My second trip from my adopted home, Athens, Greece, to Egypt was in 1996, the same year
some Greek tourists were attacked by terrorists. Naturally, we didn't know that before we went or we would have
been a little nervous! Since I was travelling with three Greeks, I had a hard enough time convincing them to go
to Egypt in the first place. Many people are afraid of travelling to the Middle East or anywhere in Africa, imagining
that it requires all kinds of shots and other precautionary measures. Even though Greece is considered by many
people to be part of the Middle East, the Greeks tend to think of themselves as
Europeans and are not usually so adventurous when it comes to sampling "exotic" food or untried pastimes.
The occasion of Greek Easter, the closing of schools, and two week vacation time for everyone in the country was viewed by us as a good opportunity to get away. My student, Andromachi, was particularly desirous of buying real Oriental dance clothes and seeing Egyptian dancers. Lefteris,
an Afro-Cuban drummer, was wishing to purchase a darbuka and rek and the big zagat that the Egyptian musicians play, plus finding a teacher for instruction in the playing of these instruments. Fortunately for us, we were going with Lina, the secretary for the Dora Stratou Theater, which is
the Greek National Folkloric Theater. So she had all the addresses and people to contact. We were to visit Dr. Abu-Oaf, the father of four actors referred to as "the Four M's", (so named because their names all begin with M), and a retired theater director with many qualifications in the music world. Lina herself was going to see the man she loved, Hassan, who had come to Greece to play with some other musicians at the Herod Atticus Theater in conjunction with a cultural exchange. He played every Wednesday and Sunday for the zar dancers right across the way from the Khan El Khalili
in Cairo. He also would be responsible for teaching Lefteris proper drum technique and Arabic rhythms.
So the four of us excitedly set out for Cairo after going to the Egyptian Embassy for our visas and securing our hotel in advance. Lina had a driver who would pick us up at the airport, and I had a contact, Talaat Hakim, an Egyptian lawyer who is a friend of my friend Sasha. Sasha does research for the Dora Stratou Theater and it was she who would show us around. The part of the trip that I will tell you now is how Andromachi and I somehow wound up at Mount Sinai, climbing a mountain!
During the sorting out of our plans in our first meeting with Talaat, it was decided that we would accompany him to a Bedouin camp where he did whatever legal work for them that they would need. First we had to visit a Greek Orthodox church to attend midnight mass and to carry out of the church a candle that would be lighted from the holy flame provided by the "Pappas" or Greek priest. This is a custom that is observed by all Orthodox Greeks the midnight before Holy Sunday, Orthodox Easter. The candle is usually carried home by each person. It is protected by a cap so that the wind does not blow it out. It is used to inscribe a cross in flame and smoke at the top of the archway of each door in the house so that the evil spirit can not get in. Everyone we met after the mass as they walked to
their various destinations asked us Cairo visitors if we would visit the church of Saint Catherine, at the top of Mount Sinai. I had no idea that a Greek church was atop Mount Sinai, imagining instead that a Muslim mosque or a Hebrew temple more likely would be there.
It was decided by group decision, (a commonplace practice in the birthplace of democracy), that we would indeed make this unplanned excursion, since we had Talaat as our guide. The idea of staying in a Bedouin camp seemed the best thing I could imagine after wanting to run away from home and join the circus when I was a child. We embarked on our trip using public transportation. Although I usually love adventure, this is the one part of the trip that I would opt to change. Having sampled, on my most recent trip to Egypt, the delights of an air conditioned bus with a toilet in it, I
would definitely take that route if I had the opportunity. Because of the intense summer heat, the windows of the bus were open, letting in so much fine sand that my contact lenses rebelled and I spent much of the trip with my eyes closed.
Much of the scenery seemed to repeat itself, and Talaat would tap my arm when he thought I should see something of value, such as a camel caravan, with the baby camels following behind. The bus let us off unceremoniously by the side of what could only be called in generosity "a road", and we began a trek to what seemed a far distant objective, an unassuming mass of wood and
cloth. Distances in the desert are deceiving because there are no surrounding objects against which to measure them. As we entered the camp, it seemed to become larger and larger. It progressed from the area where everyone dined seated on a many carpeted earthen floor with low tables to an
adjoining kitchen and VIP dining room. (The VIP dining room was the same as the main dining room, but smaller and restricted to special personages). There was also a dormitory type arrangement consisting of many small rooms, rudimentarily furnished, and a large courtyard where people could sleep if they had sleeping bags and tents or simply sleeping bags without tents if they preferred to sleep under the stars. Also available was a large room with six beds and a small toilet area fitted with
the standard shower usually found in small Greek villages (i.e. shower head above a recessed place in the floor and a drain in the most recessed place.) We found out later that if we wanted lights or hot water a generator would have to be turned on as there was no electricity. First we lunched in the
VIP room seated on the floor and arranged our things in the large room. We visited the small gift shop with its semi-precious stones, precious oils and aromas, and second-hand Bedouin clothing, and washed the sand out of our eyes. Dinner was in the main area because it was learned from Talaat that Andromachi and I could dance Raks El Sharky, and we donned tablecloths after dinner to dance to whatever they had on hand that could be blown into or beat upon. Wild zagareeting accompanied our dancing and we were joined by the various men who worked in the camp. The generator automatically turned off at nine, but we continued to dance in the candlelight, our shadows projected
on the whitewashed walls until we retired for the night.
We rose with the sun and found out that Talaat had arranged for us to be transported to the Red Sea via a small bus-like jeep driven by our Bedouin guide. We were instructed to always follow Talaat's lead in all social protocol and to ask before doing anything how it would be received which we were quite glad to do. We arrived after a two hour trek at a small complex which had a small cafeteria, bamboo huts that one could rent by day or longer, and a panoramic view of a seemingly never ending shoreline. We decided on a monstrous fish that had been freshly caught and retired to a small hut to don our bathing costumes and to take a dip in the sea. After supping on the most succullent fish surrounded by the most exquisite condiments it has ever been my pleasure of which to partake, we rested and began our trip back to the camp, after first dipping our bodies in the Red
Because it is forbidden by Islamic law to view a woman in such revealing attire, we covered
up before arriving at the dining site. When we went swimming, Talaat and the Bedouin guide stayed behind at the
restaurant, as it would be considered a sin for them to see our bodies. The Red Sea is teeming with coral and the
sea has a sweet smell unlike the seas surrounding Greece and the Greek Ilses. Perhaps the sweet smell is due to
the presence of this coral, althought it is pretty salty to taste. One of the favorite things for tourists to do
is to go snorkeling. Equipment is provided at various sites just for the tourists. After we satisfied ourselves
with all the sites to be seen underwater, we went back to the bamboo huts to change into our traveling gear, which
by this time included the white cloth and black wrap around head band worn by the Bedouins. They gave them to us
themselves and seemed to find no end of pleasure and amusement in seeing us wear them. Safely ensconsed in our
conveyance, we started the trip back to the Bedouin camp we were staying in.
We had seen many Bedouin camps on the way there, selling various things and we resolved to stop and buy some souveneirs. I bought scarab bracelets, calcified mollusks and necklaces cut out of an unknown rock cut out of the surrounding mountains. The thing I paid most dearly for was the metal anklet which wanted to use as an upper arm band. Try as I might to strike a lower bargain with the head Bedouin, he kept biting the anklet and explaining over and repeatedly that it was made of a precious metal. Although I had purchased the other items for a pittance, I had to part with twenty dollars to become the owner of this wonderful find.
We returned to our bus-jeep to continue our trip. Later, along the road, we stopped at another camp, this time to drink Becouin tea. As we waited for it to boil (using water from our bottles) more and more males began to surround us and stare, sitting squatting style. We asked Talaat if it was
O.K. to take photos and he replied in the affirmative. Oh, the smiles that were on all of our faces! Once again we returned to our conveyance and then back to camp. We dined earlier than the previous day, so that when the generator shut off at nine, we were safely in our beds, since we were
obliged to awaken at one thirty in the dead of night to begin our journey up Mount Sinai.
Perhaps because of the presence of Andromachi, a young, voluptuous, blond-haired modern-day Greek goddess whose dancing skills had been witnessed the previous evening, we were joined on our trip to the top by three other males who worked in the camp. We brought warm clothing and small flashlights to see ourway up the mountain. All along the way are small shack-like kiosks where one can buy tea or soft drinks and hire camels if the ascent becomes difficult. I started out vigorously, but eventually succumbed to altitude sickness, something which, I later learned, frequently befalls those with low blood pressure more often than not. Talaat hired a camel to carry me the rest of the way and he remained at the second to the last kiosk, being himself too ill to go on. At the last kiosk everyone always abandons the camels and ascends to the last peak where there is the very small church of Saint Catherine. Meanwhile, the camels hunker down with their Bedouin drivers, waiting for a
fare down the mountain later.
From our position atop the highermost peak, we could gaze all around and see four countries without their borders that one usually sees on the map, but seemingly a solid piece of earth, as God made it, without the artificial conflicts of humankind. I was beginning to understand that I had come there, albeit unknowingly, as a pilgrim on a pilgrimage, and not for the reasons I had originally imagined. I wasn't sure about the others, but I decided to keep quiet about my trip's personal meaning and to see where else my fate (Maktub) would take me.
Although it is not prohibited to do otherwise, everyone goes on this pilgrimage in the middle of the night to see the sun rise and to gaze out on a countryside that has remained unchanged since time immemorial. It has only recently been partitioned off into Lebanon, Israel, Syria, etc. The sight of all the camels and people slowly wending their way up with small lights in the stillness of the night is a sight to rival any I've seen in any movie, and if a Biblical character stepped out from behind any of the
numerous rocks, I think we would have unthinkingly accepted him into our entourage. We remained in the icy cold wind, slowly drinking our therapeudic tea which had been brought to us by the Bedouin guides who were familiar with the type of altitude sickness to which Andromachi and I had fallen prey. As we sipped, we contemplated the best route by which to return. We voted "out" the route by which we came and decided to go down the other side, where only approximately three thousand steps awaited our tired feet. The adventure of coming up was almost matched by the adventure of going down. The opposite side of our muscles were being used, thank goodness, so we wobbled down the steps, going through natural tunnels and archways in the side of the mountain. It was truly magical! At the bottom, we stopped to admire the mountain and visited the monastery of Saint Catherine, where the monks sell tourist items connected to their history.
We returned to the Bedouin camp to collect our belongings and say goodbye to the people who worked on the trip. We had gotten to know them and felt we would surely miss them. Telephone numbers and addresses were exchanged and we clambored aboard the mini bus-jeep to take the short journey to the bus where we would once again rejoin our buddies in Cairo.
Many adventures awaited us in Cairo and everyone's family had inquired about them, as the news of the massacre of the Greeks was reported to the media. We thanked God we were alive, promised our mothers that we would be careful and continued our itinerary which was to include.....dancing on the Nile!
(To be continued...)
*Dr. Abu-Oaf has many degrees and titles which I am not
aware of. I do know that his wife sewed all the clothes used in their theater productions. On the day we
visited with him he was so taken with me that he invited us to come back another time and see these clothes.
What I hadn't been prepared for was that had emptied his basement of a truckload of these clothes and had hired
a servant for the day to iron them and put them on racks. The smell of old dust being ironed was in the air
as we arrived and I was overwhelmed by the copious array before me. I selected mostly costumes that had many
duplicates for the troupe performances we stage in Athens, plus such one-of-a-kind pieces that I had never seen
before and would be impossible to find in the Khan El-Kalili. Although I had not planned to buy such items
when I embarked on my trip (pilgrimage), I immediately decided
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Link to more info on Mt Sinai: