A place to record and reflect from the vantage point of a Tel-Aviv rooftop.
Monday, September 30, 2019
Five Sinai Scenes
into the Third World is immediate. Time slows down. The Egyptian customs
officials greet the trickle of incoming visitors from Israel with a lazy indifference.At the entrance to the marbled Taba terminal there
is a sort of podium where visitors are supposed to fill in entry forms. The
forms have been commandeered by three men who, in return for baksheesh,
fill them in for you. At the bank, my dollars are turned into an unwieldy wad
of Egyptian pounds. The ATM machine doesn’t work.
In a Bedouin
taxi we speed unnervingly along the twists and turns of Israeli-laid southbound
coastal road. No-one’s wearing seat belts; Khaled, the driver, is singing along
to a hit song. To the left, the beaches and sparkling waters of the Red
Sea/Gulf of Aqaba and the rosy outline of the Jordanian side of the gulf; to
the right, imposing red granite mountains, changing hue in the late afternoon
The once unspoiled
desert coast is now scarred with the concrete carcasses of abandoned tourist
resorts, a graveyard for the megalomanic developments made in the Mubarak era
that failed or were halted in mid-construction. Between these we meet familiar
sites like old friends: the Salah a-Din Citadel, the “fjord” and the long stretches
of beach where the simple Bedouin husha tourist camps are named ‘Freedom’,
‘Utopia’, and ‘Eden’. Khaled swerves off the main road and we bump down a long
dirt track and pull up in what we hope will be ‘Paradise’.
settled in over sage tea and (for those interested) speedily scored some grass
from virtually any member of the friendly young staff, and having taken a first
glorious dip in the refreshing, clear, buoyant water, Sinai’s magic begins to permeate
and the outside world fades into insignificance. The border has been crossed.
in dressed-to-kill beachwear, Heba is chatting in Egyptian- Arabic accented
English with two musclebound Israeli guys who answer her in American-accented
English. She’s telling a convoluted story about an embarrassing encounter and they
are nodding sympathetically. Later we strike up a conversation with her
ourselves and discover that Heba, who has “lots of friends in Tel Aviv”, is a
yoga instructor who has studied in India and runs a studio in Cairo where yoga
is increasingly popular. She discovered yoga only after her children graduated
from high school and loves to visit Sinai, despite the gruelling 8 hour bus
conversations with the outgoing and obviously liberal Heba were less interesting
for their content than for the fact they took place at all. In all the years
(over 30!) that we’ve been visiting Sinai, this has been the longest
conversation I have ever held with an Egyptian tourist to Sinai. Over the last
few years we’ve seen an increasing number of young, cool Cairenes at the
Bedouin-run beach camps we favour.The
two sides- the Israelis being in the
clear majority - normally keep a respectful distance but now and then a
remarkable person like Heba is able to break the ice. Since Egyptians are
strongly dissuaded from visiting Israel and most Israelis would feel unsafe in
Cairo, the south Sinai coast is perhaps the only place in the region where they
her smartphone to video on the low wooden table and angles it into a frame
created by the low wall of the zula and palm fronds of its roof, with
the sparkling Red Sea as background. Then, her dark blue wrap fluttering
dramatically in the wind, she seems to elevate horizontally with only one hand resting
on the wall.
We lie on
our backs, stargazing, wavelets lapping at the sand, a balmy caressing breeze. The firmament of stars numbs us into humility in the face of an infinite universe.
Behind us in
the zula, a group of young Bedouin men accompanied by a darbuka and an oud,
start singing a traditional song. The long, snaking, hypnotic piece is the
perfect soundtrack. Click here for a taste of traditional South Sinai Bedouin music.
hyperactive Israeli man we’ll call Tomer, plugs in a Bluetooth speaker and the
tranquillity is shattered by the thumping repetitive beat of an Egyptian hit with
lyrics that sound like “mashi mash , mashi mash.” Soon he’s dancing with the
young Bedouin in robes. The young Israelis lining the zula, which is now a
disco, join in, complete with whoops of delight, hand claps and laughter.
been wondering what pop music from the Arab world sounds like nowadays here’s a
accompanied by his two young boys, is smitten with the Bedouin (“There’s so
much we can learn from them, brother”) and talks up the idea of moving his
whole family from the Israeli rat race to the tranquillity of Sinai. He also
seems to be on the make, conspicuously ingratiating himself with the locals and
acting towards the visitors as if he owns the place.
We hear more
of “Mashi mash” and its sister “Heya hey” over the coming days and decide that we’ll
look for a quieter place next time.
Playing the simsimiyya
4. Women and children last
for Bedouin women though. Nor are they to be found among the kitchen or
cleaning staff. It’s only along the beach that we meet them, swaddled in dark layers,
carrying one bag on their heads and another in their hands. They find a place
in the shade and spread their wares; colourful ornate plastic necklaces and
bracelets, fabrics and clothes, a long embroidered dress, a kufiyah, a
sha’awal, a gellabiya. Once they have made contact, they are charming but determined
salesladies. It’s pleasant to sit on colourful rugs in the shade of the zula,
sift through their merchandise, and bargain playfully with them in basic Hebrew
as they laugh behind their veils. A
waiter from our camp brings them some food. Later we see them kneeling in
prayer and then taking a nap.
boys and girls aged from about 7 to 12, are also part of the operation and will
not hesitate to use emotional blackmail to make a sale: “You bought from
Mohammed and Jud, but not from me!” they complain in Hebrew. We agree to make more
unnecessary purchases on condition that they use the money for school books.
They nod solemnly that they will. We give them Bamba and pens for the madrasa.
with these friendly Hebrew-speaking Egyptian Bedouin on a superficial level
without understanding their lives, their codes, their tribal laws, how they've been impacted by the 21st century and by government discrimination.
If Bedouin women are allowed to sell jewellery to tourists
on the beach, why are they not allowed to work alongside men in restaurants or
shops? How would a man like Sayid, the worldly, dashing manager of our camp who
alternates between flowing robes and cutting edge western fashion and has sped
off to Cairo in his new BMW, relate to his wife, to his daughters?
5. A trip to
The taxi is
two hours late. The driver looks friendly but speaks no Hebrew. I’m sitting next to him and we are all
speeding recklessly towards Nuweiba City when we encounter a truck ahead of us. The driver
sits on its tail. We approach a blind curve. The driver looks at me with a
mischievous gleam in his eye signifying, “Whadya say? Shall I overtake the
truck and risk it?” “No, no!” I gesticulate wildly, stay in your own lane!” The
driver regards me piteously, revs up the engine and overtakes the truck. I try
not to look. We swerve round the curve with no margin for correction and are
not killed in a horrific and totally avoidable accident. The driver displays a smug
Nuweiba is a
town shut down. In the dusty old bazaar area there are more souvenir shops than
tourists. Inexplicably, Nuweiba’s northern and southern parts are divided by
about 5 kilometres of emptiness which we drive across to reach the grubby port
area for a meal at Doctor Shish Kebab where we are the only patrons. Soon it
will be Rosh Hashana and thousands of Israelis will start streaming into Sinai
but it seems unlikely that Nuweiba, with so little to offer, will be reaping
the benefits of their cash.
Nuweiba. Photo: Yotam Haviv
depressing urban experience it feels wonderful to return to nature. A wallow in the sea, a walk
along the beach in the twilight, crabs scurrying from their holes into the
water, mountains growing darker by the minute, the windsurfer skipping across the waves
for the last time today.
Key for the uninitiated: baksheesh - a tip;husha – a simple hut made of palm fronds; zula - a cosy shaded area lined with carpets, cushions and low tables; oud - a lute-like stringed instrument; darbuka - a hand drum; kufiyah - traditional headdress; sha'awal- baggy pants; gellabiya - traditional long sleeved garment worn over clothes by both men and women; Bamba - popular Israeli children's peanut snack; madrasa - school.