In The SinaiT. SHER SINGH
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
It takes us almost two hours to leave Cairo behind.
What seems to keep us from escaping is the heavy blanket of pollution that covers the city. Our car and driver -- and everybody else in the haze -- honk their way through the clogged streets as if it will take the combined weight of metal and a general cacophony to rend an exit through.
Finally, the shroud lifts, revealing a friendly sky. We aim east towards the Suez Canal on an arrow-straight highway. Nothing in sight for miles but a barren landscape of rocks and jagged hills.
Unless you look more carefully.
Camouflaged in the wilderness are trucks, tank, guns, tents -- in fact, pockets of military installations scattered all the way to the Canal.
The crossing of the Suez Canal has a ring of irony to it. Several generations had carved the canal through the land, until the waters of the Mediterranean cavorted with those of the Dead Sea. Then, nations fought wars to control this man-made wonder.
But now, when we arrive at the Canal, we discover they have recently carved out yet another tunnel, this time under the Canal, to take you across to the city of Suez and the Sinai Desert beyond it. Military reasons, we are told in a whisper.
Heavily guarded on both sides and all around, the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel takes us through after our documents are closely scrutinized and our driver/guide has duly bribed the soldiers at the entrance. A routine matter, he explains later. It lubricates the economy. But he does mutter under his breath - in Arabic - for a long time.
The town of Suez is not an attractive one. Anymore. It certainly doesn’t look like the picture-postcard my father sent me of it in 1958 as his ship sailed through it on its voyage from Bombay to Aden.
Bombed-out shells of buildings all over the town today remind you of the recent wars with Israel. We stop for a while, chew on sugar canes and watch monster ships sail by.
The sun is high in the clear blue sky. A gentle 70 degrees. We turn south and enter the Sinai.
Endless miles of sand in varying contours, to our left. Gorgeous shades of blue and green on the right, as the Canal hurries into the Gulf of Suez, and we race towards the Red Sea. The distant Ataqa Hills provide a dozen more hues to the picture.
The packed itinerary from the preceding days and the prolonged exit from Egypt’s capital have left us exhausted. The eyelids are leaden and the body demands that we sleep. But the soul resists. The scene outside is not only breath-taking, it also changes dramatically every minute. The shapes change, the colours change. One can taste history in the air -- it pervades and prevails. We don’t want to miss even a moment of it.
We bump off the highway, down a rough-hewn path towards the Gulf, and stop a few hundred yards short of the water.
An oasis. “Ain Musa” -- The Spring of Moses, announces our driver. Where the Israelites camped after crossing the Red Sea. Where Moses turned the bitter spring of Marah into sweet water.
A couple of Bedouin women appear from behind a sand-dune. Veiled and bejewelled. Followed by a herd of goats. And a toddler on a donkey. One of the women points to the well where we have stopped. Musa, she says. Moses. She asks for baksheesh. We walk away. She pulls out a cigarette from somewhere, lights it and strolls away.
Utter peace. Nothing matters here. Wars have come and gone. Pharoahs and Nazis. Tanks and Armoured Carriers. Anti-aircraft guns. All have ranted and raved here. But have left no mark. No blemish. A few palm trees have escaped the most recent war. They stand majestically in defiance. The spring has water. The goats are well fed.
The files back at the office. The mess in Ottawa. The foolishness in the world. Careers. Ambitions. Bank accounts. All suddenly acquire a new context.
I think of my father who passed away only 10 weeks earlier. I think of his father, and suddenly realize I cannot remember his name. I struggle with my memory, but it refuses to budge. I turn around and look at my daughter. She is looking at the sea. Then, the hills. Is she thinking of what lies beyond them, or of what we left behind this very morning: the pyramids that we walked around in awe only yesterday, as their swagger challenged all who stood there.
I wonder whether her children too will stand here one day. Where Moses once stood. Will they remember my name?
Does it matter?
We are back on the road. The desert is captivating. And inviting. In a while we want to stop and walk in the sand. Or go off the road and lose sight of it for a while. No, says our driver, you cannot. There are mines everywhere. Left behind from the wars, some by the Israelis, some by the Egyptians.
But an hour later, he takes us off on another beaten track. All the way to the sea this time. Hammam Faroun, Pharoah’s Bath. Steam and gases wisp out from fissures in the rock.
“What a smell,” somebody notes. Sulphur springs. Boiling water. The guide books say little. But our driver knows: Moses rested here first after crossing the Red Sea.
Back on the road again. We turn inland. The road begins to climb. The geography changes. A mountain range materializes. Jagged teeth on the horizon. Dramatic geological formations have surrounded us completely.
Suddenly, he stops the car. Look back, he says, look at the hills. We turn around. The hills are pock-marked with bunkers and trenches. Memories of war everywhere. Strategically placed, to ambush, inflict maximum damage. Kept intact. You never know when you might need them again.
There is drama everywhere as the sun, the mountains, the dunes, the wild camels, all conspire to impress. It’s as if the author of this magnificence has ired Cecil De Mille to design the sets.
We plummet through the Wilderness of the Wanderings, towards Mount Sinai and to rest in a room in Saint Catherine’s Monastery. To stand where Moses once stood, holding a tablet which said: “Thou shalt not kill.“