Stark Journey Across the Desert

Driving from Cairo to Jerusalem, a Palestinian-American father and son discover the Sinai's remote beauty

ON Aug. 28, 1990, we left Cairo at 5 a.m. Our final stop after traveling four weeks in Egypt was Jerusalem and its environs. Instead of flying from Cairo to Tel Aviv, my son and I decided to drive through the Sinai Desert and cross into Israel at the port of Eilat. The day before our departure I had spent several hours negotiating with two cab companies; for $240, a relatively new air-conditioned Peugeot, driven by Suleiman, was to transport us the 650 kilometers to Taba, on the Egyptian side of the border. Armed with five plastic water bottles (similar to the ones used by US Marines in Saudi Arabia), two cameras, our personal belongings, and a handful of leftover granola bars, we settled in for the long drive. The fast pace of our visit in Egypt and the change in diet had taken their toll on Ramzy, my 14-year-old son. Within minutes of our departure he stretched out on the back seat and resumed his interrupted sleep.

Two things kept me from following suit; I did not think it proper to blank out on Suleiman without some introductory remarks and the usual chit chat that accompanies such circumstances. And I was so captivated by the aerial and land sights of the Nubian and coastal deserts of Egypt that I wanted to see and photograph the Sinai Desert at close range.

In May of this year, well in advance of this special day, Ramzy and I had carefully planned our entire trip. After a trip to Abu Simbel, the restored site of Ramses II's tomb, we embarked on a river liner at Aswan and floated down the Nile River making stops at Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Luxor. With a degree in archaeology, our Egyptian guide, nicknamed Amadeus, provided the group with which we traveled deep insights into Egypt's past and present.

An excursion to Alexandria and six-day tour of Cairo on our own that included interviews with Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel laureate for literature, and Kamel Najeeb, a senior editor of the Al-Ahram (The Pyramids) newspaper, had provided us with an excellent overview of Egypt's very rich heritage. Now, without Amadeus' informative accounts, we had to be our own guides through the vast expanse of the Sinai Desert.

Heading east, we drove for over an hour to get to the city of Suez. Within minutes we were driving under the Suez Canal via the Ahmad Hamdi Tunnel. Leaving the African continent for the Asian continent right about the time the sun was appearing on the eastern horizon was, without a doubt, a very memorable experience. Our goal was to take Highway 66 south along the eastern coast of the Red Sea and on the southwestern side of the Sinai Peninsula.

As the fog began to lift, we saw giant ocean liners dotting the waterway; ships of all sizes, some still at anchor, were lining up to cross the Suez Canal waterway to the north. Some 180 kilometers along this highway we drove through the Abu Rudeis oil fields, and then turned east once more in order to head to our only extended stop in the Sinai, St. Katrina's Monastery. I had heard and read about the monastery and its vast collection of Byzantine art work, and this was precisely why we had decided to travel on land through this barren and hostile terrain.

THE gradual ascent up the western slopes of Mount Sinai was made uncomfortable by a malfunctioning air conditioning fan. Before long, however, the stark beauty of the desert helped us forget the American luxury of air-conditioned vehicles.

The higher we went, the more beautiful the terrain became, and except for an occasional dry bush, the terrain was mysteriously harsh yet magnificently beautiful. Multicolored rocks and rock formations climbed in an endless line of multihued ridges, each one towering more gracefully than its neighbor, and each one etching a unique shape on the eastern horizon.

Sprouting up in a very narrow s-shaped wadi (valley) almost half way up the mountain, and as if out of nowhere, palm trees dotted both sides of the highway. It did not take us long to realize that this vegetation was the Feiran Oasis. Located at the foot of the 6,818 foot Mount Horeb, this oasis is inhabited by Bedouins who raise goats and camels, drive Japanese-made trucks, and produce wheat, maize, dates, and tamarisks.

The ascent to St. Katrina's monastery soon put us within view of Sinai's three sacred mountains. There is only one way to describe the granite massifs of Gebal Musa (Mount of Moses), Gebal Monega, and Gebal Katrina - awesome.

To the north, west, and south I saw some of the most beautiful rock formations I have seen in my entire life. In the quietness of these valleys I felt as though I were in a Lilliputian world of multishaped giant granite, gneiss, porphyry, and sandstone designs.

Those who chose to build St. Katrina's monastery on that site in AD 550 must have known the sustaining magic of this solitude. Surrounded by such beauty, the monastery has survived until modern times.

THE Byzantine icons and mosaics, the vestments, miters, crosiers, the facsimile of the Codex Syrus Sinaicticus and other rare manuscripts, the chandeliers, candelabras, mother-of-pearl altar, religious paintings, ornate chests, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, and all the other beautiful man-made artistic expressions and architectural designs of St. Katrina's monastery blended with the nature's artistic tapestry of geometric designs.

Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai in that stark and desolate region of the southern Sinai desert that is holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, I was awed by these sacred surroundings. Monks, believers, and pilgrims have been coming here to search for a deeper spiritual understanding that would lead them to a richer, more serene, and more meaningful existence.

We turned east again for our journey to Jerusalem. With the sun slightly behind us, we were not in view of the sloping mountainous desert and the Red Sea. As we neared Taba along the coastal highway and began to prepare for our exit from the Sinai, we came into full view of Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea to the east, Jordan's Port of Aqaba to the northeast, and the Israeli port of Eilat to the north. There are not very many places in the world where one can see four countries from the same location.

Our journey through the desert was hardly over. From Eilat we boarded a bus that traveled due north through the Negev Desert. To our east were the Mountains of Moab in Jordan, and to our west was the mountainous wilderness of Judea. The lush greenery of greenhouses, orchards, orange, and date groves began to dot the terrain of what would eventually become the Jordan valley.

Driving along the western coast of the Dead Sea in this now-narrow, now-wide valley, we drove past Masada, the ancient Jewish stronghold where scores of Jews died for their faith. When the bus arrived at Jericho shortly thereafter, we turned due west and began our final ascent to Jerusalem, the city of my birth and the place where I spent the first 14 years of my life.

Some 20 kilometers out of Jerusalem, a young Israeli woman in military uniform asked whether she could have a drink of water. As I handed the last half-empty bottle of water to her, I wondered whether she knew whether I was of Palestinian origins. My use of English to converse with my son, our American attire, and the camera bags had the telltale imprints of the American tourist. The water bottle was handed back to me, and the beautiful Israeli young woman appreciatively said ``Thank you.'' ``You're welcome,'' I responded.

Twenty hours after our departure from Cairo, I emptied the last contents of the water bottle into a glass. Sitting at a kitchen table at my aunt's house in a Jerusalem suburb on the Palestinian side, I reflected on the events of the day. I thought of the beauty and solitude of the Sinai and Negev deserts; I thought of St. Katrina's monastery and its precious artifacts; I also thought of the young Israeli woman.

It finally dawned on me that the young Israeli woman asked me for water on the Jerusalem Jericho highway in the vicinity of the historic Good Samaritan Inn. According to tradition, this is the site where the Good Samaritan assisted the wounded man. I reflected on this coincidence for a long time.

I MUSED about how deserts had taken on a different connotation in my mind. The desert is wondrous, wide, and deep, and a few gulps of water forever make such a trip memorable.

I wondered, too, if the deserts that exist in people's hearts could somehow be nourished by the hope, love, and compassion that spring eternal in men's hearts, much like the oases that spring in the desolate sands.

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