The beginning of 2016 still finds me living in Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt wondering what I should be planning for the future. This time it is an oriental carpet of a thousand knots that has been pulled out from under my feet to leave me wobbling in the middle of rocky track in a mountainous desert. There have been definite points in my life where there were stop signs, forks in the road and crossroads but this one is not so clear. However as Led Zeppelin sings in Stairway to Heaven, “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”
The tourist market in Sinai, atrophying since 2009 when the European financial crisis hit, followed by the revolution, the Icelandic volcano cloud, the military coup, the backlash of insurgency, finally hit the dirt along with the Metroliner in October last year. It remains wallowing in dust.
The traditional tourist market for the whole of South Sinai – Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba – has been strangled to a harsh breath that one hopes is not a death rattle. I was in Sharm el Sheikh over New Year and I stayed in a 90 room hotel that struggled to fill 9 rooms. Dahab lovers still manage to come in small numbers, very small numbers, but some are shocked to see such empty restaurants and few joyous parties as before. Foreigners living here are leaving in droves to return to European countries to survive. Many of my friends dislike being back in the material led “West” but they know it is their best option for now.
I have heard said, that for true love, it is best for one to not know the whole reason to be in love, there should always be some mystery that cannot be described or put in to words. That is how I feel about living here. I have good reasons to stay or go but my final heart desire remains hidden within me, even from me. I just know when I search inside myself to see where I truly want to be at this point in my life, it is here in South Sinai. I cannot, in my heart make the decision to leave.
It is time to search my “Dream Book” – a scrap book with pages dedicated to things that I want in my life where I add small pictures and words as I want. I created it some years ago when another rug was pulled and I hit a wall on the road of my life. One of the pages has pictures of plants – herbs, flowers, vegetables, trees because some years ago I decided I want them back in my life despite the fact I live in a desert. They had been prominent in my life in Aotearoa New Zealand where my last property had been six hectares of green organic garden many moons ago. I miss the sensuality of growing stuff – getting my hands dirty, the smells, the feasts for the eye and the mouth.
Mohamed, my Bedouin boyfriend of some years, told me he has found a place in the desert where he wants to grow fruit and vegetables so I have decided that this is the time and this is the opportunity for me too. Others have asked before if I was interested in “doing some business” with other gardens or bringing tourists but I could never see a green light.
The garden is on the edge of Wadi Sa’aal just off the road that leads from Dahab/Nuweiba to St Katharine’s area. It was laid out and producing vegetables and fruit for some years previously but when the coup of 2013 happened the military got permission from Israel, against the agreements of Camp David, to have a greater presence again in Sinai so they decided in their “wisdom” that the garden could no longer produce so was abandoned. I won’t expound further but one can see satellite pictures of the garden and actually see where the trees were planted. There is still a functioning water well and holding tank so we know it can produce.
The local Bedouin owner went though civil courts and now has his land officially designated as a garden but he no longer wishes to be involved in the day to day replanting of the garden. The deal is profit share and Haj has gifted Mohamed some land to plant as he sees fit, most likely in fruit trees. Everything has been done according to Bedouin law, not with paper but in discussion with witnesses. Bedouin tribal law is as strong as any and they respect it more than any other. They don’t even use paper for the toilet.
So now I am dreaming.
There will be fedaans of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, courgettes and water melon. There will be olives, almonds, citrus, mango, figs and of course, dates. We will build a stone house because I have always wanted to live in a stone house and there are plenty of stones about. There will be chickens and goats and sheep and of course my cats and Mohamed wants a dog – one that does not kill goats. Sorry ‘D’for’ dog.
Mohamed says we will get a horse or two but I don’t actually want horses there, I want camels. They live easily in the desert getting fat and are far more useful with their perfect adaptations for the environment. I would love to know how to train them for racing too. There is an annual race every year in nearby Wadi Zalaga held as a contest between the South Sinai tribes of Muzeina and Tarabin. Imagine a woman training the winning camel!
I will apparently be in charge of seedlings so I will seek out varieties of vegetables that thrive in the desert conditions. Maybe some of these will be heirloom breeds, unfashionable but rare and special. In Aotearoa I remember working in an orchard and the best tasting apples were large unattractive green with scaly skin. There was only one tree left in the whole orchard because they were no longer commercially viable, unable to compete against shiny Red Delicious –yet for flavour Red Delicious were like ‘Water for Chocolate’. Too often we feed with our eyes and are left starving.
I will make intense jams and pickles, in honour of my father as he was the sweet tooth and he usually made the jams. He always iced the Christmas cakes too but I won’t be doing that. I may make unusual ones like fig and peach, strawberry and almond, orange and ginger… but I won’t be crazy like the woman I worked for who owned a berry farm where we made jams (another story).
I will make sauces and relishes like the favourite cabbage and cucumber I made annually for many years. There was the plum sauce which took hours to boil down and carefully bottle, that one day my then boyfriend poured unceremoniously into minutes-made gravy. It was the early stages of our relationship so I watched in a silent choke unable to tell him how much love and care he was diluting into ugly gravy… if only I had read that sign.
Maybe I will finally learn some real conversational Arabic being immersed in Bedouin culture as unlike Mohamed, their English will be minimal. When the jam making is successful enough I can employ some Bedouin women to work with me. I can learn more about the medicinal plants.
Mohamed is a great desert chef – he can make foul beans taste like a banquet so I would like a beit shar (“house of hair” Bedouin tent) restaurant where he can prepare evening meals to eat under the million stars. Guests can play dress up in Bedouin clothes and sleep over in cosy blankets around a desert fire. Better plant some eucalypts for fuel… Maybe we can grow coffee and roast the beans over the open fire before breakfast.
With the trees, birds will come to sing a dawn chorus. The cats will love it. Ameira Princess cat can eat tomatoes and cucumbers to her heart’s content. The others can eat the birds that will try to steal the fruit. Ha, just imagine if we got gun-scarers for the birds; the military would have a fit!
Woofers can come to earn their keep and share the desert life. Lucky tourists can go on safari with us to explore ancient tombs at Nawamis,the wonders of Arada Canyon, Wadi Zalaga, St Katherines, Wadi Feran.
I can take my camel and camera for some weeks in search of the enigmatic rock etchings that can be found under many overhangs and exposed areas depicting tribal warfare and hunts and latterly knightly crosses like on the “Rock of Inscriptions”. I can be a little of the archaeologist and anthropologist I dreamed of as a child when a respected teacher misguided me from that path.
I can write and paint and take photos. I can follow the pilgrim routes through biblical Sinai. I am neither “Queen of the Desert, Gertrude Bell” nor Jane Digby of “A Scandalous Life” but I am alive and in love with deserts. Enough dreaming for today…