Blinded in the desert

Hospitality and hostility become blurred for a traveler stranded among Bedouins at the desolate tip of the Sinai.

Published June 19, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)


I shrug my shoulders to tell him I don't understand. Not that word. Not any word. I can't even look it up in my dictionary. It probably isn't Egyptian at all, but one of the many Bedouin dialects.

"Masari?" he says again, spitting out the word like an olive pit.

I look back at him, reading his face for clues. A dusty red-and-white checked headdress obscures all but the small oval from forehead to chin. Dirt has been ironed into a thousand lines by the desert and the sun. His eyes, even in the shadow of the room, are burnt into thin rheumy slits. Untamed jet-black eyebrows hint at the color of his hair. The lips are set in what can only be impatience, rapidly dissolving into anger. I can't tell what age he is, still less what he is saying.

"Masari?" he almost shouts it this time, "Masari? Felous? Felous?" It's obviously a question. Fumbling in the folds of his tunic, he extracts a disheveled Egyptian pound and waves it in my face.

Here it is. The moment I have been expecting for the last hour. Dreading. One thing I have learned from my few years on the road is that nothing is for nothing. It's exactly proportionate: the more foreign the country, the more I am regarded as a one-man walking business opportunity. The postcard that costs 5" to a local, costs $1 to me. The "set price" for the taxi ride from the airport magically inflates out of control as soon as I hit an open stretch of road. I'm perpetually on guard, seeing the rip-offs as obstacles to be avoided by the savvy traveler. The few times I get badly caught, I rationalize the loss. What does a dollar mean to me, after all, compared with its power in local currency. My simple camera is worth a year's worth of meals to a starving family. I have spent more on having a tooth capped than many Third World-ers will ever mass over a lifetime of grueling labor. And yet I feel a mounting indignation swelling inside, from a sense of my own gullibility, from allowing myself to be fooled like a common tourist.

But today I have committed the cardinal blunder. My caution overpowered by two days of aching hunger, I have accepted food and hospitality from a total stranger. Worse, he is a nomad, a desert dweller, dealing from a completely different deck of customs and values. For him "taking" is the same as "earning." And I followed him home, ate everything that was offered, and never agreed on a price in advance. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Now he is going to levy an enormous price -- somewhere between my money and my life on a few pieces of dehydrated bread, rubbery meat, and a tomato sucked dry by the sun. And the spirit in the sheep-bladder bottle would strip paint. Considering my choices, I look around the room.

We are sitting in what had been, just four months before, the living room of a modern, luxury condo. The place has been stripped to the bare walls leaving only a few hints of its former style. Chrome light fixtures in the shape of medieval torchieres hang upside down from wires as though someone had ripped them down in a hurry and given up half-way through. There is no electricity anyway. The broken-in door swings awkwardly on its hinges. The window panes are all broken and, caught by the late afternoon breeze of the sea, floral curtains wave out like flags. Dust covers everything in a softening film. In the middle of the green wall-to-wall shag carpet burns an open campfire made of broken drawers and paneling. Around its edge, the nylon weave is curling, sending up a black-smoke stench.

Around its edge lounge five other Bedouin men, all dressed in the same robes as my host, with traditional okal headdresses and the khangars at their belts. Clearly these half-swords are not just for show. Throughout the meal these men have looked over at me with dirty, gold-toothed smiles, obviously enjoying the game of ripping off the white-skinned foreigner. It occurs to me this is a familiar situation and I am probably not the first Westerner to be sharing this room and their food. If I run for the door, surely one of them will be there to block my exit. If not, I have no doubt, they will catch up with me in the streets below. The smiles will then be gone and who knows what will follow.

Seeing no alternative, I loosen the tails of my shirt, uncover and unzip my money belt. All my valuables are now on show. My watch, passport, the few traveler's checks I have, and the thick soiled wad of local currency. Glancing quickly at my host, I see his eyes widen. With my heart in my mouth I try to offset the inevitable. I say the one Egyptian word I know, "bekam?" (how much?).

The Sinai Peninsula is the huge triangle of desert dividing the two outstretched arms of the Red Sea. Above it teeters Israel; to the left, the great sprawl of Egypt. Its harsh, unforgiving lunar landscape is burnt as hard as a pot in a kiln. From a rugged mountainous interior, a boulder and scrub strewn terrain spills down to an unremarkable coast. One hue -- beige. Until you dip one inch below the surface of the sea. As if all the color had drained into the water, there lies a marine world of unimaginable beauty.

In 1982 the Sinai was on the front page of every newspaper. After three years of "preparation," Israel had honored the terms of Begin and Sadat's Camp David Accords and handed back the region to Egypt. Along with the desert, Egypt inherited all the buildings and infrastructure that had sprung up over the previous decade when the coasts along the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez had blossomed as the Riviera of the Middle East.

Naturally there was chaos. When the Israelis left they took everything with them. Everything that could be moved, unscrewed, dismantled or otherwise heaved on to flat-bed trucks and driven north. The pans and cookers from the hotel kitchens, the sinks and door knobs from the luxury apartments, the tiles from the walls, the contents of the luxury beach-front boutiques. And, of course they took all the food.

If I knew this at the time, I paid little attention. As a university student, my needs were simple and my tolerance for discomfort, high. Besides, my interest was far more Old Testament than media front page. For me the Sinai was the romantic bridge between Africa and Asia. It was birthplace of the alphabet, the stage-set of Exodus, where the seas had miraculously parted for the escaping Israelites, where God had spoken from the flames of a burning bush, where Moses had found and dropped the Ten Commandments, that summary of divine law. On another, more immediate level, the Sinai was also the site of the best scuba diving in the world. Compared with this, what could possibly be so bad?

Well, there was the temperature. In retrospect, August was probably not the best time to be carrying a 50-pound backpack through a desert described even by the guidebooks as "intensely hot." And there was the lack of any predictable transport. As I left the air-conditioned bars of Eilat, Israel, at my back and made my way on foot along the dusty road to the Egyptian border, the heat bore down on my head like a broiler, flooding the world with white heat, melting the horizon in a watery wash of quivering snakes.

At the border there were no crowds of flag-waving well-wishers, no congratulations, nothing of significance to mark my historic crossing but a few strands of barbed wire half-heartedly stretched across the road and curling off into the scrubby desert on either side. At the end of the hundred yards of no-man's land I came to the Egyptian line. To the left a soldier in a ragged uniform was sleeping off his lunch in the shade of the only tree. To the right, the border post -- a banged-up shed like a Porta-Cabin.

Inside, another soldier barked a single word, "felous," then remembering a few words of English, he repeated, "money, money." An official-looking sheet was thrust in my hands explaining in a collection of languages that everyone who passed across the border had to change an amount of dollars proportionate to the length of stay. No exceptions. Four days? Two hundred dollars -- an incredible amount which to me translated into at least 20 days of travel under normal circumstances. I handed over all the currency I had -- around 40 dollars -- with a shrug. After a few minutes of furious tapping on a decrepit addition machine, the soldier handed back to me an inch thick wad of notes, so soiled I could hardly make out their denominations. Doubtless, there had been a small commission for the officer's time.

I soon found out that in the Sinai it didn't matter how much money you had because there was nowhere to spend it. When the bus finally arrived a few hours later, the fare to Nuwaybi cost the smallest note in my wad. For the next few hours I sat, crammed in with a sweating mass of humanity and sundry livestock, as the bus creaked and groaned through a flat, unchanging landscape. The image of a cold beer and a good meal swam through my half-waking mind like a mantra.

But when I finally arrived in Nuwaybi, the once glamorous resort on the Gulf of Aqaba, I found that it was shut. Closed. Not open. The neat grid of streets was lined with boarded up stores, weeds were growing rampant through the sidewalk. Eventually I managed to pick up some falafel (deep-fried chick pea balls) and some bread, as dehydrated as the desert itself. That night I slept on the beach, underneath the boardwalk, burrowing deep inside my oppressively-hot down sleeping bag to escape the clouds of mosquitoes.

As the days followed a similar course, I began to associate more and more with the plight of the Israelites. It may not have been 40 years of privation and hunger but, as I made my way south, it certainly felt like it. The towns of Dhahab and Nabq were empty shells, all the more melancholy for what they had been so recently.

At least the Israelites had manna from heaven, whereas I was reduced to eating whatever I could find. A jar of jam for lunch, crackers for dinner, and one day -- oh the luxury -- some canned sardines. There wasn't even any diving to be had. The few dive shops that deserved the name were cobwebbed and dark, waiting for their equipment to arrive.

But it didn't matter because I had set my sights on the southernmost town of Sharm ash-Shaykh. Things would be different there, I was told. According to the guidebook, it was an oasis of civilization, studded with bars and restaurants. Furthermore it was the jumping-off point for the greatest dive site in the world. Under the surface at Ra's Muhammad, the very peak of the Sinai, the fish -- hammerheads, black-tips, rays as big as bed quilts -- were so plentiful, they blocked out the sun as the schools swam overhead.

Like any other mirage, the oasis of Sharm faded before my eyes, its promise evaporating into the dry sand as soon as I climbed from the bus one late afternoon. Like the towns that had gone before, an eerie vacancy haunted its main streets and beach-front, as if it was a film-set waiting for the extras to arrive. Gone were the tanned couples promenading, the tables spilling out of cafes onto the street, the bikini-ed beauties, the cool palm-decked lobbies of the big hotels. Gone were the expensive boats, the bars heaving with the aprhs-sun crowd. The only movement came from a few enduring old Mercedes kicking up clouds of dust and the occasional Bedouin leading camels on a tether. In the hollowed-out cavern of a store, I found a bearded German who told me, in broken English, he had come to start a scuba business but was now going back to Berlin to wait until the situation here improved. "Here there is no customers," he explained dejectedly. "If they come, they can stay nowhere, and eat nothing."

No food. I was so hungry by this stage, I was even ready to break my vow and choke down another falafel ball. So I started combing the back streets looking for a restaurant. The locals had to eat some where, didn't they? I approached a few people, but they only shook their heads or pointed off in a vague direction. It was then that I saw my Bedouin and asked him in polyglot -- raising my hand to my mouth and shrugging my shoulders -- if he knew of any food.

To my surprise he beckoned to me to follow. Staying thirty yards ahead of me with his long strides and flowing robes, he set off through a white maze of alleys. After each corner I became more disoriented, more and more concerned I was being led into some sort of trap. What was stopping this desert savage pulling me into a doorway and sliding his knife across my white throat? In my backpack there were surely items of clothing that would be of use or amusement. At each turn my guide turned and beckoned me on again as if anxious I would lose interest and turn around.

After fifteen minutes I was so lost, I had to keep going. Then suddenly he stopped and, without a smile, imitated my gesture of eating and pointed up some exterior stairs to an upstairs apartment in a block of luxury condos. I hesitated. He repeated the gesture and urged me on. On the second landing he pushed open a door that hung loose on its hinges; clearly it had been jimmied open. Walking into the room I smelt first the stench of singeing carpet, then, as my eyes grew accustomed to the smoke and darkness, I saw the group crouched around the fire. They looked up at us. Our friend explained and smiles broke out. Obviously they liked his plan.

For the next hour I sat aside from the main group, leaning against one of the walls. There was no attempt at conversation. Nobody spoke. In silence -- as slowly and deliberately as if they always cooked their food on a fire in the middle of a carpet -- the Bedouin pieced hunks of fresh meat on the end of their knives, roasted them over the embers, then slid them off onto clean slabs of paneling that one of them ripped off the wall. After adding fresh salad and bread, my host passed a mounded plate over to me. I was too hungry to wonder where the fresh food came from, what the meat was, or what my new friends were expecting in return. Only when the meal was over and the food had cleared my head, did I realize the bad situation I was in.

"Bekam?" I say again, fully expecting my host to dispense with formalities, reach in and empty my money belt.

After a long minute he repeats the word at the others as if it's the biggest joke he has heard in ages. He says it again, pointing at me. The Bedouin around the fire sit up to enjoy the scene. Gold teeth glint in wide grins.

Nervously I take out one of the bigger bills and hold it out. But it's not enough. My host shakes his head. I take out more bills. Still he shakes his head. It happens a third time. Just when I'm about to hand over the entire wad, he leaps up and goes over to the air conditioning unit below one of the windows. He struggles with it, twisting it from side to side, until it comes clear of the wall. Rummaging in the exposed insulation, he pulls out a simple black metal box and brings it over to me, placing it as gently as an egg in my hands. He signals me to open it, which I do, fearfully, bracing for a trick. It's full of money. I pick some up and look up inquiringly at the man's face. Seeing my confusion, he leans over and closes my fist around the pound notes I have drawn from the box. I look around at the others. They are smiling encouragement.

Suddenly I understand what's going on. The realization hits me like a slap. The blood rushes to my face as the great temple of my Westernized preconceptions and prejudices collapses in a heap around me. To them I am not a condescending rich kid on vacation or a gullible traveler ripe for exploitation. They simply see another nomad who is in need. They see a beggar. They are not trying to take my money. They are trying to give me theirs.

Copyright )1998 Travelers' Tales, Inc. Used with permission of Andrew Bill.

By Andrew Bill

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