A place where Abraham’s children Isaac and Ishmael are mishpacha

Celebrating Sukkot in Sinai

CAMELS AND DOGS are among the more domesticated animals one sees in the Sinai (photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
CAMELS AND DOGS are among the more domesticated animals one sees in the Sinai
(photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
Notwithstanding the Foreign Ministry’s perennial warnings about terrorist plots against holidaymakers in Sinai, I am back in Egypt with my wife, Randi, for the third time this year. We’re staying at Camp Ras ash-Shatein, a seaside oasis of million-star luxury, 40 km. south of the Eilat-Taba border crossing on the Gulf of Aqaba.
The Arabic name, misunderstood by some as the “Devil’s Head,” signifies the promontory between twin beaches. The campground sprawls organically around a rock outcrop that divides two crescent-shaped bays protected by a coral reef.
Israelis who visited here under the IDF occupation of Sinai from 1967 to 1982 may still call the place Magama Tzafonit (“North Nowhere”).
Deliberately, Ras ash-Shatein has no sign on the highway. Our lodgings are a husha, a straw hut, which is basic but comfortable. Guests bring their own bedding and towels.
Candles placed in 1.5-liter plastic water bottles partially filled with sand provide romantic lighting without obscuring the incomparable view of the Milky Way – and equally remote Saudi Arabia, just across the strait.
The marble and tile shower block has both Turkish hole-in-the-ground and European-style toilets. Equipped with a generator and grill, Mubarak, the campground’s genial Sudanese general manager, and his Bedouin staff conjure up delicious feasts. Typically, we enjoy an Egyptian breakfast of staples like fava beans, falafel and salad. Dinner is fresh fish or chicken, followed by sahlab (a hot, sweet, white pudding-like drink), eaten around a fire pit sheltered by a “sukkah” of carpets and thatch.
One night we all share a banquet of maqlouba (literally “upside down”) – a heaping platter of chicken with rice and vegetables.
The cost? About NIS 100 per day, depending on how many cups of coffee and Sudanese tea you consume.
Every night, musicians from Israel, Egypt and Sudan strike up an impromptu orchestra of oud, guitar and a goblet drum, sometimes accompanied by ganoon and rubab. The campground includes an acoustic room (to call it a recording studio would be too grandiose).
Guests from Cairo, Tel Aviv and Europe mix with the Bedouin in an easy camaraderie which flows between Arabic, Hebrew and English, with German, French and Danish sometimes mixed in. Everyone is on a first-name basis.
Owner Ayyash Abu Suleiman, together with his Israeli wife (who asks that her name not be used and personal details glossed over) doesn’t so much operate a campground as serve as pater familias of an extended family. Many of the guests here return frequently, leaving whenever their visa expires and returning shortly thereafter.
Mizoo (from the French-speaking part of Switzerland) has been living more or less continuously at the beloved Ras for more than two decades. Guests come and go frequently on 15-day visas.
“When I come here for a week, I feel recharged for a month,” says Ali, a Cairo-born lawyer who just completed his corporate commercial law studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Mesalim Selim Eid, a cousin of Ayyash, and his Swiss-born wife, Jessica, have built themselves a villa nearby with a breathtaking view of the mountains and sea. The foundation is made of granite boulders that he hauled from the wadis in the peninsula’s interior. The walls are made from adobe bricks mixed with straw, a technology unchanged from when the Children of Israel were enslaved to build the Pharaonic cities of Pithom and Ramses.
I ask Mesalim why none of the rooms are built at 90-degree angles.
When the views are so spectacular, he answers, shouldn’t the walls open expansively to maximize the exposure?
Not everyone shares my historical perspective.
“What’s wrong with Canada?” asks Matti, one of a group of recently-demobilized IDF soldiers, who is stunned by my decision to immigrate to Israel. In a wide-ranging conversation, the army buddies discuss the relative merits of the locally grown marijuana called “bango,” Canada’s B.C. Bud and India’s jarish – but never foreign words like aliyah, Zionism and peace.
Alas, terrorism has killed tourism in Sinai. A series of deadly bombings, including the explosion onboard a plane flying from Sharm El Sheikh International Airport to Saint Petersburg on October 31, 2015, scared away most foreign tourists – but not intrepid Israelis, of whom more than a million have visited so far in 2019, according to Globes.
But budget travelers aren’t big spenders. The Sinai coast is full of never-completed luxury hotels.
Apart from Ras ash-Shatein and the equally popular Rock Sea Resort, the neighboring campgrounds are empty or even abandoned.
Business is terrible in Nuweiba, the nearest town. Dr. Shish Kabob, the restaurateur of the empty premises besides the Internet cafe, gives me a hug and kiss out of sheer joy to see an old customer return.
While in previous years he was unwilling to part with the brass heirloom chandelier which he bought when he opened a quarter-century ago, now he is ready to sell it.
At the five-star Nuweiba Village, the lights are dimmed to a minimum to save a few dollars. The bulletin board is bereft of notices from the Finnish and Swedish tour operators whose guests were once the bread and butter of the local economy. The series of Egyptian Army roadblocks along the highway are intended to protect tourists from insurgents who have made northern Sinai a no-go zone.
So why come here, in the face of terrorism?
I’ve been asked the same question about moving to Israel.
In part, it’s fatalism. Life is full of risks. To heed them all, I would have to cower under the bed of my bomb shelter and never emerge.
But the real reason I keep returning to Sinai is that here, I viscerally feel that Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael, are mishpacha, a’ila (family). Although some distant relatives may want to kill me, I won’t let them spoil my fun.
The writer is a licensed tour guide and travel writer. He can be reached at GilZohar@rogers.com.
Sinai captured by the Library of Congress in Washington
The timeless Sinai Peninsula is the subject of a current photo exhibit curated by the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog of the Library of Congress in Washington.
Based on the 19-year Sinai Peninsula Research, the exhibit draws on a database of more than 14,000 undocumented and published records identified by place names or coded items.
For the armchair explorer keen to visit the traditional route of the Exodus, Egypt’s Sinai offers an introduction to the peninsula’s desert, oases, mountains and the Santa Katarina Monastery. ras-sinai.com.