Once upon a time in the Sinai desert

An impetuous camel safari with two Bedouin guides opens up an enduring ancient world.

Published June 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Beyond the windows of the bus, the sandy mountains of the Sinai desert rolled by. Off in the distance, rounding a terra-cotta-colored hill, a woman in black tended sheep. She seemed to have alighted in the middle of the vast landscape like a crow, ready to disappear.

The Bedouin, tribes of desert nomads, have inhabited the Sinai for centuries, living lightly on the land, grazing sheep and goats, picking up and moving from water hole to oasis with the weather. Except for a few schools and places where tourists can have tea and buy trinkets, the Bedouin live the way they probably lived a millennium ago, careless that the rest of the world around them is accelerating fast.

The Sinai looked untouched by time, exactly as it had looked when I was first in Egypt 15 years ago. This time I was on a bus, enclosed, watching the landscape roll by like a video. Then I'd been out in the open, exploring freely, taking a risk that might not be possible today, not in an era when tourists have been gunned down in Egypt and even the gentle Bedouin have become less friendly to passersby, more aggressive for baksheesh. Fifteen years ago I took off on a whim with a pair of Bedouin men and two other American women into the empty, rugged mountains for four days, days that stand in my memory like red rocks against the sky.

I had been living on a kibbutz in Israel for three months, working mainly as a fisherman, when I decided to visit the Sinai with two fellow kibbutz volunteers. It was 1983, and the peninsula had just been ceded to Egypt from Israel; it was still virgin territory, except to the Bedouin, who had lived there forever. The bus dropped us off in a village, Nueva, on the coast. It looked like a medieval settlement, with haphazard stone structures, blanket-sided huts and a creaky well in the center. Men were out fishing in rickety boats. A woman was wading in the water in long, wet skirts; she caught an octopus with her bare hands and twisted its head off.

We approached the settlement tentatively, then saw other travelers camped there. We spoke to them and before long, a couple of Bedouin men in long, cotton jellabayas came over to build a fire and offer us tea. Iash, a lanky, bristly mustached man, poured the tea and gave me a cup.

I drank some and passed it along to my friend. No, he instructed me, it is the Bedouin custom that each has his own cup of tea, then the cup is swished with water, then the other has his. "Slowly, slowly."

As primitive and impoverished as their huts of cardboard and spike ferns seemed to me, theirs was a culture with a highly refined sense of etiquette. We sat by the campfire, quietly, and watched the moon rise orange over the Red Sea.

After nightfall, one of the men brought out a guitar, playing a vibrating, metallic melody, while the others laughed and sang. We moved inside a big abandoned Israeli army bus lined with red blankets and sat cross-legged in a circle. The Bedouins passed around cans of grapefruit juice, big spliffs and a booklet of photos of the Egyptian president. A Swiss woman who had married a Bedouin man joined us; unveiled, she seemed accepted as an honorary man. One man played music, the rest clapped and another got up, tied his headdress around his waist and mimicked a belly dancer, shaking the whole bus. A German man asked where the Bedouin women were.

"The men here, the women there," said the ersatz belly dancer, pointing off toward the huts. "Each in his place." The men mixed with tourists, spoke a little English, drove pickup trucks and more or less lived in the late 20th century. The women, hidden in the huts or out grazing goats, were from a more ancient time.

The next morning, rolling up my sleeping bag on the beach, I asked Iash if I could ride a camel. I had in mind climbing aboard and being led around in a circle for a few minutes before getting back down. He seemed quite happy to let me ride, and then disappeared for a long time. Slowly, slowly, I thought. After about three hours, he reappeared with three camels, fully loaded with blankets and woven, tasseled bags, and a younger friend, Salim.

"What's this?" I asked, and he told me the camels were ready for the ride. Where? He pointed to the mountains rising out of the desert. I glanced at my two companions, and asked him how long. "Four, five days, maybe a week," he said, smiling. "Ten dollars a day, meals included."

I suppose I might have thought twice before going off on a camel into unpopulated desert mountains for several days, completely at the mercy of a Bedouin man I hardly knew. But I immediately said yes for all of us.

Iash nodded happily and began adding provisions to the camel bags. My companions seemed anxious, maybe even a little pissed off at me, but I waved away their fears. You develop a gut instinct when you travel: Either you trust someone or you don't, and I trusted Iash.

You only live once, I told them. I'm going, and you aren't going to let me go alone, are you? Claire needed me to travel with her to Alexandria, where her father had lived, so she had to humor me or travel through Egypt by herself. Linda was afraid to be left alone at all, so she decided to come along, too. Besides, she was a farm girl from Wyoming and pretty soon she would have to go back to that dull farm. I rushed to gather my things, and Linda and Claire followed more slowly.

The lurch up the camel the first time was a surprise. They are ornery, bony beasts, and the wooden saddle made them no more comfortable, even with our sleeping bags piled on top. We first rode to a military station to register our trip. Linda and Claire were somewhat relieved that some official somebody would know we had taken off into the mountains with these fierce-looking Bedouins.

At the barracks, we were swarmed with polyester-clad military men who wanted their pictures taken on a camel. Iash relented only if he could have his photo taken on a helicopter, smiling broadly. When we finally set out, I asked him about the peacekeeping force, and the changes since the Egyptians took over, and he shrugged. "We Bedouins don't care what they do," he said. "We make no problems. We're not Arabs, we're not Israelis. We're Bedouins. We were here before and we will be here after all of them."

We headed up a wadi that ran through creviced rock, a stream of dust, empty except for an occasional scrub tree. Here and there a black-cloaked woman walked her goats. The sun, the swaying camels and the slowly swirling rocks were hypnotizing. Salim, Iash's younger relative, lit up spliff after spliff of Bedouin tobacco as we wound up the canyon. The camels frothed and brayed and now and then gurgled up a red sac that lolled out of their mouths like a bladder. Soon, saddle-sore, we didn't care if we ever rode a camel again, and were glad to reach the shallow watering hole and sheltering rock where we camped.

We scattered across the canyon to gather twigs for the fire. The stillness was so complete that the crunching of our shoes on the smooth pink rocks was unbearably loud. There was so little alive in the canyon that I was sure the rocks themselves were growing.

We sat on our saddle blankets around the fire. Iash and Salim made balls of bread, patted them into flats and buried them in the ashes. When they pulled them out, they were bubbly and charred; we scraped off the cinders and ate the doughy bread dipped in tomatoes and onions. While we ate, the Bedouins asked us to tell them stories of the world they would never travel.

Linda described man-eating grizzly bears from the mountains in Wyoming. Claire told them about skyscrapers in New York. I compared their land with the Southwestern United States, and described a desert canyon so deep it would take a day by camel to reach the river at the bottom.

Then they wanted American songs. Salim knew one: "We don't need no education," he sang. "Pink Floyd!" he told us, pleased with himself. Iash asked what "education" meant. We told him it meant school, and he flipped his turban disdainfully. "What's the use of school?" he asked. "A man studies, and his brother goes out and lives, and who knows more?"

As it got cold, we pulled the saddle blankets tight around ourselves and waited for the moon to rise. "She comes," said Salim, as the sky dimmed the stars. Sometime during the night, Salim threw his skinny brown leg over Linda's sturdy white one, but she reproached him sternly, Iash listening in. He declared to Allah that it was an accident, and we never had any more problems.

The next day we rode from canyon to canyon, seemingly lost, until we came upon a stand of palm trees and shacks where Iash and Salim's relatives lived. Inside a hut made of burlap and thin wood, we sat around a fire while the women made us tea. This was the only time we interacted with the women, and they seemed shy, avoiding our eyes, one mother intently picking insects from her baby's hair. An older woman entered the hut with eight baby goats trailing behind. She shrieked at Iash for several minutes before nodding to us.

We drank tea, ate some bread and traded our silver jewelry for their beaded bracelets. We gave them Israeli cigarettes, which they puffed through the thin black gauze shrouding their faces. With Iash translating, one woman ventured to ask us how old we were, whether we were married and where our children were. They were shocked to learn that at 22 years old, I was still single. They lined my eyes with black kohl to improve my luck.

The grounds around the settlement were littered with plastic, goat turds, papers and old tin cans. The Bedouin just threw whatever they were finished with around them. Nor did they build bathrooms, or even holes in the ground. At first this seemed like disrespect for the environment, which was odd for a people who say you should never cut down a tree because you are felling an old soul. But after a while I realized they are such a part of the land that surrounds them that they don't separate their trash; it, too, is part of where they live, no different from the shrubs. They have no more sense of "wilderness" than people who have never been outside the inner city.

The next day, we rode in the stillness for hours, to another oasis, with large stands of palm trees, where we encountered a few other travelers. We built a fire and listened to an international radio station, passing spliffs and watching the stars and the flames, which now and then flared into a blaze as the dried palm fronds burned. The radio played Arab disco and Brazilian pop. The Bedouins encouraged us to dance, and finally Claire, her eyes still rimmed with kohl, put a scarf around her broad waist and belly danced.

The Bedouin men were amazed that she knew the dance, that across the world in California they teach classes in belly dancing. "You can really dance!" said Iash.

I didn't get up until a classical piece came on. I bowed, picked up a stick and conducted them in an orchestra, the Bedouins pretending to play along with horns and violins, sitting up stiffly as the English would, then falling back, laughing, into their usual squat.

The sky began to lighten, and we all waited, excited, for the moon to rise. I left the group to wander around the canyon. In five minutes I was as alone as I had ever been, standing in a canyon with faintly twinkling sand. The moon rose and cast crawling shadows on the jagged rocks. It spotlit corners and slid into cracks. Finally it peeked over a mountain and the riverbed was washed with glow. I ran and ran through the canyon, playing hide-and-seek with the moon.

In the morning we were up early, rolling up our blankets and sleeping bags, drinking cups of tea before our journey back to the coast. It was painful to get back up on the camel; I was so sore, I would have walked, except we were making time. The camels knew they were on their way home, and instead of their awkward, jarring gait, they began to run. I lost all thought except to marvel at the swiftness and smoothness of this beast I had originally just wanted to sit on to have my picture taken. We were going maybe 10 miles an hour; it felt like 40.

The camels slowed as we reached some fences and settlements. Iash sputtered with indignation at the sight of the fences. "Why do they think this land is theirs?" he said. "Are they crazy that they think they can put fences on the land and make it theirs?"

Finally we were back, presenting ourselves, unharmed, to the military guys, who tried to ask for cigarettes for whatever favors they'd done us. Back at Nueva, Salim hissed and tugged and smacked my camel, and I slid off. I practically ran into the ocean to swim, to feel clean and cool and soothed after the ride. I washed all my clothes to rid them of the camel smell, laid them out in the sun on the beach and read in the afternoon, while Linda went out fishing with Iash and caught dinner.

We had a goodbye festival, eating fish with our fingers and drinking beer. Salim fashioned a turban on Linda's head and pretended to cry at how beautiful she looked. No one in that big cowgirl's life had ever told her she was beautiful before, and in that headdress, she was. Salim made up Arabic songs for us, singing them as he shook a plastic bag filled with empty beer cans to keep time.

I sat next to the Swiss woman in the hut eating dinner. I asked her if it was difficult to live among the Bedouin after coming from a country where women can do what they please. She flicked her bracelets in annoyance. "My husband's family tells me what to do and what I shouldn't do, but I don't care," she said. "Some of the women don't like me because I'm free and they're not." She sat down to eat her fish head and wouldn't answer any more questions. "Look," she said, "I have two strong camels and take tourists for rides. If you come back, you ask me for a ride."

We departed, taking a bus down the coast to Sharm-El-Sheik, a town on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It was a village where a few hippies and scuba divers had found an underwater paradise of vast coral reefs with fluorescent fish. The town was so small there was only one hostel to stay in, but it had clean sheets and cold running water and we felt like we'd never encountered such luxury. We found the one store. It sold orange jam, soap flakes, corned beef, sardines and pita bread with bugs baked into it (which we picked out to eat because there was nothing else). We loaded up on supplies to make our way to St. Catharine's Monastery out in the desert, where we hiked up Mount Sinai, and got a view of the whole desert range turning shades of pink and orange as the sun went down.

Fifteen years later, I flew in to Sharm-El-Sheik's airport. There were ads there for the Hard Rock Cafe, casinos and golf resorts. A four-lane highway took us to our hotel, which had cabanas and a disco. Now Sharm has 30,000 hotel rooms stretching along its shores. The town is completely artificial, dependent on new technology. If the desalinization plants that each resort operates stopped running, everyone would flee, leaving only the Bedouin who know how to live in this dry land.

I never thought I would come back to the Sinai. I told our tour guide, Hany Iskander from South Sinai Travel, about my trip several years ago. Iash is still there, he told me; so is the Swiss woman. It is still possible, he said, to arrange for a camel safari through his company, to get far into the wilderness for a few days. It was tempting to try to relive such an enchanting trip, but I thought about the jeeps, the printed itineraries, the cook and the armed guard, and I knew it was impossible. I would never return to the Sinai again.

By Laura Fraser

Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Her most recent book is An Italian Affair (Vintage).

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