Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: In Search of the Missing Commandment

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I begin the ascent at 4p.m. After leaving my personal details at the Tourist Police Office and convincing the officer that no, thank you very much, but I do not need a Bedouin guide, I set off on the dusty road to St. Katherine’s monastery. The monastery lies at the foot of a winding path that leads after a two to three hour strenuous walk and hike to the summit of Mt. Sinai, or Moses as the locals call it. A strange mood has taken hold of me the past hour or so; a vague paranoia, a slightly heightened self-awareness. Perhaps it is the alienation of passing through a dozen checkpoints on my way here from Cairo, or the Army conscript and Police detective who requested a hike and whom I had taken on board at a checkpoint a hundred kilometres before St. Katherine’s. Maybe it is my botched sleep the past couple of nights, or the unsettling bizarreness of returning to Egypt while most of my family are elsewhere for the first time in my life. I don’t know, but I feel ill at ease. So it is with a sense of relief that I leave the Monastery behind and take the first steps to the summit. I really want to be alone. To tell you the truth this is the reason I am here. I have compulsively and hurriedly left our home in Cairo and drove 500 kilometres into the middle of the Sinai Mountains because I need to be alone. Since arriving to Cairo on the 24th of December, I have been avoiding answering the phone or talking to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary. I am starved of my own company; I am hungry for loneliness.

This is not the first time I climb Mt. Sinai, it will be the third. The first time, now to me, may very well have been in another life. The year was 1992 and I had gone on a school-trip hiking with two good friends. I recall the exhaustion on the way up, the freezing cold at the summit (it was November) and, on return to Cairo, my mother’s smile and hug as she received me at home, our dog jumping on my bed and greeting me. But I recall not much else, not much that has escaped idealisation anyways: I was sixteen, and I was the kind of sixteen year old who was stuck, more-or-less, in the latent stage; everything was right and in its place, which is another way for saying that nothing much happened. This time feels different.

I proceed along the path to the summit. I notice that I am the only one going up at this time of day; I encounter many tourists and pilgrims heading down, some of them establish eye-contact complementing it with a slight nod of recognition or a curt ‘hi’. The sun is going to set just before 6p.m., and it’s already after 4; no chance of catching the sunset then. That’s fine; I am not here to watch pretty sunsets, I am here to be alone. To be honest I am pleased that I am the only one going up the mountain. The way up is more tiring that I thought it would be; I am not sure why but this slightly unsettles me. Some of the Bedouin guides I meet along the way greet me in English, and whether they do or not I throw at them a bold ‘salamu-3aliko’ which, given the expressions that form on their faces, they did not expect. They probably instinctively do not think I am Egyptian. I am already familiar with this from Dakhla. I, of course, am not blonde or fair, and my eyes are not blue, what they pick on rather is class, body-language and context: the unusualness of going for a trip like this on my own. As I was to learn a couple of hours later from one of the Bedouins who sells drinks near the summit: there is no Egyptian individual tourism here, you must be here for work, aren’t you? The explanation here is simple: act beyond people’s conception of what you are and where you belong and you will invite speculation first about your motives and, if you fail to convince, about your sanity.

I am, in fact, so accustomed to this experience that I have come to expect it. It is a class-based issue, but one that also betrays a lack of desire and, perhaps, ability or imagination to relate – everyone would experience it if they place themselves in vulnerable situations, something I willingly and regularly do out of my complete volition. I do it not because I am a masochist but because I do not see how one can keep one’s moral compass pointing in the right direction without exposing oneself to oneself and to others. It is a particular calling of mine you can say. But just this trip, this hike, that moment in my life I want to be spared this experience. I really just want to be away, and this includes being away from mutual identity-intention-motive deductions with men who are unable to broaden their horizons sufficiently to see nothing unusual in what I am doing.

It’s well after 5 and with every minute the light diminishes further. I negotiate a hairpin curve in the path while hollering playfully at the nearest mountain-side and waiting for my echo. I expect a dramatic time-lag then an eerie hello hello hello hello hello hello hello hello hello but, instead, I receive a muffled and barely recognizable single rendition of my voice. A few metres away I notice a brick shed with a colourful blanket shielding the entrance; one of many sheds along the path selling tea and water to exhausted climbers. I am about to pass it as I did many others along the way – I didn’t want to suppress my momentum – when a young man peering through the entrance of the shed calls at me offering some rest and tea. I oblige.

My father works at the Monastery, he says while switching on a small gas-stove to boil water, we are from Suez, and I joined him to make some money of my own. I am uncharacteristically disinterested. Sometimes I wonder whether the year I spent in Dakhla writing my ethnography had not only depleted my anthropological interest, but also my interest in others. Back then in 2009 I thought I was killing two birds with one stone: immersing myself in an Egyptian working-class, traditional-conservative community – something I had wanted to do properly for years – while researching the subject of my fascination: insanity. Dakhla with its many villages and distinctive isolation was the perfect setting. At the end of my time there I was truly exhausted; I had had enough of maintaining a morally and socially acceptable persona in the midst of people who were friendly and helpful, yes, but intrinsically paranoid and limited in imagination, their world so narrow it suffocated me. This young man, who by all means is pleasant and interesting in his own right, and the Bedouin guides I have so far encountered remind me too much of Dakhla. They force me into a mode of relating and being that I no longer feel the need to maintain, at least not in this era of my life, and certainly not right now.

The water is boiling. He serves me strong, sweet tea (which he subsequently refuses to be paid for) and offers me a cigarette which I accept despite having quit smoking four months before. Are you Christian, he asks. No, I say, and a long silence ensues. I fix my gaze on the mountains outside the shed, and I notice off the corner of my eyes that he is glancing at me. I want to leave.

It’s completely dark outside now. I am only fifteen minutes away from the 750 steps that lead to the summit. I am still the only one going up. Many of the tourists and pilgrims are wearing powerful LED head-lights. A short scream bursts into the silence; a woman had tripped and fell. She is helped up and quickly joins the rest of the lights heading down the side of the mountain. I arrive at the base of the 750 steps; steep, roughly hewn rocks piled on top of each other and taking you up the final 300metres to the peak of Mt. Sinai. Every step is crucial; a small hand held torch shows me where to place my foot, and my walking stick gives me much needed balance. A half-crescent provides some light, and occasionally I can see the steps right on the edge of an abyss with a small wooden warning sign: DANGER. This, is exciting. I proceed further up the mountain, my knees now slightly aching. By 6.30p.m. I am 50 steps below the summit and I find four shacks, or ‘cafeterias’. Light escapes through a narrow gap in the wooden door to a shack that has the number four painted on the front. I walk towards the shack and step inside.

I am immediately enveloped by the warmth of a fire at the far end of the shack. Four men are seated around the flame, their shoes and sandals scattered near the entrance. A faint whiff of burned wood and feet lingers in the air. Clearly excited by the sudden presence of a Cairene in their midst, they immediately welcome me around the fire and offer me a tea. The more talkative and worldly of the four Bedouins dominates the conversation, at times eyeing me suspiciously. I can sense he does not believe I am here just to climb the mountain; he’s never seen an Egyptian coming here on his own he argues. The other three men recede to the fringes of the conversation, the one on my right – an older man with a seriously weathered face – reduced to emitting occasional grunts which I surmised where in approval of whatever was being said at the time, contradictions and all. It is too cold to sleep on the peak, one of them finally says, sleep here in the shack with us. I feel nervous at this otherwise kind suggestion: the idea of forsaking the loneliness that I have come here to seek distresses me. I want to sleep under the stars, I reply with a confidence that surprises even me. A few awkward moments of silence are finally broken by a grunt of understanding that seals the conversation. Half an hour has passed and I am becoming impatient. The eloquent Bedouin then suddenly asks me what I think of the political situation in Egypt. The third stage of the elections – which includes South Sinai – starts tomorrow. I try to avoid talking politics, after all I know exactly what they think and why: they all will vote for the Muslim Brotherhood or El-Nour, they think we should never have a Christian president (look at France, will they ever have a Muslim president?), and of course Mohammed El-Barad3i (whom I think is the only man in Egypt who has the rare combination of integrity and experience) is an ‘agent’. Against my better judgement, I launch a brief attack on the Salafi El-Nour party and to my surprise I find that we temporarily share a sliver of the most superficial agreement: in so far as El-Nour will hamper tourism (the source of the Bedouin’s livelihood) they are against it. Covering women (another potential El-Nour edict) is something they do not object to: making the veil compulsory can only be a good thing, one of them orates. On that note I excuse myself. They offer me two rental blankets and a thin mattress which I lug the remaining fifty steps to the peak of the mountain. Its only 7p.m. and the cold is biting.

I am on the peak of Mt. Sinai. I walk around taking in the view; rows of jagged peaks stretch into the distance. I am the only one here, the prize for coming up at an unusual time. The crescent is still in the middle of the sky, and the constellations do not require a searching gaze: they present themselves as if someone has highlighted them just for me. It is freezing cold: three layers (one of which is bona fide Lambs’ Wool) and a particularly heavy coat do not seem to be able to keep the chilling winds out. I refrain from contemplating my surroundings and decide to settle in a corner ‘under the stars’, make use of the blankets, warm-up, and have something to eat. Within a few minutes I begin to experience the first effects of my self-imposed isolation on the peak of Mt. Sinai. As I nibble through a sandwich I have prepared this morning, I reflexively reach into my pocket for my mobile phone. Half-way through I remember that I have left it in the car: loneliness cannot be complete with this bane of a gadget on your person. I pull my rucksack towards me and have a sip of Guava juice and as I replace the carton the first of a succession of intense pangs of fear hit me. It is an undefined, object-less fear: I am not afraid of being the only one here, or of the height or the cold. What am I afraid of? A powerful desire to leave the mountain takes hold of me, but dissipates as quickly as it forms. I calm down temporarily: there is nothing to be afraid of, I say to myself. There is nothing, indeed. Nothing. I am afraid of nothing. The thought of a target-less fear terrifies me even more. Off the corner of my eye I notice a dark object just about the height and width of a person standing near the beginning of the steps. I am convinced it is a person. I stare in its direction, searching for any signs of life but I detect none. I look away, shifting my gaze to the moon and stars, seeking some comfort in the objects of my childhood fascination. But the urge to look back towards the steps is stronger than my resolve; the dark object is still there. Lost in the confusion of uncertainty, treading on the line separating subjectivity from reality, I hear a man’s sharp voice: “It is too cold outside… are you Muslim?”

*

In April 2007 I went on a road-trip with my father; the first of only two trips we had taken together in our newly found friendship. I climbed Mt. Sinai on my own, not out of choice but to spare my father a hike his health would not have withstood. So he stayed behind in the town of St. Katherine and I set off at midnight together with tens of pilgrims to watch the sunrise. At the time my father had only just resigned from his position as Minister of Justice, and the recency of his resignation meant that he was still some ‘one’ in the eyes of the establishment, which by the unspoken laws of proxy required that his son cannot be allowed to climb the mountain on his own and had to be accompanied by an army cadet as guard and escort. I was not really alone, nor was I seeking loneliness. Then, it was different or, perhaps, now it is different. My father died twelve weeks ago. The eloquent Bedouin was right: what am I doing here? This is not the first time I venture on a road-trip alone. But before the motive was clear: I wanted to be away from real and imagined and, in any case, increasingly subtle familial and paternal constraint. And I wanted to explore, away from the suffocation of life on the Island. Driving hundreds of kilometres into the wilderness of my favourite spot on Earth – Sinai – was always the obvious, uncontroversial choice. But my father is gone, and I can no longer fall back on the tired and clichéd narrative of escape, of ‘finding myself’. I am alone. I am here to confirm it, to confirm to myself that he really is dead. I am seeking loneliness and avoiding people because I want to see for myself what my father’s death really means away from the noise and distraction of life and the forced social engagement that characterises the way we deal with death. But what I am looking for, what do I want to find?

“Are you Muslim?” the voice repeats. Instinctively, I pull the blankets further up my face and answer back without thinking: yes I am. A man appears from a hidden cove, he is wrapped in a blanket and clearly has been sleeping: “I’ll unlock the mosque for you then, and you can sleep inside, you won’t be able to tolerate these winds.” He vanishes behind a small brick building that is the mosque and I can hear the sound of a gradually building stream that crescendos to a peak then begins to decline to a trickle and stops. He is human. He returns back to the cove and I do not see him again. Within a few minutes the cold bypasses my fortifications and reaches my skin; he was right. If I stay here, I think to myself, I might die of hypothermia. I wrap up the blankets and the mattress and head to the mosque. This mosque, I was told, was built four centuries ago. It stands a few metres from a much older Chapel that, unlike the mosque, is mostly closed to pilgrims. The mosque is a humble affair: constructed of large grey bricks, it is very unassuming from the outside and inside is inlaid with a worn-out green carpet and its walls decorated with amateurishly painted Qur’anic verses. As I step inside I notice the warm scent of musk and sandal wood, a much better olfactory reception than I have been expecting. Contrasting with the relative light provided by the moon outside, here it is pitch black. After a brief struggle with a torch in one hand and blankets in another, I prepare the closest thing to a bed that I can muster and at 8p.m. I decide that I must try to get some sleep.

When I get to it at 3a.m., I find that I have been trapped in sleeper’s limbo, having spent the past seven hours turning incessantly in search of that elusive comfort spot and, later on, in the throes of confused images. I open my eyes and there is nothing but total darkness. Thoughts begin to populate my mind, recollections of the past few hours of tortured sleep. Did I actually attempt to masturbate when I first settled in under the blanket or was it just a dream? I begin to wonder if men have masturbated inside mosques before, and whether this is the most serious profanity one can perform. The idea intrigues me, and I seriously contemplate entering the unwritten book of history:

On December 30, 2011, Mohammed Abouelleil masturbated inside A Mosque built in the 11th Hijri Century (17th Century gregorian) on the peak of Mt. Sinai. He was the first man to do so and has rightfully reserved a place in basest Hell.

But I abstain; too messy.

I fold the blankets and decide I will spend the remaining hours of darkness outside. I am still the only person at the peak, apart, that is, from the Bedouin who vanished into the cove. I settle next to the chapel, wrap myself up as best as I could, and finish off the fruit that I have left. Only half an hour has passed and the cold has, again, found its way to my skin. I shift around and wrap the blankets snugly around my legs. By 4a.m. I can see quivering, flickering dots of light moving slowly in the darkness that envelops the side of the mountain; constellations of pilgrims making their way up to witness the sunrise. This means that I have, at the most, two hours before the end of my isolation. I feel that I am on a mission searching for something that I cannot define or conceptualise. And I feel that my mission is drawing to a close. I resign, my mind blank, to the silence and the cold, and descend into a state of semi-sleep…

I am woken up to the sound of foreign tongues. I can hear German, Spanish, and some East Asian language. There are at least one hundred people on the summit. They have all arrived together and their head-lights are still on. Just before 6.a.m. loud Spanish religious POP music bellows from what must be a portable CD or Tape player, and a large group of young Spaniards join in. The unmistakable rhythm of a mantra comes from a closed circle of East Asians, perhaps Malaysian or Indonesian. In the strong winds on the summit, a young man nearby struggles to find the right page in a Hebrew text. Right next to me a couple huddle together in a single sleeping bag. All are patiently awaiting the sunrise. The anticipation infects me and I find myself gazing East. Light breaks, and all have their cameras ready to capture the moment. The sunrise will be filtered through a hundred Japanese lenses to the retinas eagerly waiting on the other side. Ten minutes pass, twenty, and the sun remains hidden behind thick grey clouds. A few minutes later it begins to rain.

On my way down the mountain I take the other route, the Steps of Penance – 3000 rocks laid by a monk as atonement for a sin only three people know about. It continues to drizzle and the air is cold and crisp, astonishingly refreshing. Although no reason for this comes to my mind, I am unexpectedly euphoric and positive. I embrace the mood I am in. As I negotiate the uneven, sometimes dangerous, rocks I recall a warning given to me by a Bedouin who saw me embark on the beginning of the Steps of Penance an hour ago: be careful, he said, two months ago a Russian went down this route and lost his way; it took us a week to find him, dead. The image of a dead man lost in the midst of these ancient rocks keeps pinging in my mind. If I die here my father will not know about it. He will be spared the pain, devastation and guilt. If I die here my father will not care. If I laugh or cry, if I have another child or get married, if I kill someone or save ten, my father will not be around. I have come here hoping that loneliness will reveal something to me, and I am leaving realising that there is nothing to be revealed. If father is a commandment, I now have one less reason to do the right thing.

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed 2011

Arabian Ants

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My own private Emirates

Youssef Rakha clicks his heels together three times and says, ’There’s no oasis like home.’

It had been nearly a week since I slept in my apartment – and I noticed nothing out of the ordinary on my return. Enervated by my tour of the Emirates, I resolved to retire for as long as possible. Dream images of my family home in Cairo saw me through; I fell into a deep, regenerative slumber filled with journeys – to Ras al Khaimah, to Alexandria – shorter trips by car which, enabling a brief departure from everyday living quarters, offer a variation on the usual urban domicile, a temporary escape from Abu Dhabi or from Cairo. But by morning, the itching was impossible to ignore.

Some unpleasant sensation in my limbs had momentarily but repeatedly woken me through the night, yet the REM sleep was so absorbing I did not register what it was. Eventually, sitting up in the light of my bedside lamp, I could just make out a familiar creature trudging determinedly from underneath my torso to the edge of the mattress: a tiny brown ant, the kind that, back in Cairo, would be infesting said family home at this time of year if not for regular visits by the exterminator. Yet the ants were never entirely vanquished, especially when the scheduled visit of the exterminator was slightly overdue. They would be practising their infantry drill, individually or in small groups, inside the bath tub or on a door handle, marching alongside invisible tanks across a windowsill, launching minuscule rockets into the ceiling; sometimes they managed to build settlements near the sugar hoards in the kitchen, putting up imperceptible flags.

Amazingly, even as I scratched vigorously now (ensconced in my insulated Abu Dhabi environment) I was overjoyed by the presence of those reviled occupiers. For once my air-conditioned living space – like so much else in the Emirates: cordoned off, polished and seemingly impenetrable to the substance of real life – felt like my idea of a home: a place where, in midsummer, ants have to be dealt with no matter what.

It occurred to me that, even in the perpetual state of transience in which the UAE’s migrant labour force lives (and I too, willy-nilly, am part of that labour force), small details can generate a stable atmosphere, slowly but surely breaking the seal of impermanence. This belated realisation should have come to me earlier – it did not actually require the presence of these arthropod madeleines – had I only given it some thought. It seems that even the most unattached nomad, in the most mercurial quicksand, will of necessity imbue the space he occupies with clues to who he is.

For an actual flat – even a company-procured specimen, in a newly constructed assembly-line building, which looks and feels more like a dorm room than a house – is more than a glorified hotel apartment. Partly to ensure that it would be different from places where I have lived in the past, and partly for the sake of interior-design innovation, but mainly to cut the start-up costs, when I first moved in, I decided to furnish only one room.

The idea was to divide up the space along the lines of UAE territory, mimicking those architectural models you keep bumping into at public venues in a symbolic way. The kitchen and entryway would stand in for the more remote Northern Emirates; the bathroom, being wet (one Arabic word for bathroom – dawrat al miyah – translates as “revolution of the waters”), small and different from anywhere else in the house, would represent the island of Abu Dhabi.

The unfurnished, thus far-unused lounge – designed, or rather left blank, to house parties and punish renegades – is my Empty Quarter, while the Oasis, the hub of my very own miniature Trucial Coast, located as it should be adjacent to the revolution of the waters, is both bedroom and study; it has the TV, the DVD player, the books – everything, really.

At the time, I had not realised that, in so conceiving of the apartment, I was not so much invoking the Emirates as recreating an introverted loner’s archetype of a place to be comfortable in. With few exceptions, I have always occupied a single room, a combination bedroom and study, where the entertainment system would also be installed.

Like Proust, I like to work in bed; like Quentin Crisp, I try to minimise housework. And being cooped up in a manageable space with everything I required in the immediate surroundings must have instinctively felt like the right choice. The Oasis can be depressing when I have stayed there too long, but it answers my needs at every level. Interestingly, the room in its present state has something to say about what it means to live your life as part of a migrant labour force — all the more so in the presence of Cairo-style ants – after a week spent in hotels of widely varying quality.

What the Oasis reveals — in addition to my conscious, ultimately lame map of the Emirates and the subconscious notion of comfortable living space — is the enduring power of subjectivity. Whether they mean to or not, even when they have worked actively against it, transients will unload their baggage wherever they have arrived: their mental, as well as physical baggage; their attitudes and assumptions, their sense of right and wrong, their tastes and, perhaps most tellingly of all, as in my seemingly insane joy on discovering the reason my limbs were itching, their intricately accumulated responses.

In my case, to give a few examples, the kitchen is well-stocked with Turkish coffee, the bedside table has its own, large extension, its drawers equally well-stocked with cigarettes, so as to accommodate ashtrays, coffee cups, books, notebooks, pens, alarm clocks and variously useful trinkets: my life. To the side of the TV table there is a tabla, a walking stick, a traditional Arab flute. A pile of the Arabic books I have published stands beneath the drawing of an Upper Egyptian horse. There is a map of the Ottoman Empire and, next to the pop art case containing my stationary on the desk, a miniature Quran. In the drawers are Egyptian CDs, Lebanese films, Indian incense sticks acquired in the popular Cairo market of Moski.

A hotel cleaner arrives once a week to sort things out; he arranges a load of clean laundry into the wall cupboard and, shaking his head sorrowfully at the ants, says, “I spray now, sir?” To which I am nodding, admittedly with some reluctance.

After six months in Abu Dhabi, something changes in your outlook. It is not that you belong more. Rather, you become more open to experience, more painfully exposed, more willing to engage with people who once seemed irrelevant to you. Most crucially, in this context, your living space — and that includes the public as well as the private — begins to look like you. After six or 60 years, the space forcibly reflects those who reside – however briefly – within.

One of my favourite pastimes in Abu Dhabi is to depart the Oasis in the middle of the night, venture into the Empty Quarter and make a long-distance phone call. “Why is your voice so strange,” my interlocutor will invariably ask. “There is a huge echo, it’s like you’re calling from the middle of the desert.”

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