the great sinai
june 2 - 6, 1999
finally. this is the place i've been hearing about since arriving in israel
almost a month ago. everyone, absolutely everyone, says "go to sinai." they say
"the best” israelis go to sinai. the holy no-man's land wrestled over by egypt
and israel for millennia. the home of the bedouin. the vacation play land of
israel. the place to meet women. the place to kick back and chill. to forget
about time and civilization. the best diving in the world. the price paid by
israel to egypt for peace.
now there are two ways to go to sinai - the way - with money, and, the way -
without. the first way, i'm told, is to fly straight to its southernmost point,
sharm el-sheik, right at the tip of the peninsula, where the gulf of suez on the
east joins with the gulf of aqaba on the west and both spill into the infamous
red sea. now although this is one step more exotic and adventurous than merely
going to eilat, the southernmost vacation play land of israel, it is also far
too similar and familiar. both towns are developed. hotels, high rises, casinos,
package tours, junkets, entertainment extravaganzas. the mideastern equivalent
to las vegas or miami beach. definitely not my style.
the other way - without megabucks - i'm told - is to stay simply - on the beach,
in one of the abundant bedouin camps. five bucks a night. surf, sand, night,
sky. definitely - my style.
so -- here i am at the jerusalem bus station. i've bought a new fanny pack, some
serious sun block, and a groovy new sun shield (NY Yankees blue baseball cap).
i'm on the non-stop, five hour “egged” bus (the israeli greyhound) to eilat.
through the negev. hot. dry. parched. empty. soon i'm dumped with all the other
eager vacationers at the depot. somehow i'm supposed to get myself to the
border, walk across from eilat to taba, take a taxi south along the coast of the
red sea, and pick out a cool, personalized bedouin camp to bliss out at.
however, my jerusalem friend, anthony, has told me that it might be a good idea
to go to the egyptian consulate in eilat to get a visa first -- just in case i
want to go further into egypt (cairo, alexandria), without returning to israel.
so i do. finding a cab, which charges me as much as possible for a one minute
ride, i also find i am the only customer at the consulate. it's two minutes
before noon and time for the customary two hour lunch siesta (or whatever the
egyptian equivalent is called).
i beg, whine, and cajole the bored, uniformed official to grant me a visa before
lunch, and he does - curtly - giving me an armful of tourist literature for the
entire country - in german and french - "sorry, no more english". fine. i decide
to walk back to the bus station, but after about thirty seconds in the
oppressive heat, i hail another cab (mercedes only), this time asking him to
take me directly to the border crossing. i discover they charge you for leaving
israel, that there are about five different check points, and that each asks you
for the same documentation, over and over again. but finally - i am in sinai.
the sinai desert of my ancestors - moses, the burning bush, let my people go.
coooool. no, hot. very. i walk about half a mile with my backpack and borrowed
sleeping bag to the taba cab station. well, station might be a little refined
for this sand lot with a few black-sheeted bedouin tents, some tourist trinket
stands, and no customers. it seems i've missed the last group taxi. i can go by
myself for an exorbitant fare, or i can wait. so, being totally committed to the
way - without (money) - i wait. about an hour. there are about ten bedouin cab
drivers - and me. they offer me some nana tea. i accept. a pirate cabbie pulls
up and offers me a bargain trip. the others curse him out and shew him off. i
wait. there are flies.
finally two more israeli tourists drag themselves over to the stand, and then an
older, sun-baked man from turkey, then two more women from belgium. we are now
six, enough for the mercenary egyptian cabbies to release one of their chariots
of fire. of course, we get the one without the air conditioner. but not more
than an hour later, after a multi-lingual ride along the gleaming red Sea, i am
the first out of the cab, finding myself in the bedouin camp of “ras es-shatan”
-- head of the devil. now i have a list of bedouin camps, all from reliable
israeli sources, so my plan is to start at the most northerly one and work
myself south - from terabin to big duna to little duna to the fabled alternative
mecca of sinai, dahab.
so here i am in my little "chousha", a primitive bamboo hut in the sand, about
forty feet from the red sea. i'm lying on a long, eighteen inch wide foam
cushion (my bed) thrown over a multi-colored striped cotton rug. i'm shaded from
the intense sun by the bamboo/wicker canopy of my hut's front "porch", and i'm
entering "sinai time". "bedouin time" -- where, if you can, you simply slow down
enough to enjoy the rhythm of the desert. i say "if you can" because i've
already seen some - who can't. they're either on their carnivorous cell phones,
trying to make the connection back to tel aviv or jerusalem, or breaking out in
sweat, tears, or anxiety behavioral disorders - with the concept of having
nothing to do.
me? i'm trying to slow down -- and just be here. i've brought my two israel
sages to read, agnon and oz, but i'm -- distracted -- obsessed with meeting
women. there's a sad-eyed, luscious painter from tel aviv in the chousha next to
me. she's 30, terribly attractive in her azure 2-piece bikini, amazingly reading
my main man, henry miller, and -- completely disinterested in me. she's come
here for solitude. a little tea or wine, even a little herb, but that's all she
wants. i call her iris of the desert. on the other side, is leora of the city.
chic, voluptuous, short hair, sharp features, she wants to become a
trance/house/trip-hop dj in tel aviv. she's also come - for solitude.
ok, i get the picture. this camp is small, friendly, safe, and intimate -
without the intimacy, so to speak. the dark-skinned, kaffia-headed bedouin staff
are super sweet, modest, accommodating, and shrewd. they are in no hurry. they
smile like sphinxes. the food is simple and delicious, the sun is hot, and there
is nothing to do. except sit, read, swim, eat, sun, snorkel, sit, eat, swim,
read, etc. a rhythm that becomes seductive -- hypnotizing -- and transcendent
after a few days. sex? who needs it? the red sea is what's brought us here. and
the enormous desert behind us.
the snorkeling and diving here are supposed to be perhaps the best in the world,
and - i have no reason to contest the claim. the water is bathtub-warm and
bright azure blue (like iris' suit) - with dark patches of reef all along the
coast. put on a mask - and the patches come alive - with giant fan-like and
brain-like coral formations - greens, violets, crimsons - wreathing/floating -
alive with the ebb and flow of the gentle tide. the sea water is salty enough to
keep you afloat (even without flippers), but not painfully salty like the
sulphurous dead sea. swimming along with almost no effort at all, the blazing
sun warming your back, the neon-painted fish dazzle and delight. sun yellow
fins, bright purple tails, pastel blues, greens, all of creation's colors, they
disappear and dip into the coral reefs, like hungry scavengers, like dancing
nymphs, like slippery eels. what magic, what enchantment, what glory in these
underwater galaxies. we two-leggeds know so little about the infinite aqueous
universe. each time i enter, i am lost in its grandeur. i float, swim, paddle
for hours, trying to become one - with the rhythm, beauty, and inhabitants of
tonight has finally caught up with my imagination - the way i thought the desert
experience would be in the mideast. after a perfect day in the sun's heat, and a
simple meal in the central communal bedouin tent, i have invited my new friends
back to my chousha. we are sitting and lying around in the sand on our
mismatched foam cushions, watching the huge orange moon rise over the gulf of
aqaba. there are showers of stars in the sky, the low moon's reflection dancing
off the water to the oriental sounds of an egyptian oud and a turkish finger
drum. we are taking our turns around a sweet-smelling narghila water pipe, and i
am thinking that almost all of my physical and aesthetic needs are being taken
care of. there is good company, wonderful music, and i am experiencing a
grateful and rare feeling of contentment. as the moon rises higher and whiter in
the sky, i realize that this is one of spalding gray's (the curmudgeonly
monologist) elusive "perfect moments". still there is no sex or the intimacy
that comes with it, but hey, it's a far car from the commercial, trendy shantipi
festival, and for a paid-for vacation (as opposed to living your daily life),
this is the real thing.
the next morning i buy a few trinkets and gifts for my two young nieces. it's
hard to refuse when a progression of veiled bedouin women in heavy black dresses
come around to your chousha displaying their handmade wares. i choose the woman
who comes by with her three young daughters. they are not yet veiled, but in
their flirtatious, yet cunning eyes, you can already see the women they will
become. i manage to get them to take some photos with me -- after i buy two
hand-woven wristlets, an ankle bracelet for myself, and two white cotton dresses
for amanda and marcella. quid pro quo, purchase for photos. at least, they will
be a lot easier to carry than mike leaf’s three foot papier mache of bob dylan.
i'm excited. it's late afternoon and i've organized an over-night camel trip
into the desert. organized? well, yes. there are no package tours here at ras
es-Shatan, but i did meet a local camel driver at one of our late night
"hootenannies". he is cool adnan, a young handsome bedouin in his early twenties
who has been educated in the west and speaks perfect english. yet he has chosen
to come back to sinai to live with his people - at least for now. after hearing
that he can arrange a thirty six hour caravan into the desert, we come to terms
and choose a night. if i can round up four more folks, he will provide five
camels, full supplies including two days of food, and a bedouin guide for each
so i've done it. i've solicited two young israeli guys on vacation from the
army, and a couple from amsterdam, an italian acupuncturist and his brazilian
massage therapist girlfriend. the guys seem a bit rigid and military, but the
international couple are agreeable and seem like fun. anyway, i've had to walk
and hitchhike two miles down the road to adnan's own camp to find him and
confirm our arrangements. it seems there's an ornery territorial and pride thing
going on between adnan and our camp owner, mohammed. i've got caught in the
middle of a camel tour war, and adnan's been banished from our camp by mohammed,
who is trying to force us on a very old and beautiful looking camel driver who
unfortunately doesn't speak a word of english. but since i want to find out
about the culture by asking endless questions, going with the old guy seems
futile, just a bumpy way to sleep further out in the desert. no, cool adnan's my
so it's now dark again. our five camels are "parked" about three miles into the
sinai canyon into which they've led us. the hairy beasts are
sitting/kneeling/sleeping, making a variety of cacophonous
grunting/farting/sleeping noises under an otherwise noiseless, starlit night.
the ride here has been - yes, bumpy. i think i've been squeezed into a camel
saddle about half the size i need. there has been no room for me to sit
frontward without instant genital pain, so i've tried the more "comfortable"
bedouin style, sitting three quarters sideways, both legs draping over to the
right of the camel. it might have looked more comfortable, but my ass is
absolutely killing me - and we've gone only about two miles.
our group is a little disappointed with our quick dismount, but my ass is
relieved. we've made camp in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and adnan and his
four camel drivers (actually they've walked as we've ridden) seem to make life
and comfort out of thin air. no tools - just found sticks, rocks, shrubs,
stones, a zippo lighter and some inexpensive supplies - and we have a roaring
fire, an odd macaroni and canned tuna casserole, a ten blanket sleeping spread,
bottled water enough for tea and cocoa, song, music, good company, a magnificent
desert sky, and even a little local herb for a nightcap. we are suddenly part of
an entire sub-culture still living in the pre-"civilized" desert. speaking
arabic, living off the periphery of a now omnipresent tourist industry, this
crew of adnan's is a people without borders, politics, or even (according to
adnan) religion. watching them simply be themselves, laughing, smiling, and
doing what has to be done with the land, the food, the camels, is just beautiful
to me. of course, others would say "primitive", "backwards", at best "charming",
but to me, ever the romantic, i think it is sensational, natural, immediate,
honest, bare, demanding, and pragmatic. this is the way people lived in this
desert for thousands of years - nomadic, respectful, dependent, and cooperative
with the land.
the next day we are up at dawn. the sky gray, the air dry and already too warm,
the crew is packing up our gear, loading down our beasts of burden with hundreds
of pounds of blankets, food, water, and even our used trash. i learn to relieve
myself in the middle of the desert (no mean feat) and how to make a camel both
sit and run. the first command is a throaty obscenity, pushing air at the
unwilling beast, sounding like you are getting ready to spit, "Chhhhh,
chhhhhhh!" the second is a sloppy intake of air, sounding like you are slurping
a plateful of pasta out of a dog bowl with no hands. sorry, there is no way to
spell this one. i decide that the first two things i will teach my students back
at the university of southern california when i return in the fall are -- how to
make a camel sit and how to make a camel run.
we have tea again, a few bread sticks, and off we go - into the land moses,
joshua, and the escaped-from-egypt/crossed-the-parted-red-sea jews -wandered for
forty years. it is beautiful and harsh. rocky red granite hills, sharp peaks,
rough terrain, life-devouring sun, merciful shade. sometimes we walk through
narrow and steep canyons that the camels can not pass. the drivers take them off
in an opposite direction, only to have them mysteriously reappear half an hour
later, supplying us with the precious liquid that we ration so carefully. never
before have i appreciated a swallow of water as much as today.
it is now midday and the sun is at its peak. it is the ruler of the sinai. every
half an hour or so we "pull off the road" into a spot of shade, fighting the
ruler's constant encroachment. adnan and his mates seem like they have a string
attached between them and the sun, and tracking its course across the
incandescent sky, they anticipate every angle of shade a cliff can provide. we
are now at a real live oasis (i don't think it's a mirage!). however, although
there are actual clusters of raggedy green palm and fig trees, at this time of
year, full summer, the oasis is more like a small, stingy mud puddle with an
infinitesimal trickle of water, than the abundant, refreshing childhood picture
i have in my mind. nevertheless, here we are in the middle of the sinai desert
at an OASIS, watching adnan mix a combination of flour, salt, and water into
sticky mounds of dough with his strong, practiced hands. it's as if our camels
have been carrying these magical, life-sustaining substances in carefully
wrapped plastic bags for centuries, and now adnan is stretching, flouring, and
pounding the mounds into big pizza-size round sheets and laying them on what
looks to be a thousand year old blackened desert pan. another quick fire later,
out of scattered twigs and a zippo, and we are eating - fresh made pita. it's
amazingly delicious. i feel like he's done it again, made life out of - thin
now we all know the price we've paid for modern civilization - with its
comforts, conveniences, computers, electronics, instant transportation, its
global economy. but here in the desert, you become acutely and viscerally aware
of, not only how we have lost touch with nature and her elements - fire, air,
earth, water - but how we've lost touch with ourselves. with the very things
that used to make us human - using our hands to eat, to make things, being
reliant on our families and neighbors, attuning our lives to the cycles of the
day, to the seasons, to the climate. now others things make us so - our
materialism, technology, our corporate greed. no longer are we dependent on the
beauty or usage of the full moon, the changing tides, the rising and setting of
the sun. no, today most of us urban homeboys live in the world of twenty-four
hour electric lights and entirely controlled weather conditions -- with digital
monitors, faxes, and
ubiquitous cell phones in front of our eyes, ears, and noses -- instead of our
fellow human beings. we live with an absurdly and simultaneously arrogant and
ignorant disrespect for both our fellow man and our mother nature. we are the
proud victims of our own post industrial and technological revolutions.
of course, i also know the other side - that we are now - infinitely more
comfortable, more knowledgeable, more philosophically evolved, more politically
correct. women's and gay rights, better care of the environment, debating the
fairness of world-wide minimum wages...but i say, we've paid a very high price.
the price of our humanity, our simplicity, our sense of power and awe of the
universe. of its magic and wrath. the price of community, our dependence on one
another, the price of our - Soul.
we return from our thirty-six hour detour from civilization, and i know all
this. mcdonald’s, microsoft, and disney -- the holy trinity in service to the
american god-empire -- a crime, a conundrum, an anathema! screw 'em all, i say.
i've been to the sinai -- and i also have -- a very large and painful water
blister on my ass.
pictures were collected from various file pages on the web.
If anyone objects or would like a credit, please contact Rebop