twenty minutes or so my mother and Nabil reached the top. We practiced our poor French with a young tourist who had also made the climb. The sun was setting when, after admiring the panoramic view from the top, we started our descent. We had flashlights, but we wanted to be past the steps, many of which were somewhat unstable, and onto the sand trail before it got too dark. As we worked our way down, the stars being to appear. First Venus, then the brightest stars. By the time Orion's belt was clearly visible, I realized we were going to be in for a real treat. The sky was completely clear and moonless. In fact, as we were well aware, Ramadan was about to end, which meant we were coming up on a new lunar month. (An aside. We had asked Mansour when Ramadan would end. Tomorrow or the next day, he said. Didn't they know? we asked. They have to see the new moon from Mecca, with a telescope, before it ends, he said; then they broadcast it over the radio.) We were high up in the desert, and there were no lights around for miles. The "city" of Saint Catherine, a few miles away and hidden behind the mountain, was a collection of only a dozen or so buildings. Again I thought of Utah, where I had last seen a sky that takes your breath away. Sure enough, as complete and utter darkness settled in around us, the sky exploded in a dense tapestry of brilliant pinpoint lights. I could see the Milky Way, but, to my surprise, I couldn't find any familiar constellations aside from Orion. I searched in vain for the Big Dipper. The sky was so flooded with stars that it was very difficult to pick the brighter stars of the constellations out from the glowing background. Finally, after about twenty minutes, I found the dippers. Soon after that we reached the monastery, where Mansour and our Land Cruiser had been patiently waiting for us. He drove us a few miles, to a hostel located at a nearby highway crossroads, where we took our dinner.
Like everywhere else we'd been, the place was deserted. My mother and I were the only guests. The hostel itself had five or six employees, all young men, all more or less idle. Our dinner was macaroni in marinara sauce with ground meat (distinctly un-Italian in flavor but quite tasty), a potato stew, and a carrot and zuchini dish, except it wasn't zuchini. The air was getting extremely cold as the desert night sucked away the heat of the day, and the workers lit a huge bonfire in a concrete circle in the center of the room. We ate sitting on cushions at a low table near the fire. When dinner was over, my mother, who was feeling uncomfortable as the only woman present, excused herself and went to bed. The rest of us gathered around the fire, trying to keep out of the way of the drifting smoke. Two tiny adorable kittens curled up in my lap. Cats were everywhere in the Sinai; they looked rather out of place in the hot desert, all cute and furry, but I remembered that domesticated cats were a notable feature of ancient Egypt. There seemed to be about a half dozen roaming the hostel, and I judged they were pets rather than strays, though the distinction might not be that meaningful.
Mansour played on the Bedouin guitar, a simple open square of wood with five strings set at knuckle's-width intervals. There is no fret or sounding board. The fingers of the right hand fret the strings while the left strums. The pinky is not used; the thumb does double duty, inserted between the two top strings with its tip pushing down on the second string and its knuckle pushing up on the top. He sang in an unschooled but authentic, emotive voice.
Someone brought out a water pipe, which the Egyptians shared around. After the third time it was offered to me, I finally agreed to try it. I'd never seen one up close before. They're of quite ingenious design. The bottom part is a glass cylinder half full of water; the top part, which is fitted to it, is fashioned of metal and narrows to an inch- diameter opening at the very top. Inside the top part are two concentric chambers; the inner one narrows to a hollow cylinder that descends into the water below. A flexible tube extends from the outer chamber. Honey-soaked tobacco is placed in the narrow opening at the top; the flexible tube is placed in the mouth. Then a burning ember is placed on top of the tobacco. When the smoker inhales, oxygen flows over the ember, which glows red and burns the tobacco, and the smoke is drawn down through the central cylinder, filtered through the water, and sucked up into the outer concentric chamber and then through the tube into the lungs. During this process the water bubbles merrily. The Egyptians coached me on smoking; my first attempt wasn't very successful, as you have to inhale with quite a bit of force to draw the smoke through that long a pathway. The second time I managed to get the water to bubble, but the smoke didn't get much farther than my mouth. Finally, on my third attempt, I took a long hard draw and felt the smoke filling my lungs. It was sweet and heavy. One of the Egyptians motioned to me to stop inhaling, and they all applauded when the smoke came back out my nose, proof that I'd inhaled it. About twenty seconds later I was hit with an intense buzz that left me dizzy for several minutes. I don't think I would have been capable of standing up. I was also served a heavily sweetened deep red, slightly viscous hot tea, which was delicious.
Our "beds" were modern tents set in the sandy courtyard behind the main building. It was freezing; I had a sleeping bag and two thick blankets, and still had to sleep in long underwear and a sweatshirt to stay warm.
In the morning we had the best meal of the Sinai trip. We started with the sweet hot cereal called masahalab, a kind of cream-of-rice seasoned with coconut, sesame seeds, and nutmeats. It was incredibly good, warm, thick, rich, and satisfying. We also had omelette, pita, triangles of soft laughing-cow type cheese, sliced tomatos and cucumbers, and tea. Stray cats were climbing all over us, begging for scraps, or scrambling up onto our laps to reach for chunks of cheese on the table.
We toured the monastery that morning. It's incredibly old, dating to the 2nd century AD. In the entrance hallway hang two framed documents. The first is in French and signed by Napolean; it's a nineteen-article declaration assuring the monastery of the protection of the French army. Near it, and far more spectacular, is a 7th-century document signed by Mohammad himself--signed with a handprint decorated in gold leaf. It guarantees the monastary protection under the new Arab conquerers. The next thing we saw was the burning bush. According to legend, at least, the original biblical bush is still growing happily on the monastery grounds. We entered next the outer chamber of the compound church, whose walls were decorated thickly with an astounding collection of stunningly beautiful icons dating back to the fifth century. It was beginning to get crowded now; tourists and tourguides mixed with the handful of black-clad Greek Orthodox monks. We learned that the monastery's library was the second most renowned in the world for original Christian texts, after the Vatican. This seemed surprising at first; how could this place in the middle of nowhere have such a huge library? But on second thought, the incredible age of the place, combined with the preservative effects of the dry desert climate, explained this quite well.
Our Sinai tour was short. It was advertised as a two-day "flash" tour. This was the second day, and we had to start back right after lunch on the long drive to the border. We had three stops planned on the way: Inscription Rock, the Small Canyon, and the Ein Hodra ("Green Spring") Oasis. My mother had sat in the passenger seat on our drive the day before; now I moved up front. This was when I noticed that our jeep had two gas tanks, front and rear. The dashboard indicators said the front tank was almost out of gas, but there was a whole backup tank to go. We hadn't refueled yet on this trip. The vehicle was like a camel, perfectly designed for desert traffic. Soon enough Mansour took it off- road, bouncing it over sand dunes on the way to the Inscription Rock. Nabil and Mansour said that before this model was manufactured, the Japanese engineers came out to the Sinai to look at the roads and the climate, and had designed the vehicle to match its intended locale perfectly.
The Inscription Rock sits in the desert sand like a vast, misshapen turtle. True to its name, it is covered in graffiti, and has been for thousands of years. Travelers crossing the desert on their way between Africa and the Middle East left post-it notes for each other here, indicating the locations of oases or informing them which direction they'd gone. Nabil pointed out Greek, Hebrew, and Nabotean inscriptions; mixed in with the ancient ones were new ones that tourists had left in the last few decades. The rock was soft and made a good surface for carving; yet somehow the wind and sand had not eroded the messages over centuries. I must admit this had me wondering if the whole thing was a giant hoax. From the Rock we bounced through the desert some more to the entrance of a narrow canyon, not dissimilar from the Petra entranceway, and hiked in and out. Finally, we stopped at an overlook of the Ein Hodra Oasis, which is known to have been in use for thousands of years. Unfortunately it was too far away for us to visit on the short tour.
As Mansour deftly maneuvered our jeep back to the road, my mother and I praised his driving skills, and I asked him if he preferred a jeep or a camel for desert travel. His pithy, unequivocal response: "Camel."
At the border, there was some confusion involved in the payment of the guide and driver, and my mother felt afterward that we hadn't given enough tip. After I got back to Berkeley, I bought a small pocket handbook on the constellations and mailed it to Nabil. He had said he knew nothing about the night sky and wanted to learn more, but that such books were not available in Egypt. He sent back a postcard which was ecstatically grateful.
[In May 2008, I was contacted by Nabil Anwar. He is still working as an Egypt tour guide, and offers services in both English and Hebrew. Cell phone: 002012 28 29 067. Email: nobels_2000 AT yahoo.com or AT hotmail.com.]
Pictures of the Sinai
This page last modified May 22, 2008.
Zev Handel / zev_web#namkung.com