A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it... We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive... And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us try then what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
William Penn

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone...
George Fox

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Making Wishes in the Desert

Eline and Wilhelm come from Holland every year to spend their holiday in Dahab. They enter their sanctuary, a five star hotel on the sea, and they never leave it. They go from their room to the swimming pool to the restaurant. Eline also visits Barbara on the hotel grounds to watch her make her ceramic pottery. Eline envies Barbara in a way; Barbara is an artist, and a permanent resident of Dahab, something Eline imagines she would like to be. But Barbara goes to her small home every day, located in the Bedouin part of Dahab, and she routinely deals with that part of being an expat here that Eline probably wouldn't like so much. For example, water is supposed to come once a week, through a hose, when Barbara fills her water tanks and 5 liter water bottles to water the plants. At times, though, the water never arrives, and the plants go dry, and a shower becomes a matter of great concern.
This year Eline and Wilhelm have decided to venture out of the hotel for the first time. It is Eline's birthday, and she has invited Barbara and I to go for a Bedouin meal in the desert mountains. Selim arrives in a pick-up truck to take the four of us out of Dahab. After a fifteen minute ride, we're turning onto a sandy road leading into a wide ravine between cliffs. But for a few, sparse desert plants, there is nothing but rock and sand. The pickup truck moves slowly around boulders and nearly gets stuck in the sand once or twice before we arrive at a palm grove in a narrow ravine. There are other Bedouins there, sitting barefoot on blankets, and we stop for tea before helping to load the truck with everything we'll need for the meal. Selim's helper joins him in the front seat, Wilhelm and I sit in the back seat, and Eline and Barbara sit on stools in the pick-up's bed.
"This is a great experience," says Wilhelm. "I'm glad to be sharing it with you." He pats my shoulder firmly while saying this.
"I'm glad to be sharing it with you too, Wilhelm," I say. He offers his hand and I shake it.
"Thanks for inviting me, " I say.
"Thanks for being here with us," he replies.
Selim drives us deeper into the ravine, which he tells us can become a raging, torrential river when it rains here, three or four times a year. At our destination, at the farthest part of the ravine navigable by a pick-up truck, we stop and unload. I am excited to be out here; Wilhelm and Eline are trying to be excited, but they seem a little uncomfortable; Barbara is nonchalant about the whole thing. She's lived in Sinai for a long time.
When Selim tells us to keep an eye out for snakes and scorpions, Wilhelm and Eline get a little more nervous.
They scan the sandy ground.
After the blankets have been spread we're served more tea by Selim's helper, who remains silent and detached. The two of them squat to start a fire with wood and charcoal they've brought along, then they begin cooking. Barbara has brought candles, and she places them among the cliffs, more for ambiance than for lighting.
"It's so quiet out here," says Wilhelm. He's right, when no one is speaking, the silence is absolute.
"It's so beautiful," says Eline.
There's a bit of chatting, and Eline explains to us that she has burned all her metaphors. There's some silence after this, then I ask her what that means. She doesn't know how to answer, other than to say that burning her metaphors has helped to free her.
"Cool," I say, nodding.
After a bit we're all lying on our backs on the blanket, waiting for the first stars to come out.
"It's so quiet out here," says Wilhelm.
When the food is served, the four of us eat quietly. It doesn't seem right to make noise out here. Selim and his helper hang back, and Wilhelm and Eline invite them to eat with us.
"Later'" says Selim.
The food is fantastic; roast chicken, rice, vegetables, and flat bread baked on the fire, but I am the only one who is eating ravenously. I check myself and force myself to slow down.
Eventually Selim joins us on the opposite side of the low table, but his helper still hangs back, smoking.
While Eline and Wilhelm sit quietly, and Barbara lies on her back looking for shooting stars, I talk with Selim. I tell him about my journey, and he says I'm a Bedouin. He tells me all about life in Sinai in the time of his father and grandfather, when there were no cars or roads, and when camel caravans were common. He tells me all about camels, how they are spirited in the winter, and lazy in the summer. He tells me about the weak camels that populate Sinai now. They come from Sudan, and hang around doing nothing all day. The Sinai camel, which he says was far more robust, is almost extinct now. I think of  Nietzsche's criticism of Darwin's theory, in which Nietzsche says the fat and lazy survive, and not the fittest. Selim talks also about how the Bedouins import their Toyota pick-up trucks. They're cut in half, just behind the cab, at the exporting port, then welded together again in Sinai. This is to avoid paying taxes for a vehicle. They're shipped as junk.
I ask Selim about the time of Israel's occupation of Sinai. He says his mother took him and his brothers and sisters to hide in the mountains, but then he surprises me by saying it was an awakening for the Bedouins. They had cars and TV's for the first time when the Israelis came. Now the Israelis are gone, and business is bad. He also explains how the Bedouins are not Egyptians, but of Saudi descent. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, their camel caravans regularly traded with the Saudis via Aqaba. I tell him I'd wanted to walk, or at least hitchhike through Sinai, but the Egyptian military at the Sinai border would have prevented me from doing this.
"F***ing Egyptians," he says. But I know he has many Egyptian friends.
Barbara has brought a paper, hot air 'wish balloon' for Eline's birthday, and she opens it while Wilhelm lights the wick under it. After a few minutes, it inflates, and rises tentatively into the black, starry sky like a cosmic fire ship.
"Happy birthday," we say to Eline, quietly. We watch, making our wishes as the illuminated balloon wavers, then rises higher. On reaching the height of the surrounding mountain's summits, the wind catches it and it sails away for a bit before descending behind another mountain.
"So beautiful," Wilhelm says.
When Selim and I begin talking again in low voices so as not to disturb the desert, Wilhelm says it's time to leave, but that I can stay with the Bedouins if I like. He's joking, but I know I'll be back out here for a night or two in my tent. I reveal my thoughts to Selim.
"You don't need tent," he says. "Bedouins sleep outside in summer. Just look for snakes and scorpions."
It's very dark, so I can only imagine our Dutch friends straining to see the ground at this reminder.
Afterwards we silently pack everything into the truck, and Selim drives it at a swaying crawl through the dark ravine. On the way the headlights catch a small owl perched on a rock. It rotates its head to have a look before flying away into the darkness. Then we're back on the sand covered road to the hotel, where we say our goodbyes, and where Eline and Wilhelm return to their refuge before flying back to Holland. But having had this wonderful experience in the desert, and having made their wishes, when they come back next year I am sure they will see Sinai, and not just the hotel.

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