Thanksgiving in the Sinai
by Gary Greenberg
"The desert is the sea without water."
Norris Basket and I were stuck in the middle of nowhere again. This time it was the Sinai Peninsula, an expansive wilderness where my distant ancestors once got lost for forty years.
We’d been stranded before: halfway up (or down) a cliff in Turkey, on the wrong side of Cyprus, and as visa-less aliens in a Syrian customs house where a soldier threatened to cut my Jewish American throat when I slept but didn’t because I taught him how to juggle and do card tricks.
I met Norris in the Cappradocian highlands of central Turkey around Halloween and we’d been trying to get to Israel ever since. Now, it was Thanksgiving week and we were finally closing in on the Promised Land. The only problem was we still weren’t sure we’d actually get there at all.
Norris was a rail-thin artist who wore wire-rim glasses and looked a bit nerdy with his penchant for wearing white socks with sandals. But he nevertheless was a game traveling companion who weathered adversity well. It was a good thing because we’d most recently been abandoned here, in the desolate interior of the Sinai peninsula, by an Egyptian dump truck driver who picked us up hitchhiking and, twenty miles later, tried to charge us for the ride. When we refused to pay, he barked something in Arabic about our mothers, spit on one of Norris’ sock and sandaled feet and drove off.
So we were stuck, neither here nor there, maybe twenty miles back to Mount Sinai, where we’d started the day, and thirty in the other direction to the east coast settlement of Nuweiba, where we hoped to end it. We decided to keep going, knowing if worst came to worst, stalwart globetrotters like us could surely walk the distance.
I suppose we’d gone about a mile before stopping for our first water break. It was then I realized I’d forgotten to fill the canteen.
Norris groaned. "How could you?"
I shrugged. "Sorry. But as I recall, you were supposed to remind me to fill it."
"That’s true," he admitted. "As a matter of fact, just before that trucker stopped, I remembered I forgot, but then I forgot I remembered."
Oh well. We took a few miserly sips of the tepid swill remaining and kept walking, following what appeared as a squiggly blue line on my AAA map of Egypt/Israel/Jordan. It was defined as a "secondary highway" but had already degenerated from random spots of asphalt into a rutted dirt trail. We stubbornly forged on and within a couple of hours, our canteen was dry and the so-called highway we were following had split more times than McDonald’s stock. With the sun directly overhead, it was impossible to tell if we were even walking in the right direction. A thirst-inspired irritability bounced back and forth between Norris and me until the insults burnt themselves out. The ensuing silence seemed louder than any argument, broken only by the squeaky crepitations of our steps across the desert sands.
To fully convey how long and tedious this walk was I ought to spend the next ten thousand words describing the desert motif. But having more compassion for you than fate had for Norris and me, I’ll just say that the desert was about as bland as a salt-free diet, but not without a certain austere beauty. The land was pigmented in more shades of brown than a proctologist sees in a lifetime, the fluid line of distant dunes dramatically broken by skyscrapers of jagged rock. It was a domain stripped bare of all fluff and frills. Like meatless bones of the earth’s crust, the desert was fascinating in the same macabre way as a skeleton.
Of course, contemplating skeletons isn’t the best morale-booster for a couple of boneheads stuck "hitchhiking" along a poor excuse for a road in the middle of a desert wasteland with no water. We trudged onward through irritability, anger, uncertainty, dread and right into the heart of fear. People who get stranded in deserts die horrible deaths: crawling on their bellies like reptiles, raucously gasping for water through sun-broiled lips and seeing mirages which always lie just out of reach.
As I had so often done in my travels, I began wishing I’d never left home. The pull was especially strong at this time of year. I was born on Thanksgiving Day and my family always gathered at my parents’ home for the traditional feast: my mom’s famous split-pea soup, turkey, stuffing, roasted potatoes and all the trimmings, not to mention birthday cake, chocolate with white frosting and blue flowers.
I didn’t have enough moisture left in my body to even salivate. The sun passed its zenith and we found ourselves following our shadows. When mine began looking as though it belonged to Wilt Chamberlain, we saw the vague outline of a Bedouin camp emerge on the horizon. We headed towards it and arrived about a half-hour later to find a pair of single-humped camels, a small herd of braying donkeys, a few emaciated goats, a one-eared black dog and a small white tent populated by eight of the nomadic Arabs, who eyed us the way New Yorkers might eye a couple of nomadic Arabs trying to ride camels across Manhattan.
There was also water.
Water, water, water.
The first sip was more precious than gold, the last barely worth swallowing.
The Bedouin are renowned for their legendary hospitality in which they share whatever they have (which is slightly more than nothing) with strangers, and they pretty much saved our lives. In return, Norris sketched Bic pen portraits of each and I taught them how to juggle and do card tricks.
In general, life with the Bedouin was about as exciting as watching their camels work up a thirst. At one point, I wrote an eight-page dissertation on how the Bedouin build and maintain their camel-dung campfires, but one of the emaciated goats showed a flair for literary criticism by chewing it up.
We eventually escaped the monotony of this desert life raft the following afternoon when some soldiers of peace in a United Nations patrol jeep gave us a lift to Nuweiba. Situated on the Gulf of Aqaba about halfway between the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and the Israeli border at Taba, Nuweiba was a popular resort before the Israelis gave the Sinai back to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accord.
Six months had passed since the land had changed nationalities, and there was only circumstantial evidence that Nuweiba had ever been a resort. There wasn't much of anything around besides an empty-shelved snack stand, one boarded motel, a dilapidated beach changing room with toilets, showers and no running water, some building shells, a massive trash heap and, about a mile up the beach, a plywood Bedouin village whose residents tooled around the area on camels or in beat-up Mercedes taxi cabs.
Norris and I set up camp on the beach and picnicked on pita bread, mixed fruit jam and a can of tuna fish. It wasn't much, but after two days of living on tea, a bag of stale wafers and sparse helpings of Bedouin goat stew, we didn't need La Tour Argent's pressed duck to satiate our appetites.
While dining, a swarthy young Egyptian with a huge carpetbag walked up and introduced himself as Mahmoud. He was a black marketeer from Cairo who peddled things like hookahs, whiskey and girlie magazines.
"When you travel, you have to do a little business," he said with a seemingly Jewish shrug. "You want a cold beer?"
I laughed. "Sure. And I'd like a steak. Medium-rare."
"And I'd like a platter of curried chicken," Norris added, having developed a taste for Indian cuisine somewhere in the Far East of London.
Mahmoud smiled more with his eyes than his mouth. He opened his carpetbag, pulled out a small styrofoam cooler, raised the lid and proudly displayed six gold-topped cans sweating with condensation. Miller High Life.
"I get this from American soldiers I meet in Dahab for a little merchandise that cost me nothing. So I sell it to you for cheap. One Egyptian pound for one can."
I'd been fantasizing about a cold beer for days, but Norris was totally broke and I had just enough currency for two bus tickets to the Israeli border. That and a $100 traveler's check which had to last until I could find some work.
I seriously considered spending Norris' fare for a couple of beers, but when Mahmoud realized our situation, he popped a couple of cans for us and sat down crossed-legged. Unlike the Bedouin, he didn't wear ankle-length caftans with extra-long sports jackets, but rather Levi Strauss jeans, red flannel shirt, gray sweater vest, blue sneakers and a pure white kaffiyeh headdress.
"I also wish to be traveling abroad," he said, opening a beer for himself. "I want to go to Europe and America, but I am not allowed to leave Egypt."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"I was recently in jail and because of that I cannot get a passport for maybe five years. Egypt is a very stupid country because it is always telling people what they cannot do." He raised his can in toast. "I share what I have with you, and maybe someday someone will share what they have with me when I have no money."
I gulped about half of my beer. Mahmoud took a sip that barely wet his lips.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Ah, yes," he said. "Every Thursday there is a bus from here. Israel is a wonderful country. When Camp David was signed, I went to Israel and worked on a kibbutz. I think I am the first Egyptian to do this. Then I returned to Cairo to go to medical school and wrote a story about my wonderful experience in Israel for the school newspaper. But when I gave it to the dean to have it published, he showed it to the authorities and I was arrested for promoting Zionist ideas. I spent two months in jail."
"That's terrible," Norris said.
"It was most terrible," Mahmoud continued. "The jail was more like a cage for animals than men. I write a story about this and put it into a cigarette pack to throw over the wall to my friends. But when I tried, a wind blew it away. This other prisoner found it and threatened to show it to the warden if I did not do sex things with him at night. For this, I know I might never come out of jail. So I went to him in the night and cut him across the throat with a scalpel blade."
Mahmoud grabbed a handful of sand. "In Egypt, the truth is a crime and a man's life is worth nothing more than this." He let the sand sift through his fingers. For a full minute, he stared at the ground..
A blink brought him back to Nuweiba. "Enough about this," he said. "For the beer I share with you, you must give me something in return. Tell me about the places you have seen."
Between Norris and myself, we'd been to about thirty countries and gave Mahmoud his Miller's worth in stories. We soon polished off the six-pack, then scavenged the trash heap looking for anything burnable, built a fire and sat around it talking.
As we got to know each other better, it became more and more difficult to believe Mahmoud had ever cut a man's throat. In Nuweiba, he acted more curious kid than killer, absorbing our tales of travel and questioning everything from the perennial flowering flora of Britain to the blond female fauna of Scandinavia.
We talked through most of the night, and when morning came, took turns using Mahmoud's mask and snorkel. Just a doggy-paddle offshore, there were coral reefs that were as colorful as the surrounding desert was monochrome. The mask and snorkel turned a little swim into an expedition to an alien planet with seemingly manicured coral gardens and their incredibly varied inhabitants: big, little, fat, skinny, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet fish that cruised, munched and snoozed at a retirement home pace in the sea.
Later, the three of us played in the desert like truant school kids. It was a Huckleberry Finn of Arabia kind of day. We found a dead camel and pried out its teeth for mementos, learned how to weave palm frond hats from a leathery old man with a milky eye, conned the local Bedouin into letting us ride their camels and, while exploring the trash heap, came across a yellow scorpion curled up in a rusty can.
We made a ring of stone and threw the scorpion into the middle. It was bigger than I thought they grew, three fingers broad and almost as long as my hand. According to Mahmoud, it was much deadlier than its black and red brethren. The Bedouin concurred and wanted to crush it with a rock. Mahmoud wouldn't let them. He seemed intrigued by the creature and stared at it like a long-lost brother.
"The scorpion comes from a family of animals called crustacean who live in the sea," he explained. "But the scorpion live in a sea of sand where the sun is so hot during the day it can cook him if he doesn't find shade.
"This scorpion and I are very alike. My father teaches the religion of Islam. One of my brothers is a member of the crazy Muslim Brotherhood. The rest of my brothers are regular Egyptians who spend their time cheating tourists in Cairo. I have lived in Egypt my whole life. I am a man of Egyptian blood, but the heart pumping this blood is not Egyptian. It wants to beat somewhere else, but is trapped where it does not belong. Nuweiba is my piece of shade in the desert."
Fittingly, it was Thanksgiving Day when the bus to the Israeli border stopped in Nuweiba. Mahmoud walked us over to it, shook our hands and turned away as tears welled in his eyes. Norris and I boarded the bus. He announced to everyone aboard that it was my birthday. No one seemed to care, except for a guy in the last row who gave me a stick of gum as a present. I unwrapped it and folded it into my mouth. As the bus lurched to life and rolled away towards the Promised Land, I looked out the back window to see Mahmoud throw the can with the scorpion into the sea.
I still think of Mahmoud at Thanksgiving time, hoping that he eventually got his wish to travel as freely as an American or English vagabond. Someday, maybe we'll meet again. I'll buy him a cold beer or two and make him pay for them by telling me stories of his travels. And I'm sure we'll drink a toast to our old friend Norris Basket, not to mention the scorpion who went home to the sea.
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