Given its geographical position as a link between Africa and Asia, the Sinai region has always been of strategic importance. Its desert abounds with traces of crossings and settlements that date from pre-historical times right up to the present days. Traces left by the most various peoples: Greek Orthodox, Romans, Christian crusaders, Muslims, Russians and Jews, who all followed the ancient caravan routes.
In more recent times, Sinai was the subject of conflict when, during the Six Day War in 1967, Israel invaded and conquered it, along with the Gaza strip, the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Of all these territories the only one to be returned, following negotiations between Egypt and Israel in 1979, was Sinai,.
Since then, Sinai has remained part of Egypt, though it is controlled by NATO and patrolled by the MFO (Multinational Force and Observers), and is effectively an Israeli buffer-state.
Before it was conquered by Israel, the south of Sinai was inhabited solely by Bedouin families related to those living on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba, in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They still share their nomadic culture and language, a very different form of Arabic from the one spoken in ‘continental’ Egypt.
Each tribe occupies a particular territory: the Jebeliyah inhabit the central zone around Gebel Katherina, the Muzeynah are in the east around Dahab, the Tarabin are in Nuweiba, also to the east but further north, while the Allegat are to be found in the southwest near El Tûr.
Our journey was to take us through this desert. We loaded up our jeep and set off, traveling many kilometers through mountain-lined gorges and climbing up onto a vast, dazzlingly bright plateau. The asphalt road disappeared behind us and we came into a moonscape, with large, isolated outcrops of pink rock sculpted by the wind silhouetted against a blanket of white sand and pebbles of dark volcanic stone.
A Bedouin encampment constructed from discarded materials was sheltered behind one of these large rocks, surrounded by heaps of rubbish. It wasn’t clear whether the Bedouins had produced this rubbish themselves or had settled there to salvage what they could. That’s what desert life is like: getting by with practically no resources.
Twenty years of drought plus the government’s management policies have changed the life of these once nomadic peoples, so that they have become sedentary and even poorer than before. It seems hard to believe, but there used to be enough rain on Sinai to allow transhumance and the consequent maintenance of a considerable number of people. Each tribe had its own well-defined area, which they traversed in cycles according to what the land could offer. Many families took advantage of the abundance of fish in the Red Sea and settled along its coast, becoming fishermen and good swimmers.
The jeep rose, skidding on a rise that the wind had created from tons of sand. At the top was a rock with etchings of a horse and a camel. The camel arrived here only after 600 AD, although the horse was known earlier: this helps date such incisions. The place inspired us to make a bare-foot walk in the untouched sand, and we discovered that all the rocks were etched with drawings and writings. The silence was complete: sand and stones do not vibrate in the wind like grass and trees.
It was time to eat but the sand seemed magnetically attracted to the tahini sauce on our sandwiches and just a few grains of it could turn a delight for the palate into something akin to crossing a minefield. We had prepared our picnic basket with great care before leaving, mixing local tastes and flavors with those from hone. We had pita bread slit open and filled with tomato, tuna and mayonnaise; or tomato, tahini sauce and hard boiled egg; then a few small bananas. We drank the local kwafa and mango fruit juice, and lots of water.
You don’t move in the desert without a bottle of water to hand. In the dry heat, you can lose two to six liters of fluid a day without even realizing it because your sweat evaporates immediately. So, to avoid dehydrating, you have to remember to drink continuously. In such an arid environment anything that is organic or liquid seems out of place, part of another world, yet the moment we ate or drank flies appeared, from goodness knows where.
Once back in the car we drove on, to a central height dominating the plateau, punctuated by numerous solid, circular, dry-stone constructions in almost perfect condition. They were tombs, 5,000 years old, built up stone by stone, by whom no-one knows, and left there guarding the valley and the ancient caravan road.
We returned to the car. In the meantime, a group of young Bedouin girls had materialized. They were selling neck chains and bracelets they had woven using wire and small pearls. After a while a woman dressed in dark clothes appeared who seemed to be the children’s grandmother. What we could see of her face under her burka was full of wrinkles and her eyes looked sad beneath their intense gaze.
She invited us for tea. Fine, but where? Here there was just us and the rocks. A few meters further on, below the embankment where we’d parked, was a small Bedouin tent, sheltered from the sun. The woman lit a fire using just a couple of sticks, set an aluminum teapot over it and in no more than a few minutes had prepared a sweet, aromatic tea that we had never tasted before. It was habak, made from the leaves of a bush that grows wild in the desert. It has such a strong smell of mint that Bedouins can literally sniff it out. It is used as a medicinal remedy too but it is not cultivated. The Bedouins collect it during their seasonal migrations, supposedly ‘by nose’, but I suspect they know where to look for it.
We sat on mats, breathing in this moment of total calm. The sun was about to set and the light had become warmer, giving off radiant shadows. The little girls sat down all together and stared at us with curiosity. The woman pulled a round of bread from her basket and warmed it by the fire, then she opened a packet of cumin seeds and offered us some. The bread and cumin went an excellent accompaniment with the habak tea. There were six of the little girls and they had just one brother, the youngest of them all. This would have been a real misfortune for a Bedouin family: girls cost a dowry and don’t carry on their father’s name or retain his property.
It was time to go. The girls wanted a lift but didn’t want to get into the car. Most of them preferred to cling on, standing on the rear footboard. They disappeared not far from the encampment by the rock, lost on the plateau.
Farewell, assalamu alaikum, peace be with you.
Marina Comandini, a writer and painter, has traveled extensively in the Middle East
Adapted by Maureen Ashley
Illustration by Marina Comandini