My Heart is in Sinai

Why was I, a nihilistic agnostic, going to Sinai, the land connecting the Middle Eastern world to the continent of Africa; where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments, one of the most significant places amongst the Abrahamic religions? Beyond religiously held importance, it has been a politically strategic area in the Arab-Israeli issue. Connecting Israel and Egypt, the 1957 Suez Crisis, the 1967 June war and the 1973 October War (aka Yom Kippur war) were each fought over the Sinai. Today, it is a place fought over between Islamic extremists and the authoritative entities of its surrounding nation-states. In 2018 the schools in the region were all shut down, due to Egyptian and Israeli authority cooperating (a big feat, considering their recent history) in battling Islamic State, which has control over parts of the Northern territories. However, the South, is considered, overall, to be safe, protected by its tourism and Bedouins.

The “Sinai Trafficking Cycle” is another phenomenon in the Sinai. It refers to the ransom of humans, mainly Eritreans, occur. These Eritreans are fleeing from the Eritrean dictatorship, only to be caught up in a web of corrupt Egyptian, Sudanese and Israeli officials along the borders and within Sinai. Many attempt to reach Israel, however they are instead greeted with things like Israel’s Anti-Infiltration Law, which doesn’t protect refugees but merely treats them as social deviants (instilled originally in 1954 under the Prevention to Infiltration Law aimed at Palestinians or nationals from other Arab countries Israel was not allies with). These each, in turn, contribute to this cycle of extortion.

Yet Sinai is more than its political, economic and religious affiliations – it is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I traveled to Dahab (meaning “gold” in Arabic), and Rashidun. These two places were quite different from one another. Our first stop, Dahab, was a brightly little coloured town, where you could smell the salty breeze throughout. Many hippie expats and travelers were there- many scuba divers, and the like. We rented bikes and biked to the edge of the slice of land we were on. There were some Bedouin’s there, who had tents set up, horses grazing by, and would come and offer us tea and other little trinkets. So we settled there, gazing into the mirage of the brilliant sun , the sea, the rocky mountains surrounding us, and let our imaginations carry us away.

At one point, a Bedouin man came and lay near to us, but he wrapped a blanket under him so it ballooned over him in the wind. There he slept peacefully on the sand next to the sea. I could tell he was a Bedouin due to their relaxed manner, the way they work with the land, and their calm, serendipitous expressions.

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Our next stop was Rashidun. This is not a place many tourists or foreigners go to. Indeed, there was only about 30 huts or so, and almost all were empty. A few Bedouin’s that took care of the place would cook us dinner every night. There was one communal bathroom with cold water. We washed our swimsuits and towels in the ocean. I’ll admit, the first night I let my fears get the better of me, promising myself I’d leave the very next morning. However, I slept better than I had for a very long time. Our hut was about 10 meters from the sea, and falling asleep to the sound of the waves that stretched on to the horizon and then fell over the horizon, made me feel comfortably cocooned.

We climbed a jagged rock mountain, with a stray dog who eyed us suspiciously about half-way up and whom we eyed back suspiciously, but alas it did not leap at us nor did it bite us, it was, contrary to my fears, not rabid. The top of the mountain was very rewarding. I’m not sure if a word for this feeling exists in other languages, but in Mandarin and English it does not- the feeling one gets when atop of a mountain, and when looking down on the land and the little ant-like human figures that from below seem like everything; it puts things into perspectives and makes one realise (remember?) our place in the grand scheme of things.

 

Things Are Not What They Seem

The second time I visited Egypt was one week after I had left – that’s how long it was bearable for me to be away. I wanted to find a tabla (Indian drums) for my aunt, who lives in Oxford and loves playing the tabla. I found myself walking along Muhammad Ali Street, chaotic and full of musical shops. Not realising the word for tabla in Arabic was “tabla”, I had the image of a tabla on my phone, which I would gingerly show men* as I walked down the street.

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Finally, one young boy took my phone, and began to walk away with it, while motioning for me to follow him. Alarmed, I immediately began following him, preparing myself to sprint after him if he decided to bolt with my phone. He brought me to a little shop where there was a round, little old man sitting inside, with a pair of spectacles hanging around his neck, and he was happily talking away in Arabic on the phone. The young boy and I awkwardly waited there (he still had my phone), before the little old man hung up the phone, looked at me with smiling eyes surrounded by wrinkles, and said (in quite good English) to me, “Good Morning!

It was a great feeling to find someone who could speak some English, perhaps the first for a few days. “Good Morning!” I replied back to him happily. Soon enough, he and the young boy had invited me in for tea at least three times. I could no longer refuse. So there I was, sitting in a store with this round little old man whose name I can’t remember, drinking hot tea in little plastic cups with no milk, chatting away happily. He asked me many questions, and had me write my email down on a piece of paper. Ah, the difference between the Instagram, Twitter, and FaceBook dominated first world! At one point I was on the phone talking to his brother who lived in England and his brother’s wife. Finally, he led me to another shop, where they sold tablas, and where I, according to him, got a tabla for supposedly much cheaper the original price.

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My experiences in Egypt are filled with stories like this. The kinds of stories that only happens in a country free of the burdens of the everyday rush, the 9-5, the commutes, the competition of who-can-make-the-most-money-the-quickest; it is a society where human connection, a conversation over some tea, under the golden haze of the sun that is only quite so golden in Egypt, and عيش (“aish”, the Egyptian Arabic word for “bread”, literally meaning “life”- this is symbolic of their society and views), is everything. It wasn’t long before I had fallen in love with the Egyptian sun, their aesh beladin (Egyptian flatbread) ,طعمية (“ta’ameya”, Egyptian falafel made with fava beans) , and the Egyptian people and society itself.

One of the nights that trip I found myself at a concert of Ghalia Benali, the Tunisian singer who is extremely influential in the Arab world for contemporary Arabic music. It was set inside a huge mosque, with babies, grandparents, families with members of all ages there, spread out across the grass. Some had brought stools. By the time it was the end of the concert, people had stood up on stools to see her better (some brave individuals even stood on the backs of chairs). Everyone clapped to the tune, as, in that moment, we were all connected, through the same vibrations that coursed through our bodies, our hands clapping in the same movements harmoniously.

*Men due to the fact that most of the people on the streets in Egypt are men. There are many factors due to this. As a religious, military state, where women do not enjoy the freedoms such as they may in the US or UK, or other democratic Western countries, the men are often sauntering in the street, gazing at you. This is also due to the destitute state of the economy currently, rendering many bored out of their minds everyday.

Greatly Misunderstood

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“Boy on Dirt Road.” Taken in downtown Cairo, August 2017.

“Greatly misunderstood” was one of the most prominent, recurring thoughts that occurred to me when I first went to Egypt. Alone, armed with a few months of self-taught Arabic as well as a one month intensive course at SOAS, I arrived in Cairo in July of 2017. Something had propelled me to go to one of the four most ancient civilisations of our world, alongside China, the Harappan civilisation and Mesopotamia. The country of the pyramids, of camels, of heat, of pharaohs. But Egypt was so much more than that. Not only a strategically important area in the region, with it’s history of battling the Sinai over Israel, but also connecting the African continent to the Middle Eastern world, while also at a crossroads between Europe and Africa.

I had constantly been warned of going to Egypt. My experiences showed me a kindness of people’s that didn’t have much – as Egypt’s economy is suffering even more so after the 2011-2013 Arab Spring(s) than before. Tourism has inevitably taken a massive hit in the country due to the current political climate, and tourism accounts for around 13% of the Egyptian economy. Taxi drivers, shop-keepers, and the like each would bring up the degree to which the economy has suffered since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Egypt is currently a military state. There are tanks on the street, military checkpoints every few blocks. However, I saw people approaching the policemen on the street, asking for help with parking their cars. The police would be sitting on pulled up chairs by the side of the street, holding little glasses of شاي (“shay”, meaning: tea) with no milk. The second or third time I arrived in Cairo, I had forgotten to bring USD currency with me. The reason why I needed USD was due to the fact that they only accepted USD to purchase a tourist visa at Cairo International Airport, and I had foolishly arrived with Chinese Yuan (RMB) and the Egyptian Pound. This is one of the ways they get USD into the country, and the rules were therefore rather strict. I found I was unable to purchase my tourist visa without USD. Panicked, I ran to the ATM in the airport. Alas, it was broken. Not knowing what else to do, I hastily approached a police officer. His sun-beaten face quivered with the slightest hint of a smile as I frantically explained to him the issue. Once I was finished, he motioned for me to follow him. He went up to the desk where they would issue visitors their visas, yelling at them in rapid Arabic. The young man behind the desk looked at him a bit crossly, then, without so much more as a nod, beckoned for my cash. Once I had gotten my visa, I thanked the policeman. It was then that he looked at me, smiled, and said “welcome to Egypt.”