Maybe your mind started wandering in synagogue this weekend and you flipped to the back of your Etz Chayim chumash to find several colorized maps of the biblical Near East--the division of the land between the tribes of Israel, the realms of the various Canaanite peoples, as well as those of the Assyrians, Edomites, Philistines, etc. It's Passover, so the one that seized my attention was a map depicting the "traditional" and "alternative" routes of the Exodus. It offers some familiar features--Raphia (modern-day Rafah) and Gaza were inhabited 3,000 years ago, as was the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, which isn't far from the present-day Egyptian capital of Cairo. The cities of Ramses and Pithom are no longer with us, and neither is the Great Bitter Sea, an inland salt lake that once stretched across the thin neck of land separating the Mediterranean from the Red Sea. But for me, the map had an almost eerie contemporary resonance because of the two speculated routes of the Exodus, which happen to vaguely mirror the Sinai's modern-day highway system.
To get from Cairo to the Israeli port city of Eilat, you could drive straight east, through the mountains of the northern Sinai before descending to Taba--roughly following the wanderings of the Israelites if they had taken the map's "alternate" route. In the "traditional" route, the Israelites hugged the peninsula's shadeless western coast and then began cutting eastward, into a monotonous and utterly barren labyrinth of wadis and box canyons. They received the law at present-day Jebel Musa, and then wandered in the (in this case literal) wilderness for forty years. A modern-day traveler might follow a nearly-identical route, at least up to St. Katherine's Monastery, which has sat at the base of Jebel Musa for over 1600 years.
According to one of my college professors, the Ancient Egyptians didn't consider the Sinai to be part of their or anyone else's domain. The Egyptians ruled over Nilotic Egypt and campaigned in ancient Palestine, but Sinai belonged to the gods--or possibly to no one. It's possible that to them, Sinai wasn't just a no-man's land, but actual negative space, a place that violently rejected anything with hubris enough to claim it. In the Hebrew Bible, the Sinai is the venue for history's single clearest and most intense point of contact between God and humanity, but the power of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and the narrative and theolgoical force of the Israelites' subsequent wanderings, depends on this Ancient Egyptian sense of the Sinai's complete otherness in comparison with the rest of the known world. It's a place where God appears and where magical sources of food and water can sprout from the ground, but it's also the embodiment of a nightmare, a place where it's possible to get lost for decades at a time and revolt against the same God that sustains you. Above all, the Sinai is a metaphorical and literal obstacle separating the elation of freedom (happy Passover, readers!) from the true fulfillment of the promises of freedom. Beyond it lies peoplehood, enfranchisement, and eventually redemption, but there is no "beyond it" when you're in it. Or so it can seem.
During my couple of visits to the Sinai, I understood instinctively how it's possible to get lost there for forty years, or at least why such a thing must have seemed plausible to the early inheritors of Israelite mythology. I would look around the empty roadways, threading through dizzy hours of identical, jagged mountain ranges, and think yes, this makes sense now. Similarly: Whatever route the Israelites followed--whether there was even an Exodus at all, historically speaking--the map in the back of Etz Chayim suggests a kind of jarring continuity across nearly the entire span of recorded civilization: to the Sinai's disparate yet strangely congruent meanings, its existence beyond the outer frontiers of temporal politics and even the human spirit, in a space that maybe only God or nothingness can truly claim.
It goes without saying that the Sinai isn't empty, and it isn't immune from the politics of the region, as it might have been in ancient times. Hundreds of thousands of people currently live there, although most of them are clustered along the peninsula's northern coast. And it isn't all madness and spiritual angst. Sharm El Sheikh is lovely, if overdeveloped and sadly deserted at the moment. In Sinai, the waters of the Red Sea are mirror-clear, and one often gets the disorienting illusion of swimming in nothing at all. An hour to the north, Dahab feels gloriously forgotten about; a self-balancing ecosystem of divers--many of them long-term expats--and the locals who attend to their needs. Hashish wafts down the corniche during warm and languid nights; there are no large resorts and few foreigners who are there for anything other than the diving life. Taba isn't terrible either, even if a traveler's sole reason for going there is to cross the border into Israel, which is not a quick or a fun process. Saint Katherine's does a brisk business in package tours, although most visitors come from Sharm or Eilat or even Hurghada, view the sunrise from the top of Mt Sinai, and then retreat to their respective beach resorts by the early afternoon, thus turning the Bedouin village of St Katherine's into a depressed litter of empty, husk-like hotels and guest houses.
The Sinai is a real place, and should be treated as one. Of course, it's a real place whose power--for me, at least--is rooted in myth and belief and an attendant and very specific inventory of culturally-informed experiences and perceptions. But I'll try to keep things as grounded and descriptive as possible from here on out.
A STOP AT A CHECKPOINT: Leaving Cairo in the summer of 2013 would have been a surreal experience even if there hadn't been tanks stationed along the highway connecting the capital to the Sinai--Egypt's eastern desert is a carpet of gray dullness under an even duller sky, with grids of uninhabited apartment complexes hulking just off of the highway. Twice I've driven this route; both times, the strangeness of seeing so many unfinished and uninhabited buildings in such a difficult environment kept me glued to the bus window, straining my eyes towards the empty balconies and half-paved streets of distant, high-rise ghost towns. Who was supposed to live there? Who even built them, and why did they stop? Is it some kind of tax scam? Eventually the bus reaches the Sinai, those ruined targets of fascination disappear, the day drags on, all traffic vanishes, and it becomes impossible to stay awake.
But sleep wasn't an option this past summer, because there were army checkpoints set up before, after, and indeed in between every town in Sinai. I'd fall asleep for 20 or 30 minutes, wake up with an 18-year old conscript asking for my passport, and then fall back asleep as soon as he was satisfied that I wasn't a terrorist, or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, or whatever they were looking for, exactly--if they were looking for anything. Have terrorists really ever been found on an East Delta Transport bus? Were the checkpoints performative, or were they a way to keep the soldiery occupied and alert amidst the violence and uncertainty of late August 2013, a mere two weeks after the massacres at Rabah at Nahda?
At about the dozenth checkpoint I was asked to get off the bus, and told to fetch my baggage from the cargo hold. The Sinai's is a dry, clean heat with none of Cairo's weighty smog, or the Nile's suffocating mugginess. But because the sky and air are so clear and empty, the sun is like the blinding lamp of an old dentist's chair, except channeled into a single, all-pervading bolt of pure heat. After hours on a dimly-lit bus, the eyes ache even under an intense squint, and it's hard to keep them pried open.
So I stared out of a foggy slit at the three people in front of me: two conscripts, both in fatigues and both several years younger than I, and a crew-cut, muscular, and slightly older man in a pink polo shirt and aviators. The conscripts began chuckling, and could barely suppress their laughter through the entirety of our interaction. This was the best entertainment they'd had all day.
What are you doing in Egypt?, the man in the polo shirt asked me, in English, arms folded, like a man who finally, after days, maybe weeks of this shit, finally had the chance to play a plainclothes checkpoint goon, like really play one. Tourist, I said. Seeing some sights. Had you met anyone in Cairo? No one of any particular note, I said. Did you talk about politics in Cairo? Of course not.
At this point I realized I wasn't in any particular danger: if they arrested me, they would have to figure out what to do with me. To arrest me would have diminished the entire point of hauling me off of the bus, i.e., if you were bored and in the middle of nowhere and fortune threw a US citizen across your path during one of those spikes in anti-Americanism that have occasionally seized post-revolutionary Egypt, actually arresting him would complicate or even totally spoil the fun of just messing with him. Why not. What else is there to do. I mean, just look around.
What did I think of the Egyptian military? Well, the Israelis nearly wiped out your entire armed forces on multiple occasions and your only real military victory of the last century involved gassing Yemeni villagers, and a US military source once told me that he believed Iraq's army to be more battle-ready and in some respects more competent than yours--just kidding, I didn't really say that. Of course your country has a fine and heroic military, I said.
Then he got to the question he had really been building towards--Hell, maybe he had spent the past week scouring every East Delta Transport bus for an American citizen he could hammer with this one, his practiced and even lawyerly coup de grace: ah, he said. But don't we kill innocent civilians, like at Rabah and Nahda?
No, I countered with utter certainty and conviction, summoning every ounce of solemnity and respect, savoring, on some very conscious level, the chance to buy into an attractive falsehood, to project a confident actors' fiction in such an arrestingly strange place, to luxuriate in an absurd yet nevertheless quite nerve-racking set of circumstances--those people were terrorists.
Very well, the polo shirt and aviators said, handing me back my passport and beckoning towards the waiting bus. You are permitted to continue on your journey.
THE RESORT IN TABA: The Sol y Mar Resort in Taba has over 300 rooms, configured in two interlocking crescents surrounding a pair of lagoon-style swimming pools, each with its own swim-up bar and volleyball net. It has three restaurants and a night club and one of those fake bazaars that every beach resort in Egypt seems to have. Most of these things are closed now. In late August, 2013, I spent a single and indescribably relaxing night in a ground-floor poolside suite with a patio, BBC News, three free meals, and all the Stella and low-grade, Windex-disguised-as-Vodka I could drink, all for a measly $52. There were fewer than 60 other guests at the resort; I was told that by the next week, there would be fewer than 30. There had been some Polish and German guests the week before, but their government had advised them to leave.
If you're a working-class Brit in search of a cheap vacation, you could do worse than Taba, a beautiful and comparatively exotic destination that comes in at a fraction of the price of the Portuguese Riviera. Every remaining guest was British. They would wait expectantly by the poolside bar until 10 AM rolled around, then blow through cigarettes and awful Egyptian beer until lunch, then nap through the afternoon. They said they couldn't imagine what the place must be like when it isn't virtually empty--like they would feel cheated if they came back, and people were actually there.
But at least the Sol y Mar actually had people in it. See most of the hotels along the coast between Dahab and the Israeli border are abandoned. The shoreline is like a conceptual artist's madcap deconstruction of the very possibility of fun: it's crowded with bungalow villages, grass-hut backpacker dives with names like the Blue Wave or Paradise Bay, and without exception, they are empty and in varying and variously-scenic states of ruin. Some of them have Hebrew-language signage out front; all of them are strewn with rotting palm-fronds or littered with fraying roof thatch. The coast is a like a cemetery of fun--fun was had here, but now look: fun will never be had here again. Look, here, at the collapsed rooftops of Blue Lagoon Beach, or the immaculately-stucco'd exteriors of at the utterly deserted Red Sea Resort: this is what's left of fun once time and heat and reality have their way with it.
SHARM ARCHITECTURE: The road connecting Shark's Bay and Na'ama Bay is a museum of kitsch. This might be a turnoff for the unenviably joyless among us, but one can see classical amphitheaters and medieval frescoes in literally dozens of countries. Where else does one see Olympic-sized Roman baths in a perfect state of repair, with equestrians and legionnaires bursting from terraced balconies of radiating reinforced concrete? What about sphinxes and ziggurats lined with dancing electric lights, or fiberglass dinosaurs, necks shadowing the lustrous green of a nearby mosque dome? Las Vegas I guess, but Sharm is even more isolated and its kitsch is more contrived; Las Vegas's tastelessness is of a uniquely American and organic variety, whereas Sharm's is totally imported--and imported to a corner of the planet that beguiling enough to begin with.
The walk from my hotel to the beach passed under the approach to Ophira Airport, a bolt of noisy wasteland where no self-respecting developer would attempt to build anything. It had turned into an informal landfill--sun-beaten piles of old concrete and drywall, trenches filled with old plastic and glass, mounds of packed-together garbage. At the end of the road is the fake castle to end them all, with turrets and crenelations, a fat donjon made out of coral desert stone, cast against still mountains and a placid sea.
THE HOTEL-MANAGER: One day I woke up in Sharm, and checked twitter to discover that in north Sinai, terrorists had killed over 30 policeman, execution-style. They were on a bus together, traveling back to their homes in the Delta. It was a fearful and heartless act, this waylaying of a vehicle and the slaughter of everyone onboard, and it happened just under three hours from the empty, $30-a-night, 3-star resort where I was staying. I went to the beach, because what else was there really to do.
The man who ran the Longina Hotel in Shark's Bay wore jeans and faux-vintage shirts, ones with the covers of comic books or old movie posters on them. He spoke slow, loud and friendly English, and he seemed both baffled and delighted at my presence--at his hotel of all the hundreds along the coast, and just a few days after the killings at Raba and Nahada, too. He never asked me what I was doing in Sharm, never wondered why a single American had dropped by his otherwise-empty resort. His staff spent much of the day napping in the atrium of the deserted clubhouse, for lack of anything else to do.
The resort's restaurant hadn't been open for awhile, but he took me aside one morning and asked me to share a plate of fuul with him. Why had the army thrown away his vote? he wanted to know. I didn't support the Brotherhood. I didn't vote for them. But the army didn't care who I, who any of us had wanted in charge.
Eleven-hundred people were gassed in Damascus, he said. Hundreds of children. Defenseless children. Babies. Why? I sipped my tea; I shrugged off the question. Then I went to the beach.
MOUNT SINAI: In 2011, I climbed Mount Sinai with two Frenchmen and a local guide. I was carrying a small library with me--piles of books and magazines and notebooks that I'd accumulated over three weeks of reporting in Egypt. In the hot darkness the weight of my backpack was wringing my body dry, and I kept asking to stop. There was no rush to get to the top, and the Frenchmen didn't seem to mind the slow climb.
Let's sit here for a moment, one of them recommended about halfway up the mountain. Let's just sit here and listen to the silence.
There were no cars, no rustling vegetation or birdsong, no wind, no lights in the distance, no planes overhead. It was absolute and deafening; a mortal, transporting silence, disembodying and severe. It was a self-obliterating silence in which my perspective seemed to drift outside of itself and into the voidlike near distance, then sink into the invisible and ancient mountain, then return all at once, in a conscious realization of how tired I was, how tight my back felt, how much further we still had to climb. But for a moment, we heard the faint whisper of prophetic silence, the still-detectable residue of what had happened there.