Friday, July 25, 2008

Sinai Stories

Nassir, Bedouin Guide at the top  of Abbas Basha
Nassir, Bedouin Guide at the top of Abbas Basha

By Melanie Horkan

It is almost dark when we get to the top of Gebel Abbas Basha, one of the highest peaks in the ragged Sinai Mountains. The ruined remains of what was once part of a magnificent Ottoman fortress look down over the most incredible view of the mountain ranges. The ruins were once intended to be a palace built by Abbas Hilmi Pasha, an Ottoman monarch, who was dying of bad health and thought that living in the Sinai mountains with its pristine air quality would cure him. He started to build a palace in 1750 at an altitude of 2304 metres, but died before it was finished, without ever having set foot on this mountain and contemplated this incredible view.

This evening, watching as the sun casts a golden glow over folds of pink granite, it’s not hard to imagine why this awe-inspiring landscape has attracted pilgrims, prophets, kings and explorers who have trekked through these lands in search of the divine. Even for the non-believer, there is an incredible urge to get up here and want to believe in something even if it is just the power of the mountains and all that this incredibly rich historical area has seen and experienced. On most days you can see the Gulf of Aqaba and the mountain region of Saudi Arabia although they elude us on this evening.

The air is dry and a thin dust has coated everything. On the other side of the mountain the dying light melts long shadows into the horizon. Most people who venture inland from Egypt's Red Sea coast bypass this magical place. They usually head straight to either Jebel Musa or Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Which is a shame as there is another world, far away from the busloads of tourists who crowd around these famous Biblical landmarks in the Sinai.

It is a world far away from the hedonistic delights of resorts like Sharm on the Red Sea. It is a world of silent canyons, ancient mountain peaks dotted with lush Bedouin gardens, oases with date palms and Byzantine Ruins. Trekking through this part of the Sinai will mean that you are treated to the unparalleled warmth and hospitality offered by the local Bedouin people.

We’re in the Sinai Mountains to film a short film about Sheik Sina, a Bedouin run trekking company. We’ve been up since sunrise and my feet are heavy and clumsily knock little rocks over, as we get closer to the top. We’d risen before the dawn to film the sunrise and make sure that we had enough time to trek through the wadis (dried riverbeds) and get here by sunset. The trekking had been quite tough in places and more than once we’d found ourselves scrambling over rocks and pulling ourselves up with our hands to keep up with our Bedouin guide, Nassir. The landscape in the Sinai Peninsula is shaped by wind as well as by water, with bizarre oversized boulders and the deep wadis to negotiate.

Sunset over Abbas Basha

Several hours earlier we’d arrived at what we thought was going to be our camp for the night only to discover that we still had another few hours to go to reach the top of this peak if we were to make it in time to see the sunset. It was now almost ten hours later and Nassir was telling us we still had another couple of hours to go. Even though I had thought that I couldn’t go on physically and part of me had wanted to cry I’d pushed on and the rewards had been a heart-breakingly beautiful sunset over Ottoman Ruins at Abbas Basha.

We sat high up on the crumbling pillars of the Abbas Basha ruins and watched as the light gradually seeped into the folds of mountain skin until there was but the barest band of gold around the edges of the sky. Down below, Nassir, our Bedouin guide was humming softly to himself as he prepared the smoky mint tea, which I had become totally addicted to. We’d clambered down from the ruins as the last of the light had slipped away to sit with Nassir around the fire. We sat around on hunched knees, holding the warm tea close to our lips as the little fire warmed us and listened to him telling us stories about the Bedouin.

Ottoman Ruins of Abbas Basha

The word Bedouin means ‘people of the desert’ or ‘constantly shifting horizon’ or ‘the beginning’ depending on who you talk to here. As he spoke, Nassir’s love and pride for his homeland was obvious and touching. He told us that even though he was married to a Bedouin woman now, a few years previously he’d had a relationship with a Belgian lady. She had come here as a tourist originally and had ended up meeting Nassir and staying. She had wanted him to come and live with her in Europe, but the thought of leaving these mountains to live in somewhere as flat as Belgium was inconceivable to him and so he had stayed.

Traditionally nomadic, the Bedouin rely on their knowledge of the landscape, flora and fauna for survival. As we walk along, Nassir, often stops to crush herbs gently in his fingers and letting us smell the fresh aromatic smells of wild mint (which he later makes the wonderfully smoky mint tea with), wild oregano (which is scattered with creamy fetta and spread on the delicious fresh ‘liba’ (pitta bread) and thyme.

Other times he points out plants which the Bedouin use to make tea with to cure stomach aches, or other plants that are used to cure toothache. Most of these plants are dry and prickly to survive the desert conditions. One day we stop to admire a very beautiful blue and white flowered plant, which looks strikingly luscious in comparison to the other plants. When we ask Nassir whether this plant has any medicinal purposes, he laughs and says that we should avoid this plant.

He tells us a very funny story about his brother and what happened when he sampled this particular plant. Apparently he had started to hallucinate and had reported seeing “many little camels jumping off the mountains”. He had to go to hospital for one month, but survived in the end. Clearly it was all part of his research though as he later went on to become a well-known Bedouin medicine man.

A sense of community and caring for their people is also an important part of Bedouin life, necessities really in the harsh desert landscape. Globalisation and the important strategic political borders in this part of the world means that the Bedouin way of life is increasingly at odds with the demands of the modern world.

However, rather than just sit back and allows their old ways be made redundant, the local Bedouin tribes have learnt to adapt and develop their way of life. Many of the Bedouins that we meet live in the villages and earn a living by either working as trekking guides, making jewellery or working in the local monasteries. All of the Bedouin that we met were keen to share their stories and their love of this landscape with the people who come here.

When I ask them how they feel about the disappearance of their old nomadic ways of life, they tell me that (as with all cultures facing the pressures of modernisation) they must adapt and evolve or perish. I reflect that it is often the tourist who thinks this way and wants to find traditional cultures or the sense of the exotic preserved unchanged forever in amber.

The European Union (EU) has been instrumental in funding projects that enable the local Bedouin tribes to share their culture, their love and knowledge of the desert with tourists. Some of these initiatives include employing Bedouin guides, funding initiatives like the Al-Karm Ecolodge (a beautiful lodge owned and run by a local Bedouin family near St Katherine’s) and promoting an awareness of the local Bedouin culture, which often gets overshadowed by the more obvious historical Biblical attractions in the area.

Sheik Sina, is a Bedouin run trekking company located in the South Sinai region. The company was founded by an EU initiative intended to equip Bedouin guides with hospitality management and language skills. The overall aim of the project is to improve mountain tourism operations in South Sinai by raising the quality of the mountain hikes in the area. Safety is of utmost importance, as is the emphasis placed on lowered environmental impacts. They’ve brought in experienced mountain guides from Europe to train the local Bedouin guides so that the ultimate result is Bedouins who have a fantastic knowledge of the mountains, combined with real safety and group trekking skills.

The empowerment of local guides is taken seriously and there are various education programs that ensure that the guides can continue to secure livelihoods through Sheikh Sina. Most of the guides we meet speak good English and there are plans afoot to give them more formal training in languages as well as mountaineering and guiding experience (above and beyond what their existing knowledge of their traditional mountain homes). Indeed our guide Nassir seems to speak at least three languages (English, German and French with a little Hebrew thrown in for good measure). We often find ourselves in the somewhat surreal predicament of speaking bits of French and German with him (not to mention his impressive command of Jamie Oliver catch phrases).

Up at the top of Abbas Basha, the sky has turned completely black and left the air bitterly cold. Even with two small head torches between us it is difficult to see the way. As we stumble clumsily along the path, Nassir steadily leads the way, lighting the path with a torch. After a few moments he stops and picks up a piece of white quartz.

He tells us he wants to show us a “Bedouin magical trick”. Taking the quartz, he begins to rub it in circles against one of the pink granite rocks, throwing little sparks out into the night. As his movements became faster he built up enough friction so that he creates a beautiful fluid white circle of light. “This is what we call a Bedouin torch”, he tells us and smiles.

We began to head down the mountain. As it had been hours from lunch, we were tired and hungry, and yet so physically exhausted and exhilarated by having made it to the top that we were actually in pretty good spirits. As we began to stumble our way through the darkness and the many loose stones, we quizzed Nassir for stories about any unusual experiences he’d had in the mountains.

An experienced Bedouin mountain guide, he said he had many but there was one that stood out. He started to tell us a story about a lady from New York who’d come over to the Sinai to trek in the mountains and ‘find herself’. Apparently she had ended up in the Sinai through a dream she had had. She’d woken in the middle of the night after a woman’s voice in the dream told her that she would ‘find herself’ in the Sinai Mountains. She’d told Nassir that she was neither religious nor prone to flights of fancy, but for some reason the dream had had a profound and lingering effect on her.

Nassir said, “She was a very strange lady. When she arrived she said hardly anything to me but she just handed me all her money. Three thousand dollars! Can you imagine? I didn’t want to take it but she said I had to that if we were going to spend one month in the desert she needed to be able to trust me fully. So I took her money but I said to her that she was getting every cent back. So we started walking in the mountains and she didn’t speak once. I would try and talk to her but she wouldn’t say anything. Just walking. Eating. Sleeping…Walking. So I thought if she’s paid me to be with her and show her these mountains but she doesn’t want to talk then that is her choice. So we’d just walk in silence. So we continued walking, eating, sleeping. For one month without talking. Then one day towards the end of the trek she suddenly something strange happened. We were coming down a mountain (much like this one) and she suddenly just started to sing. I thought it was totally strange. Not just talking first a little after all these weeks of silence, but singing, loud singing. And she just kept on and on…singing…”

We laugh and ask him whether she was a good singer?

Nassir laughs.

“She was actually….thank god! If she had been bad that would have been bad.”

“So maybe something was released – I mean by being in the mountains? Maybe she felt free finally?” I ask him.

Nassir thinks about this for a moment.

“Maybe. Yes, I think so. But maybe I also think she was not very well in the head. So at the end she still said nothing but she gave me this big hug and told me to keep the money. But of course I could not. And I knew she was not ‘right in the head’ so eventually she took it (all of it) back from me. So when we got back to the camp she decided she was going to stay in St Katherine’s. She didn’t want to go back to New York. So the Sheik said, ok you can stay for a few weeks. A few weeks turned into a few months and she kept doing this singing. Never talking to anyone but just singing.”

“Bit like an Arabic version of ‘The Sound Of Music’ huh?” I quip.

Nassir nods his head and laughs.

“Yes, exactly. Everyone was getting worried (even the Sheik) so we tried to find where her family might be. But the Internet here is not good – we have slow connection and sometimes it breaks so it was difficult. So one day a lady arrives from America. It is her sister and she is looking for her. However, this woman does not want to be found and she begs the Sheik not to tell her sister that she is here.”

“But the Sheik doesn’t think this is right. Family is all you have in this world. And after all, she is family so the Sheik tells the woman where her sister is. This woman runs away into the mountains when her sister arrives but eventually comes back. The sister thanks the Sheik and tells him that this woman had sold everything she had to come to the Sinai. She tells him that her sister had come here because she had a dream and had woken up in the middle of the night and someone in the dream had told her that she had to come here. So she’d sold everything that she’d had to come out here. But the sister had also told him that she was not well in her mind and that it was not the first time she’d done this sort of thing.”

“These mountains”, says Nassir, “They are special and they attract a lot of different people with their energy. Usually good people, but also a lot of strange people looking for something mystical or a religious experience”.

We are silent for a few moments and I feel suddenly sorry for the woman from New York. What has happened to her? Is she back there engulfed once again by the craziness of fast city life? I think of how she must miss the silence of the mountains, which is so different from the silence of a lonely one-bedroom inner city flat. I think about how she might miss the communal nature of the Bedouins with their toothy smiles and twinkling brown eyes. I think of her and hope she is not drowning somewhere.

We walk on a bit further down the mountain. After another thirty minutes or so we can smell wood smoke which I joyfully realise must mean we must be near Omreya’s garden where we have planned on camping for the night. Even better, the smoke also means that our dinner is not far away.

As we get closer, we can hear a donkey braying plaintively. He is tied up in the middle of the rocky path and possibly thinks we have food. We give him a friendly pat and then scramble over the loose rocks that form the wall around Omreya’s garden (strangely, there is no gate anywhere to be seen).

Omreya is sitting by the fire poking the embers occasionally with a stick. A scarf covers her face, and the soft wisps of her greying hair are plaited beautifully into a striking crimson headscarf. Even though her face is covered, her eyes sparkle as she smiles and she greets us by kissing us twice on each cheek and then a big bear hug. Usually the Bedouin women would be much more reserved, but Omreya knows Nassir well and has also met my friend before.

<< Omreya cooking dinner

A spirited Bedouin lady of sixty or so, Omreya lives up in the mountains alone by choice while her husband stays down in the village. Although it is very unusual for a Muslim woman to live alone like this, she loves the mountains and even though she has eight (almost all grown up) children down in the village, she cannot bare to stay in the village as it takes her away from the mountains. As her gardens are on the edge of the main trek up to the top of Abbas Basha, she gets lots of visitors, which she loves. It is clear that Omreya is pretty exceptional and is loved and respected widely in the local Bedouin community.

We crouch around the fire to warm ourselves. There is a large pot of pasta boiling over the fire. Nassir talks to Omreya in Arabic. He translates bits and pieces to us. We learn that her daughter is soon to be married and that the preparations are going well. She invites us to the wedding in a few days time. She continues to stir the big pot of pasta. Sparks from the fire light up her face and catch a twinkle in her eye.

It is funny the things you can tell about a person that transcend language. Even though I didn’t know what she was saying, I can tell by the way that Nassir listens to her and the way that she holds herself, that she is wise and respected by those who know her. After about an hour she stops stirring the pot of pasta and asks us if we would like soup. I am ravenous so I nod yes vigorously but she simply returns to stirring the pasta and makes no moves to serve it. Everything is in her own time and right here and now the conversation with the weary travellers takes precedence. We will have to wait a bit longer for our food.

Eventually at about ten o’clock we eat – a simple tomato pasta with a few vegetables. The soup is served up about another hour later by which time I’ve gone past being hungry and am simply delirious. We eat and talk and watch the embers of the fire as the flames begin to die. Wiped out by the day’s trekking, we decide to turn in. We unzip sleeping bags and pull them out onto the matt in front of the fire. Omreya puts the pots to one side for washing later and pulls out her matt and blankets and sleeps nearby in the garden. Nassir tells us that she always does this when visitors come. She likes the company and wants to be near us. We all say goodnight to each other and even though I am utterly exhausted I find I cannot sleep. Gazing up at the stars above me I can see the outline of a mountain peak lit by the full moon. A shooting star falls across the sky. The air is still, cold and silent. The stars continue to fall gently across the sky as my eyelids get heavier and heavier and I feel a strange and rather lovely sense of peace…

Melanie Horkan is a Sydney-based film-maker and was in the Sinai Mountains to produce a short film about Bedouin-run trekking company, Sheik Sina, that will be released later this year. Melanie is a graduate of the Australian Film Television & Radio School and the Victorian College of the Arts.

For more information she can be contacted via email:

For more information about Sheik Sina Bedouin Trekking Company:

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