Dreaming of a Desert Garden

320393_163934253730761_359809319_nThe 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.

10400166_70827490814_4429309_nI 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.

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Beautiful gardens at St Katherine’s monastery

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.

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Trekking in nearby Wadi Arada

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. Continue reading

Peaceful Desert Storm

Let the race begin - I am with Muzeina.

Racetime

When there is a combination of Bedouins, racing camels, speeding vehicles, sandy wadis, desert mountains and a forecast for thunder storms you have recipe for excitement and chaos. For the past fifty or more years in midwinter, upper Wadi Zalaga in central South Sinai becomes a twenty-seven kilometre racetrack for camels representing the south eastern Muzeina and north eastern Tarabin Bedouin tribes.

En route to central South Sinai

En route to central South Sinai

My second trip to the race started midday prior from Dahab on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba,.My companions were a  mixture of foreign guests and Bedouins travelling in moderately comfortable Toyota Landcruisers towards the central desert highlands of St Katherine.

Over the years I have made numerous forays into this desert and it has never ceased to positively affect and uplift my spirit; full of light and delight it is no surprise biblical tales emanate from the Sinai. However again ominous grey clouds stretched theatrically across the vista as I recalled last year’s sleet with almost freezing overnight temperatures. I felt mentally and physically prepared however I was not so sure about some of my travelling companions in their lighter beach clothes.

On route our Bedouin organiser, Mahmoud pointed out the small rocky ravine where he had been born some thirty years before in a beit shar, ‘house of hair’ tent made from hand woven fabric of goat, camel or sheep wool. He added proudly that most women now chose hospital to deliver.

Riding to the race.

No camel transport – ride to the race

Reaching rocky rolling highlands about 1000m altitude we turned off the tarsealed road on to a rocky and sandy track which would take us to the head of Wadi Zalaga (wadi translates to valley). This is where the real fun began as Mahmoud, friend Clair and I transferred to his open Jeep. Part of the track is literally solid sandstone, the track visible only by tyres etching a white trail through the oxidised yellowed rock, testing new and old suspensions alike.

We dropped down off rocky outcrops to golden sands at the upper reaches of Wadi Zalaga as the sun lowered below the blue grey clouds delineating the skyline with golden light and long shadows.

“Everybody out and collect firewood!” For desert newcomers this sounded ridiculous as there are no trees, only scrubby sparse bushes that look like nothing to burn however we were soon out gathering.

“Nothing green!” they admonished. Again surprised looks as nothing looked green but what they meant was nothing still growing, just desiccated wood lying on the sand.  The men found remains of old bushes poking from small sandy hillocks and by digging around these with hands and the ubiquitous Bedouin “whatever else is available” revealed half a meter of reasonably thick dry branches. These they kicked and hacked loose adding to the pile stuffed in the back of the Jeep.

Golden minutes.

Golden minutes.

In the fading light we searched for a suitable campsite. ‘Campsite’ had led guests to imagine an organised camping area with maybe even toilets. The reality was any topographical site that sheltered us from the elements as much as possible. Every Bedouin group likes privacy too, so it is only polite to be at least a hundred metres from the nearest group and definitely not in line of sight; a residual tradition from living in wide open isolated areas perhaps.

A clear sandy area was chosen to pitch the beit shar.

A suitable clear sandy area was chosen to pitch the beit shar.

A perfect spot was chosen tucked away from the main wadi, sheltered and private. The beit shar was given pride of place in the small sandy hollow beneath a sentinel of rocks. It had definitely seen better days, almost double lined with patches of plastic sacking. Mahmoud remarked “This is probably the one I was born in”… thirty years ago. Poles were a mixture of planks and straight branches transported on the back of the pick-ups; tent pegs were any large rocks that could be moved into position and wrapped with guy ropes. I took my small tent, pitching it on the only other relatively flat smooth ground that I could find about twenty metres away from the beit shar yet close to the vehicles.

???????????????????????????????Within half an hour we had a cosy three sided shelter with fires blazing, inside for warmth, outside for cooking. The small twigs and resinous branches proved very effective fuel, burning surprisingly hot and long. As a mixed group of a dozen guests none of us knew everybody so we quietly gathered more firewood, gazed at the fading golden light, took photos and let the desert quiet entrance us.

Not like the Bedouin. They never stop talking when they are together and this was no exception. There were about ten Bedouin men with us – drivers, young teenage boys and other members of Mahmoud’s family – no women. Bedouin women do not come these events; they would not be permitted by their men folk and probably have no interest in coming.

In camp, the men do all cooking and huge pots of food were prepared as night fell. It was dark by 6.30pm as we sat around camp fires, lying on thick synthetic blankets that serve modern Bedouins as sleeping bags. In all seasons, they can be found covered from head to toe by these blankets; the only hint a person underneath is the shoes placed at his feet.

Warming the body and soul.

Warming the body and soul.

Most guests had bought their favourite tipple and cigarettes of various plant substances were smoked; drugs of choice. Huddled around the fires we watched lebbe bread being prepared. Dough was kneaded in a shallow metal basin then flattened on a large platter to a thickness about 1.5cm. With fire embers pushed sideways, it was placed carefully on the ashes, the embers scraped back over and left to bake. Ready in about fifteen minutes the loaf was lifted out, tapped gently to remove any sand and ash, then broken by hand into serving size chunks; Lebbe – crusty, dense and delicious.

Desert solitude, good for the soul.

Desert solitude, good for the soul.

It had been quite some hours since we had eaten anything more than a handful of snacks so the plates heaped with chicken, potatoes, mixed vegetables, rice, tahina,  tomato cucumber salad were gratefully devoured. Anywhere in the world there is nothing like eating al fresco.

“Was that lightning?” a guest asked. With low cloud cover it was not immediately obvious if we had just glimpsed the lights of late arrivals. Crashes of thunder confirmed it, “10 miles away…17 miles away…right overhead!”

It was already late evening when the first drops of rain fell so I decided to make a dash for my tent; I had a sense of possible impending chaos with city bred foreigners and laissez-faire Bedouin grappling with the elements. By the time I was tucked up inside it was raining heavily. I slept fitfully from fear that I had pitched the tent too close to runoff from the rocky walls but I decided there was no point moving unless I had to.

Steam drying clothes over the smoking fire.

Steam drying clothes over the smoking fire.

Morning revealed that water had been flowing about one and half metres from my tent; not deep enough to be dangerous but it would have made things very uncomfortable. Two extra tents had been pitched on a slope, one with a gaping hole in the side.  The beit shar had leaked and water seeped down the sandy area it had been pitched on; it was not smoothed clear by accident. A fly had been rigged between two pickups and the young boys emerged smiling from piles of blankets. Guests and other Bedouin had taken refuge in any vehicle they could find space.

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A bright day dawns on Wadi Zalaga

No one complains about rain in the desert so we joked with each other while steam drying clothes over the smoking fire. Personal tales of disrupted sleep were regaled, “You kicked me in the head”, “I slept OK except for the steering wheel against my temples” and “My feet kept sliding out the bottom of the tent”. Damp blankets were laid out on the slopes to dry in the weak sun. A soggy, sandy headscarf was picked off the ground. “Does this belong to one of the men?” A Bedouin replied, “No way a Bedouin would ever drop and forget his head schaal.” Turned out it belonged to one of the women guests.

Baking farisheer - team work.

Baking farisheer – team work.

Breakfast was quickly prepared – feta cheese, fool (fava beans mashed with tahina and spices), halawa (sweet sesame seed fudge) and jam served with the remains of the lebbe and freshly cooked farisheer bread. Farisheer is my favourite bread in the whole wide world! (not stated lightly considering how much I love bread). I could never understand why the Lord’s Prayer says “Give us this day our daily bread” until I tasted farisheer. It is made from fist sized balls of dough that are worked by hand into thin large ‘pizza’ rounds then placed on a ‘upside-down-wok’ (or the lid of a forty-four gallon drum) over an open fire. The dough blisters and chars slightly taking on a chewy texture and distinct flavour.

The race was ‘scheduled’ – scheduled being a difficult concept for Bedouin – to start between 7.30 – 8.30am because, being Friday, everything should have been completed by midday Islamic prayer. We clambered into vehicles and drove up wadi passing vehicles and blanketed camels heading to the blue start flags.

On the way to the start.

On the way to the start.

???????????????????????????????Contrary to popular belief camels store fat not water in their humps, so humps are almost nonexistent on racing camels, their tight abdominal muscles tucking up their flanks like greyhounds. I was told even their water intake is limited during training yet I doubt that is advantageous, but on race day, most likely. The small utilitarian saddles with no colourful trappings or fringes are fitted across their loins, double girths around their bellies, some with cruppers and breast straps. The saddles are padded in such a way so that jockeys wedge their bent legs between so as not to be bounced off.

Unlike track racing in some parts of the Middle East where the camels run without human jockeys because of alleged and proven human rights abuse, these camels are proudly ridden by young tribal boys, mostly aged between 8 -12 years, tiny and tough. They wear no colours, no helmets or protective gear and the only distinguishing marks are dark blue markings painted on their camels’ necks.

???????????????????????????????As the highly strung and prized thoroughbreds they are, some camels were cool, calm and collected others feisty and eager to get going. With their jockeys perched at the back and only one long rein attached to the halter that has a metal plate and chain under the chin, some camels do not heed much direction control. I saw one determined camel break away from the group dragging his handler, with jockey on board about fifty metres before they could stop and turn him back to the start.

???????????????????????????????A hundred plus vehicles gathered around the flags and across the wadi revving engines in anticipation, not leaving much space for the animals. The event is as much about skilful driving; in front, beside, in the middle and behind the racing camels for the entire race, avoiding rocks, ruts, camels and other vehicles. One might think the event is sponsored by Toyota; their vehicles far outnumber the Jeeps, Nissans and occasional Isuzu.

Before long all were off, full speed ahead choosing their own line down the wadi. It would take just over an hour for the first camel to finish.

I was at the back of Mahmoud’s open Jeep waiting about two hundred metres down wadi. I wedged my right foot against the tow bar so with my left hand clinging to the top frame I could swing free with my right hand to take photographs with my small Canon S110. I wasn’t game to handle an SLR and enjoy the race at the same time. It is an ill wind that blows no good; the rain meant there was no dust, just a few mud clods. On drier years one only gets glimpses of camels through the choking dust clouds.

Also in back were Sulieman and Mahmoud’s brother Firaj who kept up a constant stream of directions about where and how Mahmoud should drive. I do not know if he paid any attention but I can attest to his driving skills despite it being the first time he had driven in the race.

???????????????????????????????Before many kilometres the camels were well strung out, some racing on the left, some on the right, others veered off track completely. I do not know if there was much forethought or strategic race planning or whether it was just go all out for as long as one could. Most of the camels were cruising in their long legged pace – legs on either side moving in unison, not a trot where legs move diagonally. Some were in a gallop which looked energy sapping and more difficult for the jockeys to ride.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Firaj had won the race for Muzeina as a ten year old about twenty-five years ago and I am sure he relived the entire race over every bump and sand hill as we sped along. As a foreign spectator most of the excitement is in the vehicle ride – hanging on for dear life as vehicles raced and overtook within metres and vice versa. By the end I joked that I was probably one centimetre shorter from a compacted spine.

Whereas Bedouins perched nonchalantly on the back of pickups, three abreast in perfect balance. Dressed for the chilly air, head schalls de rigueur – mostly red and white check but there were a few other colour combinations all tied or draped according to individual choice. Most wore traditional jelabeya, the ground length shirt styled garment, mostly white but some in grey, brown or black. Some, like Mahmoud had western jeans and tops and some even overalls that looked suitable for arctic temperatures.

Traditional winter coveralls looked like a cross between large overcoats and open capes, some ancient tattered fine woven wool with a thick lining of lambskin where nowadays it is often synthetic fur.

???????????????????????????????After last year’s dispute as to which acacia tree had been the finish line, this year a white line had been marked across the wadi. After twenty-seven gruelling kilometres on heavy sand it was impressive to see two camels still within racing distance of each other, foaming at the mouth, racing neck and neck, both representing Muzeina. A thrilling finish watched from the natural terrace lined with Bedouins who did not partake in the vehicle rally.

The race won, both boys dismounted quickly into surrounding supporters and were whisked to the presentation area. There was no dais, no pomp and ceremony, no weigh in – just Bedouins and the few foreigners crowding in a circle, those in the forefront crouching down on their haunches. I am envious of how they can do this for long periods without developing painful hips and knees. Short speeches in English and Arabic were made, congratulating the winners, the participants and the supporters.

There had been some doubt as to whether the race would take place this year, 2014 because of an ongoing land dispute between the tribes that threatened to escalate into violence. It is traditional for Bedouins to celebrate by firing rifles but this year firearms were noticeable by their absence, only a few random shots fired. It is a tribute to tribal wisdom and ability that customary Bedouin are best able to police themselves without any interference from outside security forces.

The camels were seemingly quickly forgotten however the winner’s value would have increased for sure. They were probably happier away from the gathered melee, recovering their breath and heading off for a well earned rest, food and water.

I did overhear a remark from a Dahab visitor, not a local tribal member, that “We should organise this a lot better”.  Without knowing exactly what he was alluding to, I suspect he envisages formal advertising and more tourists but I think this would be a pity. We were there as a welcomed guests, not as a tourists expecting display for our benefit and I would not want it any other way. No whinging about the sleeping arrangements, the rain or cold. I appreciate the cultural authenticity of the event: it is about Bedouins, their culture, their traditions and their pride.

The return journey was time to catch up on sleep, to stare out the window at spectacular desert vistas, for quiet contemplation. It had been a full and satisfying twenty-four hours that left impressions far greater than time actually spent. In fact I will think about it all year and hope I get another opportunity to be a guest at the Wadi Zalaga camel race, in sha allah.

“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house…”

So we are half way through Ramadan, this month where Muslims are expected, exhorted, shamed, encouraged, forced, coerced and also choose willingly to fast during daylight hours. Nothing should pass their lips during this time – sans food, sans drink, sans cigarettes, sans sex and maybe a few other things I don’t know about. As you might surmise, having nicotene addicts who are often the oppressed sexually obsessed having to deny natural urges in 40oC heat does not do wonders for their tempers nor powers of concentration at work. However I won’t dwell on the negative aspects of this ritual. Ramadan is also a month of celebration and socialising with a bonhomie akin to western Christmas. This is often followed by feasting during the whole night time until call to prayer in the early morning. People actually put on weight in Ramadan. I don’t think this would have been the original plan delivered by Mohamed but you know how it is, humans will be humans. We love to eat.

Ramadan follows the phases of the moon, starts when the new moon can first be seen, which isn’t difficult to predict in this cloudless sky and finishes when the following new moon is sighted; about 29 days? So it effectively falls two weeks earlier each year – someone told me about a 30 year cycle before it falls on the same weeks. This year it is in July and August, some of the hottest months in the Sinai and the longest days. So these fasters are not drinking from about 4.00am until 6.30pm when they break their fast at the meal fitar, which means literally that, “break your fast”.

I was invited to share fitar with some bedouin women a few days ago which was a welcome experience. The women and men eat separately, especially on occasions such as this; there were about 5 adult women, a few teenage girls and children seated on the on mats outside their simple concrete block dwellings. Men of the family are not banned from the area , the sexes just don’t eat together.

Mohamed had encouraged me to wear traditional style dress although I am not Muslim. I had long black pants and top, covered by a black abeya – a long coat that domes up the centre to the neck with long sleeves made from a heavy polyester that drapes beautifully is very comfortable to wear. I also wore a taraha loosely wrapped over my hair but not tied tight like a hijab – my hair was still showing.

When I arrived at the yard entrance the women were already seated cross legged on mats circling around a cloth laid out on the fine gravel in their yard, rather like a picnic. I envy their flexibility being able to squat and sit easily cross legged well into old age but sport injuries have taken their toll on my knees so I sit legs to one side. It is considered impolite to sit with your feet pointing at anyone. Shoes are always removed and left on the outside of the mats.

They quickly made room for me in their circle and encouraged me to try the various dishes. There are no such thing as food courses – everything gets offered at the same time but to initially break their fast they usually eat balah, dates and drink some sort of juice. This particular night it was banana – pureed and thinned with water or a little milk to make a pleasant drink, followed by saffron flavoured rice, salad of tomato and cucumber, penne pasta with a tomato sauce, potatoes mixed with a small pasta that resembles grain, a dish that looked like porridge and another, yellow of similar consistency that they wanted me try saying it was “Good! Good!” but to me tasted rather like a bland baby food. I prefer my food crunchy or with texture but I politely ate more than a few spoonfuls.

Muslims always eat with their right hand, often with their fingers, rolling the rice deftly into balls and dropping it delicately in their mouths. Although I am improving in this skill, I would not put myself to the public test (in fact I think Mohamed despairs I will ever learn – he jokingly wants me to wear a bib) so I ate with a spoon, as did a couple of other women I might add. You can forget that knife and fork thing! Actually after living here for 5 years, eating with a knife nad fork is foreign to me – like sitting in chairs.

Bedouin eat fast, very fast and as soon as they were finished they said “Il hamdo al allah” – thanks to God and stood up to wash their hands and rinse their mouths out. No lingering conversation here! They did not return to the food seating. As I don’t eat very fast, this was noted so they made me stay until last because they were sure I had not had enough to eat. I too went in to the sparse kitchen that had produced delicious food to wash and politely rinse my mouth at the kitchen sink.

After the meal the older women and teenagers laid out their prayer mats out in the immaculately kept gravel yard and prayed in the direction of Mecca in their own time.  This is very casual with no self consciousness or hiding away and some eve stopped to comment or talk. The children ran around playing with each other.

Despite it being still in the mid twenties oC there was a s small charcoal fire burning in the centre of the yard in a shallow fireplace made of bricks and cement. Open aired and clean burning, these fires are the eternal hearth focus. A metal teapot was sitting on the edge of the coals. I was offered hot sweet shai in a small shot size glass, black tea with bedouin herbs, the ubiquitous drink here. There is something about shai that is very thirst quenching.

I was also offered a hand rolled smoke popular with bedouin women made from desert herbs. My hostess was at pains to point out that the herbs contained no nicotine so is perhaps less dangerous to health – haha! However I didn’t find the taste pleasant so I won’t be buying a bag of smoking herbs any time soon. With a twinkle in her eye she said “People sometimes think I’m smoking grass.”

Two young looking women were bickering, one being of older teenage years. Another who spoke English well enough, said to me “They fight like two wives married to the same man.” She said they were in fact mother and daughter but the description gives some insight into polygamy and how it is often not a peaceful arrangement, especially if the women have to live together.

Mohamed came to the yard entrance without peering in, “psssting” to get my attention. It would be considered the height of rudeness for a man to look inside another family’s yard even though the walls are not high and the was gate open except for a couple of boards to discourage goats entering during the day. He beckoned me to come and retreated back from the gate.

I hadn’t finished my cigarette but I thanked my hostesses and left quietly happily cocooned in their welcoming hospitality.

On a more unsettling note this appeared in one of the national papers http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/dar-al-ifta-no-eating-drinking-public-during-ramadan