In Sinai you find a land at the crossroads of time, just across the border from the geopolitical hotbed of Israel, an empty and useless desert peninsula, navigable only by a coastal road and the odd brave highway cut through hundreds of miles of arid mountains.
The climate is extreme. The heat burns the water out of your body, the cold at night contracts your bones and the relentless wind, salted with the spray of the Red Sea, mummifies you alive and there isn’t a drop of water to be found anywhere except in the little camps along the beach where trucks are paid to bring it in every day.
And yet who can ever complain of being disappointed by the desert?
A wasteland is barren, an abandoned field melancholy, but the desert is glorious in its emptiness and revels in its inhospitality. In the brief moments of respite from the heat of the day and the cold of the night at dusk and dawn, when the shadows of the hills are cast like paint strokes and the mountains are glowing red and purple, Saudi Arabia sitting across the water like a dream, then there’s no doubt that you’re in the presence of the magical.
There are dry river beds to be followed where trees have roots long enough to sip a few residual drops of water from the last rain a decade ago. The wind carves the sand stone in layers of green, blue, white and red and only an animal as single-minded as a goat could graze on the odd tuft of vegetation that squeezes out an existence here.
In such an arid, hostile environment, only the Bedouin look at home and from the way they talk to the way the sit around the fire to the way they smoke a cigarette, you see they are a people apart. Some of the visitors here, mostly the Israelis who find novelty in being friendly with Arabs, sometimes express the gushy sentiment that ‘the Bedouin are like family’ – but though they may be hospitable, serve you a glass of tea and roll you a joint, they’re as far apart as any tribe can be. Not a trace of subservience is to be found here, not a heartbeat of gratitude for your presence. This is their land and you’re simply passing through.
For though the Bedouin use cell phones, even computers, drive jeeps and attend the virus of tourism with as much opportunism as anywhere else, yet they remain a people apart with loyalties, ties and allegiances invisible to the visitor. They live their entire lives in this unforgiving climate, a foil to their ritual hospitality and one that predetermines their instinctive fatalism, the only salve to the evident fragility of life in Sinai.
Even the sea can be merciless to the unwary, black urchins sticking their spines into careless feet and the extremely poisonous lion fish that defend their territory at dusk with agonizing spines for which there’s no treatment but time. Yet if you cast yourself afloat as fast as possible, the coral reefs host a myriad of sea life that could have fitted onto the set of Avatar, the colours and forms confirming that you’ve just entered another world.
As night falls the generators at the back of the camps roar loudly but don’t reach the low table and carpet resting areas where the guests eat, play instruments and huddle around a candle placed inside half a plastic water bottle filled with sand. Transformed by the hours of darkness into huddled refugees, on moonless nights the desert world shrinks to the reach of a candle flame.
But when the moon holds sway then the yin side of the desert beauty puts sleep to shame as the mountains shine in the blue light and the sea becomes a mere stage for a million moonfish to skip and jump in a shimmering bridge to the eastern horizon. The Bedouin coax life out of a single smoldering piece of wood to give just a little more flame and a twanging oud runs a stream of notes that are as endless as the Arabic script or the wind blowing tiny particles of sand across the floor in the timeless caligraphy of the desert.