Much has happened in Egypt since I last wrote; probably too much to summarize at this point. Between Arabic study and work, I failed to write much of anything over the past few months, but I intend to remedy that now. As promised, here are a few impressions of our trip through the Sinai Peninsula back in October.
It’s Eid al Adha. I wake early, and shake off my five hours of sleep. While gathering my still-wet clothes from the clothesline, I think about the nine-hour trip that lies ahead. My husband and I and a few friends are taking a bus from Cairo to Dahab, an idyllic-sounding beach town on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba. I have a few days off from my Arabic program because of Eid, and getting out of Cairo (it would be the first time in several months) seems like a good idea. Fresh air, a change of pace, that sort of thing.
Beyond that, Cairo is still recovering from a recent paryoxysm of violence. Fifty people died last weekend when protesters turned out to demonstrate against the military-backed government during Egypt’s national holiday marking the 1973 war with Israel. Egyptian security forces attacked the pro-Morsi protesters with live ammunition, and followed some of them into our neighborhood. From our balconies, my neighbors and I watched people fleeing the army on our quiet side street. Following the Sunday protests, there were three more attacks on Monday – one in Suez, one in Sinai, and one in the Cairo expat neighborhood of Maadi, where armed gunmen with RPGs targeted a telecom station.
Dahab, in contrast, we were promised by friends, is serene. Guidebooks present it as an old backpacker stop-off, where visitors can find good hash and always stay longer than expected. It’s located in the southeastern part of the Sinai peninsula, close to Sharm el Sheikh, but lacks the over-the-top luxury, the Russian patronage, the Vegas-like casinos and hotels. I want to get there and relax in short succession, but in order to do that we have to travel through Sinai, which has seen three separate attacks in the past two weeks alone. There’s a small risk that something could happen during our bus trip. It’s not significant, but it’s enough to keep my mind working overtime.
Leaving Cairo by bus
My husband and I and a friend who is traveling with us hail a taxi on Tahrir street to Turgoman bus station. Our taxi has to take a winding, circuitous route to bypass several maydans that are blocked off with army tanks and barbed wire. We pass Tahrir Square, and I notice that it is completely closed by six tanks and several police vans. Like the rest of Cairo’s 20 million inhabitants, we have grown accustomed to the traffic jams and the uncanny feeling that we are under some vague form of people-approved military occupation. But today, it seems a bad omen.
At the station, the three of us buy tickets, then descend two escalators and purchase some sustenance for the trip – the ubiquitous Chipsys, Snickers, some water and soda. After meeting up with two more friends – we now number five – we follow a man yelling “Dahab” and board the bus.
I discover that we know two of the other passengers, which isn’t really a surprise. The expat community here is small, and everyone seems to be getting out of town for the holiday. As our bus weaves its way through Cairo, we pass people pouring out of the mosques. Two different coalitions have called for more protests today around the city, and I wonder if we will get caught in the ensuing traffic. We finally reach the outskirts of the city around 1 pm, and I slowly let all of the air that was building up in my lungs. We have beat the traffic and avoided getting held up in any protest marches. Now the only thing that lies between us and Dahab is the peninsula.
Kushk; leaving Cairo
Leaving Cairo, we pass wealthy compounds with tall walls which shelter palm trees and villas. Their red tile roofs remind me of gated communities, or a Los Angeles suburb. Up the road is Cairo English School, with its fleet of sleek buses parked outside. Billboards advertise Mirage Mall, where one can ‘Shop with Style.’
We also pass miles of empty, square, unfinished brick buildings which litter the horizon with their cereal-box shapes. The brick melts into sand, and we see nothing for miles and miles save for a few soldiers in small lookout posts, their green helmets poking out from behind walls of sandbags. A motorcycle gang in leather passes us. ‘Arabian Knights Riders’ is emblazoned in gold on the back of their vests.
Egypt is a welter of contrast, and the road to Sinai is no exception. There’s something incongruent about boarding a bus and watching the jumbled mass of life that is Cairo replaced with asphalt, a few spare car parts, and scraps of cloth blowing across the desert. There’s something incongruent as well in the billboard images of planned building developments – green, lush images, showing women in short sleeves, looking joyful – surrounded by desert and power lines and empty, dun-colored buildings, reminiscent of the edges of the Rub’ al Khali. More images float past: a lone tank and a soldier with his gun on top, staring into nothingness. A tall, fake palm tree – a cellphone tower? Garbage piled up (whose?) and a stray dog, and standing armies of empty buildings.
We also pass several buses laden with Egyptian tourists, all straining to leave the city’s chaos for Eid. We are the wealthy ones, the ones who can escape. Most can’t. It’s easy to forget this simple truth.
Our first real checkpoint is near Suez. It’s manned by a soldier, a tank and a red and white umbrella. A small distance away, five other soldiers stand around in fatigues, looking existentially bored. Two men sit in chairs reading the papers. Our giant bus full of holiday goers is waved through.
We pass other tanks, each one alone in the desert in a different way. At our third, a boy who appears to be about fourteen and wielding a giant gun boards our bus. He walks up and down the aisles like the other soldiers have done, flipping through people’s passports. When he reaches the back, he stares at the five Americans taking up the back seat. He glances through my friend’s passport. Satisfied, though not looking it, he leaves. Someone whispers that if they army was really trying to intimidate would-be terrorists, handing adolescents big guns is an ingenious technique.
Eventually the road is flanked by a sparkling expanse of blue – the Gulf of Suez. For a while there is nothing but desert and water, and the occasional small domed mosque rising out of the flatness, which calls to mind the small churches that dot the central Illinois countryside. Later we pass fields of plastic bags, and kids squatting in the dirt beside their concrete block homes. A mud dovecote breaks up the horizontal lines of the horizon, and summons memories of a childhood spent in Alexandria, indelibly marked by peregrinations across the Atlantic, a dividing line of cultures and continents.
We reach Dahab after several more checkpoints. We’ve been on the bus for eleven hours. There are some negotiations (our friend who has been in Egypt the longest take charge, loudly demanding a lower taxi price) but we are soon checking into our hotel a few blocks from the shore. The air conditioning doesn’t really work and neither does the bedside lamp but I don’t mind. We pour ourselves a drink with the whiskey someone has brought in their backpack, and I slip my feet into the pool, and breathe. The air in Dahab is indeed much fresher than Cairo’s smog, which tastes like it has been in the lungs of hundreds of thousands of other people before it finally reaches yours. The air in Dahab tastes good.
The next five days are glorious. We snorkel, drink too many Stellas at cafes next to the water, watch Egypt lose a World Cup qualifying match, and sleep. There are very few people here. We meet a young Russian woman who owns a yoga hotel where patrons can stay in hot cottages with thatched roofs. We see some acquaintances from Cairo and share drinks with them on the beach at night. We lie by the water and feel at peace. I can’t remember the last time I noticed the silence.
One night we decide to climb Mount Sinai in the moonlight. Our Bedu guide, who pronounces the letter jeem like the Jordanians, effortlessly makes the climb in sandals. We have to struggle, dodging camels as we slide our way up the rocky path in the dark. Near the top it is unbelievably cold and my husband and I and two friends eat hot instant soup and gulp hot chocolate and crouch under blankets in a small shack near the summit, waiting for the sun to rise. We are all in dark places – hungry, cold, exhausted. But then we climb the last part to the top, and it is worth the wait. I hear the monks chanting at Saint Katherine’s monastery from the valley below. They have only the wind to compete with. The trip passes too quickly; the guidebooks are right. I want to stay longer. A friend finds a driver with a microbus and our group – now seven – prepares to leave.
chaos at sunset
St. Katherine’s Monastery
Five days after our arrival, our second bus through the Sinai sets off at 2 pm. We are accompanied by one driver (there were supposed to be two, but despite an attempted rendezvous in a ditch on the side of an unnamed road, we are still left with one) and a rakish young tourist policeman. He arrives late, wearing a grey suit, an untied pink tie slung around his neck, and carrying a small, shiny handgun in his breast pocket.
We fill the time by eating Snickers, reading, sleeping. Near our first checkpoint, I watch four police officers push a black Nissan to try and start it. We pass through with no problem, despite the fact that one of our group doesn’t have a valid visa.
Eventually, our tourist policeman notices another member of our group, a young woman sitting up front. “Do you live in Cairo?” He asks. “Where in Cairo? Do you live alone?”
“Do you have an Egyptian phone?”
Finally, “What’s your number?”
Another passenger reads Farther Away, a collection of Jonathan Franzen essays. I stare out the window, watching giant mountains of rock and sand, red in the late afternoon sun, shot through with streaks of gray.
At another checkpoint, a green tank sits next to a hut covered with palm fronds.
I stare out the window some more. The soft curve of the mountains on the horizon is like so many bodies, lying down together.
Further on down the road, we pass some Bedu on camels. Next is Sharm el Sheikh, which looks like Malibu. White resorts, perfectly manicured lawns. We hit checkpoint number six.
A man in a blue plaid shirt with a revolver in his front pocket looks us over, then lets us pass. Our friend with the expired visa lets out his breath slowly. “Suez is the checkpoint I’m worried about.”
I stretch my legs as best I can in the back of the van. I’m sore from the midnight Mount Sinai climb, which is starting to feel more and more like a dream.
After Sharm, there are long stretches of nothing. Oil rigs in the distance, tanks, sand, scrub. I wonder if the police will give us trouble for getting back to Cairo after curfew. The sun is setting over the water, and the desert starts to grow cold.
At another checkpoint, we see signs advertising the Moses Pool. We drive on.
Finally, we arrive in Suez. Our well-dressed escort gathers our passports and heartily greets a group of three stone-faced policemen who are sitting in plastic chairs.
“Yes, yes. They’re all American. Seven Americans.” Where to? “Cairo. Seven Americans to Cairo.”
One of the men reaches for our thick stack of passports. Our policeman stalls.
“They’re all students at the American University. All American university students! All students.” This is not actually true. Only three of the seven of us are students. He smiles widely. Money is pressed into a hot, waiting palm.
We are waved through.
The stressful moment passes, and we celebrate by eating more Chipsys.
By the time the light starts to fade I have borrowed the Franzen book. The book’s owner is translating a novel from Arabic to English using Hans Wehr, which he is trying to read by the light of his laptop. The driver is snapping his fingers in time with some unheard music.
Around 9 pm we have reached one of our final checkpoints, and our driver addresses a man in a white galabeya and gutra, which is flapping in the wind. “Ya Aaam,” he calls him, in a wheedling voice. Uncle. A group of policemen look curiously through the window at us, and then pull the sliding minivan door open. They look at us some more. We stare back.
“Do you speak Arabic?” one asks. It’s never clear what to do in these situations. If your Arabic is too good, there’s a chance they might think you a spy, which is a common accusation tossed around these days. With no Arabic, you’re just a stupid tourist, but how many stupid tourists are actually in Egypt right now traveling through the Sinai on a lark? Someone replies in the affirmative.
The man’s face creases, heading in the direction of a frown, but ends up in a smile. “You all speak Arabic? Good, very good! Go ahead,” he says. Cairo awaits.