The Sinai, a lost paradise?
The size of Japan, but treated by the media as if it were a small town, Sinai is poorly understood by international visitors and Egyptians alike, writes Ibrahim Farouk in the first instalment of an Al-Ahram Weekly series
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From top: the road to Asia; tourist pleasures; the magic beach; conveying the ship of the desert; the tradition of Arab hospitality; Awad and Mubarak; supermarket proprietor; Suleiman
Do we really know Sinai? We may talk about this land, an area the size of Japan, or read about it or sometimes travel across it in one direction or another, but do we know much about its geographic and demographic character or its cultural and human profile?
Before exploring Sinai's profile or rediscovering its human and natural wealth, the question is really one of where to begin. Sinai has suffered from neglect for years, so should one concentrate on its past? On the other hand, Sinai has a remarkable present and future ahead of it, so should one focus on the character of the place and its people and culture?
Before starting my journey to rediscover Sinai and as I prepared for an expedition to the peninsula, most of the images that came to mind were from the time of the former regime, when Sinai was dealt with as the personal fiefdom of businessmen close to the regime or as the plaything of the government agencies. Sinai was defined as an issue of national security, a trouble spot and a constant headache for Egypt.
This region, it used to be said, larger than many independent countries at 61,000 square kilometres, lies beyond Egypt's main borders. Its inhabitants, former regime figures said, are unpatriotic and would sell Sinai to Israel if they had the chance, being little better than outlaws and a threat to national security.
Other exaggerated claims used to be made as well, among them that the inhabitants of Sinai were drug dealers who grew poppy plants and traded in marijuana and hashish, sending narcotics abroad through the Suez Canal and employing various forms of deception.
SPRING IN SINAI: "Spring has returned to Sinai after a long absence. Rain has come after long years of drought," declared Mohamed El-Mazini from the Al-Mazinah tribe in Sinai. "Today, we can see the grass and trees that we had lost hope would ever come to life again," he added. El-Mazini is a young man of not yet 30 years old whose words reflect the pulse of this "Land of Turquoise" and are far from the way some observers in elite Egyptian circles see Sinai.
El-Mazini and many other young people in Sinai have a far more accurate sense of what is happening in their communities and on their land. The attacks that have taken place on the peninsula are, they say, little different from those that have taken place elsewhere in Egypt. It is only because of the misperceptions of Sinai in Egypt that they have been exaggerated and taken on a larger form.
El-Mazini and his peers from the South Sinai tribes are trying to change the image people have of the land and population of Sinai, especially after the 25 January Revolution, which, they say, has ended much of the injustice against them. Today, they want their patriotic voices to reach everyone in Egypt and their problems, concerns and culture to become part of the national debate.
According to El-Mazini, Sinai was poorly treated under the former regime, which used it to benefit the interests of a handful of businessmen who "swarmed like locusts" over the land, draining it of its wealth. After they had got whatever they could from it, they abandoned it to stigma, he says.
Yet, despite the wounds inflicted on the people of Sinai, when you listen to them you realise their patriotic desire to participate as Egyptians in building the motherland. "We know the secrets of this land and of its valleys and its mountains. We can smell the water in it, and we wander on foot through its magnificent, rugged desert," El-Mazini commented, proudly. "We know the healing power of its plants, including a mixture of 44 types of herbs and bark that clears the chest and gives strength and vitality."
"We want people to respect our traditions and our culture and to deal with us as human beings and not criminals," he continued. "We want to be valued as patriots, the sons of Egypt, not the agents of Israel. We want people to believe that we can protect this precious part of Egyptian territory and to cooperate with us in achieving security -- as we have done throughout history. We want someone to give us hope that the wealth of this land will benefit its people."
"After the revolution, all this has become possible. The rain has fallen again and the drought is gone for good," El-Mazini said.
Although there is a lot of data available about Sinai and its people, few in the past seem to have been interested in nurturing its human, cultural or geographic potential. In this vast region, there is a wealth of plains, hills and mountains of unique beauty, many of them giving onto the shores of the Red and Mediterranean seas.
Starting at Arish in the north and passing through Al-Tayah in the centre and on to Al-Tor, Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba, Taba and St Catherine's in the south, the peninsula has a rugged, mountainous landscape, most notably at Mount Sinai (2,285 metres) and Mount St Catherine (2,638 metres), Egypt's highest peaks. The later mountains protect the St Catherine's Monastery, which, built by the Byzantine Roman emperor Justinian in 527 CE, is full of precious artefacts and manuscripts.
Were one to travel through this area, one would realise that the reports from it are sometimes very far from being the truth or representing the reality of life in this little-known paradise. There are of course areas suffering from complex problems, such as the border area between Rafah and the Gaza Strip and Egypt's border with Israel. But these amount to no more than two per cent of Sinai as a whole, and they are usually problems that can be quickly managed and brought under control.
Indeed, the largest problem likely to be encountered by visitors to Sinai may be understanding the culture of Sinai's desert Bedouins, who constitute the vast majority of the peninsula's almost 500,000 inhabitants.
PROUD TO BE BEDOUIN: If one travelled from one end of Sinai to the other and lived with the people, the sons of the tribes, it is likely that one would go away with a new perception of the Bedouin.
The image that we have of them is often very much distorted and is certainly far from the truth. If the Sinai Bedouins believe a visitor to be honest and trustworthy, they will not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for him and stand by his side in times of trouble. They are generous with everyone and are ready to host any guests, passers-by or strangers, whether Arab or foreign.
This spirit of the Sinai natives is something that has not been capitalised on for the benefit of Egypt, and the time has come to exalt this strong spirit that is at once so sagacious, so patient and so devoted to upholding rights. The Bedouin have a strong sense of loyalty towards family, tribe and social cohesion within the community and the country. These are qualities that are difficult to witness unless one gets close to members of their tribes.
Salah Mubarak is a member of a Bedouin tribe living between Dahab and Nabq, and he comments on the image of the Bedouin conveyed in the Egyptian media. "Let's take a look at Egyptian drama, for example, which has never portrayed Sinai Bedouin, although characters from Upper Egypt are often seen," Mubarak said. Like many other Sinai natives, he is saddened at the neglect and inaccurate stereotyping of the Sinai Bedouin, which can portray them either as outlaws or agents of the enemy, or as seeking wealth by any means, even by dealing in drugs.
Although this has been true for some few individuals, it has never been true of the Sinai Bedouin as a whole, whose values are rooted in their spirit, which mirrors the beauty of Sinai. They are closely connected to the majesty of the mountains, the mystery of the sea and the vastness of the desert. These things have left an imprint on their character, such as a deep insight into places and people and knowledge of tracking, of the location of water and the time of rainfall, and of direction by monitoring the sky and stars.
When a Bedouin tribesman meets an outsider, he will know what is in that person's heart and how to deal with him, no matter how much hypocrisy may be directed towards him. Pride and dignity are red lines that cannot be crossed. The Bedouin never forget their duties no matter how much time may elapse, something that the powers-that-be who are deciding Sinai's fate may not always understand or acknowledge. Such people may be engaged in a one-way conversation about Sinai, talking but never listening.
Awad and Mohamed from the Al-Mazinah tribe discuss the character of the Sinai native. "There are some bad apples, but that happens in all communities," they say. "The character of the Sinai inhabitants has changed like that of all Egyptians because of the oppression, marginalisation and exclusion suffered under the former regime. However, we still practise our Bedouin culture, including self-sacrifice, family loyalty, prudence in following the correct path, and appreciation of the motherland."
"If you lived with the people of Sinai, you would discover that they have strong faith and patience. No matter what violations they may commit, they always pray on time and always pay zakat (alms) and uphold God's justice. This being so, how could we sell our homeland? We are confident in ourselves and our convictions, and the main one among these is that Egypt is our motherland despite any harassment we have been subjected to under the former regime."
"We have high hopes for the future: the air in Egypt and Sinai has been purified. Today, Sinai has been restored to us and all Egypt is celebrating."
Salem Moussa also belongs to the South Sinai tribe of Al-Mazinah. Dressed in traditional Bedouin garb, he deals with dozens of foreign tourists every day at his diving centre in a tourist village in Dahab. "I have personally struggled, and continue to struggle, to live a good life in Sinai under the sun that constantly shines here," Moussa said.
"I want to promote my country through these diving centres that receive diving enthusiasts from around the world, people who enjoy the stunning beauty of the unique diving sites in Dahab and Nuweiba, such as the Blue Hole, the Canyon, the Lighthouse, the Jeni Valley, and many others. These are known worldwide as the home of the best and most attractive underwater sights in the world."
"However, too often dreams are shattered by the real world. It isn't always easy to overcome obstacles like permits and other such things, just because you are a Bedouin. This is how things stood under the former regime, when as soon as your name indicated you were from a Sinai tribe, you were met with obstacles and suspicion. Meanwhile, you had to suffer the same government bureaucracy as everyone else, drowned amidst the sea of different interests and the ministries of the interior, tourism, sports or the governorate."
"After the revolution, we have hopes that we will be viewed differently and in a more perceptive and patriotic light."
ALLIE Astell, the photographer who accompanied the trip, commented that "I am sometimes saddened because while I have lived in Sinai for more than 18 months, I am still unable to explain to my friends, family and acquaintances overseas that Sinai is not some kind of small town. Sinai is not what they see in the world's media when it is covering incidents that occur in very small areas and probably only affect about five per cent of the entire area of the peninsula."
Astell, who celebrated her birthday recently in South Sinai and invited her parents and sister to join her, recalls their impressions when they first arrived from the UK.
"They didn't understand why I had decided to settle down in South Sinai 18 months ago and how I could leave my life in the UK for a life that they thought of as unknown and possibly dangerous. They only see negative news from Sinai in the British media, such as bombings, tourist kidnappings, or threats. In the eyes of the outside world, Sinai is a troubled area."
"But when they came and saw my daily routine in Dahab, they discovered the truth about this 'lost paradise' that I had chosen to live in. My father, in particular, said that he was fully able to understand why I had chosen to live in such a stunning part of the world."
Astell is a web designer working with many companies and diving centres in South Sinai, and her story brings up the question of why the international media, and also sometimes the media in Egypt and the Arab world, chooses to portray Sinai in so false a way. She first came to Sinai in 2006 on her honeymoon with her now ex-husband, travelling from Ras Sedr through Al-Tor and then Sharm El-Sheikh until reaching Dahab.
While there, her husband suffered a health crisis at 3am, and as Astell raced to find help she met a young Bedouin called Mansour who assisted her with everything. Mansour even brought food and medicine, and when she tried to pay him he refused. Her husband recovered, and the couple returned to their hometown of Bath in the UK with marvellous memories of Sinai.
Astell is proud of being half Arab, since her mother is originally from Syria and her parents met in Morocco and married there. Though she grew up in the UK, she always wanted to return to the Arab world. As a result, she returned to visit Syria in 2010 to visit the places where her mother had grown up, before coming to Sinai and finding her own lost paradise.