The bus is more than half empty when I get on…
An old woman in black scuttles down the aisle to my right; before I’ve had a chance to see her face, two glossy pamphlets are in my lap. They are manuals of prescribed supplications, precisely classified by subject, object, even time of day. I’ve seen them too often to maintain an anthropological interest. Looking out the window to my left, I slip the pocket-size compendia into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me, where someone better disposed could pick them up. I manage to extract some change from my shirt pocket just in time for the dark-robed ghost scuttling back to pick up on her way; the briefest glimpse reveals unusually personable features.
Already we are moving… But if so few passengers are headed for the North Sinai resort town of Arish, why was it so hard to obtain a ticket last night?
Not until we’ve reached Almaza Station, the last stop before the Ismailia highway, do the holidaymakers arrive in droves. (Beyond Ismailia itself, you have only to cross a bridge over the Suez Canal to be on your way to Gaza). With permission from the driver, this is my chance for a last-minute cigarette. All my possessions are neatly bundled in a small vinyl “manbag”, so it’s easy enough to take everything along on my smog-infused stroll round the vehicle. I leave only my book, open face down where I was seated: a very common indication that the seat in question is occupied.
Outside, the upper half of the driver has disappeared into the baggage dungeon that makes up the underbelly of the vehicle, where cases are no doubt being cast into the East Delta Company’s shadowy geometry of departure. Passing his contorted rump, I must dodge more bag-bearers in the heat. Finally, back on board, I’ve shoved my way to where the prayer-dispensing woman first materialised. An extended family fills up the aisle like revolving stalactites.
Among them are three stunning female teenagers; only one wears a headscarf: having closed and cast aside the book, she is plonked happily in my stead. I protest weakly, addressing myself to the nearest grown-up man. Immediately he obliges, but, as if in a punitive gesture, he selects the largest of his male children to position firmly by my side.
YOU CAN generally judge your distance from greater Syria by the taste and texture of Turkish coffee: the more satisfying the beverage, the closer you are. We have barely passed Qantara East, the first major stop on what would be the shortest ground route to Palestine — and, thanks to its identity with Qantara West, a vital link between Sinai and the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya — but the coffee is already superior to what you would get at the offices of this newspaper.
The “rest-house” here is more modest than its Alexandrine counterparts, which makes such quality all the more remarkable. Watching the sun dip lower and lower on the horizon, I make phone calls from the edge of the highway, some distance away from the din of the buses and their patrons. Then, determined to chat up the waiter, I walk back to the cafeteria, make my order and sit down.
Back on the bus the prayer pamphlets have already disappeared. Was it the pretty girl in hijab ? The impending darkness renders watching the video a kind of tunnel vision. Now that the dialogue is English, the volume has thankfully been turned down.
But the second film is Speed, the action flick about a bus with a bomb on it. When I start watching, the driver has been shot in the arm; to avoid an explosion, the woman who takes his place must charge ahead at more than 60 miles an hour irrespective of traffic. Under the circumstances, one vehicle will inevitably be confused with the other as we charge ahead in the dark. It is dizzying.
I’VE BARELY broken into a run on the asphalt when the truck swerves violently, braking a few steps away from me. In a typically North Sinai automotive idiosyncrasy, one half of the highway just outside Arish is set aside for pleasure cycles and promenading; the other, where I’m rushing towards the white Mercedes taxi after what feels like a long wait, is consequently a two-way road.
“I was going to die trying to get in next to you.”
“You might as well admit it: you’re in too much of a hurry.”
I am. The brevity of my stay is weighing on me and a plan spontaneously forms in my head — so I gush it out to the red-faced Bilei tribesman at the wheel:
“I have a booking with the Coral Beach but I’m told that’s too far from town. Can you take me somewhere closer? Will there be rooms available, though? Listen. I want to go to Rafah in the morning, come back in a few hours. Can you do it? How much would it cost?”
Arishi Arabic is a surprisingly organic mixture of Bedouin and Delta dialects very much like the Palestinian colloquial spoken in the Gaza Strip. Whether this is a result of the same tribal roots stretching across the border or of more recent, politically vexed exchange, it makes a pleasant counterpoint to the Hollywood English of the film. They say a Bedouin lives up to his word. By the time I have settled in my mosquito-infested “chalet room” at the “Ubarwai” (as everyone here refers to the former Oberoi, the venue’s present name being Arish Resort), I feel my plan is truly under way.
Ten minutes later another truck is swerving, but this time I’m out of its collision course. The silent, perfectly metropolitan taxi driver will charge me LE4 instead of the LE3 quoted by the Bilei but I don’t mind. He is silent. As I edge out of the Mercedes, winding an improvised path through a crowd that could have been anywhere urban and poor in Egypt, my concern is rather to find someone to talk to.
It hasn’t occurred to me yet, but in the 36 hours I am away from Cairo, it is drivers who will be my salvation. For half an hour at the café I can’t bring myself to approach anyone without feeling too intrusive. I just observe: young backgammon players with interesting hair-dos; middle-aged civil servants drawing on their shisha as they affectionately exchange news; old sheikhs meditating…
My close-cropped hair can’t be helping, I know. Then again, this is hardly a question of my appearance alone. There has to be a convincing excuse for making conversation — a context both fleeting and intimate as well as, crucially, informal. I finish my Coke and find an Internet café. Phenomenally tired by now, I just stand there, roughly adjacent to the high street, waiting to catch a ride back.
A cigarette is all it takes to engage this driver. He is young, slight and pissed off: had he bought cigarettes in his present state of mind, he says, he would have smoked three packs by now. “When I feel suffocated, I just switch on the Qur’an” — the same Saudi recitations are booming all through the five- minute journey — “and drive along.” He only ever smokes this brand, he says, smiling.
What is bothering him?
“The way things are, no one has the luxury to think of politics or the political situation and so begin to do something about them; no one is in any position to do anything but feed himself and his family. Someone says, ‘Come along to a demonstration,’ and all you can think of is the time you’d be wasting there when you’d rather be doing some lucrative work. So there is no activism, though God knows we need it. There is only this breathless running around, and where does it lead to?”
A TRUE PILGRIMAGE is best preceded by a fast. That way the senses are heightened, the body purified; the soul becomes more receptive to the presence of the (political) sacred.
I forgo breakfast too often to claim that this is my intention when, as per my agreement with the Bilei, I set out for Rafah the next morning. I could hardly have thought of it as a pilgrimage, either. But the fact that my driver, Akhdar — a “relation” of the one I contracted — is quick to say, “I am Palestinian”, and the sight of prickly pear-flanked sand dotted with olive groves… the smell of sea air, entirely distinct from that of the western Mediterranean, which I’m used to, and the vague sense of danger as the checkpoints become more frequent — all imbues the experience with a sense of transcendence, a feeling of crossing over into a space both rightful and forbidden, suddenly too close to ignore.
Akhdar is young and serene, subdued. “I’ve got a passport and everything,” he explains with remarkable calm. “But for years now they won’t let me in. I’ve been many times, of course, to see my family. People want to come in here to see their family; sometimes they’re working in other countries and, stopping over in Gaza, they have to come here to travel back to their work places. More often they just need to go to hospital… No, no, I was born here. My mother is [a Bilei?] from Sharqiya. When you have residence you can go anywhere you like, just like an Egyptian citizen, but in other ways it’s not the same.”
He is about to marry, he tells me, but his wife won’t be a Palestinian. Marrying an Egyptian — a girl from Sharqiya, in his case — can raise your chance of obtaining nationality, according to recently introduced laws; that way you can leave the country if you want to, you can claim social and health care; you can feel, as he puts it, “in one piece”. Turning slightly to identify the local headquarters of the country’s most notoriously influential plain-clothes police force, the State Security, Akhdar switches his 1970s Egyptian pop back on. No one cares any more for the Palestinians, he says.
A string of stories about sneaking family members from the other side in through Rafah’s automotive waterways — once, he reports, he was surrounded by no less than 12 machine guns, their muzzles all over his vehicle — is interrupted by a low-rank policeman gesturing for us to stop.
“What is that you’ve got in there?”
His head half inside the window on Akhdar’s side, the policeman nods accusingly towards me, apparently confident that I can’t understand what he says.
” Essalamu alaykom,” I intervene in perfect Arabic, watching the sheepish smile that forms on his lips gradually dissolve into an expression of welcome while I explain who I am and what I’m there for. He nods knowingly to “the opening of the maabar “; I can see him waving in the side-view mirror.
“When people have hair like that, they tend to be Jews,” for which read “Israelis”. Akhdar smiles apologetically while he removes his seat belt again, now that we’re clear of checkpoints; he accepts yet another cigarette, looking ahead. Had he known what I was after, he says, he would have taken me to his paternal uncle, back in Arish; the old man knows a lot of border-passage stories. As it is, speeding, we will wend our way to the maabar first, seeking what relations we can find later in Rafah.
“So what did you do?” I am sounding increasingly disjointed as I take in the surrounding sights. “When you were stopped by those armed policemen, what did you do?”
By now the landscape is more or less identical with film images of the Gaza Strip stored away in the global memory; that strange, green gateway — not a frontier, not a tollbooth — comes within sight. I expected car-studded crowds raising an energetic cacophony. As we approach, slowing, except for a handful of policeman lounging in the shade, the place is in derelict stillness.
“Nothing,” Akhdar is saying, still perfectly calm. “They got us out and searched every nook and cranny of the car. In the end I just left him standing there on the sand — what else? I headed back.”
SINCE the outbreak of war in Lebanon — Israelis levelling Beirut in response to Hizbullah taking two hostages in the south — I have been tormented by the dilemma of how to support the resistance while opposing political Islam, an ideology I take issue with regardless of creed. Still, while people are resisting the insane excesses of empire, can you really reject their driving force?
Akhdar will take a shortcut before slowing down a narrow lane outside his cousin’s house, explaining that this is one of the roads he has used for people smuggling. The maabar is behind us as we turn. Gesturing derisively in its direction, he will point out, again, that it would be pointless listening to the advice we got there… On seeing my press credentials, one uniformed low-rank policeman had started to explain what it means to work at the maabar, day in, day out, when another, plain-clothes one interrupted the conversation, insisting that, before I can speak to anyone, I must have State Security permission.
“You’re a driver, right?” The uniformed officer said to Akhdar, through a window in the gate itself, feigning a helpful tone for my benefit. “You know where it is.”
If I want information I must go to State Security.
In the shade of a tree on the other side of the road, another uniformed officer was dozing off when the plainclothes policeman who had intercepted me went up to him; he raised his head from the table, he put it back down. His plainclothes companion — himself State Security, I suspect — didn’t bother to remove his leg from the seat on which it was placed when he shook my hand. “Nothing at all happened here,” he said, his tone verging on the intimidating. “Nothing worth reporting on, anyway. Do you see any activity around you?” He looked behind him. “A real pleasure meeting you, though…”
Breathing Palestinian air, now, the Islamic resistance dilemma no longer seems to bother me. We have stopped momentarily by an olive field, and it’s hard to believe that the poles in the distance are actually in Palestine. (“I saw Palestine,” I will keep telling friends on coming back to Cairo. “Yes, the country.”) But as we take our seats on the floor at Akhdar’s cousin’s — an older taxi-driver whose large one-storey house might as well be in a refugee camp — it dawns on me with unprecedented intensity that here are the people on the ground, that their lifestyle and beliefs are in no way undermined by Islamism, and that no one, not a single force except for the militants of political Islam are fighting on their side.
Over 500 families are supported by taxi trips from the maabar to Arish, my gracious host explains — his language is even more like Palestinian than anything I’ve heard so far — making at least 2,000 people dependent on the maabar being open, the only time when “there is work”. The Egyptian authorities have nothing to do with it, he insists. “It is the Jews, the Jews,” he says, over and over, “may God bring down their houses.” (There would be no point opening the maabar while the border is closed, and the border, however indirectly, is controlled by the Israeli authorities). The other day when it was open, he tells Akhdar, sipping the fresh mango-and- guava juice he has offered us, the work flowed “like honey”.
Before we leave — just in time for the camel races, back on the outskirts of Arish — he has made two separate points that bring the resolution of the dilemma to a safe harbour in my head:
“People are too concerned with having enough to eat to think about politics, whether or not they would support Hamas if they did;” and “Egyptians get along with Palestinians in Rafah, of course they do, because they are all Muslims; why should Muslim neighbours have problems with each other?”
After so many years of liberalism and enlightenment, I am born again.
The cousin ends up coming along part of the way to ask at the mechanic’s whether a particular spare part is available; there would be no point bringing the relative who needs it all the way from Arish if it wasn’t. (Many such commodities come straight from Israel; and trading in things like clothes and electronics originating there forms a significant part of North Sinai’s informal economy). At one point we take a sharp turn and he taps my shoulder from the back seat:
“See that building there?” I’m wincing in the sun. “That’s Palestine.”
THAT morning when I woke up, there were so many Arabian head-covers in the Ubarwai lounge I couldn’t help suspecting a Gulfie take-over. Only on speaking to one of their wearers — he turned out to be a camel breeder from Aqaba — did I discover what this was about: the Mahrajan Al-Hijjin, one of several three-day “camel festivals” held annually across the country, which draws together tribal Arabs from all over the Middle East and North Africa — all of whom wear the Peninsula’s trademark uqaal. (Several sources pointed out that the colour of the headscarf is a matter of personal taste, nothing to do with tribal affiliations: the blue, Tuareg-like varieties are increasingly popular among the young).
Finding out there would be races this afternoon, I’ve been looking forward to attending them all day — a relaxing denouement to the strain of Rafah — grateful that an unexpected gift should crop up just before I go. Arab nationalism aside, camels are among my favourite animals; and what better way to unwind than standing on the dunes watching them accelerate majestically in the sand, with beautifully decked out child jockeys bouncing in rhythm on their backs — or so I think.
They too will have had no breakfast, according to my Aqaba interlocutor, having spent the last two weeks eating and drinking half of their usual diet in preparation — something that intensifies my empathy now that hunger is wringing my stomach. By the time Akhdar puts on a Bedouin tape — also from Jordan — the horrors of “security” have been cast away.
At the rink we must wait; some say for an hour, some for two. One foj — that is how a single group of competing camels is referred to — is finished; the next hasn’t started yet. Akhdar and I consider the possibilities, setting off for the Ubarwai only to retrace our steps five minutes later: the cars are converging on the area, he says; the foj must be about to start.
Back on the sand we bump into Rabi, the brother of the driver who took me to the Ubarwai in the first place; without changing significantly, Akhdar’s speech appears to emphasise Bedouin over Palestinian inflections when he speaks to him. Rabi is in one of the sedans in which he deals, as he informs me, bringing them back and forth from Cairo. He invites me to sit in the back; later, when the action starts, thanks to his brother’s hospitality, I move next to him in the front.
My right arm will go on stinging for many days from exposure to sand bursts while sticking the camera out the window. The way you watch the race is to speed after the camels alongside the rink, mostly in Toyota pickups bearing up to 20 people in the back, taking pictures where you can — camera mobile phones are incredibly plentiful — and egging along your stud.
Afterwards, in the open space adjacent to where the single, circular lap starts and finishes, the onlookers perform car stunts, competing in daring and aptitude.
That the sedan, also a Toyota, was not meant for sand stunts doesn’t stop Rabi from joining in the show, at which point I’ve been in the car for more than three hours and am desperate to get out. For a long, long time before the foj started, he was crawling around making phone calls and looking for friends, never stopping for more than a few minutes at a time. For a traffic-suffocated city dweller it seemed counterintuitive to call this fun; but for everyone else it was a perfectly natural pastime.
No chance of a contemplative time on the dunes, then. Instead, this adrenaline-pumped ride round and round, with only a few moments to stretch my legs every so often. All the while the slow sundown is doing creative things with the sky — and not a single stationary camel to spend time with so far.
When Rabi disappears in the ring of vehicles waiting for their turn at a stunt, leaving the three of us near the rink to watch, I notice the lone figure of an evidently defeated competitor tethered unpleasantly to the wood. He is performing strange movements with his neck, looking like an ostrich and a bloodhound in turn, apparently unsettled by the presence of so many motor vehicles in the same place. He won’t give me a chance to touch him, though he poses for a few pictures willingly enough, from a distance. At least I step over and exchange a few words.
RABI is Arab to the bone; that means he badmouths other Arabs, making fun of the dha sound with which South Sinai tribes replace the more city-like da of the north (something I remember his red-faced brother doing too). It also means he will do anything for a guest — anything but listen carefully enough to realise that that guest would really like to go now, please. Instead he points out people firing guns into the air, carried away by the all- male, sand-and- uqaal excitement.
On a day like this, no guest or policeman will prevent him from driving on and on in circles, racing ahead like a madman to make sure “those water buffalo” don’t get ahead of him alongside the rink, and identifying tribes by facial features — a process that involves the most outrageous statements: “They will sell everything to buy a car for the mahrajan, come over in it, then sell it off once the mahrajan is over”; “The black ones are Arabs too, but they are black; they’re the worst killers, the black ones”; “Those guys you see over there, each of them has three to seven life sentences to his name, but they go on as before and there’s nothing the police can do to stop them; the police are scared of them”…
When he bumps into a group of resident policemen, indeed, he treats their practise of extortion as a given — a way, for him, to assert generosity or withhold favour. For a similarly long time he complains of not having any cannabis on him; the same goes for water. A need, though pressing, is never pressing enough; it just persists. And the concept of solitude doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. Always people are coming and going, sometimes summoned by mobile phone, insulted when they fail to answer. Like a true stoner, Rabi has the shortest concentration span.
“The nicest thing is to get high and go round like we’re doing now,” he tells me at one point. And at another: “Do you get high?”
I know I have answered this question before now, so I insist, firmly but gently, that I must go; and following another 15 minutes of pleading on the part of both his brother and Akhdar he finally drives us back to where the taxi is parked.
“You’ve seen enough of this anyway,” he says as I edge out. The real fun is up on the mountain. Over there, there is neither police nor outsiders; people are completely wild…”
FIVE minutes later Rabi phones to say that he is going to Cairo tonight and would I like to go along with him, now that it is too late for a bus. We exchange phone numbers and he promises to phone in an hour. “An hour?” I ask incredulously. He is still at the rink.
Several hours later — I am at another “rest-house” beyond Ismailia, almost at the end of my journey, and the coffee tastes like excrement — Rabi still hasn’t phoned.
“Why in such a hurry?” I remember him saying.