sleeping with camels

this piece can be heard as it was radio broadcast on npr's "the savvy traveler" on december 7, 2001. click then click "Listen to the Whole Show", and fast forward to 32:40. "sleeping with camels" is an adaptation/condensation from the longer and preceding piece, "the great sinai".


it's may, 1999. the middle east. israel. ehud barak has just been elected prime minister, appeared in rabin square at 3 in the morning in tel aviv, and israelis are optimistic again. there Will be peace.

travel is easy and i have this idea - to go out into the desert. the sinai. as in moses, ten commandments, camels, bedouins, sun, egypt… the red sea. like baja is to southern california, but with aquamarine, coral-reefed sea waters, rugged rust and sand colored hills jutting into the intense blue sky; hot, desert baking sun sapping all logic and ambition out of you; cool, star-studded desert nights over the gulf of aqaba, the strains of tabla and oud music tickling the air, lines of primitive straw bedouin huts (called "houchas") dotting the sand and stone shore for a hundred miles on end.

3 bedouin girls selling trinkets at ras esatan
head of the devil

the best of israel comes down here -- to escape the life and death intensity of their wound up lives -- unwinding, de-stressing -- until one day melts into a week and you find yourself ticking to a different clock - the sun's, the earth's, the sea's, your own; the desert slowing and sweating you down - until time is lost and you have no desire to return to that careful and clever thing we invented – civilization.

and so i bus south from jerusalem through the negev – cross the friendly border at eilot, taxi down to ras esatan - head of the devil -and just soak up the sun in one of the infamous red sea bedouin camps. i lie around in the heat of the day with alternative tel aviv types, eating humus, tahina, slurping mint tea, playing backgammon, reading amos oz and naguib mafouz. until i get the lazy urge to put on a mask and snorkel, walk down 20 yards from my housha into the sea, and marvel at the brain-like and fan-shaped coral reef. swimming with fishes. god-painted, and neon-lit creatures making you feel like either jacques cousteau - or - one of them.

at night i adventure out for a mini history lesson. to see what those parting-the-red-sea-jews experienced for 40 years before reaching the promised land. i speak to my new bedouin friend, adnan, and ask him to take me for a two day overnight camel safari into the great sinai, where i can walk in the steps of moses and joshua, and sleep under the dark, infinite sky of the nomadic bedouin. but adnan tells me i have to round up 4 more adventurers for this camel safari. because he wants to take 5 camels and 6 camel drivers, enough food, blankets, and supplies for both riders and drivers, and to make the trip worthwhile for all.

and so i do. 2 stiff-lipped israeli soldiers on holiday, an adventurous italian artist and his brazilian girlfriend, and we go with adnan and his camel drivers on safari. and for 2 days and 2 nights we slow down and un-civilize ourselves enough to learn how to make fire out of found palm tree branches and desert stone, make fresh pita bread out of camel-transported flour, salt, and water, and sleep in the cool night air of the biblical, diamond-starred sky. no tools. no agenda. no anything. just life...

cool adnan

and now, almost three years later... well, there are no more friendly israeli borders. mr. sharon continues to face off with mr. arafat. bombs and terror explode daily in palestine and israel. there's bloodshed everywhere and no peace in sight.

i think maybe they should go out into the desert. take a camel safari, forget the mediators, and see just how much they all really have in common....

--el arik of the desert