Seaing with the devil
Forget about air-conditioned rooms, animation programmes and diving safaris. Mohamed El-Assyouti escapes the bustle of the metropolis to the camps of the Sinai Peninsula
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Clockwise from top: authentic Bedouin environment around tourist campers; the rock at Ayyash's camp; a drink in one of the all-nature camps photos: Mohamed El-Assyouti
" Ma non lo sai che la Saraghina è il diavolo ?" (But don't you know that Saraghina is the Devil?), a Catholic school priest asks Guido, as a little boy, in Federico Fellini's Otto e mezzo or (Eight and a half). Little Guido Anselmo then kneels before a statue of the Madonna. A dissolve to the next scene shows him seeking the grotesque-looking Saraghina, who sits by the sea. But while Fellini's Devil was probably dwelling in his native Rimini on the Mediterranean, our very own is about 16 kilometres north of Nuweiba on the Red Sea, where according to some, a huge rock formation was the reason the place was called Ras Shitan (The Devil's Head).
The week before the 7 October 2004 double terrorist bombings, Castle Beach camp had received a certificate of excellence from Minister of Tourism Ahmed El-Maghrabi for hosting the largest number of tourists in the area. Why did Bedouin terrorists attack it? Was it jealousy that the spot was the most thriving tourist spot in the area? Were there disagreements and rivalry between the Bedouin tribes? Or was it as alleged, because the majority of the camp guests were Israelis?
No matter the reason; a few things have changed forever about the place. There are a few police trucks parked at the camps' gates on the highway. Even though Israeli tourists never stopped coming, they are less than before. Tourism in the Ras Shitan camps is still thriving, however, relatively less than before. Ras Shitan's curse of being one of the quietest and most attractive beaches in South Sinai was never dispelled. That's why holiday makers from Egypt and all over the world keep on flocking to Mutawi's Castle Beach and Ayyash's next-door camp. Owned and managed by two Bedouins married to Israelis, the camps' clientele is of a diversity of types: long hair, New Age hippies, groups of college students as well as young couples and families who don't mind common bathrooms. Some sleep under a shelter on the beach, in sleeping bags or in tents, in huts or in bungalows. In Mutawi's there is electricity in the bungalows and huts but in Ayyash's, candles would complement the Bedouin lifestyle.
There is more to the place, however, than its simple beach camp appearance. It starts from its very name. Why did the Devil refuse to bow to Adam? In the Islamic tradition, as made explicit in the Qur'an, the Devil's refusal to obey the divine order was out of sheer pride. The Devil created out of fire was too proud of his element to bow to Man created out of clay. At Ras Shitan, someone suggested to this writer that the Devil was observing the essence of worshipping his divine maker, who elsewhere forbade any of his creation to bow before anything but Him. The letter of the order to bow to Adam was inconsistent with true worship of the maker, whereas the Devil's seemingly disobedient act was true obedience.
Why are people still travelling to the Devil's head despite the occasional warning of friends, family and sometimes international media channels? Why are some of my friends who were present during the terrorist attacks, and were a hair's breadth away from being mortally wound, still return almost every month? There is something of disobedience about the place. In Egypt, yet so close not only to Israel but within eye-shot across the sea, to Saudi Arabian shores.
In 2005, after over 20 years of greedy but short-sighted businessmen scattering ugly concrete secretions on South Sinai shores, seeking to get stars and tourist groups, Ras Shitan is still a beach which preserves a simpler and nature- friendly environment, with a vista where little bungalows and huts pose no challenge to the haughtiness of eternal star-studded blue skies, reddish-brown mountains and clear serene sea waters. Bathers in their bikinis are bargaining with Bedouin women covered head-to-toe in black, who sell ethnic jewellery and clothes, while others ride camels by the sea shore. In a word, Ras Shitan is where many contradictions co-exist, but unlike in a big city like Cairo, they are in harmony.
With no kite-surfing, water skiing or diving, beach activities at Ras Shitan are very basic, yet if one has his snorkeling mask he would spot quite a few underwater marvels. No animators to invite you to play volleyball, aerobics or aqua gymnastics. But who needs these when in one corner, over Ayyash's rock, jutting out into the sea and allegedly with a high energy potential, where the amount of oxygen you breath is just right, you have group x inviting you for a session of Tai Chi: you toy with a ball of energy. In another corner, group y is saluting the sun in a set of relaxing yoga moves: your arms stretch vertically when you stand and when the legs are parted to the extreme, and then your body extends horizontally flat, legs together, but stomach never touching the floor, even though at this point you turn into a snake. In a third corner, group z is practising "healing" by sitting in meditation positions and occasionally sipping from a glass of water: if you are really aware of your body you can trace the water trickling down your body droplet by droplet nourishing every cell it reaches -- ouch I can feel the rotten protoplasm!
There are Israelis and Egyptians in Ras Shitan, but there are also Sudanese who came to make a living working with the Bedouin and other Egyptians in the camps, as well as Europeans who happened to stumble on the place, coming from India, China or Australia. They decided to stay for days and never left for months. Globetrotting, searching for good Karma, they found a place where Nirvana is readily attainable, where nature's energy is bountiful.
At the peak of the season, the camp would also host several guests who sleep in their personal tents or simply in their sleeping bags on the beach. Some almost permanent residents of the camp play their music on acoustic instruments which include the lute, zither and guitar, and sometimes on tambourines or tabla (Egyptian drums).
In Ras Shitan, Pegasus chariots race westward as a premature sunset hides Apollo's lights behind the mountains, but if you are an early bird, you can behold Aurora's rosy fingers not only caressing the eastern horizons but also reddening the surface of the tranquil sea. In the Ras Shitan tableau, nature's palette is rich: brown mountains, yellow sands, blue waters, azure skies and even green shrubs.
In Mutawi's camp, known as Castle Beach, the Bedouin Moussa supervises the camp, some simple huts and a number of bungalows, with clean mattresses on the floor, and electric lamps. With a price range from LE80 to LE120 per night, a bungalow can accommodate two or three people. Frequented by young people who are keen on relative cleanliness, common bathrooms are cleaned several times a day, and hot water is available. The Sudanese Mubarak supervises Ayyash's camp, a set of very simple primitive huts, where a sleeping bag is sometimes needed, for LE20-30 a hut. It's frequented by low-budget travellers, hippies and tourists who are less demanding regarding luxury accommodation options. Moussa and Mubarak have their own separate ways of dealing with their guests, both local and foreign, but they are both hospitable and accommodating. Theirs is a politics of peace, like their namesakes.
Castle Beach's menu offers grilled boury (mullet) and fried calamari, LE40 and LE50 respectively, served with rice or French fries and tehina, the former including a portion of two mullets (closed or open sangari-style) while the latter has several shreds of fresh squid. You can opt for shrimps, grilled chicken, pizzas or pan cakes. Fresh fruits are available, but not so alcoholic beverages. Sahlab is a commendable repast by itself, to be had between meals for LE10.
Ayyash's camp boasts a similar menu, in addition to special bread, omelets and orange juice. Most adjacent camps have restaurants that can be tried for a change. Bedouin merchandise: necklaces, bracelets, anklets, cotton shirts and pants, shawls and other cloth items as well as carpets are available, sold by Bedouin girls and women who pass by or in two shops set in huts in one of the neighbouring camps and in a small store in Ayyash's camp. Bedouin men sell ice-cream and bottled juice.
Other than sunbathing and swimming, the activities on offer in Ras Shitan are limited. But if you enjoy minimalist relaxation in a quiet sea-side atmosphere, the place is ideal to read your favourite book, listen to your relaxing music or simply vegetate as the sun's rays penetrate the pores of your skin, clogged by Cairo's polluted air.