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Taking tea in the Sinai

Who’s not heard of the Sinai, its mentioned in the Torah, Bible and the Qur’an…Who ever thought that I would end up in the mountains of the Sinai, sipping tea and conversing with the local Bedouins in their own tongue…Exhausted from my hectic life in Cairo, I decided to take a solo journey to this holy place to explore the interior around Mt. Sinai (AKA Mt. Moses)…Starting from a bus station named Turgoman in an industrial part of Cairo, I boarded a  bus which zigzagged its way out of the city, past the millions and millions of people, cars, donkeys and brown apartment blocks.  Slowly as we reached the suburbs of Cairo, the sky became lighter, almost blue, and my lungs started to open once again. The bus pushed on until it reached a straight desert road; on both sides nothing but desolate desert and ruins of half-finished government and military ‘projects’.  Every so often we would pass a rest stop with the usual truckers and bus passengers using the short break to take a few puffs of their cigarettes and check each other out. After 2 or so hours we began to enter Suez City, or maybe it was only the suburbs.  In any case it consisted of a depressing area named Mubarak after the worthy President of the country.  Tall brown towers with paint and plaster falling off set among desolate wasteland, no roads to talk about, and no stores or any feeling that one is in a town of human inhabitants.  The bus dropped off some passengers in this no man’s land and picked up its new victims.  Soon after we proceeded on our way, and after a short while and a police check, we were journeying in a tunnel underneath the Suez Canal (Qanat Swiss).

Voila, on the other side we reached the Sinai, and already on the coast I could make out the terrible development projects polluting the Red Sea. Rows and rows of villas and holidays flats lining the beaches, and trash piled up on either side of them. The very place where Moses and the Israelites crossed the sea is now a developer’s paradise… For several hours I was forced to observe this repetitive scenery. Several times I thought that a section of the coast had escaped from development, only to see a military sign and barbed wire surrounding an area filled with land mines. After a few hours, we passed a town called Ayuun Musa (the wells of Moses) where it was said that Moses struck his stick on a rock and 12 springs came gushing forth. Here I spotted groves of palm trees, Bedouin women covered completely in black veils and even more holiday spots.  The bus continued, and I breathed gasps of relief that my destination was not on the coast, because the development starts from the Suez Canal, continues to Sharm el-Sheikh in the south and once again continues northwards until the border of Israel at the town of Taba. All originally built by the Israeli’s as a cheap vacation resorts when they once controlled the Sinai. Finally, we entered into the mountains of Sinai, and not a sign of holiday development was in sight.

The Bedouins say that Egyptians are scared of the mountains, scared of empty places and of walking.  This is the reason for the absence of holiday villas.  Instead poor Bedouin settlements dot the road, and sometimes palm tree oasis’s and gardens can be seen. This area is known as Wadi Feiran (The Valley of Mice), is inhabited by impoverished Bedouin who live off their illegal drug crops and date sales.  The road passes through narrow valleys surrounded on either side by high and jagged mountains unique to the Sinai. Thank God, after a grueling 8 hour drive Egyptian style bus ride, we pulled into the town of St. Catherine.  Almost immediately, loaded with my backpack and sleeping bag I headed off in search of the infamous Sheikh Musa, who is the head of all Bedouin guides in the area.  I found his office, and after a tough bargaining session, set off with my friendly guide, Amm Musa (Uncle Moses). 

Amm Musa was in his fifties, which in the Bedouin community is very old.  He had a very amiable face, weather-worn skin and a grandfatherly smile. With just a few teeth remaining, his diet was limited to bread and soft foods, making him very slim, although he walked like a youth of eighteen.  He was soft-spoken, speaking only when necessary or to talk about the hardships of the olden days and the laziness of the young Bedouins.  He wore the same dirty brown tunic and red-checkered Arab headscarf day after day and a pair of brand new sneakers on his feet. Fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, he was also a great bread and tea maker and knew every rock, plant and path in the area.

We were the only non-Israelis to be seen, every other backpacker was a young Israeli just let off from the army. We began our moonlit hike at 11pm at night, not wanting to attempt the climb up the mountain in the daytime heat.  After several hours of a grueling hike up a steep mountain trail and then winding our way among the rocky valley, we arrived to the home of Amm Musa where we found his wife, Amarriya, and daughter Farhana, sipping tea in front of the desert shrub fire.  Amarriya was a very kind woman, a woman in love with the mountains. Every other sentence she uttered would express her love of the mountains and their beauty. Her outer dress consisted of a black sheet which she wound around her body, in the Bedouin fashion.  Underneath she wore a richly embroidered cloth covering her lower face, and her headscarf was pulled back to reveal intricately braided hair.  On her feet she wore worn tennis shoes which could have been from Target.  Her daughter Farhana was a typical Bedouin youth more interested in television and modernity than doing things the old way. While both her parents were illiterate, Farhana was in high school where she learned computers, science, English, French and of course Arabic.

As custom demands, they immediately served me tea and then bedded me down in a stone hut with an open roof.  After a very restful night, I awoke to take in my surrounding and to meet my hosts.  This was to be our new home for the next week or so, and what a place it was. My hosts lived in a little stone hut in a wadi next to a beautiful ginayna (garden) and further down the valley lay many more large walled gardens all belonging to Amm Musa.  I set up my tent in the furthest garden, amongst ripening grape vines, fig and apple trees.  Every morning when I awoke I would reach up and pluck a few fat purple grapes. I obtained my water daily from a well in a lower garden, lowering a bucket in it into the deep well; I had to draw the water quickly due to a hole in the bottom of the bucket; half of the water would be gone by the time it reached the top.

The days were very peaceful, each morning Amm Musa would come by and invite us for the morning tea, and bring freshly made Bedouin bread.  This bread was delicious and in such as simple manner.  In his outdoor kitchen, Amm Musa would take a flat piece of wood and place it on the ground as a makeshift kitchen counter.  In an ancient tin bowl he would mix the flour, oil, salt and water and knead it for a while.  Meanwhile he would start the wood fire and place the lid of an oil barrel on top.  Each time he formed a flat piece of bread he would pop it onto the lid of the oil barrel, flipping it with his bare hands until it was done.   As for dinner, Amarriya would gather fresh vegetables from her garden and produce a hearty and delicious vegetable stew in a little old tin pot on top of the fire.  The main garden also acted as the kitchen, with each tree holding various foods, the pomegranate tree held the precious articles, oil and flour, while the apple tree held various canned goods. 

A life so simple and so beautiful, they had no desire of riches and mansions, just freedom in the mountains and enough food to get through the day. I was so grateful for my Arabic skills, as I was able to sit with them and listen to their stories, complaints and praises and to fully participate in the conversations.  I learned much about the Bedouin life, the old ways of life and the modern ways, problems with confrontation with modernity, problems with water shortages and the high prices of daily living.  Daily we would hike the surrounding mountains and valleys, climbing up high mountains with a view of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Catherine.  The rocks and mountains all seemed alive, full of energy and sending out strong vibrations.  In many places, old Bedouin settlements with abandoned gardens were to be found, all deserted either because the water supply ended or because the families moved to the ‘balad’, the main modern village of the Bedouins set in a wide valley near the monastery of St. Catherine.  Most families preferred living ‘down there’, where they could watch TV, get running water and take part in ‘modern’ society. 

At the top of the mountains, one could look upon the entire area, and just fall back onto the strong wind.  One valley was filled with huge boulders, offering a comfortable sitting area in the cool shade.  It was in this valley that a Christian monk had previously made this valley his home for many years; he had added mud bricks around one of these boulder caves, to make a dark and narrow sleeping room.   There were also the remains of a wall, which formerly had enclosed his garden where he had grown his own food.  Amm Musa told me that in the olden days the Greek monks from St. Catherine’s monastery used to live alone in complete solitude, each in a different location not more than a days journey from the monastery.  They obtained their water from wells, ate from their gardens and spent their days and night in prayer and worship.

During the hikes, I constantly questioned Amm Musa about every plant and thus was able to learn about the uses of the local plants. So the days passed in serenity and relaxation.  It felt wonderful to be free of responsibilities for one week, with my only goal to wander in the mountains of Sinai and watch the night sky dense with stars and meteors.

On the last day, I sat a long while with Amm Musa and Amarryia, involved in the Arab custom of exchanging compliments and future hopes of visitation.  With that, I loaded up my bags with figs, almonds and honey from the mountains and in a few hours found myself back in the ‘balad’. Running water and electricity, it was all too much. With much regret, I boarded the bus back to Cairo, back to reality, back to traffic jams and brown skies.

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