I returned to you, oh Sinai, home of my soul. But, like me, you have changed, and, as with me, the years have not been kind to you.
I walk barefoot on your silky sand and it is heaven to the soles of my feet, and yet my soul grieves at the deserted camps in decay, the remains of huts and restaurants that buzzed with activity in their heydays and have now become ghost towns, their beaches strewn with garbage and their palm-thatch huts collapsed in heaps on the ground. Shadows of our common past. It is like watching a life cycle, witnessing a place develop from nothing into something into too much and then fading again into nearly nothing. There is a melancholy that accosts me here as I walk next to the waves breaking on your shore, the length of the abandoned bay.
I always say that I made aliyah to Jerusalem and Sinai. I arrived in Israel just after the start of the first intifada. I came for two months on my way to India to learn to be a yoga teacher. I wanted to see how I felt spiritually as a Jew in Israel after a couple of years of intensive yoga and meditation practice. That was in 1987, and I am still here. It was in Sinai that I decided to stay in Israel (I came looking for signs, and received one, on top of Mount Sinai on a full-moon, Ramadan night, but that’s another story).
For all those years, I arranged my work and yoga teaching around coming to Sinai once every three months for ten days. Almost always alone. It was so different then. There was no fear, not of terrorist attacks, not of kidnappings, not of drunk men nor being run over by a jeep or motorcycle driving down the beach. Then, I would spread a carpet and mattress on the sand close to the water’s edge and sleep there. Fearless, waking during the night to the moon or, on a moonless night, millions of stars above me.
At that time, there was no electricity, and all light at night was provided by the moon (on full-moon nights, there was almost enough light to read by) and candles standing in cut-off plastic water bottles half filled with sand. Now there are generators that roar through the night, lights that block the stars, ubiquitous smart phones monopolizing attention.
In the early days, Bedouin friends would sit on the beach with us, playing their sumsumias and singing of ships coming from afar, carrying the sugar and tea that we drank in small glass cups around the fire. Then, I was intrepid and inspired. But, as I said, we have both changed.
I rise before the sun and set out walking south, the red clouds of sunrise to my left, across the water and behind the mountains of Saudi Arabia. My footprints follow me (I zigzag through them on my return walk). The shore is strewn with garbage, plastic water bottles, single shoes, styrofoam remains of fishermen’s floats… And heaps of empty clam shells, the remains of someone’s dinner.
I pass the abandoned Aqua Sun hotel. Fifteen years ago, this was the place where people who wanted a cheap holiday a notch above beach-hut standards came (I think a double room was $24 per night, including breakfast — now you pay more than that for a beach hut in some places). It is a fantastic building, all domes and lattice-work, white and blue, and, at that time, its high-ceilinged lobby was furnished with inlaid wooden settees and mashrabia screens, carved metal light fixtures hung from the apex of the domes. I used to like to walk there just to hang out in the beautiful lobby.
Now this fabulous compound of buildings stands totally abandoned, its windows broken, the thatched roofs of balconies collapsed, any remaining furniture has been pilfered, one can hardly imagine the time when its beaches were clean, bathing-suit-clad people sat at bars and lounged on colorful Bedouin carpets under palm-leaf umbrellas. Time has erased the glory of the place, and left a ruin, surely smelling of piss and inhabited by vagrant fishermen.
Just past Aqua Sun, a giant squid lies dead on the sand, its big, round, open eye staring up at me from its rust-coloured body, above its lifeless tentacles. It, too, has passed its glory.
On a walk, I am joined by a frisky young dog. As I pass an abandoned camp, a girl, maybe 8 years old, wearing colorful pants, appears from behind a collapsing hut. “Shu ismik?” she calls to me. What is your name? I tell her. I can’t understand where she has materialized from. She is desperate for my company, comes after me, but is terrified of the dog. “Where do you live?” I ask in my broken Arabic. “Here,” she says. “Where are your mother and father?” “There,” she says, pointing to the back part of the camp, “and this is my sister,” an older girl in fluorescent green clothes appears from behind another hut. I walk on, guessing that they are a nomadic fishing family that has settled in an abandoned camp. I wonder whether these girls go to school, whether they are Bedouin or Egyptian. I think of how lonely they must be to desperately approach a stranger walking on the beach despite the dog beside her…
More and more Egyptians are now vacationing in Sinai (in the past, tourists were almost exclusively from Israel, with a few European exceptions) and their response to Israelis is mixed. I have experienced the range from obvious disdain to mild disapproval, and sometimes even friendliness, and I am cautious about exposing my Israeliness. A few beaches down from me, there is a group of young Egyptians, all related to one another or longtime friends, including a three-year-old girl. They are well educated, professionals, upper class I’m guessing. Smart. Articulate. Friendly. They listen to great music played through a laptop Mac.
On Friday afternoon, they invite me to have dinner with them that night. I explain that it is Shabbat, that there are prayers I need to say at the table before I eat. They want to hear, to learn the songs, in preparation for dinner, so I teach them the first verse of Shalom Aleichem, explaining the meaning, comparing how close the Hebrew and Arabic words are, that the traditional melody fits into an Arabic Maqam. When dinner time comes, they sing with me, and after kiddush, sip the sweet wine and say l’chaim. It is very moving, like a spontaneous interfaith event with no agenda, with no categories. Just people enjoying other people.
Yes, so much has changed. And yet the blues and turquoises of the water during the day, the heart wrenching, iridescent glow of the sea at sunset, the shells and stones scattered on the damp sand of low tide, the scampering crabs that leave their tracks on that sand, these have not changed. These are what keep me yearning for you, Sinai, day after day, despite the years, despite the fears.