Sharing the Sinai
© Copyright 2020 by Karen Kish
Mt. Sinai, Egypt
I’m sitting on the ground in a cave with three Bedouin men. Smoke wafts up around the nomadic version of brewing tea: a tin pot set on stones heated with wood-like desert detritus.
Thank goodness I’m not the only Westerner because this setting unnerves me. We’re in the middle of the godforsaken Sinai desert, chauffeured by Farag, an Egyptian hired for the day, whom we’ve never met before, completely at his mercy, and now sitting on the dirt with, as rumored among our expatriate colleagues, supposedly lawless Bedouins. In a darn cave!
Our original plan for the day was, on paper, meant to be pleasant, predictable, and inspirational: our Dahab guest house’s owner, Mohammed, had arranged for Farag to pick us up at 1:00 and drive us on rough desert roads to Saint Catherine’s Monastery so that we could make our pilgrimage up Mount Sinai to the summit where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments from God.
There are four of us. My husband Sandy and I and our Vermont friends Bonnie and Craig, who are making their inaugural odyssey outside of North America - and now find themselves, for some reason not exactly clear to any of us, in a spartan Bedouin cave somewhere in the Sinai Desert. Halfway through our two-hour ride to Mt. Sinai, Farag mentioned that he he would like to make a brief stop to introduce us to some of his friends. For the scant hour we’ve known him, he seems trustworthy: dapper in a Western-style suit, with excellent English, and a reliable-looking vehicle. But, realistically, we have absolutely no control over where and when we stop in this arid, barren, mountainous wasteland.
Farag had parked at the bottom of a sheer cliff soaring 50 feet above us. Perched on the bluff above was a very obvious, hollowed-out Israeli truck, tipped on its side, perhaps from the Battle of the Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. On the forward panel of this war trophy was painted a very large, very bright - and very mocking - smiley face. We dared not ask about its origin. Near us one man lit a cigarette from the coals of a campfire; another vigorously plied a hand pump to inflate a car tire.
We entered through one of the three crude openings in the rock wall. And now here we are, sitting on the ground in two hierarchical circles: Sandy, Craig, Farag, and the alpha male “chief,” his stature represented by his tweed gentleman’s overcoat, despite Egypt’s April heat, in the inner circle closest to the fire. Two lesser men in loose, white gallabayas and dusty wool sweaters, Bonnie, and I sit in an outer ring. Obviously we women are “lesser” too.
Farag introduces us to the lesser men, and Sandy offers his best “salam alaykum.” Peace be with you. But the Bedouin accent is different, so Sandy's polite overture is lost. The tweed chief merely nods politely. Farag continues a conversation, and I’m left with my uncomfortable thoughts until the tin pot tea bubbles.
Sandy tries again through Farag. “Please tell him that we are honored to be here, to meet his people, and to share tea.” Farag translates and the main man nods again. Not much of a conversationalist, it seems. There’s no conversation in our subservient arc.
Our tweed host pours the hot, sweet tea into dented tin cups stored in a crack in the rock face, serves us, and we sip tentatively. The sooner we finish the tea, the sooner we can leave. Farag genially continues his conversation in Arabic and then motions that it’s time for us to leave. There’s a palpable pause, though, as if anticipating one more stage of this ritual. Sandy is ready. He takes a five Egyptian pound note ($1) from his pocket and extends it. Craig does the same. The leader quietly folds the bills in his hand, eyes lowered to the ground to not reflect either satisfaction or disappointment at the offering.
Relieved, we slide back into the car twenty minutes after arriving. It was a much, much longer emotional intermission for us. It doesn’t feel appropriate to ask Farag, a stranger to us, about this detour - at least not yet. Maybe we’ll be able to resolve this discomfort before the end of our day with Farag.
At 3:15 Farag deposits us at St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, and we’re on our own until his 8 p.m. pickup.
We are now walking on the same ground as Moses. The 5th century abbey is closed, but prominently labeled in front of it is the biblical burning bush from “Exodus” where God first appeared to Moses:
As (Moses) looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. Catholic Family Edition, Exodus 3.2 (58)
Angled next to it is an irreverent fire extinguisher, perhaps positioned by a safety-conscious monk or mischievous tourist, humorously tempering our aspirations of zealous fervor at the outset. Grinning, we enter the trailhead. This is the last vegetation we’ll see for the rest of the day.
As we scan the 2,000 foot vertical challenge, we see a smattering of hikers, donkeys, and camels criss-crossing the granite bluff. We have been teaching high school at the American International School in Egypt for three years, and many AISE teachers have opted for the more popular ride in the middle of the night - on camels slipping their way up the makeshift rough, gravelly path - to witness a spectacular dawn. Since Sandy had made a pledge to never ride a touristy, tacky camel, that was thankfully not an option for us. We’d much rather control the grip of our own two feet up during daylight with temperatures pushing 80 degrees — and the descent in the cooler dark. So we waited for Bonnie and Craig’s visit to tackle this de rigueur Egypt experience. We are two Catholics and two agnostics, none of us with specific faith-altering goals, ready to summit.
At the outset, our quartet is convivial and energetic. Sandy, striding up the loose stone path, explains his theories about the cave interlude. “I think those Bedouins ‘own’ the land we were going to drive through. They needed some baksheesh (gratuity) so that we could pass through safely. Or…Farag genuinely wanted us to experience a slice of Bedouin life.”
I have an immediate vote. “Yes, we needed to give them protection money. I definitely felt like I needed some protection.” Bonnie and Craig just nod, looking bemused and muddled. They don’t know what to think; this is a completely foreign culture to them as new international tourists. Sandy and I have lived in this shrouded land for three years.
Rounding the corner of the first of many switchbacks on the crumbly trail, we’re surprised by a dusty-robed entrepreneur hawking water, Coke, and orange soda from a crevice in the rock wall. We nod in greeting but don’t purchase any beverages of unknown origin; we think we have enough “safe” fluids in our backpacks. On the next switchback, we encounter our first donkey, complete with complimentary droppings. We tread carefully behind the burro and his deposits until we can scoot around them on an inches-wider swath of path with a congenial “masaa' al-khair” to his rider. Good afternoon.
Our first obstacle successfully maneuvered, we fall into a steady pace and steady conversation.
“These mountainous rocks are just gorgeous!” Bonnie shouts as she sweeps an all-encompassing arm toward the rugged granite peaks. Bonnie and Craig, scientists by degree and at heart, love geology. This craggy landscape is their paradise on earth.
“I loved the Blue Hole too.” Craig adjusts his khaki safari hat that matches his expedition-worthy shirt and shorts. “Swimming down into the sink hole to the kaleidoscope of the coral reef.” He shakes his head in post-snorkeling awe.
Yesterday the three of us had taken a 10-minute taxi from Dahab to the famous Blue Hole, which, with a depth of more than 350 feet, is one of the deepest ice-age underwater caves in the world - and one of the most deadly. Fourteen crude stone memorials dot the rock face above the cove, memorializing a fraction of the scuba diving fatalities. Bonnie and Craig snorkeled down a few feet; my acrophobia kept me hugging the surface. Even with my shallow view, the rainbow marine life swirled below me.
Sandy had been back at the hotel experiencing other “depths” - and heights. He was the third to be struck down by cunning Pharaoh’s Revenge parasites; Bonnie and Craig succumbed immediately upon their arrival, almost with their first forkful of carefully (we thought) prepared Egyptian delicacies. Cipro completely cured Bonnie and Craig, but Sandy, on the same protocol, was still feeling woozy. So he had rested in our room until he just couldn’t resist the soothing beach and warm sun.
Sandy chuckles. “I’m not too sorry I missed the Blue Hole because of my Tut’s gut. Boy, when those two topless Dutch women took the sunbeds next to mine, I immediately felt much better.” He turns around to face the three of us, pacing backwards, for maximum retelling and regaling effect. “I still can’t believe what happened next. My heart stopped when, as I came out of the water, one of them smiled directly at me and said, ‘Nice tan.’ I never knew that a stranger’s two little words could have such a sensual zing. I was cured.” Craig chuckles and gives him a bro-man pat on the back. Bonnie and I just shake our heads, smiling.
Bonnie pauses at the next switchback to examine a piece of desert crystal offered by another enterprising pedlar with a motley collection of shards. She bargains, makes the purchase, and we continue on, settling into a rhythmic pace. One hour down, one to go.
Around the next corner, a shaggy camel placidly munches in a resting pose. A scrawny dog dozes in its shadow. The dog’s owner is the enterprising proprietor of this corner’s goods. At this point, we’re beginning to spread out a bit, with me typically lagging behind everyone else. I’ve never been able to do any physical activity - whether jogging, skiing, or biking - and talk at the same time. It didn’t improve as I turned 50 this year.
Sandy, Craig, and Bonnie continue their conversation, and I catch snatches of it. “Giza Pyramids so huge….bumpy, exotic camel rides at Sakkara’s step pyramids…Alexandria lighthouse ancient wonder of the world…..Coptic Cairo’s churches…..Egypt’s strange food: foul, roasted chicken with rice at the Khan el Khalili, kofta and pickled vegetables on the rooftop of Mohammed’s guest house……the Red Sea gently brushing a Dahab restaurant’s side….” Bonnie and Craig are reviewing their first week’s highlights. They are our intrepid pioneers, the first people, besides Andy, to visit us in any country during our five years overseas. It’s been a wonderful adventure with them.
I pause. One last swallow - and my water is gone. This is bad news for me. One sure thing I’ve learned in Egypt is that I need to drink water, lots of it. A splitting dehydration headache at the Khan el Khalili bazaar during our first orientation week made that necessity perfectly clear. But I underestimated how much I would need for this hike, so already my water bottle is empty, and I can’t trust that the hawkers are selling non-parasitic liquids. I’ll have to rely on sips from Sandy’s supply; he usually needs less fluids. But now he’s ahead of our pack, gaily conversing away. This altitude, at the summit nearly twice the height of Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield, constricts my breath, makes me light-headed.
“Sandy! I need some water!” Craig relays the message, Sandy waits for me to catch up, and I take a greedy gulp. But I need to pace our supply for the final climb. I can count on my characteristic wimpy endurance, but not on speed equal to theirs. One and a half hours down, a half hour to go.
We pause together on the narrow trail to admire the panorama below, a scraggy landscape melding gray, sienna, and ocher hues. Actually, they admire while I stare pointedly at the path; my fear of heights will send my vertigo soaring if I look down. I need to maintain some shred of equilibrium to make it to the top.
Craig points up. “Look at the people ahead of us - and below us too. I wonder if they’ll all make it to the summit for the sunset. I hope we will. Let’s get movin’!”
Sandy pivots and continues, leading our retinue. For a few moments we are all together for a complete conversation.
Bonnie starts, “I’ve never seen anything like this before! It’s so different from green Vermont. I can’t believe I’m in a desert!”
“There’s so much that we miss about Vermont: water from the tap, snow, green vegetation surrounding us.” I manage a complete sentence at before I know I’ll run out of breath.
“I bet you don’t miss the flooding in your cellar, though,” Craig chuckles.
Sandy turns around to salute Craig. “You were our lifesaver this spring!”
I run through the details in my mind as the three of them begin to pull away up the trail. Our cellar flooded for the first time in 22 years, overwhelmed by the spring runoff and incessant rain. Our wonderful renters had just moved into their new home, leaving our sump pump-less house vacant for the first time in five years. Craig, who routinely checks on the house, found water streaming through the concrete cellar wall around our electric line input. Always ingenious, he cobbled together a tall plastic tub, some wires and clamps, and a hose running across the floor and outside through the dog door flap to create a siphon. The torrent then politely exited from whence it came. We will, however, find mushrooms impolitely populating our basement carpets when we return home.
I look up. My trio is about 30 paces ahead of me and moving seemingly fast. I can see the summit - I estimate about 15 long minutes away. But here the trail changes to step-shaped boulders, the terrain sloping directly uphill rather than across switchbacks. I wish I had some water, but Sandy’s too far away to hear me. I try to focus, but altitude and dehydration are slowing down my fuzzy mind. Instead of clarity, I try for a hazy spiritual epiphany to distract from and transcend this taxing physical ascent. After all, Moses and God may have been here. One step up at a time.
The sun ceaselessly beats down. Sweat drenches me. Dung strewn on the trail is uncomfortably pungent. So I let my mind drift. One step at a time.
Poland. Czestochowa and the iconic Black Madonna, third largest pilgrimage site in the world. Surprisingly some of the best french fries in the world too. No, that’s a secular thought.
Jerusalem. Rosary Convent Guest House run by Catholic nuns, who, when we were leaving, requested that we stash some contraband in our suitcases for their sister church in Cairo: coloring books, crayons, and a Madonna statuette. To take on an Israeli El Al flight to a Muslim country. I remember the eggs…our son Andy was with us, and breakfast was modest: toast, butter, jam, and eggs that sadly decreased each day, until there were none on our last morning.
Another secular thought. I must be hungry too.
Cairo. “We love you, John Paul II! We love you, John Paul II!” chanted the 20,000 Egyptian Christians in Cairo’s National Stadium.
“John Paul loves you too,” the beloved Polish Pope intoned, raising his hand to bless us all with the sign of the cross. On his first-ever visit to the Middle East, flanked by rows of white-robed Coptic and Greek Orthodox bishops, John Paul sought to unify Cairo’s 10 percent minority Christian sects. A soft-spoken Polish girl welcomed him, in Polish, under a Polska banner. Our Cairo chapel’s gentle pastor, Father Mattie, whose robe just brushes the hem of his blue jeans and sandals, delivered the English community’s greetings. Sandy philosophized that God gives his pilgrims many religious paths to heaven, many paths to salaam, peace, as John Paul included, in Arabic, in his address. That was a truly inspirational moment when His diverse paths converged.
Paths, path. I look up. Maybe five steep minutes more. I stop to rest. I see Sandy and hope he’ll look back so that I can motion for him to come down with water. He doesn’t. He’s celebrating at the top. I shake my head to clear the fog, take a few deep breaths, and plod on in my diverting reverie, still hoping for some relevant divine revelation.
Cairo. Irish Father Mattie and St. Clare’s Chapel. Catholic Mass on Saturday afternoons because we teach on Sundays. A cozy sanctuary seating about 30 worshippers, including AISE friends Art and Carol Anne. Heartily singing “How Great Thou Art” standing behind Art. Our wedding rings were three gold bands, two hands closing over a heart. For our 25th or so anniversary, we had the thinning bands replaced with a solid gold one at the Khan el Khalili bazaar. Father Mattie agreed to bless our rings after Mass but began with “Do you Take Karen…..” Ooops - we’re renewing our vows, not blessing the rings. It seems impolite - or illegal? - to not “take” each other, so we do. And Father Mattie repeats the renewal with Andy a month later, as planned. Three rings, three vows, three times married - to the same person.
I look up. Just a few more boulders to climb. My lucky trio is merrily chatting at the top. It’s a slow slog - huff and puff, hand on knee, push up and up and up….and over! I flop onto the first level rock, look at Sandy, and gasp, “Water!”
He seems surprised as he hands me his bottle. I gratefully guzzle the contents right down to the dregs. I need some time to revive, recalibrate, reorient.
Sandy sits down next to me, puts his arm around my shoulders. “What happened?”
“I needed water. It’s too hot, too high.” I struggle for calm breaths. “I’ll be okay in a few minutes.”
Bonnie and Craig lean down over me. “What’s going on here?”
“The wimp is reactivating.” I manage a small smile.
“It’s incredible up here!” Bonnie gives her directorial arm sweep again.
I look around the level apex. She’s right. It is amazing. More than a hundred hikers and several donkeys and camels are scattered among the outcroppings. She’s right about something else too: she’s wearing a Stonehenge logo t-shirt, rock appropriate. The terrain looks like a giant’s collection of randomly skittered granite.
Feeling somewhat revitalized, I realize I have another problem: I need a bathroom. “Have any of you….um…..figured out a toilet here?”
Bonnie comes to the rescue. “Yup! There’s a stone “outhouse” carved into the rock over there with a squatty potty cement hole in the ground.”
I try to fathom that concept. How deep is that hole - down into solid granite?!
Sandy embellishes my visual. “We were told that a Bedouin woman is the gatekeeper. We tip her because she arranges for the deposits to be ferried down the mountain.” Now that is a putrid concept.
Refreshed and emptied, I’m ready to join the festivities. Chatting with fellow pilgrims from around the world. Digging into Sandy’s backpack for our treasured Birnn chocolate truffles crafted by Bill Birnn, our Vermont next-door, third-generation chocolatier. A nearby woman snaps a photo of the four of us, beaming, in our Stonehenge, Birnn chocolates, and AIS-E t-shirts, flourishing our unwrapped delicacies on the highest point in Egypt. I capture Craig and Sandy, wide arms outstretched toward the rocky universe surrounding us. Maybe Moses would have been inspired to do the same as he received the Ten Commandments.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and, while you are there, I will give you the stone tablets on which I have written the commandments.’” Exodus 24.12 (24-25).
“When the Lord had finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Commandments, the stone tablets inscribed by God’s own finger.” Exodus 31.18 (88).
As the sun slips down the horizon, everyone nestles into the rocks, hushed, expectant. Geometric shadows stretch below us, lengthening into triangles, forming a line of eerie pyramid-shaped silhouettes. Having regained some acuity, I scan these tipped contours and the twilight sawtoothed vista; now I understand how the ancient Egyptians could have found their inspiration for the pyramids in this multi-pointed landscape.
The jagged sunset gradually filters from taupe to coppery to inflamed red. The burning bush below, and this barren world above, are all biblically ablaze. I can imagine “peals of thunder and lightning….to meet God” resounding through the desert (Exodus 19.16 p. 76). I understand now why the burning “bush… was not consumed” by the figuratively fiery sunset. Then, within seconds, it is muted dusk.
Nothing we can say will match this extraordinary moment. We exchange “wow” glances, pack up, and get ready for the descent. I’m looking forward to this part; down is an infinitely easier, and cooler, trek than up. No water necessary.
A few dozen beholders stay behind and settle under bristly rental blankets or makeshift tarp tents to await the equally spectacular sunrise. We join the others clambering downhill in single file. We make it past the treacherous slab steps before turning on our flashlights, better known as torches in this former British colony, to guide our footing through the rocky debris.
Then meditative silence envelops all of us as we concentrate on our slip-sliding footing - and our own personal musings. The mountain peaks gradually fade into deep shadow, then black, replaced by a stellar sky - and a multitude of bobbing votive torches zigzagging down Mt. Sinai. The phantasmagoric winding pinpoints of light are as magically inspirational as the blazing twilight. All of these people sharing a communal odyssey but probably with beliefs as divergent as atheist to evangelical, disbelieving to devout. Did they summit Mt. Sinai with Bibles clutched in hand - or seeking a secular geological wonder?
Years later Bonnie and Craig will tell us the impression of this day that has marked them: spiritual in the sense of the raw beauty of Mother Nature, as powerful and sacred as any American national park in the west.
My feelings in the moment are complicated. As one torchlight soul among descending souls, I’m still searching for that transcendent epiphany. My beliefs are more wholistic: a minister and priest at our Catholic wedding, our son’s future wedding under a Jewish chupah, my golden pagan ankh necklace, the figurative embrace of Muslim students in my classroom.
Although I can’t rote recite the Ten Commandments inspired here, I try to live the values at their core. Faith. Faithfulness. Respect. Compassion. Love.
Moses may have been here, as well as in the bulrushes near Cairo’s first synagogue, or near the cave where the Holy Family could have taken shelter during their flight through Egypt, also the site of Cairo’s first church. The Bible, the Torah, and the Koran swaddle us in this ancient spiritual land.
I look up from my feisty footwork. The four of us are still together, a close quartet in the glowing human chain transversing the dark.
“This rocky world reminds me of our trip to Petra last year,” Sandy begins. As he launches into the details for Bonnie and Craig, those vivid memories whirl back to me. Millenniums ago, an earthquake split a Jordanian desert mountain. We walked through that mountain in that split, at an elevation of 4,000 feet, meandering for more than a mile, at points no more than eight feet wide, but with monumentally sheer cliffs towering hundreds of feet above us. Then, as we neared the end of the canyon pass, Wafi, our Jordanian guide, advised us to hug the left wall and peer through the final dark fissure. I’ll never forget that first miraculous glimpse: a beautifully carved, light pink column, then more columns and figures, then a two-story pastel “temple” intricately flush into the opposite limestone wall. There we were, at the Treasury gate of the once-bustling Nabataean trading center of Petra, also famous as the set for the final scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusades.
More than two thousand years ago, enterprising Nabataeans found this rift, which looked no different than any other rock edifices along the trade route. But one mile in, they realized the potential for a hidden, impregnable city. Industrious chipping and carving of the mountain walls created a sprawling acropolis and necropolis of palaces, temples, tombs, public buildings, and stables. Ten thousand Nabataean silk, spice and slave traders inhabited this concealed city for a few centuries - until the Romans invaded. For a few more centuries, Romans and Christians utilized the site; then it “disappeared” until the 20th century when ingenious Bedouins moved in, quite stunningly, with rifle volleys aimed at the Treasury, believing that such a glorious structure must contain gold and valuables. They hoped the bullets would blast the facade and shower them with money and jewels. They were disappointed, but moved in anyway.
Moses had left his mark there too. Outside the walls of Petra, in the parched Wadi Musa, the Valley of Moses, the encamped Israelites were desperate for water. In the Bible God directed Moses to strike a rock twice with his staff “and water gushed out in abundance for the community and their livestock to drink.” (“Numbers” 20:11)
Sandy stops in front of me, and, still preoccupied, I almost stumble into him. “How are you doing?”
“Much better. Going down, even in the dark, is much easier.” I shine my flashlight ahead. “Let’s keep going. It looks like we’re three-quarters down.” Stopping interrupts the concatenated, flickering line of wayfarers, with vigil candles lighting the way.
We move on.
Without an elusive personal pivotal discovery, my thoughts instead return to Egypt’s minority devout. We are the 10 percent - Catholic Copts, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic - in a country of Muslims. Expat Christians are safe in their chapels and consulate-protected jobs. Egyptian Christians have neither security.
Jobs are a challenge for the Copts, who are equivalent in caste to the untouchables in India. Up to 50,000 live in the huge Garbage City slum on the outskirts of Cairo. The Zabaleen, or garbage collectors, drive pickup trucks and donkey carts around the city, hauling up to 14 tons a day. Christian women and children hand-sort the refuse, primitively recycling up to 80 percent of the waste. Generations of Zabaleen have lived and worked amid mountains of trash and hundreds of pigs, harem (forbidden) to Muslims, which they sell to resorts as coveted menu items. During the 2009 swine flu epidemic, the government slaughtered all of the Copts’ herds, either for convenient vengeance or public safety, further decimating their meager existence. Their Coptic church, the largest in the Middle East, is carved directly into the adjacent Muqattam Mountain and can seat up to 20,000 faithful.
Even worse than their relegated refuse status, since Egypt’s Arab Spring in 2011 deposed Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, hundreds of Copts have been physically attacked, kidnapped, and killed - their homes torched, buses ambushed and passengers murdered, churches bombed. On average, one bloody attack occurs every month. Police detain suspects - and release them; no one stands trial. ISIS now claims responsibility for some of the deadliest violence inflicted on Egypt’s Christians.
At this UNESCO-designated mountain, sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, on our day of peaceful pilgrimage shared with global kindred spirits, it is difficult to fathom this future of such ravaged lives, such hate fomented by religion in this very country.
I hear a nearby whoop! It’s ever-enthusiastic Bonnie with a greeting for us all. “We made it!” In many respects, we did.
As the four of us exit the trail, we spot Farag’s car. He strides over to us, cheerful. “I hope you had a good hike and view from the top?” Indeed we did.
On the drive back to Dahab, we chatter on about our adventure, and Farag also tells us his story. He was born in this desert. He tried living in Cairo for a while, but, he says, “There were too many people and too many cars.” He returned home to this seemingly barren land because, “Here I have sand. Here I have the desert. It’s a good life in the Sinai.” His dapper suit, which is common for many professionals in Cairo, seems out of place in this arid land. He’s dressed for success as a chauffeur. Just for us? We still, though, don’t feel comfortable asking him about that Bedouin detour.
By 10:00 p.m. we’re ordering pizza at the restaurant below our hotel, thoroughly enthralled and exhausted.
The next morning, after one last rooftop wajabat 'iiftar (breakfast) with Mohammed, we climb up into the back of a pickup truck for our bumpy and bruising five-minute “shuttle” ride to the East Delta bus station. Boarding in the midst of casual Arabic bantering, we settle in on the packed bus, complete with Arabic movies and a broken bathroom, for the seven-hour ride back to Cairo.
Two hours into the trip, the bus abruptly pulls over and stops. I look outside: no bus stop, no buildings, no people, just the infinite desert. The bus driver opens the door…
I immediately have a bad feeling. Last year on a similar East Delta bus heading east to a resort in Taba, it too stopped in the middle of nowhere. The verdict was a broken water pump. So I sat outside in the hot sun, with no village within two hours in either direction, while Sandy, ignoring my protestations about the dangers of this previous war zone, scavenged the dunes for 6 October War memorabilia: a selection of bullets and shells, a defective 500 lb. bomb casing, napalm canisters (labeled in Hebrew), exploded mortar, a flattened gas can, one forlorn shoe - and thankfully no buried land mines. We watched as resourceful fellow passengers hailed down the rare car or truck and packed themselves into all crevices. The next East Delta bus rescued the rest of us, and this time we packed ourselves into the SRO aisles - standing for two more hours.
……as this bus door opens, a head appears, or, more accurately, a patterned keffiyeh (turban) rises - in my mind usually worn by Arab extremists. Then a strikingly white, flowing galabaya. The man bends down to say something to the driver. Where did this dazzling vision come from in this empty landscape? Why is he here? Everyone on the bus is silent. Attentive.
The tall man turns and stares down the aisle. Is this a grand 21st century scene from Lawrence of Arabia or a hijacking terrorist? My back stiffens, ramrod straight. Next to me, I feel Sandy on edge too. Across from me Bonnie and Craig, confused, glance in our direction. I shrug my shoulders optimistically. Then all of our eyes rivet on this otherworldly intruder as he sweeps down the aisle. Slowly. Stopping to study each row’s occupants.
We’re sitting near the back. Maybe he’ll find his target before he gets to us. But he keeps moving forward. Slowly. Building tense suspense. He pauses two rows ahead, takes one step, and stops with finality at our seats. He turns to Craig, and I mentally plead that he take us, not them.
“You left this in my car last night. Do you remember me? I am Farag, and I’m here to return your flashlight.” He smiles and extends his hand with Craig’s torch in it. I melt. Farag?!
Craig is speechless, shakes his head in disbelief, then puts his hand over his heart. “Shukran gazilan! Thank you! I didn’t know I left it.”
Sandy and I hollowly echo a choral “Shukran gazilan!”
Craig is staring at the flashlight, at Farag. “How…….”
But Farag has swirled back down the aisle, out of the bus, and into his car somewhere hidden from our view. Our driver revs the engine and pulls back onto the road, leaving us still stunned. Questions pour out of us. How did Farag know when we were leaving? On which bus? When we would be at this point, whatever unidentifiable point this might be? Why would he drive two hours to intercept us? And another two hours back? Just for a flashlight!
Bonnie guesses that he asked Mohammed about our timing. Craig is comparing yesterday’s “city” version of well-dressed Farag and today’s visionary metamorphosis to the desert-loving denizen.
This was the true Farag, and he was glorious in his moment.
Sandy and I know the other answers. Muslims, as guided by the Koran, are completely honest and trustworthy. Of course Farag would want to return someone else’s possession, even if it meant a four-hour detour. By logical extension, of course he would want to sincerely share the Bedouin cave experience with us, compatriots of his beloved Sinai.
I sigh. This is the spiritual moment I sought yesterday, the tenets of the holy books in real life. Faith. Faithfulness. Respect. Compassion. Love.
The moment just came a day later.