The brother of the ring-bearer
Nasser was sitting cross-legged next to the fire holding on one hand – like a permanent extension – a cigarette, on the other, a cup of Bedouin tea. The wind was howling on the top of Mt. Katherine as we gathered for our last dinner on the mountains, semi-protected under a shabby construction that served as kitchen, mess area, and possibly dorm for the Bedouins. The limited space, already congested with our group who clenched each other for warmth, was getting stuffier with fire smoke which frequently changed direction fingering – according to the local belief – those of us who “had peed on the path.”
The flames flickered in a dozen pairs of eyes. The heat burnt faces, hands, and stretched toes leaving our backs exposed to the cold of the night. The mountain and the chapel on its top had cast long ago their mystical shadows on our camp, and the camels had knelt on the ground remaining still, their humps covered in blankets. For the first time after almost two weeks on the trail, though, we could not see the stars: the tin roof over our heads was blocking the view.
Nasser paused for a moment, and we knew he was about to begin one of his stories. Nasser, who is from the Jebeleya tribe, a veritable highlander, a descendant of the protectors of St. Katherine’s monastery; who looks young and old at the same time; who, like most of the mountain Bedouins, can speak a bit of Greek and was enjoying throwing a word here and there when conversing with me; who, on the way, would frequently lift massive stones, adeptly balancing them on top of each other, leaving them as welcoming signs for the next travelers; who is so addicted to smoking – always his own tobacco coming from his gardens on the mountain – that, when he ran out of cigarette papers for a few hours on the trail, he was desperate enough to experiment smoking through a dried camel poop. Nasser, who, every night rolled out his blanket to sleep under the sky insisting “I am not sleeping in the open, I sleep under the stars”; who, when we reached the summit of Mt. Katherine after a 12-day pilgrimage along the footsteps of the ancient travelers, was wise enough to advise “don’t rush to take photos, there is plenty of time for that; you walked for so many days to reach this point, take a moment to meditate on the peaks that unfold in front of you and allow your eyes to rest on the seas that glimmer on the east and the west. This is the time to sit quietly, feel, and just be.”
“It was many years ago that a stone like no other came into the possession of my family,” he started, as he leaned towards the fire reaching for the coals to light a new cigarette. “Initially, it was a big, bright flash that appeared in the sky; as it approached the earth, it became smaller and smaller, until a tiny rock, still glowing, landed at the feet of my ancestors. This stone comes from out of space – the scientists confirm that nothing like it exists on our planet – and has healing powers: leave it for a while inside a glass of water and the water turns into a powerful medicine. It can also expel negative energy. For generations, the stone – which we made into a ring – is bequeathed from father to the first-born son. My father had it, now my eldest brother has it, and he, in turn, will leave it to his first boy. My brother though refuses to use the ring against negative forces. Today, it is used only to heal.”
The smiling optimist
It was still dark when I opened my eyes. I clumsily moved in my sleeping bag searching for my mobile to check the time. It was 4:30 am. Supposedly, I had another half an hour of sleep, but I was fully awake. We had pitched our tent too close to the Bedouin guides and their morning movements, breakfast preparations, and muffled chatting were quite audible. I unzipped the tent and moved out, stretching my arms and legs. The hills that tenderly surrounded our camping spot silhouetted against the sky and, on the east, some brushes of light-blue hues were announcing the upcoming dawn. I moved towards the already burning fire next to which Musallam was squatting, tapping the bronze mortar rhythmically – the sound echoing on the slopes like an unwelcomed alarm – smashing the freshly roasted coffee beans. Musallam is from the Tarabin tribe and has been for over twenty years one of Nasser’s closest friends. He ends every phrase with his motto “life is good,” bursting into a smile so broad and genuine that it is impossible to imagine that life may, for any reason, not be good enough, and he can communicate with such clarity and energy that, from his first words on our introductory meeting at the Habiba Camp, I felt absolute trust for the upcoming hike. Musallam is possibly in his forties but, by Bedouin standards, is rather old and plans to retire soon, leaving a void on the trails that will be very difficult to fill.
I sat on the rug spread next to the fire and took a cup of Bedouin coffee with floating cardamom seeds. I inhaled deeply its aroma, the crisp morning air, and the promise of a new day ahead.
“Sabah el-kheir, Musallam.” “Sabah an-noor, life is good!” “Life is always good,” I smiled, closing the cycle of our private morning-greeting ritual.
“The moon was very bright last night,” I continued. “Of course, it is still almost full. There was a moment during the night that I woke up feeling there is a floodlight shining straight into my eyes: it was the moon that had paused exactly above our tent.”
“In Arabic,” Musallam said, “the word we use for the moon also means ‘our partner’ because the moon sheds light in the darkness and becomes our ally when we need to find our way.”
He paused for a while, pushing slowly with the help of a stick coals over the surface of the bread that was baking in the hearth. “Everything has been created with wisdom and balance,” he continued. “You can feel it from the stardust that has been sprinkled into our souls to the stories we have projected into the shapes of the constellations. We are all united; we are born to live in harmony, we are meant to be happy.”
He stopped again, mechanically, almost absent-mindedly tapping the bread with his stick to check if it had been baked from one side. “We, humans, are the cause of our misery,” he said at the end, “and most frequently, sorrow – subtle and unspoken – starts from the family and carries on from generation to generation, pushing society astray from the natural path. Nature reminds us what balance truly means. Just look around you, and you can feel its power. Most often, when people from the cities come to spend time in the wilderness, they feel uncomfortable in the beginning. This is because they are being pulled away from the illusion they have accepted as reality. They get disconnected from everything they know, and, because of that, they are more connected than ever, for, now, they reach towards their inner being. After a few days, the landscapes that surround them awaken their psyche and stir the rusty cogwheels of their memory, bringing to the surface the remembrance of bliss. That’s why it is also very challenging after such long trips to go back to the urban life. Once in touch with the universal truth, it is not easy to live again by false beliefs.”
The promising youth
Yousef walked ahead of us, hopping and climbing with ease over the boulders, uncoiling his headscarf to throw towards us as an auxiliary rope. Our feet, unused to the terrain and the unavoidable body-jamming, were cramped between the walls of the Closed Canyon. We side-walked on a path that was less than 30 cm wide, dropping everything we were carrying to eliminate the excessive bulkiness of our presence, occasionally even holding our breath and sucking our tummy to ensure we can squeeze ourselves through. And Yousef stood there, casually jammed between the rocks a couple of meters above ground, smiling broadly and encouraging our next steps. Yousef, who can speak only a few words in English, and yet, he was keen to communicate with all of us, interchanging between the front and the tail of our group, always ready to help, always reliable to support; who aspires to be a leader for the people visiting the land of the Tarabin tribe, and follows carefully the advice of his elders; whose smile, despite his young age, is dotted with the dark marks of tobacco on his teeth – and yet, this smile is irresistible and charming, just like Yousef himself; who made lebbah bread under the guidance of Musallam and the dough turned out to be so good and so perfectly balanced that the rest of his team officially announced that Yousef has the right soul for making bread. Because, in the desert, even bread-making depends on the part of the psyche you pour into the process.
The seeker of spiritual truths
“You know, it is not about the rocks, it is about the energy of the place,” Faraj said quietly behind me. I had leaned on my back to take a photo of the sand-rock formations that rose as majestically as a cathedral over our lunch spot and had not seen him approaching. I turned around to look at him: our middle-aged Bedouin guide from the Muzeina tribe whose teeth were surprisingly white – unlike all other Bedouins who bore the stains of tobacco from a very young age. Faraj, who owns land in Nuwaiba, and cleans his body with rock salt from the mountains of Egypt; who enjoys sharing riddles next to the fire, while dinner is getting cooked; who traveled to the borders of Sudan to buy camels for milk (that is, camels that have been trained to allow getting milked even if this lasts only four minutes each time) to improve his father’s health; Faraj, whose attitude was remarkably relaxed, looking more like a tourist himself instead of our leader for the specific part of the trail, and yet, his conversations were deep and spiritual.
“One night,” he continued, “as I was returning home from a wedding, I stopped on the dunes, not far from here. It was a full moon, and the slopes were silver-coated, still and yet alive, silent and yet talking. I sat on the sand and closed my eyes, urged by a need to connect with all this magic that was abundantly unfolding around me. After a while, I felt I had become light as a feather, levitating above the ground. I was not just me anymore: it was as if, for a moment, I was pure light, its rays shining through me, a floating speck of energy in the universe. It did not last long, but I still remember it clearly, as if it happened just yesterday.”
The unfortunate Pasha
During the Ottoman times – around 300 years ago – there was a Turkish Pasha who was very sick with tuberculosis and was advised by his doctors to move his house to a moistureless place so that he could be healed. He ordered his soldiers to find the driest area in the Sinai Peninsula, and they tested three spots – Mt Katherine, Mt Moses, and Mt Abbas Basha – by leaving a piece of fresh meat on the top of each mountain. After three days, they checked and concluded that the best option would be Mt Abbas Basha. Following the Pasha’s orders, they started building a large house, taking the Bedouins’ gardens and using their resources to complete the project. Half-way through, though, the Pasha died. The moment the workers heard the news, they left their tasks unfinished, abandoning behind all tools and material. The Bedouins collected them and, until today, there are families (like Nasser’s) that use this equipment, passing it on from generation to generation.
The sugar traders
In the old times, once per year – I think in October – the people of the Jebeleya tribe would head towards the big bazaar taking place close to Suez. They would bring along their dried fruit – for which they were and still are, famous – and, on the way, they would join forces with another seven, at least, tribes that were carrying their own produce: goats, camels, meat, or dairy products. No tribe would travel separately for fear of bandits. At the bazaar, they would trade their merchandise for wheat, sugar, and clothes coming from other parts of Egypt. Sugar is precious to all Bedouins – as, by nature, the only sweet food available in the desert are the dates. Until today, Bedouins always carry a small bag of sugar with them when traveling, and they amply add handfuls in the pot as their tea brews over the coals.
In those old days, at the bazaar, the Jebeleyans would buy double the amount of sugar they needed for their individual use. When back on the mountains, they would temporarily store the goods in a cave – no one would dare to steal them for they would be severely punished according to the unwritten Bedouin Law – and they would hike up on the peaks, lightening huge fires. The tribes living across the Aqaba Sea, in Saudi Arabia, would see the signals and cross the land, bringing coffee to exchange for sugar. And that’s how this precious commodity was moving through the mountains and across the seas.
The one who survived the test of the hot pan
“The Bedouin Law is quite simple most of the times, and it is the code of conduct used for any inter-Bedouin challenges, even among tribes living in different countries,” Nasser explained while we were enjoying an after-dinner cup of tea next to the campfire. “If you destroy an acacia tree, you have to pay money or, if you don’t have enough, you are obliged to work for free for a certain number of months. If you steal goods from the traders, you must compensate them with an amount similar to blood money as if you had killed a whole family. If you harass a woman, you pay a number of camels. However, if you insist that you are wrongly accused of something, you need to pass the test of the hot pan.”
“The test is as follows,” he continued. “The two sides go to one of our judges. The person who is accused is offered the opportunity to either admit his guilt or if he insists on his innocence, he should lick three times a hot pan. If he comes out of the test unscathed, then he is indeed innocent. Otherwise, his guilt is proven.”
He stopped for a while to observe the expression on our faces. “It might seem unreal to you, but it works,” he insisted. “A cousin of mine had to endure the test and is living proof that this is possible. He was accused that he had stolen a mobile. After the test, my cousin said that, although the pan was red-hot and burning, he did not feel anything, neither on his face – which should have been burnt before he even touched it – nor on his tongue, though he licked the pan three times as requested. And, indeed he was innocent, for the mobile was found a few days later where his owner had misplaced it.”
The mosque builder and the shaman
We met Hassan Moussa Abu Karsh on our way to Mt. Moses, at the outskirts of a Bedouin village where camels grazed in the dirt roads, colorful laundry flapped against the breeze, kids observed us from afar with the typical curiosity and timidity of children, a couple of electricity poles reminded us – after ten days in the desert – that this part of the wilderness has been partially tamed, and a motorbike passed through, the odor of gas and the echo of the unpleasant roar of the engine lingering in the air long after it had disappeared.
Hassan Moussa was not born in this village. He comes from another area, where for years he had been growing his camels and goats enjoying a good life until an extended drought forced him to remember his nomadic roots and seek a more suitable place. At this stage in his life – Hassan is not young anymore – his spirituality and legacy take precedence over any other matter. As such, when he decided to move, he chose a location where he can have an unhindered view and permanent connection with the triangular shape of the Moses Mountain and, there, he started building single-handedly a mosque. Today, the mosque is almost ready, and Hassan aspires it will not be only a place where people can pray but, also, following the practices of the old times, it can offer refuge for a night or two to the passing travelers. Beside the mosque, there is a smaller building, still under construction. This will be the library where Hassan plans to host the numerous books he already possesses – a fact that positions him above the average Bedouin, his reputation bordering that of a holy man. His son, Karsh – who listens to the spirits, converses with them to get their advice, or bans the evil ones to the pits of darkness – stands next to him. And, although Hassan is talkative, keen to share his story and tales of all the prominent figures of the three monotheistic religions, Karsh is silent and observant, almost entirely detached.
Hassan shows us numerous rocks with laced designs of fossil plants incorporated in them, lined up outside the constructions. He found them when he started building, and their position and size indicated there was water nearby. Indeed, he dug a well and found water, enough for his animals and the needs of the mosque. Still, after some time, the well unexpectedly dried up. He talks about some jinn that blocked the abundance of the well, condemning the area to dearth. “Can’t Karsh clear the energy, allowing the water to flow back again?” we ask. “The source of this negative energy is still unknown,” Hassan replies, “so Karsh cannot reverse its influence. We need to wait.” In the meantime, he carries water for his animals from another region and spends his days towards the completion of the most important project of his life. His story is not concluded yet; the last pages are still being written.
The monk who got married
Not too many years ago, there lived a monk in the monastery of St. Katherine. His name was Theologos, and, like most of the monks there, he had come from Greece, wishing to spend a few years of his life in one of the holiest sites of Christianity. Life though had other plans for him, for he saw a young girl from the Jebeleya tribe and, despite his devotion, oaths, and intention to dedicate his days solely at the service of God, he fell in love. He tried to resist but in vain. He finally decided to leave the monastic life; he married the woman and returned to Greece where he lives a happy life with his growing family. After several years, he came back to the mountains. Nasser, the Bedouin, recognized him, and they started sharing stories from the time that had passed by and photos of their kids. The monks though never forgave him. I am not sure he is welcomed within the sacred walls where he had already spent so many nights praying under the stars. “Doesn’t a person have the right to change his mind in life?” Nasser wonders. I remain silent. And I wonder as well.
Those who saw the car
When the first British car came to Mt Katherine (in the 1930s or 40s), there was no road. The tribes had to open a path and, of course, the Jebeleyans had to work harder than the rest because of the difficult passages and the rocky terrain. When the car finally drove up the mountains, many of the Bedouins were scattered in other places attending to various tasks. The few that were around urgently called the ones who were away, and gradually they all arrived to marvel at this wonder. They did not touch the car, they just stood around it, looking at it from afar. To keep the memory, they started sketching vehicles on the rocks (simple lines like children’s drawings), and they left the tracks untouched for weeks (they even forbade the goats to pass by) so that the people who had not seen the car could still witness something from it. The smell of the gas stayed in the wadis for two weeks. It took years for another car to come, that’s possibly the reason the story remained in the memory of the people so solidly, and they still talk about it today.
Their steps were soft and silent on the sand; their presence subtle: neither pushy nor demanding. The Bedouin women would approach us quietly, unrolling a piece of cloth on the ground, inside a pile of their creations. Most of them were trinkets and bead-jewelry, but, among them, there were a few pieces of local art: black belts with bead-embroidered colorful designs, small bags similarly decorated, even a few loom-woven rugs. Their faces were hidden behind their headscarves, their English limited to a few words, mostly about prices. Next to the much more flamboyant presence of the Bedouin men with whom we spent two weeks on the trail sharing tales from morning till late at night, the women seem to remain in the background. And, yet, they are not weak, nor did we hear any story where they are underestimated. Like most tribes, these small societies are relatively conservative, and women still occupy the role of the one who manages the household and brings up the children. Nasser’s wife kicks him out of her kitchen – even though he is a good cook – because he messes the place up, and he – like most fathers in the world – proudly shows photos of his daughter – his youngest child – talking about his dreams for her future.
Nobody knows why those ancient pilgrims on their way from Jerusalem to Mt Moses and St Katherine Monastery decided to carve the shape of their footprints on the stones. And, yet, there it was: a pathway in the land of the Tarabin tribe – still far from the holy mountains – where the steps of those who had passed before us were not just a figurative expression. The flat rocks that marked the trail were decorated here and there with the outline of sandals – sometimes even the holes for the shoelaces – and, among them, a symbol of the cross, a verse in Arabic, a few camels lined up in caravan formation, even an ibex. Maybe it was a form of ancient graffiti: an attempt to leave a personal note saying: “I was here too.” Or, it may have been a symbol of peace: a reminder that the path where people from all religions meet is that of friendship and unity.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
To read more stories on my hiking adventure along the Sinai trail, check also the articles on Storytelling around the campfire, an amateur’s botanical notebook, ghost stories under the sun, Bedouin culinary explorations, or the mysterious Nawamis.